How Did Renaissance Art Reflect Humanist Concerns?

How Did Renaissance Art Reflect Humanist Concerns?

"Renaissance" is translated from the original French as “rebirth.” The historical period known as the Renaissance was so named because it signaled the reemergence of humanism, which was the belief in the intellectual potential and overall experience of humankind. Derived from the practices of ancient Greece and Rome, Renaissance humanism was centered in Italy and encouraged a revival of these ancient ideals. This renewal was witnessed particularly in the arts, with painters and sculptors seeking greater naturalism along with the revival of both mythological narratives and ancient figural proportions.

1 Origins of Humanism

Renaissance humanism could trace its origins to ancient Greece. Greek literature, art and philosophy as early as the fifth century B.C. focused on the human experience and, particularly from an artistic perspective, the human body. For example, it was during this era, known as the High Classical Period, that sculptor Polykleitos of Argos developed a system of anatomical proportions that dominated sculpted representations of the figure throughout ancient Greek and Roman cultures. The fall of the Roman Empire nearly a millennium later, in the early fourth century, contributed to the decline of humanist thinking. The "rebirth” of humanism would not occur for almost another millennium, beginning around 1400 in Florence, and soon after spreading to the city of Rome.

2 Naturalism

The earliest impact of humanism on Renaissance art can be seen in 14th-century artists’ efforts to infuse their paintings with a greater sense of naturalism, or the sensation that their paintings were painted after real people or real life. Earlier artists had conjured imagery defined by rigid formality, in part because the predominant subject matter was of a religious nature. Artist Giotto di Bondone worked to create weighty figures with individualized features and postures. This gave his paintings an unprecedented lifelike quality, and for this reason Giotto is considered by many the father of the Renaissance.

3 Mythological Narratives

By the 15th century, humanism also spawned a renewed use of mythological narratives in art works. A prime example is Sandro Botticelli’s iconic "Birth of Venus," painted between 1482 and 1485, which borrows a mythological tale from the first-century writings of Ovid. By the 16th century, various mythological narratives had developed into popular painted decorations for Renaissance interiors.

4 The Ancient Figure

Concurrent with the recovery of mythological narratives in Renaissance art was the renewed study of ancient figural proportions. Using surviving ancient sculpture as their guide, Renaissance artists sought to achieve similar ideal proportions in their work. Michelangelo’s David, for example, sculpted between 1501 and 1504, was derived from careful study of ancient sculpture. Some painters, including Michelangelo, achieved this end by "quoting" ancient sculptures in their painted compositions. One example is the use of the Venus pudica -- modest Venus -- sculpture type, as illustrated in the Capitoline Venus, a Roman copy after an original from the fourth century B.C. by Praxiteles. Early 15th-century painter Masaccio used this female type as his model for Eve in a fresco for the Brancacci Chapel in Florence, as did Botticelli in his depiction of Venus for the "Birth of Venus."

Teresa J. Siskin has been a researcher, writer and editor since 2009. She holds a doctorate in art history.