The Renaissance Mind Mirrored in Art

By Osmond, Susan Fegley | The World and I, December 1998 | Go to article overview

The Renaissance Mind Mirrored in Art


Osmond, Susan Fegley, The World and I


This article aims to outline some basic changes in worldview that took place during the Renaissance--a movement and an era of awakening that turned from the medieval order and laid the basis for Western civilization up to the present. Today, when the Renaissance is mentioned, what springs to most people's mind is art. Therefore, we will take painting and sculpture as our springboard for discussing some fundamental changes in attitude--using Renaissance art as a window, as it were, onto the Renaissance mind. In particular we will look at how art evidences new attitudes toward man, his place in the world, and his relationship to God.

Renaissance (from the French for "rebirth") is a term coined in the nineteenth century originally to denote the revival of art and letters under the influence of ancient Roman and Greek models. This revival began in Italy in the fourteenth century, flourished in the fifteenth, and in the sixteenth reached apogee and then crisis in Italy while it spread through most of Europe. But humanism's classical learning alone cannot account for the immense changes that took place during these centuries; moreover, movements originating in the North also contributed to these changes. Therefore the term Renaissance has also come to denote the era in general and its overriding spirit, in which desires intrinsic to human nature, generally repressed under medieval feudalism, burst forth with new fervor and resulted in a new culture.

Understood as an era and also as an inspiritus of awakening, the Renaissance includes both the movement of humanism that emanated from Italy and the northern-based Reformation (and its precursors in England and Bohemia in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries). These two developments should by no means be equated with each other, but they had in some respects a common root and exerted a powerful influence on each other. The era is also characterized by increasing secularization, burgeoning trade (run by a powerful merchant class), the expanding power of northern European monarchies and of vying Italian city-states, and the beginnings of the age of exploration and the scientific revolution.

It seems that the Renaissance sprang forth in response to the need for outlets through which some basic human desires, generally denied in the medieval order of things, could be expressed and find fulfillment. One sees during the Renaissance a marked increase in individual freedom and autonomy, and the acceptance of physical existence and of the desire to pursue a happy, practical life. Renaissance thinkers stressed man's intrinsic value and dignity as a being created in the image and likeness of God. Related to this was a pervasive desire to pursue a direct relationship with the Divinity founded on personal mystical experience and/or the study of Scripture, early church writings, and even pagan texts reinterpreted in Christian terms. Also fundamental to the era was the desire to understand and master nature through direct observation and the discovery of its laws and structure.

As in any period, remnants of the old worldview coexisted with and to some extent helped shape the new. In northern Europe, Gothic art and culture (as it was derisively named by Italian humanists) held sway into the sixteenth century, and, as a result, the Renaissance there had a strongly religious cast.

During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries protoreformers such as John Wycliff and the Lollards in England and Jan Huss and the various branches of the Hussites in Bohemia called for lay study of the Bible and preaching in the vernacular, as well as the moral reform of the clergy. Less extreme but more pervasive was the Devotio Moderna--which stressed individual piety and education, found a focal point in Thomas a Kempis' Imitation of Christ, and in time fused the finest elements of Scholasticism and humanism. All of these prepared the ground for the Reformation, which began in 1517. …

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