Renaissance and Reformation Art and Science
Laurinda Dixon
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 November 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2021
  • 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 in what some have called the “scientific revolution.” 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 contained 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 21st century. 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 often demarcated by discipline; collections of essays are often devoted to specific subjects, such as alchemy, botany, or natural history. 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; Lüthy, et al. 2018; and Villaseñor Black and Álvarez 2020; interdisciplinary participation in Dackerman 2011; Edgerton 1984; Lefèvre, et al. 2003; and Shirley and Hoeniger 1985; and collections of essays by a single author, such as Kaufmann 1993. Collections of essays devoted to a single subject are indexed under the relevant topic.

  • Dackerman, Susan, ed. Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.

    Magnificently produced exhibition catalogue accompanying the Harvard Art Museums 2011 exhibition of the same title. Five authoritative essays on topics in anatomy, astronomy, mathematics, mechanics, and natural history explore prints as a means of observing, exhibiting, and dispersing scientific knowledge.

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

    A two-part article continuing in Samuel Y. Edgerton Jr., Art and Science: Part II, Physical Sciences, special issue, Art Journal 44, no. 3 (1984). Published by the College Art Association of America, these two 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.

  • 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.

  • 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. Boston: Birkhäuser Verlag, 2003.

    Fifteen essays address the relationship of images and works of art to mechanics, alchemy, astrology, mathematics, and zoology 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 to works of art.

  • Lüthy, Cristoph, Claudia Swan, Paul Bakker, and Claus Zittel, eds. Image, Imagination, and Cognition: Medieval and Early Modern Theory and Practice. Intersections: Interdisciplinary Studies in Early Modern Culture 55. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2018.

    Eleven scholars examine interrelationships among philosophy, art, mathematics, and astronomy from roughly 1500 to 1700. They assess ways in which imagination and cognition were transformed in the early modern era. Essays question what it meant to “know” the natural world, how phenomena came to be depicted, and the role imagination played in visualization.

  • 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.

  • Villaseñor Black, Charlene, and Mari-Tere Álvarez, eds. Renaissance Futurities: Science, Art, Invention. Oakland: University of California Press, 2020.

    Eight interdisciplinary essays examine the concepts of ingenuity and futurity in the Renaissance, an era defined by visions of the future. Especially relevant to the relationship of art and science are essays on mechanical garden constructions, iconographical and scientific aspects of the color blue, and the concept of Renaissance “ingenuity.”

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