An In Depth Look At Renaissance Principles The Renaissance was an explosion of art, science, literature, and architecture. Thousands of ideas, new and old, were introduced to brilliant minds and influenced some of the greatest works of art in history. New advances in technology allowed for magnificent accomplishments such as the Dome in Florence, and old schools of thought reintroduced perspective and naturalism into art. Many schools of thought clamored for attention in the Renaissance, and three in particular influenced the humanities in this period: individualism, naturalism, and humanism.
Perhaps one of the most enduring schools of thought that came from the Renaissance, individualism continues to dominate Western thinking. Individualism in the Renaissance brought to light some of humanity’s thus far unappreciated traits such as personality, uniqueness, and an individual’s extensive potential ability. The first trait, personality, was often condemned before the Renaissance. Personality was something earthly, sinful, and in the way of the spiritual truth that would be the same for everyone. Personality was what gave people wrath, gluttony, sloth, and other sins that held the soul back.
During the Renaissance, something changed. Personality was now valued and even desired in art. Take, for instance, Albrecht Durer’s “Self Portrait at 28. ” This painting was a master class painting of the artist that celebrated or perhaps advertised the artist as someone with a commanding and masterful personality (Durer, Self-portrait (1500)). Not only that, but individualism encouraged uniqueness among individuals. The Church often discouraged such an idea before the Renaissance, believing it to lead to sinful self-absorption. The Renaissance, however, saw an influx of portraits that indulged people’s selfabsorption.
Again, Durer’s “Self Portrait at 28” is a prime example. Not only is this a painting whose sole subject is a normal person, the subject is actually the painter which celebrates his appearance even from a traditionally unflattering angle, and makes no attempt to idealize his form or hide his uniqueness (Durer, Self-portrait (1500)). Another important pillar of individualism was that individuals should work towards the development of the innate abilities especially in art and science, giving rise to the term “Renaissance Man”, or someone who is good at a great many thing.
Before the Renaissance, only the wealthiest were encouraged or even had the means to develop their abilities, but the Renaissance saw an increase in social mobility especially in skilled artists. Albrecht Durer himself is an excellent example of this ideal. Durer travelled to Italy and had a great interest in not only the new art techniques, but also anatomy and other sciences. He is described by Dr. Beth Harris as not only a craftsman, but “a scholar” (Durer, Self-portrait (1500)). Individualism similarly affected all art in the Renaissance leading to more detailed and realistic portraits and paintings of secular subjects.
Another school of thought that was prominent during the Renaissance was scientific naturalism. Scientific naturalism is the study and development of techniques to make art look more realistic and detailed. Artists did this by rendering atmospheric perspective, linear perspective, and detailed expressions of forms in paintings. This first technique, atmospheric perspective, is not present in most European art before the Renaissance. Backgrounds were all treated similarly and seemed to distort the perspective. However, true atmospheric perspective is displayed in Masaccio’s “The Tribute Money” quite excellently.
As you move into the background, the sky and mountains seem to really be further away from each other. This is achieved by altering color and blurring lines and shapes. This technique was employed in numerous works of art, especially in landscape paintings, during the Renaissance. Another important technique from scientific naturalism is linear perspective. Before the Renaissance, paintings had unrealistic figures and unnatural spaces. Figures were unnaturally big and could not fit into their surroundings correctly.
Pre-Renaissance, artists began experimenting with perspective, and they came close but never quite mastered the technique leading to paintings with multiple points of perspective. Linear perspective was mastered during the Renaissance, and Masaccio’s “The Tribute Money” exemplified it. Perfect orthogonals define the building on the right and the painting leads our eye to the vanishing point on Christ’s head (Masaccio’s The Tribute Money). Linear perspective gave paintings a finer sense of space and size which made them more realistic. The final ideal in scientific naturalism was the attention of detail in individuals.
PreRenaissance, artists painted in a style that elongated figures and made them look unnatural. Unimportant figures also had undistinguishable features. But once scientific naturalism began to take hold during the Renaissance, more attention was paid to figures. People’s forms become more proportioned and realistic. Details such as eye color, facial structure, and unique traits were now depicted even in background figures. Masaccio’s “The Tribute Money” detail is fantastic. Each of Jesus’ apostles look unique and have unique detailed reactions to the depicted scene.
For example, Christ looks calm, Saint Peter looks agitated, and many of the apostles look on apprehensively and worried (Masaccio’s The Tribute Money). This attention to detail truly brought paintings to life. All these techniques from scientific naturalism come together to create a deep and realistic scene. The final, and arguably most important, idea from the Renaissance is humanism. Humanism is defined as the “return to favor of the pagan classics … , the appreciation of worldly pleasures, and above all intensified the assertion of personal independence and individual expression” (“Renaissance Humanism”).
The humanistic focus of reviving antiquity was very important to the Renaissance. Before the Renaissance, artists were often hired by religious officials and commissioned to paint religious subjects. Eventually, a wealthy upper class was able to hire artists and the paintings were more secular in nature. Many of the predominating thoughts of the Renaissance had their origins in Classical Greek and Roman thought. As artists turned more towards old teaching, they also turned more towards old subjects. Old Greek literature was revived and many Greek gods were the subjects of paintings and sculptures instead of traditional Christian subjects.
Humanism represented a turn away from the religious and toward the worldly. Before the Renaissance, worldly pleasures were damned by church as activities that would send you straight to Hell, and in a world where the spiritual was more valued than the physical this was a heavy condemnation. The Renaissance, however, changed that. People took more enjoyment from worldly pleasures now and the humanities reflected that. Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting, “Peasant Wedding”, is an excellent example of enjoying worldly pleasures as opposed to the quiet contemplation of spiritual pleasures.
Peasants drink, dance, and be marry in this painting and there is not a church in site despite the titular wedding (Peasant Wedding). Part of the Renaissance’s turning away from religious topics in the humanities was a literally shift in subject to secular subjects in paintings. Paintings went from displays of Madonnas, Christs, and heavenly angels to portraits of kings, peasants, and mythological figures. This shift happened in part because of the rise of a wealthier middle class who could pay for artists’ services and had no obligation to commission religious paintings.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s paintings in particular showed this shift as he mostly painted peasant figures and landscapes (Peasant Wedding). Humanism influenced the subject matter of many paintings during the Renaissance and was an integral part of the Renaissance. Throughout the Renaissance, many ideas clamored for dominance, but individualism, naturalism, and humanism were the most integral part of this rebirth. These schools of thought continue to influence art in the West even today, and without these three schools of thought, the Renaissance would look radically different than it does today.