The Golden Section: Definition, Art & Method

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

Explore the aesthetic foundations of the golden section represented in classical and modern art. Learn about artists who use the golden section to recreate beauty and composition found in nature.

What is the Golden Section?

The golden section, also called the golden ratio, is one of those concepts that once you know about it you start to see it everywhere. Related to the mathematical principle called the Fibonacci sequence, the golden section was used by ancient and classical artists and designers to create geometrical compositions toward an emanation of godlike natural perfection. One of the peculiarities of the concept is its foundation in both natural and artificial forms, a base principle of physics.

Many philosophers, poets, painters, engineers, and architects throughout history, including Plato, Kepler, and Alberti, have made use of the concept, attracted to its formal beauty and simplicity. The concept dates back to ancient Greece. The first recorded description of the golden section is found in the writing of Euclid, but the concept is applied so diversely that it is not attributed to any single person.

Golden section represented in sunflower seed pattern
golden section

The golden section brings together principles of aesthetics and mathematics to explain why symmetrical compositions are pleasing to the eye. Many patterns found in nature, like the organic growth of rose petals or the spiral of a conch shell, correspond do the mathematics of the golden section.

Mathematically, the golden section can be represented both algebraically and geometrically. The basic idea refers to the relationship between two numbers. Two numbers are in a golden ratio if, when added together, their sum remains in the same relationship as the two original numbers. Since this is a lesson in aesthetics and not mathematics, let's treat the golden section as a matter of form, composition, and perspective, not algebra. Aesthetics, a form of knowledge privileged by the ancient Greeks, is a branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of beauty and art.

Conch shell
Conch shell

Synthesis of Nature and Art

Perhaps most famously, Da Vinci's 'Vitruvian Man' models the aesthetic principle of the golden section. It exemplifies the standard of beauty in nature as one of the human body itself. The image links the form of the natural world with human ingenuity and mastery, creating a synthesis in engineering and art. Hardcore art historians might object, arguing that Da Vinci's mathematical formula differs from both Fibonacci's and the basic algorithm. But in principle, the concept is the same. This same principle exhibited in the 'Virtuvian Man' can be seen exemplified in Da Vinci's 'Mona Lisa.' She's a pretty face to look at, but also an object lesson of divine proportions.

Da Vinci, Vitruvian Man
virtuvian man

French architect and painter Le Corbusier (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris) developed a system for maintaining architectural proportions in his modern art based on the principles of the golden section. The Modulor has many similarities to the golden section, as it does to Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man. All relate to the measurement of human proportions for the purpose of attaining beautiful compositions.

Le Corbusier's Modulor pictures the silhouette of a human form standing tall, with one arm raised. He intended the concept to be used as a standard of measurement, for the attainment not only of beauty in architecture but for maintaining of human dimensions in modern architectural scale.


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