Quick History: The Moravian Star

Star-shaped lanterns are often associated with Moroccan art or with American folk art. Or at least that’s what I’ve always associated them with. In fact, these forms are known as Moravian Stars, because they were supposedly originally created in Germany at a Moravian school for boys. So why the connection to Islamic design, and why the boarding school pedigree?

The Moravian church was founded in the 15th century, and is considered the first Protestant denomination, based on the philosophies of Jan Hus. By the 18th century, members of the church had been forced out of their homelands in Moravia and Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic), and some had ended up in Herrnhut, Germany. There, they set up schools where sons would be raised and educated while their parents were away doing missionary work.

As the story goes, early one December some time in the mid-19th century, a teacher at the Herrnhut schools developed an art project for the students where they would use paper and glue to make a star-shaped polyhedron by attaching tall pyramids to a multifaceted geometrical solid (image 2). This challenging math lesson yielded beautiful star shapes, which the students used as lanterns for Christmas decorations (tip: it worked out for them, but I wouldn’t recommend combining fire and paper in your own home decor). Subsequently, the shape came to be known as the Moravian Star, and was primarily associated with Advent and Christmas decorations.

Around 1900, an industrial manufacture sprang up in Herrnhut, mass-producing the star lanterns out of tin and glass. They also produced DIY-type kits for people to assemble at home, out of paper punched with holes. The advent of mail-order and the increase in international travel meant that Moravian stars became familiar in other parts of the world, as well, especially in the areas of Pennsylvania and upstate New York where the Moravian Church had been going strong since the 18th century.

Not only is it surprising to think of a school craft project turning into an international piece of design, but it is even more surprising to realize that the complexity of the star form had only recently been understood by the most brilliant mathematicians. If we’re going to get geometrical here, the Moravian Star is technically a Great Stellated Dodecahedron, a form first identified by Johannes Kepler in 1619 and then again by Louis Poinsot (who was unfamiliar with Kepler’s work) in 1809 — just a few short decades before the Herrnhut art project. The teacher responsible must therefore have been familiar with the most recent and complicated mathematical writings.

Of course, Kepler and Poinsot did not invent the great stellated dodecahedron, they just named and rationalized it. There is a mosaic representation of a small stellated dodecahedron (small because its points are short, as opposed to the tall isosceles points of the ‘great’ version) on the floor of San Marco Basilica in Venice, attributed to Paolo Uccello in the 1450s (image 3). And art and architecture from Western Islamic lands like Morocco have been primarily based on geometrical patterns for centuries, yielding flat, two-dimensional variations on star shapes (primarily 6- and 8-pointed stars) in endless tessellations (image 4), or concave three-dimensional star fragments in muqarnas (image 5). Perhaps this is the reason for the association of the star-shaped lanterns with Moroccan design? I could find no historical Moroccan, Islamic or Arabic lanterns shaped like a star. (Any readers know otherwise?)

While the Moravian star might originally have been used as Christmas decoration, it is above all a pleasing geometric form, and is now all but stripped of its religious or seasonal associations. At once complex and austere, it manages to be whimsical while also providing a pretty literal interpretation of starlight.

Images: 1 A Ginger Barber interior photographed by VIctoria Pearson for House Beautiful; 2 Herrnhuter-sterne.de; 3 Wikimedia Commons; 4 A zillij tile dado in Marrakesh, via Stars In Symmetry, a great blog about Islamic art and architecture; 5 Nasr al-Molk Mosque in Shiraz, Iran, via Wikipedia; 6-8 High Street Market; 9 Rum Interior Design via ATSF; 10 Elements of Style.