I may not know art, but I know what I like: Renaissance Art

Let’s face it: most of us haven’t got a clue about art.  Such a short word, yet so complicated.  I’ve been thinking a lot about art lately (though I’m not sure why!) and so I decided to spend some time learning about art.  I thought I’d write about what I’ve learned so far.  Maybe it will be helpful to you as well!

The first thing to know is that art is like history: it’s divided into different “periods.”  In Part 1 (“I may not know art but I know what I like” [IMNKABIKWIL] Part 1) I talked about the earliest period in art history (Ancient Art).  In Part 2 I discussed Medieval Art.  In this latest edition of IMNKABIKWIL, we’re going to take a peek at the next period in art History:  Renaissance Art.  As usual, we’ll look at what art was like during that period, and see some examples of art from the period.

Art created between 1400-1600 AD is usually called Renaissance Art.  Alert readers will have noticed that Medieval Art covered the period 500-1500, and if my dates for Renaissance Art are correct, then there must have been some overlap between these two periods.  And indeed, this was the case.  In fact, Renaissance Art can get downright confusing, because it has different names depending on the area  of Europe that we’re talking about!  I’ll try to keep it simple here.

The easiest way to keep all the different sub-periods and regional names from confusing everyone is to simply ignore them!  Only an art historian could possibly care, frankly, and I’m more interested in just looking at art, and talking about how it was different from what came before (Medieval Art, in this case.)

Because the Renaissance (from the French word for “rebirth”) was a European cultural phenomenon, when we talk about Renaissance art, we’re talking about European art.  The main areas that produced Renaissance art were Italy, the Netherlands, Flanders (now part of Belgium), and Germany.  

It’s impossible to talk about Renaissance art without saying something about the Renaissance itself.  This was probably the most creative period in the history of Western civilization, and EVERYTHING changed, not just art.  And so, for those that might be interested, here is a BRIEF summary of the Renaissance!

During the Renaissance, Europeans began to look at the classical world (Ancient Rome and Greece), and to rediscover ancient works of literature, science, architecture, art, music, geography, mathematics, medicine and philosophy.  

Increased study of ancient texts led European scholars to start looking at their own world more closely, and gave rise to many new developments in art.  Some of these include:

  • Renewed interest in the ancient world led to the first archaeological studies of Roman ruins by the architect Brunelleschi (who later became famous as the builder of that amazing dome in Florence) and the sculptor Donatello (who later became famous as one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!)  Architects began to copy classical architecture, and this led to an interest among painters in that same classical style.
  • Scientists and artists worked together to improve paints, leading to a new type o paint: oil paint.   The Dutch artists (like van Eyck and van der Weyden) were the leaders in improving the paints as well as painting techniques.  Italian painters began to copy these techniques in the 16th century, and from there the new methods spread throughout Europe.

Architecture in the Renaissance was, as I said earlier, heavily influenced by “classical” styles, especially from ancient Rome.  It placed great emphasis on symmetry, proportion and geometry (a subject unknown to Europeans until the Renaissance.)  Everything in Renaissance buildings was orderly and much less complex than medieval architecture.  Columns were used much more in the construction of large building.  Probably the greatest accomplishment of Renaissance architecture was the rediscovery of (and improvement on) the Roman dome.  

Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral in Florence, Italy, is the third-largest church in the world (after St-Peter’s in Rome and St-Paul’s in London.)  It’s usually called Il Duomo di Firenze, and is the main church of Florence.  The dome was completed by  Filippo Brunelleschi in 1436.  It remains the largest brick dome in the world.  


The greatest achievement of Renaissance architecture is certainly St-Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  Begun in 1506 and finally completed in 1626, its construction spanned the reigns of 21 popes!  Numerous architects and designers were involved.  The original design was by Donato Bramante, but he died fairly early after work had begun, so many others were involved in the construction and design.  The painter Raphael took over from Bramante, but he too died young.  In 1547, Michelangelo (who was already in his seventies) was given the job of continuing the work.  He used elements of Bramante’s and Raphael’s designs, but the church we see today was essentially built by Michelangelo.  It is the largest church in the world.

St. Peter's Rome

Perhaps the greatest influence on Renaissance art came from the study of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, which led to the rise of humanist philosophy.  Humanism emphasizes the value and free will of human beings,  individually and collectively.  It is more interested in critical thinking and rational thought than in simple religious faith or superstition.  Suddenly, the Roman Catholic Church was not considered the only source of truth.  People were encouraged to look at their world and THINK about it and discuss it.  For many artists, this introduced a freedom that they had never know.  The art world would never be the same again!

The art of the Renaissance shows people in a new way.  They are confident, self-assured, and very conscious of their importance and their place in the world.  The decline of serfdom (due mainly to the ravages of the Black Death) and the rise of the middle class (due to the rise of trade) meant that the old social pyramid (God, nobles and clergy, and everyone else) changed radically.  Renaissance man no longer thought of the world and his life as a terrible thing to endure, while he or she quietly waited for their eternal reward.  The people of the Renaissance began to think that they could determine their own destiny, and their art reflected that.

But now, enough of the chatter: let’s look at the art of the Renaissance!

I’m going to start with an amazing fresco from the Vatican.  Painted by Raphael between 1509-1511, it is called Scuola di Atene (The School of Athens).  Raphael It is a great example of how much the Renaissance world valued the ancient philosophers.  The two central figures, Plato and Aristotle, are joined (as far as we can tell) by every great philosopher of the ancient world.  It even includes medieval Islamic philosophers!  It is an amazing work of art.  No picture can do it justice: just go see it!

Scuola di Atene

One of the most famous paintings from the Italian Renaissance is  Nascita di Venere (The Birth of Venus) by Sandro Botticelli.  Painted between 1482-1485, it shows the strong influence of classical mythology on Renaissance art.  It hangs in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy.

Nascita di Venere

OK I must confess something  This next painting is considered to be one of the masterpieces of Renaissance art, so I’ll include it here.  But I find it ugly.  I’ve heard all the discussions about what makes it a great work of art, but it’s not something I ever care to see again.  Like I said in the title of this series: “I may not know art, but I know what I like!”  🙂

 Mona Lisa

(La Gioconda  [Mona Lisa], Leonarda da Vinci, 1503.  Musée du Louvre, Paris.)

When we talk about Renaissance sculpture, there is really only one name you need to know: Michelangelo!  He was, like d Vinci, what we would now call the total “Renaissance Man.”  He was a sculptor, a painter, an architect, and a poet, and was great at all them!  Here are three of his greatest sculptures.


Sculpted between 1498-1499, the Pietà has been on display at St-Peter’s in Rome since it was completed.  It has only left the  Vatican once: it was sent to New York City as the centerpiece of the Vatican Pavilion for the 1964 New York World’s Fair.  It is also the only piece that Michelangelo ever signed.  He heard some visitors to St-Peter’s discussing it, and when he heard them attribute the work to one of his rivals, he snuck into the church at night, and carved  MICHAELA[N]GELUS BONAROTUS FLORENTIN[US] FACIEBA[T] (Michelangelo Buonarroti, Florentine, made this) on the sash across Mary’s chest.  He later regretted having done so, and apparently swore never to sign another of his works again.  And he never did!


(Considered by many to be the greatest work of Renaissance sculpture: David, by Michelangelo, 1501-1504.  Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence.)


(Moses, from the Tomb of Pope Julius II, by Michelangelo, 1513-1515.  Church of San Pietro in Vincoli (St-Peter in Chains), Rome.)

One of the greatest scholars of the Renaissance, Desiderius Erasmus was painted by Hans Holbein the Younger in 1521.  


(Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdamby Hans Holbein the Younger, 1521.  National Portrait Gallery, London.)

For me, one of the greatest artistic achievements ever produced was completed between 1508-1512, when Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican in Rome.  To be really appreciated it has to be seen in person, but maybe a picture of the central part of the whole ceiling will give you some idea of how amazing this is.


(The Creation of Adam, by Michelangelo, 1508-1512.  Sistine Chapel, Vatican City.)

If you want to see how Renaissance painters saw themselves, you only have to look at this self-portrait by German artist Albrecht Dürer, painted when he was 26 years old.  No longer did painters think of themselves as mere workmen.  Dürer is dressed in the latest fashion of the time, in very expensive clothing.  Humble, he is not!


(Selbstbildnis mit Landschaft [Self-Portrait withLandscape], by Albrecht Dürer., 1498.  Museo del Prado, Madrid.)

I mentioned earlier how the Dutch painters first developed the use of oil paint (pigments mixed with oil) as opposed to the traditional tempera method of mixing pigments with water-based substances (egg yolk was the most common.)  Jan van Eyck was likely the first painter to use oil paints, and his painting The Arnolfini Portrait (one of the first to be painted using the new paints) is still, to me, one of the most stunning works of art to emerge from the Renaissance.  Check out the mirror in the back!


          (The Arnolfini Portrait, by Jan van Eyck, 1434.  National Gallery, London.)

I try not to put more than one piece of art from the same artist in my blog, because there are so many good painters and sculptors to choose from.  But Sandro Botticelli was an amazing artist, so I’m going to put in another one of his paintings here.  This is considered to be his masterpiece, even though The Birth of Venus is more famous.  This one is also based on ancient mythology, though the story is a bit unclear.  Venus is the lady in red.


(Primavera [Spring] by Sandro Botticelli, 1482.  Uffizi Gallery, Florence.)

Rogier van der Weyden, the early Dutch painter, seemed to have a gift for painting women.  Here are two of my favorites.  (Yeah, I’m breaking my rule about only one work per artist, but don’t worry: I’ll break it again in a minute!)


(Portrait of a Lady, by Rogier van der Weyden, 1460.  National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.)

Portrait of a Young Woman van der Weyden 1430

(Portrait of a Young Woman, by Rogier van der Weyden, 1435-1440.  Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin.)

My favorite artist of the Renaissance is Pieter Brueghel the Elder.  I could do a whole post just on him (and maybe I will someday!) but here is one of my favorite Brueghel works, which features a Renaissance wist on an Old Testament story.


(Der Turmbau zu Babel [The Tower of Babel\, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1563.  Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.)

I mentioned earlier that the Renaissance witnessed the beginning of a new “middle class”: the merchants.  Never before would someone not of the nobility have the means or the opportunity to commission a personal portrait, but such was the wealth and rising importance of the merchant class that suddenly, we find many such paintings appearing in the 15th and 16th centuries.  Here’s one that I like a lot, from an artist that became incredibly rich painting portraits.

Hans_Holbein der Jüngere Der Kaufmann Georg Gisze

(Der Kaufmann Georg Gisze [The Merchant Georg Gisze\, by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1532.  Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin.)

One of the great changes of Renaissance art came in the field of religious painting.  No longer were figures idealized and stylized (with the obligatory halo around their heads). Religious subjects were made to look realistic.  One of the greatest works of the Renaissance was the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (also known as the Ghent Altarpiece), painted by Hubertus and Jan van Eyck for St-Bavo Cathedral in Ghent (Belgium).  Here is the detail from the Virgin Mary panel.  No Madonna ever looked like this before.

Ghent Altarpiece detail of Virgin Mary Jan van Eyck

(Detail of the Virgin Mary from Adoration of the Mystic Lamb [Ghent Altarpiece], by Hubertus and Jan van Eyck, 1432.  St-Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium.)

In his lifetime, Leonardo da Vinci only painted four women.  One of them you’ve seen above….here is the one that I think is far more beautiful.  It’s a painting of Cecilia Gallerani, the 16-year-old mistress of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan.  Da Vinci painted her while he was in the Sforza’s service.  “The White Ermine” was Sforza’s nickname.

Leonardo da Vinci, Lady with

(Lady with Ermine, by Leonardo da Vinci, 1489-1490.  Muzeum Ksiazat Czartoryskich, Krakow Poland.)

I hope you’ve enjoyed looking at some beautiful works of Renaissance art!  Maybe you even learned something: I know I did, doing my research!  Thanks for stopping by!






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.