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.