Fjordman: A History of Optics, Part 1

Fjordman’s latest essay, “A History of Optics, Part 1”, has been posted at Dhimmi Watch. Below are some excerpts:

Optical theory was widely utilized by artists in Europe to create mathematical perspective. Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous painting is undoubtedly the Mona Lisa, which is now in the Musée du Louvre in Paris, but The Last Supper, finished in 1498 in the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy, runs a close second. The story it tells is narrated in the Gospel of John 13:21 in the New Testament, with the first celebration of the Eucharist, when Jesus announces that one of his Twelve Apostles will betray him. The picture is a great example of one point perspective, with Christ’s head as the midpoint of the composition.

Albrecht Dürer (1471—1528) was a German printmaker, painter and artist-mathematician from Nuremberg and one of the leading figures of the Northern Renaissance. He spent several years in Italy to study the art of perspective, and had to develop a mathematical terminology in German because some of it did not yet exist at the time. His Vier Bücher von menschlicher Proportion, or Four Books on Human Proportion, from 1528 was dedicated to the study of human proportions. Like Leonardo, he was inspired by the Roman architect Vitruvius, but he also did extensive empirical research on his own. The examples of Dürer, Leonardo and others demonstrate that there was much geometry and mathematical theory behind the more accurate representation of human figures on canvas in post-Renaissance European art.

It is true that you can find elements of perspective among the ancient Greeks, and sporadically in Indian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese and other artistic traditions. One prominent example is the masterpiece Going Up the River or Along the River During the Qingming Festival by the Chinese painter Zhang Zeduan (1085-1145 AD). The painting, which is sometimes referred to as China’s Mona Lisa, depicts the daily life of the Song Dynasty capital Kaifeng with geometrically accurate images and great attention to detail. The work masters some techniques related to shading and foreshortening, but these experiments were later abandoned and not developed further. East Asian art tended to consider images as a form of painted poetry. Alan Macfarlane and Gerry Martin explain in Glass: A World History , page 59-60:

“It is well known that Plato felt that realist, illusionary art should be banned as a deceit, and most civilisations have followed Plato, if for other reasons. For the Chinese (and Japanese) the purpose of art was not to imitate or portray external nature, but to suggest emotions. Thus they actively discouraged too much realism, which merely repeated without any added value what could anyway be seen. A Van Eyck or a Leonardo would have been scorned as a vulgar imitator. In parts of Islamic tradition, realistic artistic representations of living things above the level of flowers and trees are banned as blasphemous imitations of the creator’s distinctive work. Humans should not create graven images, or any images at all, for thereby they took to themselves the power of God. Again, Van Eyck or Leonardo would have been an abhorrence. Even mirrors can be an abomination, for they create duplicates of living things.”

The Chinese had a passion for mirrors, but of the highly polished bronze variety. These were often believed to have magical properties, could be made into plane, convex or concave shapes and were sometimes used for optical experiments. Japanese mirrors were traditionally made of brass or steel, not glass, and were used as sacred symbols, to look into the soul instead of the body. The Romans knew how to make glass mirrors, but metal mirrors were preferred. Fine mirrors (as produced in Venice) were never made in the medieval glass traditions of Islam, possibly for religious reasons. The development of flat glass and metal mirrors combined with the study of optics led to a new kind of art in Renaissance Europe. That the mirror played a part in the development of linear perspective is a theme taken up by the scholar Samuel Edgerton. Macfarlane and Martin, page 63-64:

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“Mirrors had been standing in artists’ studios for several hundred years, for example Giotto had painted ‘with the aid of mirrors’. Yet Brunelleschi’s extraordinary breakthrough is the culminating moment. Without what Edgerton calculates to be a twelve-inch-square flat mirror, the most important single change in the representation of nature by artistic means in the last thousand years could not, Edgerton argues, have occurred. Leonardo called the mirror the ‘master of painters’. He wrote that ‘Painters oftentimes despair of their power to imitate nature, on perceiving how their pictures are lacking in the power of relief and vividness which objects possess when seen in a mirror…’ It is no accident that a mirror is the central device in two of the greatest of paintings — Van Eyck’s ‘Marriage of Arnolfini’, and Velazquez’s ‘Las Meninas’. It was a tool that could be used to distort and hence make the world a subject of speculation. It was also a tool for improving the artist’s work, as Leonardo recommended.”

The Flemish painter Jan van Eyck (ca. 1395—1441) is strongly associated with the development of oil painting, yet he did not invent the medium. The Islamic Taliban regime destroyed two ancient Buddha statues in the Afghan region of Bamiyan in 2001. Recent discoveries indicate that Buddhists made oil paintings in this region already in the mid-seventh century AD. Nevertheless, the perfection of oil by van Eyck and others allowed depth and richness of color, and Dutch and Flemish painters in the fifteenth century were the first to make oil the preferred medium. One masterpiece of Jan van Eyck is the altarpiece in the cathedral at Ghent, the Adoration of the Lamb, from 1432. Another is The Arnolfini Portrait or Marriage of Arnolfini, presumably from the Flemish city of Bruges in 1434.

It is possible that this painting inspired another masterpiece, Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor) from Madrid in 1656, painted by the great Spanish artist Diego Velázquez (1599—1660). Born in Seville, Andalusia, Velázquez came from a part of the Iberian Peninsula which had been under Islamic rule for many centuries, yet Islamic Spain never produced a painter of his stature. Christian Spain did. Las Meninas displays a highly accurate handling of light and shade as well as of linear perspective. A reflecting mirror occupies a central position in the picture, just like in Marriage of Arnolfini. The mirror also gave the artist a third eye so that he could see himself. Without a good mirror, many great self-portraits, culminating in the series by Rembrandt (1606—1669) during the Dutch Golden Age, could not have been made.

Read the rest at Dhimmi Watch.

One thought on “Fjordman: A History of Optics, Part 1

  1. The invention of perspective in Art (primarily by architectural theoreticians like Brunelleschi) transcended even God’s eye view, since such a vision never existed in Nature before humans devised a way to reveal a simulation of 3-D on a 2-D surface.

    Which is even more presumptuous and “blasphemous” a concept than the mere representational art that Mohammad (speaking for “Allah”) forbade.

    Mirrors were used by these artistic geniuses to measure and compare the effects on their drawing boards and canvases.

    Islam’s blindspot is a crude, literalistic iconoclasm that prevents its believers from becoming fully human by fearing that such a feat would challenge their cosmically-insecure deity.

    Which is the fatal flaw and ultimate doom of Islam.

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