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. (See the February 1999 issue for a Millennial Moments article on the Reformation.) In the North the Renaissance spirit of revival found expression in these religious movements and also in the humanism that drifted northward from Italy. Both affected all areas of society and culture.
Gothic art and culture had never had much impact on Italy, however; traces are mostly confined to the northernmost regions. Likewise, feudalism was never so pervasive there as in northern Europe. In an environment of commerce-fueled rival city-states, the founders of the Italian Renaissance looked to Italy's glorious ancient past as an impetus for revival. Here, in rediscovered ancient texts and in the ruins of ancient buildings and sculpture, they anchored their efforts to break free of medieval frames of reference and to discover a true understanding of man, finding in classical civilization a worldview in some respects sympathetic to their own. Soon they found confidence to follow the dictates of their own observations, powers of reason, and conscience and--while continuing to learn from the revered wisdom of the ancients--to trust their own ability to surpass all previous achievements.
In this article we will present certain traits in the art of the fifteenth and first third of the sixteenth centuries and discuss how these indicate underlying Renaissance attitudes. Because we will go trait by trait, it will necessitate jumping around chronologically and geographically in a way that might be confusing. Therefore it would be useful to first get our bearings in a thumbnail outline of the history of art during the Renaissance, as it is usually delineated.
Renaissance art in "the South" (Italy) and that in "the North" (northern Europe) are usually treated separately. First, the early shoots of the Renaissance in fourteenth-century Italy are examined, with the beginnings of the studia humanitatis ("studies of mankind")--later called humanism--by Petrarch and others who sought out and translated into the vernacular ancient philosophical and literary texts. This coincided with a tendency in art to move away from Byzantine, Romanesque, and Gothic models in the direction of naturalism, informed to some degree by classical ruins and also by Franciscan humanitarianism. The most celebrated artist of this period is Giotto.
Then ensues an exploration of the Early Renaissance (spanning the fifteenth century), in which, centered mostly in republican yet Medici-dominated Florence and a few other cities, a newfound confidence in the innate dignity of man and the value of individuality (rooted in humanistic study), coupled with a passion to comprehend and utilize the divine mathematics undergirding the order of the world, fueled the creation of seminal works by Donatello, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Filippo Brunelleschi, Masaccio, Fra Angelico, Sandro Botticelli, Piero della Francesca, Andrea Mantegna, the Bellinis, and Leonardo da Vinci among others. Some of these artists overlap into the next period, called the High Renaissance, the geographical center of which was (mostly) Rome. There despotic popes commissioned some of the world's immortal artworks by towering figures such as Michelangelo Buonarotti and Raphael and lesser giants such as Donato Bramante and Perugino. The art of this period is distinguished by its harmony, balance, and profundity of ideas.
Following the devastating Sack of Rome in 1527 by forces of the …
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Publication information: Article title: The Renaissance Mind Mirrored in Art. Contributors: Osmond, Susan Fegley - Author. Magazine title: The World and I. Volume: 13. Issue: 12 Publication date: December 1998. Page number: 18. © 1999 News World Communications, Inc. COPYRIGHT 1998 Gale Group.