The Renaissance was a time of “rebirth” and, for art, that meant a change in style. Humanism is the philosophy emphasizing the worth of the individual, the rational abilities of humankind, and the human potential for good (1111). The concept of humanism is complicated; everyone has their own take on it. Humanism brought the peoples’ attention away from a spiritual focus and towards a secular one; they took away the halos and glory and gave physical definition and humanity.
Humanism was frowned upon by the religious leaders of the time because it did not highlight the religious aspects of art. During the Italian Renaissance, humanism was part of a movement that encouraged study of the classical cultures of Greece and Rome; often it came into conflict with the doctrines of the Catholic church (1111). Pieces, such as Madonna Enthroned by Cimabue, spotlight the religious characters by circling their heads in halos and enriching the colors of their clothes. There were no distracting backgrounds or confusion about the focal point of the piece. In contrast, Early Renaissance pieces, like the Madonna and Child with the Birth of the Virgin by Fra Filippo Lippi, show no religious focus besides the title. There seem to be subtle halos above the religious figures, but there is nothing else enhancing their importance. The characters are very realistic and plain, they do not seem to be divine figures. In the church, it was important for the religious essence of the artworks to be clear and not understated in the way Lippi had displayed.
It seemed as if the further north humanism got, the darker it became. In his piece The Bewitched Groom, Hans Baldung Grien displays a very different humanistic perspective than the Italians. The artwork shows a horse, a man, and a witch-like figure in a woodcut print. Previously, mythology and the Greek and Roman gods had become popular subjects for art pieces as shown in pieces like Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. Both The Bewitched Groom and The Birth of Venus display humanistic features like the defined figures and the obvious attention to physical details. Humanism in Germany seems much darker than that of the Italians.
Artists gave heavenly beings very human features to make the pieces more realistic and naturalistic rather than capturing their glory. The followers of the fourteenth-century author Petrarch began to study texts from Greece and Rome both for their moral content and their style. They committed themselves to the studia humanitatis—the study of human works, emphasizing rhetoric, literature, history, and moral philosophy (505).
Renaissance artists took up the ancient ideal of rivaling nature in their art and brought their practical skills to this intellectual aim. They devised techniques such as perspective and mastered new technologies like oil painting and printmaking to further their goal of reproducing the natural world and to spread their ideas (506). Renaissance humanists wished to reconcile the lessons of antiquity with their Christian faith (507). The art became more focused on humans, mortal beings, rather than heavenly beings.
Humanists valued the works of the ancients, both in the literary and the visual arts, and they looked to the classical past for solutions to modern problems. (438) The study of the art of Rome and Greece would profoundly change the culture and the art of Europe by encouraging artists to look at nature carefully and to consider the human experience as a valid subject for art. (438)
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