Throughout history comets have inspired fear, superstition, reverence and, of course, scientific inquiry. But it is less known that they have also inspired art, as is evident in a new exhibition, "Fire and Ice: A History of Comets in Art," on display at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum through April.

The exhibit, which is the first of its kind and coincides with the return of Halley's comet, reveals how ancient and modern artists have interpreted these "mysterious" visitors through 90 artworks and artifacts lent by major museums and donors from around the world.

Collected over the last three years by NASM Art Curator Mary Valdivia, the "Fire and Ice" exhibit is indebted to research published in a companion book of the same name by art historian and guest curator Roberta J.M. Olson. Olson, an associate professor at Wheaton College, writes that "in 1978 while I was teaching Giotto's Arena Chapel frescoes . . . suddenly I noticed that Giotto's Star of Bethlehem was no simple star but instead a very brilliant comet." And thus, the "discovery" of "comet art."

The oldest original artifact featured in the exhibit is a coin (c. 30 B.C. -- A.D. 14) with the image of an eight-pointed comet-star, complete with a flaming tail, commemorating Julius Caesar, whose death dovetailed with the great daylight comet of 44 B.C.

Since that time, western artists have linked comets to the birth and death of kings and the rise and fall of empires. A reproduction of the Bayeux Tapestry (1083) depicts the Norman conquest of England in 1066 and the downfall of King Harold II at the hands of William the Conqueror. Halley's comet appears above Harold, who is being told of his imminent doom by a servant. Stitched in the comet's wake is, in Latin, "They are in awe of the star."

Centuries later, desiring to associate himself with historic rulers such as Caesar and William the Conqueror, Napoleon Bonaparte adopted the comet as his symbol. In the exhibit, an engraving by Calamatta and prints by Rowlandson illustrate Napoleon's romantic infatuation with comets. Ironically, the Great Comet of 1811-1812 (a brilliant daylight comet) was blazing in the sky when Napoleon suffered his defeat to the Russian winter.

Although comets were often thought to portend disaster (that word comes from the Latin for "bad star"), artists have not always equated comets with catastrophe. Comets have served as decorative motifs on such household items as a 17th-century clock, an 18th-century drop-leaf mahogany table and a collection of 19th-century pressed glassware and buttons, all of which are on display in "Fire and Ice."

Comets also have been associated with romance in great works of art. In Jean Franc,ois Millet's painting "The Shooting Stars" (1847-48), two intertwined nude couples, personified as comets streaking across the night sky, signify the transience and mystery of love.

During the 19th century, called the "comet-crazy century" in this exhibit, more than 300 comets were sighted (including 13 visible to the naked eye), and the ensuing comet fever was satirized in the comic drawings of Rowlandson and Daumier. One Daumier sketch on display is absent the comet; it simply shows scores of Parisians craning their necks skyward out of their windows.

"In the 20th century it's hard to imagine what people thought of comets back then," says Valdivia, noting that there hasn't been "a really dramatic comet appearance in this century," which she feels accounts for the hoopla accompanying the visit by Halley's comet, expected to be visible in this area through most of December and early January.

Why, long after the mystery of these "apparitions" has been unfurled, are we still fascinated with comets? "I think because they [comets] are very beautiful," says Valdivia, adding that that is also why they are of continuing interest to artists.

In the 20th century, comets are often the motif for decorative art. Examples on display are Rene' Lalique''s glass art-deco car hood ornament, "Comete," and a facsimile of a diamond comet necklace designed for Coco Chanel by Paul Iribe.

Valdivia invited several artists to create works for the exhibition. Among those pieces is Clayton Pond's "The 1985/86 Flyby of Planet Earth by Comet Halley," an 11 1/2-by-8 1/2-foot mock television, its screen showing the space shuttle and a satellite encountering the celebrated comet.

According to astronomers, the upcoming appearance of Halley's comet will not be as spectacular as in centuries past because of the sun's position relative to the Earth and the comet. The "Fire and Ice" exhibition goes a long way to compensate for what could prove to be one of the bigger anticlimaxes to occur in recent memory.