A Renaissance approach to STEM

Melancholia by Albert Dürer. Source: WikiCommons

The term “Renaissance Man” is used to describe a person with wide ranging skills, combining arts and sciences. But why is it that Renaissance artists, equipped with little more than sail cloth, quarried dirt, and cooking oils are revered as some of the greatest thinkers in history? Is it possible for contemporary students to become scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians, armed with a few art supplies, the desire to create visual art, and the intellectual role models provided by these Renaissance artists?

The paintings and sculptures of the Renaissance had a clear purpose; they were created as illusions of reality, or as illusions of an idealised reality, as seen in religious paintings, making it possible for viewers to believe they were witnesses to a reality presented by the artist.  For the Renaissance artist this purpose encouraged scientific and mathematical inquiry to enhance their creations. For example: Albrecht Dürer published a four volume work on Geometry; Filippo Brunelleschi, the man credited with the discovery of linear perspective, was a structural engineer; Piero della Francesca created algebraic geometry to help make better art. Art in the Renaissance was no longer just a matter of aesthetic choice; it also had to be “correct”. Renaissance artists were engaged in the close observation of nature, mathematics and the development of technology, precisely because they were artists, not in spite of this fact.

Science is a process of rational inquiry, even though it is normally taught in schools as a static body of knowledge. Mathematics is a process of reasoning and communicating with abstraction. Engineering is the process of bringing something into being, by artfully fleshing out mere theory. If our goal is to learn the processes of STEM (Science, Technology, Mathematics and Engineering) then we can learn these processes through making visual art.

Charles S. Peirce, in “How to Make our Ideas Clear” presents a notion of concept that starts with experience, from which we can theorise, and then demonstrate our understanding. Seen this way, the four elements of STEM, collectively, make certain concepts possible. The conceptual development in Renaissance Art, through STEM, enabled artists to go beyond repeating the habits of previous generations, and allowed artists to have deliberate control of an image in ways that were not possible in previous eras. This can be seen most strikingly in the Resurrection by Piero della Francesca, where the Christ figure is painted in a different perspective to the rest of the painting, in a deliberate attempt to confront the viewer with the risen Christ. The technical tour-de-force of perspective, shown in the geometric solid in Dürer’s Melancholia, was made possible by the mathematics developed by Francesca. Paint and painting surfaces were also developed, using STEM processes, to allow artists the technical control they desired: this is shown by the development of sfumato (the use of tone without line) by da Vinci, a technique not achieved before this time. The Mona Lisa is as much a piece of engineering as it is artistic vision. 

One of the influences in proposing a STEM curriculum based upon pictures and models is the book “Galileo’s Muse”, by Mark Peterson. The thesis of the book is that Galileo was able to think in an undogmatic way, because he was trained as a Renaissance artist, and not as a scientist of the day. Galileo is famous for believing that the Earth goes round the Sun, for which he was declared a heretic by the Church. The prevailing dogma, that the Sun went round the Earth, was ultimately derived from faith. Galileo’s position arose from thoughtful observations. This reasoned, thoughtful, observing was the epistemology of Renaissance artists. (To examine if your personal science is dogma or rational inquiry, if you believe the Earth goes round the Sun can you explain why?)

In 2001 David Hockney caused a minor revolution in the world of art, not by his art, but by publishing “Secret Knowledge”, stating that he believed technologies for projecting images were the major influence on Renaissance art. Curiously the main critics of this thesis did not argue for instinctive artists, but rather found other technologies to explain what Hockney was looking at. This dialogue led to a rich conversation, and one result was the film “Tim’s Vermeer”, which demonstrated the comparator mirror. This device is a simple mirror, placed on a stand at 45 degrees, which allows the artist to see part of a scene and the canvas at the same time. The artist, Thomas Georgeson, has created an account of his experience of using the comparator mirror in a school. A possible way to start an inquiry into STEM processes, through the construction of visual art, is by exploring the range of technologies suggested by Hockney and his critics.

Hockney started with the question “How did they paint that?”  If we start with Hockney’s question, then any visual art from any culture can be used to begin this inquiry into STEM through art. An internet search for “Anamorphic Street Art” will raise many questions, and is a possible place to begin. These artists are in a tradition, going back to Francesca, of transforming an image so that it appears “correct” from another perspective. A stone circle, the architecture of a place of worship, the “flower of life”, or other sacred geometry is another possible place to start. Betty Edwards’ famous text “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” makes use of a Leonardo window, or perspectograph, presenting drawing as a rational inquiry, making it a good place to start for those who lack confidence in drawing.

Visual perception, like all sensation, is individual and subjective. The viral internet story about the “gold and white or blue and black dress” could give rise to an inquiry all of its own. A great book of artistic inquiry, into the illusory nature of colour, is Josef Albers's “Interaction of Color”.

By engaging in the visual arts, pictures and models also offer us vehicles for thinking, with different possibilities for thought than those offered by words. This is clearly seen in many of the sketches of da Vinci, which are combined with writing to communicate ideas that neither writing nor drawing alone could communicate. Robert McKim’s text, “Thinking Visually” addresses this issue.

The traditional view that Renaissance artists were touched by angels, fails to recognise that these artists were as much technologists as artists. Such artists did not simply exploit existing STEM for their art work, but made developments in STEM to improve their work. In the early 21st century, technologies for creating and reproducing pictures and models are amongst the most ubiquitous and influential technologies on the planet. Perhaps in preparing for the future we should become Renaissance people.


Albers, J. (2013). Interaction of color.(4th ed.) Yale University Press.

Edwards, B. (2013) Drawing on the right side of the brain.(4th ed.) Souvenir Press

Georgeson, T. (2015) The Comparator Mirror as a Teaching Aid at West Buckland School. Retrieved from https://www.tomasgeorgeson.com/video

Hockney, D. (2006). Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the lost techniques of the Old Masters. (2nd ed.) Thames & Hudson

McKim, R. (1980) Thinking Visually. Dale Seymour Publications.

Peirce, C. S. (1878). How to make our ideas clear. Popular Science Monthly 12 (January 1878) 286-302 Retrieved from http://www.peirce.org/writings/p119.html

Peterson, M. (2011). Galileo's Muse: Renaissance Mathematics and the Arts. Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: Harvard University Press. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt24hj3z

About the Author(s): 

Dave is from the UK where he trained as an industrial mathematician. He has been a carer, a musician, a classroom teacher and a teacher educator. He met his wife, a Melbournian classical singer, while she was studying in London. He is now a father and keen amateur artist. He is a member of the NTEU.

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