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14 Characteristics of Renaissance Art
John Spacey, October 20, 2020 updated on April 30, 2023
Renaissance art is European art of the period 1400-1520 that is viewed as a leap forward over anything produced in the middle ages or antiquity. The renaissance advanced artistic techniques and experimented with new styles and subjects. It is considered a high point in art that wasn't surpassed until the modern-era, if at all. The following are the defining characteristics of renaissance art.
RebirthThe word renaissance originates with the Italian word rinascita meaning rebirth. This is based on the idea that many of the heights of the Roman Empire weren't matched by the middle ages. In this context, the Renaissance represents a startling rebirth whereby art and culture emerged that clearly and unquestionably surpassed antiquity. This was fed by a booming economy and an embrace of knowledge and inquiry that thrived in this period.Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus
AllegoryRenaissance art is known for its elaborate allegories, which are a type of complex analogy that allows a work to have hidden meanings. For example, the Titan work Sacred and Profane Love depicts a young widow Laura Bagarotto and is thought to be have been commissioned for her wedding to a prominent figure. The work contains a large number of cryptic details and is certainly allegorical. There are competing theories as to its meaning. For example, the theory that the work suggests that Laura Bagarotto's father, who had been executed by the Republic of Venice for treason in 1509, was innocent.Titan, Sacred and Profane Love
EmotionRenaissance art is known for its use of pathos whereby it seeks to invoke emotion in the viewer. It also has a tendency to depict the emotions of subjects as compared to art of the middle ages that is more likely to portray people in an expressionless state. Even where no strong emotion appears in Renaissance art, subjects tend to have a more natural look on their face. For example, Mona Lisa's famous and elusive smile that tends to disappear from some viewing angles.Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa
Oil PaintingIn the middle ages, most European artists used quick drying paint known as tempera that contained egg. At the end of the 14th century, formulations of oil paint improved. Belgian artist Jan van Eyck developed techniques for creating fine detail with oil paint that allowed for wet-on-wet color mixing. These techniques quickly spread and were later improved by Leonardo da Vinci who added beeswax to oil paints to prevent colors from darkening. These improvements in paint and technique allowed for the great detail and realism commonly found in Renaissance paintings.Jan van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait
ProportionThroughout the middle ages, artists commonly got the proportion of works wrong, particularly the relative sizes of human anatomy. This was completely correctly by Renaissance artists thus setting a new standard for future artists. The Renaissance was a time of advancement in science and mathematics that allowed for greater understanding of proportion. Leonardo da Vinci played a large role in this and was known for his expert knowledge of anatomy and physiology. He was most likely the world leading expert in these areas in his time. For example, Leonardo's Vitruvian Man (below) is based on the work of ancient Roman architect Vitruvius. However, Leonardo corrected mistakes made by Vitruvius from his own studies and measurements.Leonardo da Vinci, Vitruvian Man
PerspectiveIn the middle ages, artists were aware of general rules of perspective such as making distant objects smaller but lacked a system for achieving perspective. The Renaissance introduced geometrical perspective with vanishing points, by the mid-15th century nearly every artist in Florence was using it. Raffaello, Deposition of Christ
ForeshorteningForeshortening is the use of perspective to create a sense that elements of a work are protruding into the space of the viewer. Modern viewers might describe this as a sense that a work is 3D. This was invented in the Renaissance by Melozzo da Forlì known for his foreshortened fresco paintings. This was picked up by several contemporaries and added to the overall technical progress of Renaissance painting that is still in use today. Andrea Mantegna, Christ and Three Mourners
ClassicismEuropean art had been focused on Christianity and bland portraits of the aristocracy for around a thousand years. This changed in the Renaissance due to the reemergence of classical texts that had been lost to European scholars for centuries. Classism took hold that influenced both the style and content of Renaissance works.Raffaello, School of Athens
Renaissance HumanismHumanism was the defining intellectual movement of the Renaissance whereby the classics were revived and learning, open knowledge and brave inquiry thrived. The Renaissance humanists were devoutly Christian and therefore humanism of this age shouldn't be confused with modern humanism. Renaissance humanists believed in a society based on learning where it is the right and responsibility of every citizen to pursue knowledge throughout their entire life. It became acceptable to depict the pagan gods of antiquity as an expression of art, culture, history and lore and wasn't viewed as having religious connotations.Sandro Botticelli, Venus and Mars
MerchantsThe Renaissance sees an explosion in the number of works commissioned by merchants. This may have given artists more freedom as compared to the classic patrons of church, state and the aristocracy. It may have also presented its own challenges. For example, a preference amongst Italian merchants for portraits in full profile.
ChristianityThe Catholic Church was flush with resources in the Renaissance due to the thriving economy. They commissioned great works such as the Sistine Chapel ceiling painted by Michelangelo that are viewed as the pinnacle of Christian art.Michelangelo, Creation of Adam, Sistine Chapel
RealismAccording to official art histories, realism in art didn't appear until the 19th century. However, the technical improvements in painting in the Renaissance period made it increasingly possible to represent life accurately or in life-like detail based on the imagination.Jan van Eyck, Virgin Mary
SurrealismThe first works that can be described as surreal emerge during the Renaissance, particularly the works of Hieronymus Bosch. This is by no means a common characteristic of Renaissance art but does highlight the brave experimentation and surprising advancements achieved in this period.Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delight, Detail of Right Panel
High RenaissanceThe High Renaissance is the period 1500-1520 in Italian art where a number of masters such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael were at their peak productivity. This brief period produced some of the most iconic and highly valued works in the history of art such as the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper and the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
NotesRenaissance art is dated as early as 1300 and as late as 1699 but its core is the period 1400-1520 that appropriately ends with the High Renaissance. After this period, renaissance techniques spread to the rest of Europe and influenced art for many centuries.
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