On display: Dürer’s Adam and Eve, Babylonian mathematics

In Madrid’s Prado museum, one can now see newly restored masterworks of two paintings – one of Adam, one of Eve – made by Albrecht Dürer in 1507.

The works show Eve standing next to the Tree of Knowledge, accepting the fateful apple from a coiled snake. Adam is depicted in an adjoining panel, his head inclined toward Eve and the fingers of one hand extended. The paintings, which went back on display Wednesday, were acquired by the museum in 1827 but not publicly displayed until six years later.

The Prado’s web site has a video demonstrating both the painstaking level of detail involved in restoration and the breathtaking effects of a job well done. (It’s subtitled in English and the print is small, so you may need to view it full-screen.)

Also of relevance to scholars of religion – or at least budding museologists – is “Before Pythagoras: The Culture of Old Babylonian Mathematics,” running now through Dec. 17 at NYU’s Institute for Study of the Ancient World.

NYU’s site:

Since the nineteenth century, thousands of cuneiform tablets dating to the Old Babylonian Period (c. 1900-1700 BCE) have come to light at various sites in ancient Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). A significant number record mathematical tables, problems, and calculations. In the 1920s these tablets began to be systematically studied by Otto Neugebauer, who spent two decades transcribing and interpreting tablets housed in European and American museums. His labors, and those of his associates, rivals, and successors, have revealed a rich culture of mathematical practice and education that flourished more than a thousand years before the Greek sages Thales and Pythagoras with whom histories of mathematics used to begin.

This exhibition is the first to explore the world of Old Babylonian mathematics through cuneiform tablets covering the full spectrum of mathematical activity, from arithmetical tables copied out by young scribes-in-training to sophisticated work on topics that would now be classified as number theory and algebra. The pioneering research of Neugebauer and his contemporaries concentrated on the mathematical content of the advanced texts; a selection of archival manuscripts and correspondence offers a glimpse of Neugebauer’s research methods and his central role in this “heroic age.”

The New York Times‘ Edward Rothstein:

Only about 950 mathematically oriented tablets survived two millenniums of Babylonian history, and since their discovery, debate has raged over what they show us about that lost world. Every major history of Western mathematics written during the last 70 years has at least started to take Babylonians into account. Generally, their systems have been seen as precursors to the theoretical flowering of Greek mathematics, out of which our own mathematical approaches have grown.

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