Second Major



Williams, Travis

Advisor Department





Literature, mathematics, art, two cultures, Renaissance, relationship of disciplines, The Ambassadors, perspectives, perceptions

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License.


Twentieth century novelist and scientist C. P. Snow noted the division of “two cultures,” namely the divide between the sciences and the humanities. Snow argued these were distinctive and separated cultures in the mid 1950s. The “two cultures” are also present during the Renaissance. This appears in the artwork and literary and mathematical texts of the period. The divide between the humanities and sciences is something that we can easily distinguish in the twenty-first century as well.

I use the discourse of C. P. Snow’s “two cultures” to work through this relationship and to explore the cultural perspectives of these fields during the Renaissance. This paper examines the significance of the relationship and reciprocal influence of the cultures of English literature and mathematics. Furthermore, I employ a piece of artwork from the Renaissance, The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger, to aid in this examination. This piece of artwork incorporates qualities from both “literature” and “mathematics,” clearly showing that both cultures are at least of equal importance and at some level inseparable, not only in the painting, but also in the contemporaneous society. Although scholars have worked with the mathematical imagery in the painting or with texts written about the painting, this paper looks at both the mathematics and literature that go into creating, critiquing, and enjoying art with a heavy emphasis on relating, connecting, and bridging literature and mathematics.

The concepts of analysis and synthesis are common to literary writing, rhetoric, and mathematics, and thus can bridge the division between literature and mathematics. Additional concepts include those of eloquence, elegance, harmony, and decorum, which will relate the “two cultures” to the visual culture of the Renaissance, specifically to The Ambassadors. Furthermore, I pay particular attention to the perspectives and perceptions of literature and mathematics during the Renaissance. By working with and using the discourse of a twentieth-century text and a piece of artwork, the paper delves into the divide between literature and mathematics and the perceptions of them during the Renaissance. Thus, in order to explore cultural perspectives of the disciplines, the paper breaks away from the modern conventional and stereotypical views of the humanities and sciences.

Finally, examining the confluence of literature and mathematics through art results in the discovery of the cyclic pattern of the “two cultures.” The paper aims to demonstrate that literature and mathematics are both important disciplines and are in fact impossible to separate as society has commonly done, and that this division between these cultures was of concern both in the Renaissance and in the mid 1950s. However, through C. P. Snow’s text and the analysis of literature and mathematics with varying modes from the Renaissance, it is also apparent that each time period was concerned with, and wanted to change different aspects of this divide. Thus, naturally the assumption remains that in our near future, society will once again be, indeed already is, bothered by this division of cultures and will likely consider remedies different from those of the Renaissance and the twentieth century.