Europe and the Age of Exploration

See works of art
  • Helmet
  • Salvator Mundi
  • The Celestial Map- Northern Hemisphere
  • Astronomical Table Clock
  • Astronomicum Caesareum
  • Mirror clock
  • Jerkin
  • Portable Diptych Sundial
  • Celestial Globe with Clockwork
  • The Celestial Globe-Southern Hemisphere

Works of Art (11)


Artistic Encounters between Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas
The great period of discovery from the latter half of the fifteenth through the sixteenth century is generally referred to as the Age of Exploration. It is exemplified by the Genoese navigator, Christopher Columbus (1451–1506), who undertook a voyage to the New World under the auspices of the Spanish monarchs, Isabella I of Castile (r. 1474–1504) and Ferdinand II of Aragon (r. 1479–1516). The Museum’s jerkin (26.196) and helmet (32.132) beautifully represent the type of clothing worn by the people of Spain during this period. The age is also recognized for the first English voyage around the world by Sir Francis Drake (ca. 1540–1596), who claimed the San Francisco Bay for Queen Elizabeth; Vasco da Gama’s (ca. 1460–1524) voyage to India, making the Portuguese the first Europeans to sail to that country and leading to the exploration of the west coast of Africa; Bartolomeu Dias’ (ca. 1450–1500) discovery of the Cape of Good Hope; and Ferdinand Magellan’s (1480–1521) determined voyage to find a route through the Americas to the east, which ultimately led to discovery of the passage known today as the Strait of Magellan.

To learn more about the impact on the arts of contact between Europeans, Africans, and Indians, see The Portuguese in Africa, 1415–1600Afro-Portuguese Ivories, African Christianity in Kongo, African Christianity in EthiopiaThe Art of the Mughals before 1600, and the Visual Culture of the Atlantic World.

Scientific Advancements and the Arts in Europe
In addition to the discovery and colonization of far off lands, these years were filled with major advances in cartography and navigational instruments, as well as in the study of anatomy and optics. The visual arts responded to scientific and technological developments with new ideas about the representation of man and his place in the world. For example, the formulation of the laws governing linear perspective by Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446) in the early fifteenth century, along with theories about idealized proportions of the human form, influenced artists such as Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) and Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519). Masters of illusionistic technique, Leonardo and Dürer created powerfully realistic images of corporeal forms by delicately rendering tendons, skin tissues, muscles, and bones, all of which demonstrate expertly refined anatomical understanding. Dürer’s unfinished Salvator Mundi (32.100.64), begun about 1505, provides a unique opportunity to see the artist’s underdrawing and, in the beautifully rendered sphere of the earth in Christ’s left hand, metaphorically suggests the connection of sacred art and the realms of science and geography.

Although the Museum does not have objects from this period specifically made for navigational purposes, its collection of superb instruments and clocks reflects the advancements in technology and interest in astronomy of the time, for instance Petrus Apianus’ Astronomicum Caesareum (25.17). This extraordinary Renaissance book contains equatoria supplied with paper volvelles, or rotating dials, that can be used for calculating positions of the planets on any given date as seen from a given terrestrial location. The celestial globe with clockwork (17.190.636) is another magnificent example of an aid for predicting astronomical events, in this case the location of stars as seen from a given place on earth at a given time and date. The globe also illustrates the sun’s apparent movement through the constellations of the zodiac.

Portable devices were also made for determining the time in a specific latitude. During the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the combination of compass and sundial became an aid for travelers. The ivory diptych sundial was a specialty of manufacturers in Nuremberg. The Museum’s example (03.21.38) features a multiplicity of functions that include giving the time in several systems of counting daylight hours, converting hours read by moonlight into sundial hours, predicting the nights that would be illuminated by the moon, and determining the dates of the movable feasts. It also has a small opening for inserting a weather vane in order to determine the direction of the wind, a feature useful for navigators. However, its primary use would have been meteorological.

James Voorhies
Department of European Paintings, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 2002


Voorhies, James. “Europe and the Age of Exploration.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2002)

Further Reading

Levenson, Jay A., ed. Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration. Exhibition catalogue. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1991.

Vezzosi, Alessandro. Leonardo da Vinci: The Mind of the Renaissance. New York: Abrams, 1997.

Additional Essays by James Voorhies