The Basics of Art: The Renaissance

by Brett & Kate McKay on July 16, 2010 · 23 comments

in Manly Knowledge

We live in a world that’s highly technical and specialized. When a man goes to college these days, he spends his time learning the skills that will allow him to seek gainful employment. Little time is spent studying art or literature. These subjects are often seen as “pointless” because they don’t have any practical application when it comes to paying the bills. On top of that, many men see art appreciation as wussy and effeminate and thus steer clear of it.

But it’s a shame that many men feel this way about art because they’re missing out on poignant insights about what it means to be human and what it means to be a man. Art can capture the emotions of the human experience when words fail us, give us insight into positive madness, expand our minds, and help us learn more about the world and ourselves.

If you feel like you missed out on a basic art education or if you learned plenty about art history, but you need a refresher, this series we’re starting today is just for you. Over the next few months, we’ll be covering some of the simple basics of the important periods of Western art. Next time you’re on a date at a museum, you’ll have a few things to add to the conversation. But more importantly, you’ll be able to get more out of the art yourself and hopefully be inspired to delve deeper into the fruits of man’s infinite creativity. As you take time to ponder and mediate on some of history’s greatest works of art, you’ll gain a deeper appreciation for art’s manly heritage, experience uplift and edification, and find yourself closer to becoming a true Renaissance Man.

Speaking of the Renaissance, let’s get started talking about that period’s art.

An Introduction to the Basics of Renaissance Art

Time Period: 1400s-1600s

Background: The 14th century was a time of great crisis; the plague, the Hundred Years war, and the turmoil in the Catholic Church all shook people’s faith in government, religion, and their fellow man. In this dark period Europeans sought a new start, a cultural rebirth, a renaissance.

The Renaissance began in Italy where the culture was surrounded by the remnants of a once glorious empire. Italians rediscovered the writings, philosophy, art, and architecture of the ancient Greeks and Romans and began to see antiquity as a golden age which held the answers to reinvigorating their society. Humanistic education, based on rhetoric, ethics and the liberal arts, was pushed as a way to create well-rounded citizens who could actively participate in the political process. Humanists celebrated the mind, beauty, power, and enormous potential of human beings. They believed that people were able to experience God directly and should have a personal, emotional relationship to their faith. God had made the world but humans were able to share in his glory by becoming creators themselves.

These new cultural movements gave inspiration to artists, while Italy’s trade with Europe and Asia produced wealth that created a large market for art. Prior to the Renaissance Period, art was largely commissioned by the Catholic Church, which gave artists strict guidelines about what the finished product was to look like. Medieval art was decorative, stylized,  flat, and two-dimensional and did not depict the world or human beings very realistically. But a thriving commercial economy distributed wealth not just to the nobility but to merchants and bankers who were eager to show their status by purchasing works of art (the Church remained a large patron of the arts as well). Artists were allowed greater flexibility in what they were to produce, and they took advantage of it by exploring new themes and techniques.

Things to Look for in Renaissance Art:

  • Perspective. To add three-dimensional depth and space to their work, Renaissance artists rediscovered and greatly expanded on the ideas of linear perspective, horizon line, and vanishing point.
    • Linear perspective: Rendering a painting with linear perspective is like looking through a window and painting exactly what you see on the window pane. Instead of every object in the picture being the same size, objects that were further away would be smaller, while those closer to you would be larger.
    • Horizon line: Horizon line refers to the point in the distance where objects become so infinitely small, that they have shrunken to the size of a line.
    • Vanishing point: The vanishing point is the point at which parallel lines appear to converge far in the distance, often on the horizon line. This is the effect you can see when standing on railroad tracks and looking at the tracks recede into the distance.
  • Shadows and light. Artists were interested in playing with the way light hits objects and creates shadows. The shadows and light could be used to draw the viewer’s eye to a particular point in the painting.
  • Emotion. Renaissance artists wanted the viewer to feel something while looking at their work, to have an emotional experience from it. It was a form of visual rhetoric, where the viewer felt inspired in their faith or encouraged to be a better citizen.
  • Realism and naturalism. In addition to perspective, artists sought to make objects, especially people, look more realistic. They studied human anatomy, measuring proportions and seeking the ideal human form. People looked solid and displayed real emotions, allowing the viewer to connect with what the depicted persons were thinking and feeling.


Let’s start out by looking at two different paintings of the Virgin Mary, one from the Byzantine period, and one from the Renaissance period, so that you can get a feel for the profound transformation art went through during the Renaissance:

Madonna and Child on a Curved Throne, 1200′s. In this wood panel painting from the Byzantine period, the bodies of Mary and Jesus are bodiless and hidden in drapery. The folds of the drapery are represented by gold leaf striations; even where you would see knees, you have an accumulation of gold instead of light and shadow. The picture lacks the feeling of depth and space. Also, Jesus is portrayed as an infant, but looks like a miniature adult.

Madonna del Cardellino, by Raphael, 1506. Now we’re well into the Renaissance and the changes in style are readily apparent. Mary has become much more realistically human; she has a real form, real limbs, a real expression on her face. Not only does she look natural, but she is placed is a natural setting. Jesus and John the Baptist look like real babies, not miniature adults. Raphael utilized perspective to give the painting depth. He also captured the Renaissance’s love of combining beauty and science-bringing back things like geometry from the ancient Greeks: Mary, Christ, and John the Baptist form a pyramid.

Tribute Money, by Masaccio, 1425. Masaccio was a pioneer in the technique of one point perspective; the painting is an image of what one person looking at the scene would see. Notice how Peter, next to the water, and the mountains are paler and less clear than the objects in the foreground. The lines in the painting meet atop Jesus’ head in a vanishing point. It appears that the figures are lit by light from the chapel, as their shadows all fall away in the same direction. Such a touch seems basic to us today, but incorporating a light from a specific source and using it to lend figures three-dimensionality was groundbreaking for the time.

The Last Supper, by Leonardo da Vinci, 1498.  An example of the way in which Renaissance artists wished to draw the viewer into the painting by depicting a vibrant scene filled with real psychology and emotion. All the apostles have different reactions to Christ revealing that one will betray him. Like in the Tribute Money, Jesus’ head is located at the vanishing point for all the perspective lines.

The Creation of Adam, by Michelangelo, 1511. In this most famous section of the Sistine Chapel, the personal nature of faith, the divine potential of man, and the idea of man being co-creator with God is vividly depicted. So is the Renaissance interest in anatomy; God is resting on the outline of the human brain. Michelangelo, like Leonardo, performed numerous dissections of human corpses in order to gain an in-depth and realistic look at the parts and structure of the human body.

David, by Michelangelo, 1504. Renaissance artists created the first free-standing nude statutes since the days of antiquity. Michelangelo believed that sculpture was the highest form of art as it echoes the process of divine creation. His David is the perfect example of the Renaissance’s celebration of the ideal human form. The statue conveys rich realism in form, motion, and feeling. The upper body and hands are not quite proportional, perhaps owing to the fact that the work was meant to be put on a pedestal and viewed by looking upwards. Michelangelo was a master at portraying subjects at moments of psychological transition, as if they had just thought of something, and this statue is often believed to be depicting the moment when David decides to slay Goliath.

School of Athens, by Raphael, 1510. This painting, which depicts all the great philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome, serves as an example of the way in which Renaissance artists were inspired by and hearkened back to the days of antiquity. The perspective lines draw the viewer to the center of the painting and the vanishing point where history’s two greatest philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, stand. In line with their philosophies, Plato points to the heavens and the realm of Forms, while Aristotle points to the earth and the realm of things.

The Basics of Art Series
The Renaissance
The Baroque Period
The Romantic Period

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

1 JG July 16, 2010 at 2:04 am

I know there is significance of Michelangelo’s David, but Bernini’s masterpieces make Michelangelo look like a little boy.


2 Felix July 16, 2010 at 2:30 am

Yeah JG, it’s amazing how he captured the soft, suppleness of flesh in cold hard marble.
Fantastic pictorial example there.

3 Nick July 16, 2010 at 2:54 am

Great article! I really appreciate recent post like “Dance like Zobra” and the Boutonnieres post dealing with less traditional notions of manliness. To continue the theme of “positive madness” and embarrassing the wild side, perhaps an article on recreational drug use would be fitting.

4 Johannes Karlsson July 16, 2010 at 4:03 am

I just saw a replica of David the other day, it was huge! And they had put a giant block on the ground to give you an idea how big it was from the start. Weighing 24 tons. Very, very impressive.

5 Catholic Art July 16, 2010 at 4:20 am

Still love the original paint of leonardi the vinci “the last supper” that was a great paintings ever since.

6 Phillip July 16, 2010 at 5:56 am

You have got to see these in person. Did a tour of Europe and pictures do nothing for these works of art.
Florence and Rome are definite must sees.

7 Father V. July 16, 2010 at 7:33 am

I love the article, and AoM in general. Keep up the good work!

Just a quick comment on the Byzantine example of Our Lady. This isn’t so much a piece of art, but an icon who style didn’t pass into the dustbin of primative styles, (like cave paintings for example) but is still practiced to this day. It has, by design, a structure, symbolism and language unto itself. So much so that one doesn’t even refer to an icon as having been painted but as having been written.

One small example from the given piece can be drawn from the presentation of Christ. He is presented as a small adult, rather than as a child, to symbolize His deity, the fullness of the Godhead that He would share. Even His head, drawn seemingly out of proportion, is not an accident of style but a sign of the perfect wisdom that was found in Him even as a child.

Iconography is fascinating, and I’m sure a Google search would turn up far more information than my meager understanding. Just know that everything found in the icon is purposeful and meant to convey a deeper meaning and doesn’t represent a primative style of art but a school of theology still found in and important to eastern Christianity, both Catholic and Orthodox.

Thanks for a great website and topic. God love you!

8 jc July 16, 2010 at 8:06 am

An excellent idea for a series! I had never studied art or art history before university and I ended up taking a course in first year primarily because I felt every gentleman should know something about art. That was five years ago and led to me actually changing my degree to incorporate it. I’m now completing my second master’s degree in the subject. I’m also a 200lb former college athlete with a beard who worked as a manual labourer. Art should NOT be seen as wussy or irrelevant.

Art is elitist, but then what isn’t? In the same way that the best books take a little more time to read and understand, so does art. For that matter, becoming physically fit takes time and effort. Most people don’t know where to begin with art because they’ve never had an introduction. Hopefully this series will help out. Even a cursory understanding of art will pay dividends and open up new worlds for you. It did for me.

9 Julie July 16, 2010 at 9:44 am

The thing I love about Renaissance art is that there’s a hidden meaning to every painting. The artists were well-versed in both Biblical and Classical stories, and moreover certain features in paintings were understood to represent certain things. So, for example, a lady wearing blue would mean the Virgin Mary. If you see Mary along with an angel holding a lily flower (which represented purity), that’s the Annunciation. (i.e. The Angel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she’s pregnant with the Christ child.) Annunciations would often also have a shaft of light coming through a closed window, to represent how God could impregnate Mary without damaging her virginity. They might also have a table between Mary and the angel, to indicate the separation between earth and heaven.

All the saints had particular icons associated with them. Animals and flowers had very specific meanings. The more you learn about iconography, the more you start really understanding the Renaissance art (and Medieval and Neo-Classical, for that matter). It’s fascinating!

10 billy d July 16, 2010 at 10:36 am

I’m with Fr. V in that I think you’ve short-changed the Byzantine era by presenting the Renaissance usage of single linear perspective as a maturation or development (such as “Mary has become much more realistically human;”).

Indeed even the ancient Greeks were aware of this technique and used it in their stage productions, it seems. But many artistic traditions (starting most notably with the though of the philosopher Plato) actively reject this perspective technique as being too focused on “illusion” rather than portraying the deeper meaning of the artwork. So this “Renaissance” style was actually dismissed as lowbrow by those before the renaissance, rather than the renaissance being a moment of artistic progress over the ancient and medieval, as you have portrayed it here.

For example, in addition to the points mentioned about the icon above,
the perspective, which seems foreign to us, is actually a version of reverse linear perspective, wherein things farther away look bigger than things closer. Not only does this better serve to highlight the figures as the true subject of the image, but more importantly it gives Byzantine perspective a sense of being a “God’s-eye” view, more omniscient than the limited linear perspective.

It’s a very contemporary attitude to disregard things which seem old and weird to us an “not as good” as things which seem more familiar, but most of the time we are not really as smart as we’d like to think, and the “old, weird” things we like to disdain are much more meaningful than we give them credit for.

11 Brucifer July 16, 2010 at 11:00 am

Gentlemen, let me also hasten to add that even a modicum of arts appreciation knowledge can also serve to gain you the attention and affection of females. I’ve done especially well with the often uninhibited and adventurous, bohemian art school types.

12 CoffeeZombie July 16, 2010 at 11:06 am

I have a couple thoughts I’d like to share:

1) In college, I had to take either art, music, or theater appreciation as a part of my core curriculum. As an amateur musician, I already had an understanding and appreciation of music (which just grows and grows the more I learn), and I had spent some time with the theater folks in high school, but art was something I was still very unfamiliar with. Sure, I could appreciate a painting, you know, for some nebulous aesthetic qualities (“I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like!”), but the great works of art always left me a little…bored. It was, “Oh, that’s pretty” and move on.

That class really taught me to appreciate the art, as I learned more about what went into a painting, what techniques were used to create certain effects, and so on. I’ve forgotten a lot of that now, but I have a new appreciation for visual arts now that I didn’t have before.

It’s the same way with any form of art, really. You may have a somewhat superficial appreciation of the work, purely on an emotional level, or have a sense that it’s well-done in some way, but you really learn to appreciate it (and are able to explain why it’s good) the more you learn about how and why it was done.

The second thought is the Byzantine art pictured and accompanied description. As Father V has pointed out, what is displayed here is an icon, and icons are made according to the same style (which, IIRC, largely pre-dates the Byzantine period) even today in modern America. It is a very deliberate style of art, and the things that are pointed out as in contrast to Renaissance realism are not examples of a development, but are merely different styles for different purpose.

Firstly, the Byzantines were quite capable of creating realistic art, and, unlike Western Europe, did not lose the knowledge of the classical period. Many people have lately made a big deal of the fact that the Renaissance was partly born out of the Crusades. That is, Crusaders visiting the Holy Land brought back knowledge of the Classical Period gained from the Muslims who had preserved it. But from whence did a religion with roots in Arabia gain all this knowledge of the ancient Greeks? From the Byzantines whom they had been conquering!

Secondly, as has been noted, the elements mentioned in the description of the icon are actually quite deliberate and have meaning attached. The colors of the robes of the Theotokos (Mother of God) and Christ have meaning, and the fact that, on Christ, the blue is on the outside and the red on the inside, and that the Theotokos’ robes are the opposite teaches us about the Incarnation and about salvation. That Christ is depicted as a little man teaches us, as Father V has noted, about His wisdom and the fact that, though a child, He is also God. In many icons, the face will appear out of proportion, with a small mouth and huge eyes and an enlarged forehead. These are all intentionally done for symbolic purposes. Also, the fact that perspective is often reverse; rather than the vanishing point being behind the painting, the vanishing point comes out toward the viewer. At the same time, icons are aggressively 2-dimensional, again, for a purpose.

It is a common misconception that iconography somehow represents a “primitive” artistic style, but in reality iconography is quite sophisticated; at least as sophisticated as Renaissance art.

13 CoffeeZombie July 16, 2010 at 11:15 am

@billy d Sadly, the idea that Renaissance art was an improvement on the simple, primitive art that came before it is not a contemporary idea, but we’ve inherited that idea from centuries of Westo-centric historical sources. The West has long had an interest in preserving the idea that the various movements, events, nations, etc. (Renaissance, Enlightenment, Holy Roman Empire, etc.) throughout Western History are the successors of the Roman Empire. The fact that the Roman Empire continued in East for centuries after the city of Rome itself fell (BTW, when Rome fell, it had not been the capital of the Empire for some time; it was Emperor St. Constantine who moved the Roman capital to Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople) has long been conveniently ignored by the West, or the Empire and its achievements have been denigrated when they’ve been acknowledged at all.

14 Brett McKay July 16, 2010 at 11:25 am

While the comments made about iconography and so on are quite interesting, I feel I should point out that the post doesn’t say anything about Renaissance art being better or worse than that of the Byzantine era. The two pieces are merely designed to show the great transformation art went through during this period, which I think it accomplishes. Whether perspective and realism is “bad” or “good” is as we see in the comments entirely dependent on your opinion and perspective-this is art after all!

15 Andrew July 16, 2010 at 3:37 pm

I think all the comments on the icon are meant to say is that there isn’t exactly a linear progression in art, as such, which was an impression I did get from the article – not saying that there was a value judgment anywhere, but I can see how one might infer one.

Also, as a historian-in-training, I’d like to point out that there wasn’t a “Byzantine period” in Western Europe. In fact, the Byzantine Empire existed from the Classical period until into the Renaissance itself. Byzantine culture was, largely, distinct from the Western European tradition that we’re all familiar with, and was arguably regarded as quite alien, albeit Christian, by it’s Western (Catholic) neighbors.

16 JT July 17, 2010 at 2:18 am

Good article, balances out the boxing posts. Makes for total man reading!

Anyway there are some good text that cover this kind of though. One is by Gelb, “How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci” Really good stuff. Covers a bit of history on the renaissance, and Leo the Vinch but goes into modern and old techniques on developing a total humanistic mind (which includes body work as well.)

As a second note, I think its strange that art and technology have become separated. Terms like “state if the art” came from the renaissance when artists and engineers and designers were one and the same. Even the word technology is derived from the Greek word “techne” which means aesthetic art. Its so bizzare that our thinking has become so polarized. We live in a STRANGE time!

17 Dave Mackey July 18, 2010 at 10:43 pm

Great article! Thanks for the informative read – looking forward to upcoming posts as well…Can we get a similar series on music appreciation/history?

18 Noah August 1, 2010 at 11:44 am

Nice article, but I think there is an important factor to take into account. Optics had existed for a few hundred years by the time the 1400′s rolled around, but it had never been used as a tool in making art until then. You mentioned the shift from flat 2D images in European art to a more realistic approach with perspective, combined with really dramatic shadows–these are symptoms of the use of optics as a tool for creating art work. An artist could use a tool called a camera lucida, which was like a glass prism on a stick, to view both the subject and his canvas at the same time, thereby learning to draw things in a lifelike manner rather quickly. The rich shadows were a byproduct of the intense light source required to utilize these tools. An English artist named David Hockney wrote a book all about it called Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters. You should DEFINITELY check it out if you are interested in art, as it not only points out the influence of optics during the Renaissance, but how with the invention of photography (which relies almost entirely on optics to record images), painting began to react by changing from realism to abstract, starting a cat and mouse game between painting and photography that has lasted for 150+ years! It is fascinating!

19 eric August 2, 2010 at 10:12 pm

As an Art student undergrad (sculpture/ Digital media mostly) i gotta say every great change of social influence and thought had its artistic statements and comentaries that aided in the nessesary progression being caried out to its purposeful existance. like the change from Modernsm into Post modern thought and its socilogical ramifications, from how we see the worl to our ideas of self. THANK YOU ART!

20 Paul August 17, 2010 at 5:56 pm

Well I’m a fine art sculpture graduate, and my studies were about as manly as possible, within context. From pouring molten metals (iron, steel, bronze etc) to woodworking, stone-masonry, blacksmithing, clay modelling, etcetera, etcetera. There is something intrinsically manly about using your hands to make something yourself, not to mention standing around a furnace with all your buddies waiting for molten metal!

Realism in art was actually achieved by the ancient Greek and Egyptian civilisations when they worked together. However shortly after they produced these fine figures they both went separate ways away from the “perfect” representation of the human form, after all that’s what art of that kind is, a representation. The Renaissance was an effort to re-understand the world in the way that the Roman, Greek, Arabic and other classical cultures had, as well as the intellectual betterment of the people themselves.

Art has commentated on, and indeed aided the progression of social change (I wrote my dissertation on the subject! Guernica is an outstanding example), yet it has in fact been responsible for starting social change. A basic example is Warhols “15 minutes of fame”… Philosophically, if he hadn’t said so, would people now have their spots on talent shows, faces in the papers etc, etc? We will never know for certain, but it may well have been a self fulfilling prophecy, for better or for worse…

And on the subject of the Renaissance, I feel Giambologna was left out of the comments so far, as his technical expertise in sculpture was phenomenal and is oft times forgotten (even though in the square where Michelangelo’s David originally stood there are two of his sculptures including “The Rape of the Sabine”) Not to forget Cellini’s bronze Perseus, the one that turned all the other sculptures in that square into stone…

21 Zach October 7, 2012 at 9:46 pm

I just discovered this article, and what fantastic timing. My wife and I just returned from an Italy vacation last week, and I have seen almost every piece of art in the article and discussed in the comments (my personal favorite was the Borghese Gallery – awesome Bernini works – yes even above the Uffizi, Accademia, etc).

The most important thing I think I can add to the discussion is this: go see every one of these in person. The photos cannot and will not ever do them justice – they are meant to be viewed firsthand. Standing in front of Primavera or Michelangelo’s Prisoners will forever change you, for the better.

22 Mazzine April 29, 2013 at 10:37 am

This is really cool and interesting, I love art. I wonder what really inspired these artist to create what they had created.:O

23 EZE February 12, 2014 at 9:13 am

i believe every human and animals on earth are artists in their different capacities, so art should be given attention by everyone

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