For a brief moment during the total solar eclipse coming later this month, lucky North Americans will find themselves overtaken by the moon’s shadow as it slides between the earth and the sun. But this rare, majestic phenomenon isn’t the only way to experience the visual effects of our planet’s orbit.
These sculptures and installations employ shadows as part of their appeal. Under the right circumstances, the shadows transform into images that eclipse the impressiveness of the object that created them. Sometimes it’s intentional, other times it’s a coincidental trick of light. If you can’t witness the total eclipse for yourself this year, these shadowy wonders are another fascinating way to see the solar system in action.
Chich’en Itza, Mexico
A shadowy serpent slithers down the side of this Mayan pyramid during the spring and autumnal equinoxes. An illusion of light and shadow creates seven triangles alongside the staircase. Starting from the top, the shadows creep downward until finally connecting with the massive stone serpent head resting at the bottom, creating a light show that appears to highlight Kukulcan, the ancient feathered serpent god.
During “Lahaina Noon,” the semiannual event when the sun is directly above Honolulu, Hawaii, this curvy sculpture’s shadow forms a perfect circle. For 363 days of the year, the twisted shadow mimics the sculpture that cast it. But on the two times each year when the sun is directly above it, the ring casts a completely symmetrical hoop.
On Veterans Day each year, November 11, at 11:11 a.m., the shadows of these monuments align to showcase the seal of the United States. The monument is composed of five pillars, each of which represents an arm of the U.S. military. The circle formed by their aligned shadows represents the country’s unbreakable border.
Rochester, New York
When the sun hits this industrial eight-story sculpture at just the right angle, it causes the shapes of various plants and animals to appear within its shadows. The monument, which was created with scraps left over from the sculpture that greets visitors arriving at the Saint Louis Zoo, is meant to honor both the creative and construction side of steel work. Though some of the shadowy figures it creates are obscure, the images of trees, geese, and a rhinoceros are clearly visible.
Santiago de Compostela, Spain
A random trick of light causes the shadow of a pilgrim to appear each night under the corner of the clock tower in Spain’s Plaza de la Quintana. He wears the traditional outfit of a religious pilgrim: a cloak, a broad-brimmed hat, and a staff. Local legend says it’s the image of a priest who, on the night he planned to elope with his lover, waited in the shadows beneath the tower for a woman who ultimately never came.
According to campus legend, this sculpture at the University of Chicago casts the shadow of a sickle and hammer—the symbol for communism—every May Day at noon. Intentionally installing a statue with anti-capitalist sentiments would’ve been a bold move for the university, as Dialogo was implemented in 1971 while the Cold War was still in full swing. Though some say the May Day connection is a hoax, others still tell tales of the ghost of communism lurking in the shadow.
Ann Arbor, Michigan
The shadows cast by the dips and ridges in this unique piece of landscaping are meant to mimic the patterns of mathematical sine waves, and make the site look like it’s always changing with the passing sun. Designed by the artist Maya Lin, who also created the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the rippling patch of earth is meant to be a place of peace and reflection. Unless, of course, it’s being used by students playing frisbee.