The Liberal Arts in El Prado

The Seven Liberal Arts (c.1435)
Giovanni dal Ponte
Source: Museo del Prado

In room 56B of the Museo del Prado we can admire Giovanni dal Ponte’s Seven Liberal Arts. There are some masterpieces in the same room 56B as Fra Angelico’s Annuntiation and therefore people don’t use to stop in front of this mathematical panel. In the web of the museum we can read:

This decoration of the front of a chest depicts the seven Liberal Arts, accompanied by an equal number of figures that represent the most relevant personages in each discipline. All are being crowned with laurel wreaths by small angels.

Astronomy presides over the composition, carrying the heavenly sphere, with Ptolemy (first and second centuries A.D.) sitting at his feet and reading one of the thirteen volumes in which he surveyed the history of Greek astronomy. To the right, Geometry holds an angle iron and a compass, walking hand-in-hand with Euclid (fourth and third centuries B.C.). He is followed by Arithmetic, who carries a counting tablet and is accompanied by Pythagoras (sixth century B.C.). At the right end of the composition, Music bears an organ, followed by its inventor, Tubalcain. To the left of Astronomy, Rhetoric carries a scroll and is accompanied by Cicero (first century B.C.), who carries one of his texts. Then comes Dialectics, who carries an olive branch as a symbol of agreement among the Arts, and a scorpion, whose pincers represent the opposing positions of dialectical thought. He is accompanied by Aristotle. At the left end of the composition is Grammar, with its disciplines, preceeded by two children and accompanied by Donatus (fourth century A.D.) or Priscian (fifth and sixth centuries A.D.).

This work exemplifies the coexistence in the arts of that period between the late Gothic heritage —visible in the use of gold and lineal calligraphy— and the new Renaissance style, which is clear in the solid and monumental definition of the figures, recalling works by Masaccio (1401-1428)

Our Ptolemy, Pythagoras and Euclid are the guest stars again and we have here a mathematical reason to visit room 56B. For example, Euclid is following the Geometry who is wearing a ruler and a compass:

Detail of the painting: Euclid and the Arithmetic

Detail of the painting: Euclid and the Geometry

After Euclid, Pythagoras is following the Arithmetic who holds a counting tablet:

Detail of the painting: Pythagoras and the Arithmetic

Detail of the painting: Pythagoras and the Arithmetic

Finally, Ptolemy is below the Astronomy:

Detail of the painting: Ptolemy

Detail of the painting: Ptolemy

Location: Museo del Prado (map)


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