The medieval period is very difficult and conservative in the history of world art. It was dominated by rigid religious tendencies over innovative ideas, making the works of artists, sculptors, and writers very much tied to the Church’s theme. When this influence began to wane, the Renaissance was born in Italy. It is a true flowering of technology and art, but it, too, is very much linked to the theme of God and the saints. It’s amazing how polymorphic art is and how differently religion can influence the creation of masterpieces. The main themes of this essay are the development of skills in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance and the place of religion in this fascinating process.
Medieval Art and the Place of God in It
A lot of what one thinks of the Dark Ages is inspired by popular culture, among other things. Films about King Arthur, the Crusades, jousting duels, and noble ladies pop up in people’s minds when they associate the word “Middle Ages” (Buis). Petrarch famously called the time between the collapse of the Roman Empire and his time the Dark Ages. Such a brightly colored name is since, according to the poet, classical science and art practically died during this huge 1,000-year period.
Later, historians from various countries smoothly transformed this concept into that of the Middle Ages – broadly speaking, this was the part of world history between the end of Antiquity in 476 and the beginning of the Renaissance when classical education began to revive in Europe again (Ross). The characterization of the Middle Ages as a period of chaos and darkness is misleading since it was during this time that Christianity, which rejected the old culture and world order, received a huge boost. The Church also greatly influenced the arts in various forms, effectively becoming part of them. The wealthy feudal lords actively commissioned icons, cathedral designs, jewelry, and sculpture from artists and architects.
The Middle Ages brought with them a new artistic language. Antique creators extensively used the illusory expression of reality, creating idealized human figures embodying the image of gods, so such sculptures and paintings became objects of worship. Formed and mature Christian academic teaching rejected idolatry as alien (Buis). Some theologians called for the rejection of images altogether as hostile to believers. Such radicalism did not take hold, but medieval artists turned away from modeling, shading, and perspective as they made the image more real. The main emphasis of medieval art was on flat images: of Jesus and the Virgin Mary and ordinary people, trees, and animals. Christianity also influenced architecture, which reflected in some form the agony of Christ, devoid of elaborate architectural elements and soft architectural forms.
The Theme of Religion in Renaissance Art
The Renaissance was a period of development when civilized Europe began to abandon the ideas of the medieval world, reviving interest in the classical heritage of Greece and Rome. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Greek scholars brought a wealth of knowledge and masterpieces of Antiquity to Italy (Augustyn). In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Reformation also gained momentum, declaring the old Church corrupt and turning its back on the pure ideals of Christianity.
The authors of the British Encyclopedia emphasize that contemporary art researchers are not in agreement with 19th-century French historians and that there is no complete and definitive break between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (Augustyn). Rather, the tendencies toward humanism, individualism, and a return of interest in themes of nature began to emerge in the late Medieval period. It marks a smooth transition to a new era, which started in the 14th century in Italy, but not a complete restructuring of patterns.
In the 13th century, Giotto proclaimed a return to the ideals of human nature, and subsequently, almost all the works of famous creators were reduced to this seemingly simple principle. As eras cannot fail to set aside legacies, the Renaissance, though again resurrecting an abundance of more worldly subjects, religion, in a different form, remained the main source of ideas for architects and artists (Campbell 2). The major iconic works of Raphael, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci are directly related to images of saints. The fresco The Last Supper or the paintings The Rise of Adam and The Sistine Madonna depict scenes and subjects from the Bible, the main book of Christianity. Their artistic style tends to idealize the image of a person.
The artists again begin to use the classical methods of drawing and modeling, tabooed by medieval artists, abandoning flat photos. Techniques show the interweaving of the main directions of both Antiquity and the Middle Ages. The emotional component of the works is stronger and based on the principles of humanism and the value of man. This value is often expressed through images of saints (Campbell 83). Such approaches to the vision of the world were actively supported by Italian society, especially by the wealthy Florentine clans, including the Medici, which contributed to the popularization of Renaissance ideas (Augustyn). Many successful people considered it an honor to have an extensive library of classical works and invited artists (like Leonardo da Vinci).
In conclusion, it should be pointed out that different in many respects, the eras explored in this essay are significant for the development of art history. Many of the masterpieces studied in schools and universities were created during these historical periods. The Middle Ages is a more radical era, abandoning ancient Greece’s and Rome’s classical heritage and putting God and the saints at the center. Renaissance creators actively used a symbiosis of the best of world art, making it more humanistic and oriented toward knowledge of the world.
Augustyn, Adam. “Renessaince Art”. The Encyclopedia Britannica, Web.
Buis, Alena. Art and Visual Culture: Prehistory to Renaissance. Creative Commons Attribution, 2022.
Campbell, Gordon. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Renaissance. Oxford University Press, 2019.
Ross, Nancy. “Introduction to the Middle Ages”. Smarthistory, Web.