How did Renaissance art differ from Medieval art?

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A few of the key differences between European art in the medieval period and European art in the Renaissance include the following:

A move toward naturalism in the Renaissance.

The painters of the Renaissance sought to make everything in their paintings look as photorealistic as possible. Artists closely studied human...

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A few of the key differences between European art in the medieval period and European art in the Renaissance include the following:

A move toward naturalism in the Renaissance.

The painters of the Renaissance sought to make everything in their paintings look as photorealistic as possible. Artists closely studied human anatomy to make sure their bodies had proper proportions, which were often lacking in medieval art. They also began using natural backgrounds, even in portraiture (think of the Mona Lisa). Flemish artists like Robert Campin (see his Merode Altarpiece) and Jan van Eyck (see the Arnolfini Portrait) were particularly renowned for the realism of their work. Oil-based paints became more popular in the Renaissance. These paints allowed for more subtle coloring, which made paintings look more realistic.

On the other hand, medieval artists, particularly those who were still heavily influenced by Byzantine trends, loved elaborately decorated backgrounds and the use of gold leaf (this tendency can be found even in very late medieval/early Renaissance painters like some of the Sienese masters of the fourteenth century).

The reintroduction of Classical Greek and Roman aesthetics in the Renaissance.

The painters of the Renaissance, unlike the painters of the medieval period, were able to easily study examples of Greek and Roman sculpture. As Dr. Leonard Barkan tells us in his book Unearthing the Past, the discovery of fragments like the Belvedere Torso (on display at the Vatican Museums) helped spur a revolution in European painting and sculpture.

Gothic artists (who worked during the medieval period) had a hard time representing bodies in motion. If you look at the statues on the facade of a Gothic cathedral, for example, you'll note that almost all of them are very static. The figures face straight ahead, and there is little twisting in the torso or legs. You will see the same sort of flatness if you look at how Christ's body is represented on an early medieval crucifix.

The rediscovered classical statuary showed figures in motion, and artists were able to visit Rome to do drawings and copies so they too could learn how to portray bodies that have a sense of motion. To take one extremely famous example, Michelangelo's work in the Sistine Chapel clearly shows that he studied classical examples. An excellent example of a late Gothic style side-by-side with an early Renaissance style can be found in the Brancacci Chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. The chapel features some very famous frescoes of Adam and Eve. In one set, done by the artist Masolino, the figures are beautiful but still seem flat and as though they were imposed on the black background. On the other hand, a second set, done by the artist Masaccio, shows Adam and Eve in motion. Eve's body is modeled on a standard classical pose, and Masaccio uses shadows to create a sense of depth.

Renaissance painters showed their interest in Classical Greece and Rome in other ways. Architects like Brunelleschi and Alberti revived the use of classical orders in buildings. The High Gothic style of architecture fell out of favor and buildings with mathematically regular proportions and "clean" Romanesque arches were preferred by patrons. Artists like Botticelli drew inspiration from classical mythology and painted large-scale secular works (consider Botticelli's famous Birth of Venus), which were virtually unheard of in the medieval period. Artists were also comfortable creating nude figures, which had also not been common in the medieval period.

Renaissance artists were able to use perspective to create realism.

Artists like Brunelleschi used mathematics to help develop linear perspective, which was essential to help create a sense of realistic depth in their paintings. Linear perspective allowed artists to arrange the pictoral space effectively. Later Renaissance artists combined a knowledge of perspective and a desire to replicate reality as closely as possibly. They created trompe d'oeil ("trick of the eye") paintings. One excellent example is Mantegna's Camera Picta. The artist painted an oculus (the opening at the top of a dome, like in the Pantheon) in a ceiling to make it look like there was an actual opening. The illusion is very effective.

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