Dürer: the Mathematical Artist

I have long considered the artist and the mathematician to be incompatible specimens; geeks and creatives; oil and water. But artists such as Dürer, accomplished in both art and mathematics, certainly make a good case against my point of view.

German Renaissance printmaker Albrecht Dürer made significant contributions to mathematics in literature, publishing works about the principles of mathematics, perspective and ideal proportions. He succeeded at a time when other great thinkers, including polymaths Leonardo da Vinci and Piero della Francesca were thinking in new ways, combining art with mathematics as a way of expressing an ‘ultimate truth’. Nothing conveys Dürer’s capacity for combining the two like his famous engraving Melancholia I (1514):

Scholars have spent centuries analysing the truncated ‘rhombohedron’ (a kind of leaning cube shape) on the left of the image, as the exact geometry of the solid depicted is a subject of some academic debate (all of which involve ratio and angle calculations – not the typical ponderings of an arty type). ‘Dürer’s Solid’, as it is now known, is now part of a larger mathematical theory called the ‘Dürer Graph’ – his mathematical influence remains rife today.

Whatever inspired the creation this scientific art (or artistic science)? It seems the general feeling amongst the artist/mathematician hybrids is that mathematics makes art more beautiful.  The ‘Golden Ratio’ for example, applied by the Ancient Egyptians for the building of the pyramids, was regarded as being ‘aesthetically pleasing’.

Does mathematics really enhance art? The jury is still out.

Get to know Dürer and a wealth of other European artists in Dürer and Beyond: Central European Drawings 1400-1700 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, exhibiting until the 3rd September 2012. Alternatively, treat yourself to Dürer’s most influential works with this beautifully illustrated high-quality art book.

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Bosch and his Moral High Horse

Little is known about Hieronymus Bosch. A Dutch painter born in the 15th century, the most we know about him is gleaned from the mere 25 paintings that are definitively attributed to him (a number significantly whittled down over the years).

Using triptychs and diptychs, Bosch was able to conduct religious narratives through his art. Among his most famous is The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1480-1505) – was Bosch really as stern a Christian as demonstrated in this painting?

At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking the scene is a whimsical child’s fairytale. But closer inspection reveals the heavenly and hellish intricate details, embodying both ecstasy and despair.

To me, this is a warning from Bosch’s moral high horse. The story of the Fall of Man. On the left panel (the start of the story), God is bringing together Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The large middle piece shows an orgy of indulgence – humanity acting with free will, engaging in ultimate pleasures. The right reveals the misery of the depths of hell – the consequences of man’s sin: God’s awesome wrath (prompted of course at the start, by Evil Eve).

Some scholars disagree that Bosch was a religious zealot, claiming instead that the tender colours he uses and the beauty of the scene means he can’t possibly have deemed them as sinners.  More controversially, it has even been pointed out that his use of ‘hairy’ figures (figures coated in a layer of brown fur) in the middle panel could be indicative of his heretical view of evolution.  Some art historians argue they are simply an imagined alternative to our civilised life. What do you think?

Explore the mysteries of Bosch along with other artists at the Tracing Bosch and Bruegel. Four Paintings Magnified exhibition, showing at the National Gallery of Denmark in Copenhagen until 21st October 2012. If you can’t make the exhibition, but want some more information about Bosch and his art, find all you want and more in this lavishly-illustrated Bosch ebook.