In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Art and Science

  • Introduction
  • Anthologies
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • The Debate
  • Anatomy
  • Mathematics
  • Music

Renaissance and Reformation Art and Science
Laurinda Dixon
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 December 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 May 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0393


The years spanning c. 1350–1632 witnessed great advances in art and science, while at the same time holding fast to ancient paradigms and Christian moral traditions. By 1350, the pandemic plague known as the Black Death had begun to devastate Europe, sowing in its wake the beginnings of doubt in antique scientific beliefs and visual conventions. The year 1632 marks the publication of Galileo Galilei’s seminal treatise Dialogue concerning the Two Chief World Systems, which, in one stroke, upended biblical assumptions and overturned the Pythagorean worldview. From this time onward, science and art would evolve primarily from the unconventional discoveries of individual geniuses. The Aristotelian worldview that had dominated for nearly two thousand years would be rapidly overthrown. Before this time, however, the modern perception of art as predominantly emotional and creative, and science as essentially logical and rational, did not exist. The church dominated both pursuits, from the magical transmutations of alchemical laboratories to artists’ optical experiments. In the wake of the fall of Constantinople (1453), the Protestant Reformation (begun in 1517), and the invention of the printing press, the weakened authority of the church, an influx of eastern scholars into western Europe, and increased literacy encouraged challenges to previously held paradigms. Thus began a period of advancement in scientific thinking and artistic naturalism. This new path faced resistance along the way by two powerful authorities: Christianity, which held fast to biblical traditions, and humanism, which revered antique sources above all. Some historians see this historical moment as a “scientific revolution,” which heralded the modern era; others perceive it as the acceleration of a process that began in the ancient world and continues into the present day. Though art and science were intricately and variously conjoined in the Early Modern era, currently there is a rift between the two. Scholars in both fields speculate on precisely how, when, and why this split took place, as historians attempt to join what time has pulled apart. The separation of disciplines in the modern academy, each with its own methodologies, agendas, and vocabularies, makes this difficult. Scholars are generally more concerned with documenting the origins of modern sciences, such as anatomy and botany, than with obsolete pursuits, such as alchemy and astrology. This highly selective article includes scholarship devoted both to the emergent modern sciences and the now-moribund “occult” sciences, which once coexisted. Categories are, by necessity, mutable. Early medicine, for example, employed elements of alchemy, anatomy, astrology, botany, and music, and the academic “quadrivium” of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music supported all intellectual pursuits. These subjects appear here as separate categories, cross-listed to each other. Entries range from broad contextual readings to singular interpretations of individual works. Underlying all is an informed understanding of the histories of art and science, mutual respect for both, and a common vocabulary that attempts to bridge the chasm.


The field of early modern science is vast and clearly demarcated by discipline; thus, collections of essays are often dedicated to a unified topic, such as alchemy (Wamberg 2006 cited in Alchemy: Alchemical Iconography), botany (see O’Malley and Meyers 2008 cited in Botany), medicine (Cosman and Chandler 1978), natural history (see Impey and MacGregor 1986, cited in Natural History, and Smith and Findlen 2002), and optics (Dupré 2019 cited in Light). Another approach is to treat broad topics developmentally, following a thread from an ancient beginning to its modern manifestation. The histories of art and science lend themselves to many methodologies, including theoretical discussions in Graubard 1986 and Lüthy, et al. 2018, interdisciplinary participation in Baigrie 1996; Cosman and Chandler 1978; Edgerton 1984; Lefèvre, et al. 2003; and Shirley and Hoeniger 1985, and collections of essays by a single author, such as Kaufmann 1993. Individual studies, which are part of larger essay collections, are listed in relevant subject categories.

  • Baigrie, Brian Scott. Picturing Knowledge: Historical and Philosophical Problems Concerning the Use of Art in Science. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.

    DOI: 10.3138/9781442678477

    Instead of treating images in scientific sources as pure illustration, the ten essays in this collection consider the illustrative tradition as fulfilling an important role in the creation and communication of knowledge. Authors demonstrate how the power of images to convey information was indispensable in the practical activities of scholars and scientists. Though the chronological scope of the book ranges from medieval to modern times, the philosophical questions raised throughout apply as well to the period of the Renaissance.

  • Cosman, Madeleine Pelner, and Bruce Chandler, eds. Machaut’s World: Science and Art in the Fourteenth Century. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 114. New York: New York Academy of Sciences, 1978.

    Papers from a conference of the same name held in 1977 and sponsored by the Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies of the City College of the City University of New York and the New York Academy of Sciences. The eighteen essays in this collection address many aspects of the early Renaissance, including the role of art in astrology, manuscript illumination, architecture, and music.

  • Edgerton, Samuel Y., Jr., ed. Special Issue: Art and Science: Part 1, Life Sciences. Art Journal 44.2 (1984).

    Published by the College Art Association of America, two special issues of the Art Journal drew together historians of art and science for the first time under the auspices of the discipline of art history. Among its fourteen essays, early modern topics include discussions of alchemy, astronomy, optics, and zoology. Continued in Art Journal 44.3 (1984) as Special Issue: Art and Science: Part 2, Physical Sciences, also edited by Edgerton.

  • Graubard, Stephen F., ed. Art and Science. Boston and London: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1986.

    Seven essays and a commentary section examine the debate about the interdependence of art and science, beginning in the Renaissance and continuing to the mid-1980s. Essays relevant to the subject of early modern art are authored by the venerable scholars Leo Steinberg and Alistair C. Crombie.

  • Kaufmann, Thomas DaCosta. The Mastery of Nature: Aspects of Art, Science, and Humanism in the Renaissance. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

    A collection of essays by the author, linking Renaissance humanism, science, and art to the general political aim of imperial world dominance. Topics include the history of shadow projection in art theory; collaborations among poets, artists, and astronomers; Renaissance Prague; the kunstkammer; and the paintings of Arcimboldo.

  • Lefèvre, Wolfgang, Jürgen Renn, and Urs Schoepflin, eds. The Power of Images in Early Modern Science. Berlin: Birkhäuser Verlag, 2003.

    Fifteen essays address the relationship of images and works of art to mechanics, alchemy, zoology, astrology, and mathematics in the Early Modern era. Questions concerning the relationship of images to texts, the hidden potential of images, and systems of knowledge and classification apply both to scientific sources and works of art.

  • Lüthy, Christoph, Claudia Swan, Paul J. J. M. Bakker, and Claus Zittel, eds. Image, Imagination, and Cognition: Medieval and Early Modern Theory and Practice. Intersections. Vol. 55. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2018.

    Eleven authors probe the concept of “imagination” in the Early Modern era, and how images functioned and were perceived in the period from 1500 to 1800. From a variety of perspectives, essays examine new ways of perceiving relationships among image, imagination, and knowledge in an era of artistic and scientific transformation.

  • Shirley, John W., and F. David Hoeniger, eds. Science and the Arts in the Renaissance. Washington, DC: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1985.

    A collection of essays drawn from an interdisciplinary symposium held at the Folger Institute. Topics in the visual arts include James Ackerman on painters, mathematics, and optics; F. David Hoeniger on the study of plants and animals; P. C. Ritterbush on medieval visual conventions; and Samuel Y. Edgerton on the contributions of art to empirical science.

  • Smith, Pamela H., and Paula Findlen, eds. Merchants & Marvels: Commerce, Science, and Art in Early Modern Europe. New York and London: Routledge, 2002.

    Nine of the book’s fifteen essays consider the larger question of the impact of global commerce on early modern science and art. Demonstrates how ideas about the representation of nature underwent a profound transformation between the Renaissance and the early 1700s.

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