Flemish Scientific Instruments from the Renaissance Period

IES sponsored two lectures featuring Koenraad van Cleempoel, Professor at Hasselt University in Belgium and this semester’s Visiting Pieter Paul Rubens Professor at the UC Berkeley Department of History of Art. As one of the world’s foremost experts on Flemish scientific instruments of the Renaissance period, Van Cleempoel provided an introduction to sixteenth-century mathematical instruments from the famous Louvain School and presented on how Renaissance instrument makers contributed to both the scientific revolution as well as the artistic output of the period. To begin his first presentation on March 6, Van Cleempoel, through references to paintings by Paolo Veronese and Tycho Brahe, described the two distinct worlds that existed during the Renaissance – one which embraced classical wisdom, the other which pursued innovations of real-world importance. The sixteenth century was an era of discovery during which globes and scientific instruments were constantly improved. Such progress was mostly motivated by political ambitions, for it contributed to safer navigation, more accurate measurements, and sounder political claims to land. The Louvain School became the premier center of instrument-making through its reputation for advanced craftsmanship and high aesthetics. Superior both in precision and the ‘material aspect’ of these instruments, its products gained popularity in the European market.

Van Cleempoel then moved on to discuss four specific astronomical instruments: the armillary sphere, the celestial globe, the planispheric astrolabe, and the astronomical ring. Each of these instruments had a unique function in surveying the heavens and were portrayed in vastly different ways in art. Van Cleempoel focused particularly on the planispheric astrolabe, which was used to determine the identity and altitude of the stars and sun over the horizon. He emphasized the astrolabe’s recurring role in Flemish paintings, highlighting how artistic masters such as Van Dyk, Jan Vermeer, and Pieter Paul Rubens all paid homage to the instrument in their works, thus demonstrating its influence in both the scientific and cultural sects of Flemish society. Ultimately, he claimed that these astronomical instruments were multifaceted in both their function and their value; while they were simultaneously objects of science and luxury, they were above all else objects of wonder that captured the imagination of artists, craftsmen, and consumers alike. In his second presentation on March 12, Van Cleempoel shifted his focus to Flemish art of the seventeenth century, beginning with an overview to the Dutch Golden Age and its rich production of paintings. He introduced the seven key aspects of Dutch Realism, the most prominent of which include paintings’ convincingly detailed representations of everyday themes; artworks’ small scales so as to be more appropriate for display in middle-class homes; representation of light to provide contrast or serenity; and discrete piety.

Following this introductory material, Van Cleempoel offered a more in-depth perspective on Jan Vermeer’s painting career. Focusing specifically on one of Vermeer’s profession portraits, The Astronomer, he discussed how the presence of various objects in the background – a painting of Moses (known as the “Father of Geography”), a celestial globe, a book from Adrian Metius, and an astrolabe. Briefly revisiting the uses of the astrological instruments discussed so thoroughly in his first presentation, Van Cleempoel observed that these instruments, specifically the astrolabe, would have been quite outdated by the time The Astronomer was painted, suggesting they were more likely present as decorative elements. With approximately 35 attendees at each event, the questions voiced following each presentation represented a wide range of interests, puzzlements, and fascinations. Many expressed curiosities for how localization of such instruments in Flanders and the Netherlands compares with that of other European countries, while others asked about the role of mythology in the Flemish astrological imaginary and the use of globes in maritime activity. Overall, Van Cleempoel’s expertise in Renaissance art and Flemish scientific instruments proved enlightening in examining the significance of seemingly minor details both in artworks as well as in Flemish and Dutch society as a whole.