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Characteristics Of Renaissance Art

May 09 2011
{Articles >> Art History - Periods}
Characteristics Of Renaissance Art
Leonardo, Madonna of the Rocks, 1483 via Wikimedia Commons

The Renaissance popularity of Humanism and classical readings, combined with the availability of literature such as Dante's Divine Comedy, led to an interest in mythology, pagan and secular themes. Humanism emphasized the importance of education and knowledge, as well as the potential of the individual and civic responsibility. So in the Renaissance, we might see a civic mural like Ambrogio Lorenzetti's Peaceful City, a secular mural like Raphael's School of Athens with its themes of philosophy and science, or Boticelli's lyrical, mythological Birth of Venus.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Peaceful City detail from Good Government, ca. 1338-1339 via Wikimedia Commons

Formally, Renaissance art is characterized by naturalism, the use of expressive gesture, linear perspective, atmospheric perspective, and chiaroscuro. In painting, figures are placed in a three-dimensional, believable space, and their posture and gesture is part of a complex formal arrangement. Compare, for example, Leonardo's Madonna of the Rocks, 1483 to Cimabue's Madonna Enthroned, ca. 1280-1290. The gestures of Cimabue's figures are varied and angled to make a pleasing formal arrangement and to lead the eye to the Madonna and child, but they are not naturalistic. There is the beginning of perspective in the work, but not is a sense that makes the space look real. Leonardo's Madonna, on the other hand, sits in a real-looking landscape, and appears in a natural looking posture, mid gesture. The sense of depth is illusionistic; for example, in the foreshortening on her raised hand. There appears to be a single, soft light source in Leonardo's painting, with carefully rendered light and shadow. The Cimabue work has a little shadowing on the faces, but primarily without illusionistic depth.

Cimabue, Madonna Enthroned ca. 1280-1290 via Wikimedia Commons

The use of Greek classical concepts in sculpture meant the careful study of human proportion and stance, and the dynamic angling of figures. Donatello's sculptures demonstrate this in the subtle angling and counter-angling of all details; the limbs, gaze, cloth, and props of his figures balance one another and give the impression of weight and fluidity. Michelangelo, although famous for painting the Sistine Chapel, was the master sculptor of the Renaissance; his works, like David and Pietà, are emotionally expressive and visually complex from all angles. 

The Italian Renaissance boasts some of the most enduring superstar artists, who among other things, developed their own original styles. This in itself is one of the characteristics of Renaissance art: the beginning of individual artistic style. Byzantine and Gothic art had complied with conventional, stylized themes and forms. Paintings were generally highly stylized (eg, not natural-looking or painted from nature) and drew from a predetermined set of acceptable themes, such as the Ascension, Crucifixion, Virgin and Child, and saints. Even royal portraits were often done in a religious context. However, despite this hint of originality, there was still a high value placed on imitation and emulation. Young artists learned by imitating their masters and classical works, and then developing their own style by emulating established master artists.

Another key characteristic of Renaissance art is that tends to be monumental. This was a time of a powerful and wealthy church, princely courts, and powerful patrons like the de Medici family. Architecture, sculpture, and painting is massive, opulent, and enduring. The primo fresco of the Sistine Chapel is not only vast, but meant to last forever. Along with the monumentality of art, there is also the beginning of artistic fame. While particular popes or patrons sought to be eternally commemorated with art commissions, artists sought perfection and recognition. Not only have their works endured, but so has their own fame.

Tags: Michelangelo .. Renaissance