Essay Renaissance Art


Fra Angelico: Annunciation(c. 1440–45), fresco, north corridor, monastery of S Marco, Florence; photo credit: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY

The Renaissance refers to the era in Europe from the 14th to the 16th century in which a new style in painting, sculpture and architecture developed after the Gothic. Although a religious view of the world continued to play an important role in the lives of Europeans, a growing awareness of the natural world, the individual and collective humanity’s worldly existence characterize the Renaissance period. Derived from the French word, renaissance, and the Italian word rinascità, both meaning ‘rebirth’, the Renaissance was a period when scholars and artists began to investigate what they believed to be a revival of classical learning, literature and art. For example, the followers of the 14th-century author Petrarch began to study texts from Greece and Rome for their moral content and literary style. Having its roots in the medieval university, this study called Humanism centered on rhetoric, literature, history and moral philosophy.

During the Renaissance, many features of the medieval persisted, including the heritage of the artistic techniques used in books, manuscripts, precious objects and oil painting. The paintings of Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden record the exquisite details of the natural world in order to facilitate the viewer’s religious and spiritual experience. North of the Alps, Renaissance ideals culminated in the work of Albrecht Dürer in the early 16th century, and Germany became a dominant artistic centre. With the Reformation and the absence of the Catholic church in German speaking lands of the 16th century, prints in the form of woodcuts and engravings helped to disseminate the spread of Protestant ideals. As a result, artists such as Pieter Bruegel I in the Netherlands and Hans Holbein in England specialized in more secular subjects, such as landscape and portraiture.

Finally, the pinnacle of the period, referred to as the High Renaissance, is best known for some of Western art’s greatest masters: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael. Renowned works like Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, and Raphael’s famous Madonnas continue to marvel viewers with their naturalism. Following the High Renaissance, Mannerism developed from c. 1510–20 to 1600. Works of this style often emphasized the artifice and adroit skill of the artist. Major works such as the Palazzo del Te by Giulio Romano and Parmigianino’s Madonna of the Long Neck reflect Mannerist innovations. In France, the presence of Italian Mannerist painters at Fontainebleau established the courtly taste. For many, the artistic creations of the Renaissance still represent the highest of achievements in the history of art.



  • Alberti, Leon Battista
  • Altdorfer, Albrecht
  • Bellini, Giovanni
  • Botticelli, Sandro
  • Bruegel, Pieter I [the elder]
  • Bronzino, Agnolo
  • Brunelleschi, Filippo
  • Christus, Petrus
  • Cranach, Lucas, elder and younger
  • Donatello
  • Duccio
  • Dürer, Albrecht
  • Giotto
  • Greco, El
  • Leonardo da Vinci
  • Lippi, Fra Filippo
  • Lombardo, Tullio
  • Manara, Baldassare
  • Memling, Hans
  • Michelangelo
  • Piero della Francesca
  • Piero di Cosimo
  • Raphael
  • Sarto, Andrea del
  • Tintoretto, Jacopo
  • Titian
  • Eyck, Jan van
  • Weyden, Rogier van der

Back to all Subject Guides

Renaissance Art

Written by: Sarah

During the Renaissance, humanity as a whole became more aware of its place in the world. The discovery of entirely new continents shifted the European perspective. Ideas and goods were exchanged through increased trade across oceans and entire continents. The market for the new and never-before-seen sky rocketed with the introduction of other country’s native flora and fauna. With the invention of the printing press, the same image could be seen by hundreds of people thousands of miles apart. This vastly increased the spread of news and ideas despite great distances. The globalization of this period can be seen in the commissioned paintings hung in the homes of the wealthy nobility as well as the wood presses bought by the masses.

During the Renaissance, trade with the outside world dramatically increased. While the change in life was slow, it was dramatic. “Every sphere of life was affected, from eating to painting.” (Brotton 23) There was an influx of new kinds of everything. Silks were imported from China; new foods came from across the Atlantic; exotic animals were taken from their natural environment to be kept by the wealthy in menageries. The influence of other cultures changed European dress and diet. New flavors were introduced to the European food palette as travelers brought back spices and foods with foreign recipes. Italy would not be the same without the migration of the tomato from the New World. It even changed the architecture as Middle Eastern buildings became a more common sight, directly influencing the creation of Renaissance markets, such as Venice. The exchange between cultures can also be seen in the art work of the time. New pigments were imported that added lapis lazuli and cinnabar to the artist’s palette, giving paintings the telltale bright blues and reds of Renaissance works. (23) More exotic imagery was added by throwing in the high arches and domes of eastern architecture or animals that weren’t natural inhabitants of Europe. A simple palm tree in the background adds a new level to a work of art that captivated the interest of European patrons. During this period, patrons desired works with this global theme in order to show off their worldliness to their peers as well as those below their stature.

Many other aspects thrived off the flourishing trade market. New forms of transaction had to be installed into the European trade in order to keep up with the ever growing speed and demand. The introduction of Hindu-Arabic mathematical practices shows the crossing over of different intellectual concepts, not just good. This helped the return of mathematics as an important field of study in Europe. New trade routes had to be created as more ports and markets popped up, leading to the network of highways still in place today. The rivers became an important network to deliver goods throughout Europe. They had to “develop new ways of moving larger quantities of merchandise” (24), creating improved trade ships.

The trade of practices and concepts was just as revolutionary as the introduction of new goods in the marketplace. People were able to share the secrets of their craft and improve based off the knowledge gained from a new perspective. With knowledge came increased innovation. Artists would bring back experiences from their travels and then incorporate them into their works. This lead to a mixture of multiple cultural inspirations in one piece. This melting pot became a distinctive feature of Renaissance artwork.

Titian’s Pesaro Madonna shows both the innovativeness and the globalization of the Renaissance through it small nods at other cultures and the newly devised setting. Instead of the usual straight forward view point, Titian created a left-facing approach that had never been seen before Pesaro Madonna. The originality of this painting’s design gave it an entirely new level of amazement beyond that of just a good technique and a captivating color palette. The sweeping arch and tall Greco-Roman pillars help this to appear as more than just a painting; more like a window, allowing the viewer to see a small rectangle of the life-size scene before them. The painting was commissioned by Jacopo Pesaro to commemorate his papal fleet’s victory over the Turks. The Turkish prisoner held by St. Maurice is a clear representation of Christianity’s triumph over the Turks. (Stokstad 657) The color palette shows those bright reds and deep blues that became so popular thanks to the import of pigments not available in Europe.

With the rising popularity of prints as a medium, artists were able to distribute their works quickly, cheaply and to many people at once. Before this, artists had to wait for a patron to demand a certain artwork that was then only seen by the few they deemed fit. The artist had very little control over what they created as most decisions were made by the commissioner of the piece. With printmaking, the power was placed back in the artist’s hands. They were able to decide what they wanted to create “with an eye to what would sell.” (Nash 129) Images are a universal language that can carry so much weight. Iconography is such an important part of all artworks because a single image can carry vastly more complex meaning. Printmakers used this to their advantage to convey all manner of things to a large number of people using prints. This helped the spread of intellectual importance beyond the nobility and the wealthy. Average people were able to discuss prints because they were readily available to them, instead of locked away in the bedroom of some rich merchant. The distribution of art beyond the small circle of those who could afford the commission of a one of a kind painting was a major leap for society in the Renaissance.

The exchange of products and ideas throughout nations greatly affected the lives of Europeans. New ideas flourished in all aspects. Innovation was desired by the ones with the money, so it was shown in the art they commissioned. Because of this, art made giant leaps forward, leading to what we see today in the modern era.

Leave a Comment


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *