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What is Renaissance Art?

The term “renaissance” is French for rebirth and implies the drastic political and cultural changes occurring in Europe from the 14th to 16th century. Unlike the preceding Medieval period, which is said to have stunted artistic achievement, the Renaissance was a time of revival and excellence. Artists and philosophers looked back to antiquity and its appreciation for intellect and creativity. Though there were stylistic differences between Northern and Southern Europe, all Renaissance art was influenced by the reformation of Christianity, the growing interest in science and mathematics, and the rise of the urban middle class.

All the dynamic factors influencing Renaissance art can be summed up through the philosophical concept of humanism originating at that time. Humanism emphasizes the intellectual capacity of man and elevates him as the only autonomous creature. This celebration of human intellect led to new achievements in mathematics and science, such as geometry, anatomy, and biology. Many Renaissance artists also understood the complexities of math and science and utilized these ideas within their paintings, sculpture, and architecture. Even in religion, humanism affected individual worship. The Protestant Reformation states that it is through faith alone that one is guaranteed a spot in heaven and encouraged believers to focus on their individual interaction with God, rather than through a prescribed church setting. From understanding the natural world to connecting with the Divine, the Renaissance promoted man and man first.

For visual artists, humanism drastically affected their artistic style. Many painters and sculptors studied anatomy and Ancient Greek and Roman art to understand how to represent the human form naturally. Finally, paintings of humans, regardless of subject matter, took on a more realistic form than the over-stylization of the Medieval period. Artists also observed nature closely to depict the environment realistically. They used geometry and mathematics to create perspective—the mathematical representation of landscape disappearing into space. From early Renaissance artists like Giotto, to the great masters like Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci, we can see a new attention to understand the human form and natural world. In the North, artists like Jan Van Eyck and Hugo van der Goes developed styles different than the South, but with the same attention to representing nature and space accurately.

Even though artists were influenced by humanism, most Renaissance art was still very religious. There are a few reasons for this, but the most prominent is that the church was the leading patron of the arts during this time. They commissioned specific paintings, frescoes, and sculptures to decorate their chapels and cathedrals. However, the true mastery of Renaissance art is how these artists created religious art for the church while incorporating their own humanistic styles and techniques. For the most part, they were successful, but it wasn’t uncommon for the Church to reject a painting or sculpture as being too “man-focused.”

Renaissance art set the stage for all succeeding art movements. The artistic achievements coming out of Europe during that time would become the standard for excellence in art. Whether a future art movement built upon the achievements of the Renaissance or rejected them completely, the Renaissance would influence the art world till the beginning of the 21st century. Renaissance art, even today, is known as being some of the most important and incredible art to come out of Western art history.

Notable Works:

Giotto, Madonna and Child. c. 1310. Tempera on Poplar Panel.

Jan van Eyck, Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife. 1434. Oil on Canvas.

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus. c. 1485. Oil on Canvas.

Leonardo Da Vinci, Mona Lisa. c. 1507. Oil on Canvas.

Leonardo Da Vinci, The Last Supper. c. 1498. Tempera Fresco.

Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam. c. 1512. Tempera Fresco.

Raphael, School of Athens. 1510-11. Tempera Fresco.

By: Get Inspired