The Renaissance

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How did art change during the Renaissance?

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The subject matter of art changed significantly during the Renaissance. Previously, the subject matter of European art was Christianity, especially scenes from the Bible chosen specifically for their morally uplifting qualities. At a time when most people were illiterate, religious art works had an important role to play in spreading...

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the Word of God and encouraging people to live good Christian lives.

Though many of the great Renaissance masterpieces still had recognizably religious themes, there was also a growing emphasis on figures and themes drawn from classical antiquity. The Renaissance had grown out of the rediscovery of ancient texts from Greece and Rome, sources of wisdom and learning which had long been thought lost forever. Once these texts came to light, it was no surprise that artists began to incorporate some aspects of the new learning into their work.

A prime example of this comes in one of the most famous Renaissance masterpieces, The School of Athens by Raphael. This painting, which adorns the wall of a reception room in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican, depicts a number of pagan philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle engaged in disputation. That Raphael should pay such fulsome tribute to pagan thinkers is indicative of the enormous intellectual and cultural debt that the Renaissance owed to antiquity.

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The European Renaissance was characterized by many significant changes in artwork that set it apart from the art of the Middle Ages. While it still often contained religious elements, Renaissance artists strived to imitate true human emotion and form in a way that harkened back to the art of classical Greece and Rome.

One important change made by the painters was the use of perspective. Perspective creates the illusion of depth on the flat surface on which the painting is done. Renaissance artists painted objects that they wished to appear closer as larger than the objects in the distance. They also used points of perspective and creative shading to create depth and perspective in their works. This placed the paintings of the period in stark contrast to the more rigid two-dimensional paintings of the Middle Ages.

Artists of the Renaissance also had access to new dyes and pigments. They combined these with new oil-based paints in order to show more detail and texture than before.

Sculpture was also revolutionized during the Renaissance. For the first time since the fall of Rome, European artists began creating large freestanding sculptures. Unlike the rigid statues of the previous period, they portrayed lifelike figures that were full of action and emotion, reflecting the humanist notions of the time.

Literature also changed during the Renaissance. Writers began to write about secular topics that dealt with earthly issues. Perhaps most importantly, they wrote these works in local dialects, instead of just Latin, so that more people than before had access to literature.

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The Renaissance was a period of dramatic development in art, influenced to a degree by the rediscovery of ancient sculpture. The term "Renaissance" literally means rebirth and many of the artists of the period saw their own work as rediscovery of classical traditions after the "dark ages" of the medieval period. 

Many of the changes in art revolved around an increasing degree of realism in everything from subject matter to technique. While many medieval artists saw art as symbolizing higher religious and spiritual truths, many artists of the Renaissance saw it as representing the actual world. 

The first change we see is the development of linear perspective using lines connected to a "vanishing point" in order to give a realistic representation of spatial relationships in painting. Light and dark were often used to add three-dimensional modeling in painting and drapery became more fluid and realistic. 

Next, although religious themes continued to predominate, many Renaissance paintings had secular themes, including many realistic portraits. Even religious paintings tended to show historical figures as real people in natural poses rather than as stylized figures in stiff poses against abstract backgrounds. Sculptors revived the ancient "s-curve" rather than using the stiffer poses typical of medieval religious sculpture. 

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Artistic form and subject matter changed during both the early and late Renaissance. A middle class of wealthy merchants and tradesmen emerged during this historic time period as the proliferation of knowledge and the exchange of ideas flourished. The art of the period changed to reflect the changing attitudes of the populace.

Prior to the Renaissance, artwork was mainly based on religious subject matter but as the Renaissance progressed that changed to include the Gods and Goddesses of Greek and Roman mythology. A movement called Realism was born and the subject matter of artwork changed to include portraits of those in the new middle class and depictions of daily life.

Artists, including sculptors, employed symmetry, form, proportion, and perspective in their works. They found symmetry in nature and applied it in their works, this revelation is known as “the golden mean.” They experimented with the placement of objects in paintings to show perspective, depth, and dimension. When painting the Mona Lisa, da Vinci used a technique called Sfumato in which the hard lines in a painting are blurred thus creating softness as well as dimension. In addition, they attempted to perfect the use of light and shadows. Sculptors focused on creating the perfect human form.

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One key way art changed during the Renaissance was in a shift to the natural world as a primary subject choice. Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael all flourished during this time period, and their various art forms reflect this focus. Consider the visual appeal of the following works:

  • Michelangelo's David
  • Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam
  • Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man
  • Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa
  • Raphael's La fornarina
  • Raphael's Three Graces

These works represent not simply some of the most well-known artwork of the Renaissance Period but some of the most renowned artwork of all time. The attention to the details of the human body, the relationship between man and God, and the beauty inherent in our world are all themes that were repeated and explored by many artists and in many pieces during this period.

Light and shadow were also explored in artwork of this time period. Artists also became more mathematically open to perspective in their artwork, and the ability to create depth and space were improved through the use of parallel lines and a vanishing point. Filippo Brunelleschi was an architect who brought this sense of depth to the art world of the Renaissance and helped other artists begin to generate a three-dimensional feel in their art.

The inspirational qualities of art during the Renaissance reflects societies who were looking at increasingly hopeful social mobility than in the Middle Ages.

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