The Stunning Mystical Paintings of the 16th-Century Portuguese Artist Francisco de Holanda
Blake before Blake, Hilma before Hilma.
By Maria Popova
In 1543 — the year Copernicus published his revolutionary treatise on the heliocentric universe and promptly died — the Portuguese artist Francisco de Holanda (c. 1517–June 19, 1585) began working on a series of mystical paintings, which would consume the next three decades of his life, eventually culminating in his book De Aetatibus Mundi Imagines: Images of the Ages of the World.
Francisco was only twenty when he became a professional illuminator of religious manuscripts, following in his father’s footsteps. By thirty, he had studied with Michelangelo in Italy.
It was during that period, as he was finding his artistic voice and spiritual footing, that he began working on his paintings exploring the relationship between the human and the divine.
Despite his heavy immersion in the figurative aesthetic of the Renaissance, he punctuated his more traditional religious paintings with elements of geometry and astronomy that lent his art a spirit of the future. He was Blake before Blake and Hilma af Klint before Hilma af Klint, a quarter millennium ahead.
Permeating his paintings and his writings is an obsession with symmetry — symmetry as evidence of the perfection of God, an epoch before Emmy Noether illuminated the perfection of mathematics, consonant with his contemporary Galileo’s insistence that “mathematics is the language with which God has written the universe.”
Complement with the stunning astronomical art of the 17th-century self-taught German artist and astronomer Maria Clara Eimmart and poet A. Van Jordan’s love letter to symmetry and our search for meaning, then revisit the story of how William Blake attained his unexampled vision.
Published March 8, 2023