Sven Dupre Art Willem II van Haecht, The Cabinet of Cornelis van der Geest, 1628

Willem II van Haecht, The Cabinet of Cornelis van der Geest, 1628. Source: Antwerp, Rubenshuis, detail.

Art and Knowledge in Pre–Modern Europe

Max Planck Research Group (2011–2015)

Research Group Director Sven Dupré

This Research Group investigated how artists invented and appropriated, conceived and categorized, and transmitted and circulated knowledge in the visual and decorative arts in the premodern period. Did they distinguish artists’ knowledge from other types of knowledge, and if so, what kind of knowledge did they consider within their remit? How did the epistemic requirements for artists change between 1350 and 1750? Was this connected to the training and education of artists and to art theory? How was knowledge shared between artists and patrons, and what role did knowledge play in the collecting of art?

The production of objects of art is based on diverse fields of knowledge, from history to theology, from knowledge of materials and techniques to mathematics, from natural history to anatomy, from optics to alchemy. This Research Group worked on an epistemic history of art that focused on the mediation of the circulation of knowledge within the artists' workshop and beyond as it traveled in other domains more familiar to historians of science, medicine, and technology. By focusing on the epistemic dimensions of the production and consumption of art this project readdressed the long-standing question in the history of science of the contribution of the arts to the emergence of early modern science.

The Research Group considered both the visual and the decorative arts. The main characteristic of its approach lay in dealing with material objects, paintings, and other visual depictions not primarily as images, but as processes. The study of the sources requires expertise in different domains, from technical art history to history of science and technology, history of art, and art theory. The Research Group linked the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science with the Institute for Art History at the Freie Universität Berlin. This connection was part of the cooperation in the history of knowledge between the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science and the three main universities in the German capital—the Freie Universität Berlin, the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, and the Technische Universität Berlin.

Sven Dupré, Research Group Director to the MPRG Art and Knowledge in Pre-Modern Europe, was appointed Professor and Chair of History of Art, Science and Technology at Utrecht University as of September 2015, and the Research Group ended. Please contact Sven Dupré at if you have any questions about the group’s research projects.


Working Groups

Gems in Transit
Early Modern Color Worlds
Laboratories of Art


Golden Wood and Panels of Porphyry. Appraising and Examining the Art of Ersatz in Pre- and Early Modern Times
Art and Deception: Functions, Techniques, and Effects of Material Mimesis
Cabinetizing Art and Knowledge

Selected Publications