High Renaissance Art and the Impact of Religion
The Italian Renaissance was an historical era in which much intellectual, philosophical, and artistic advancement were made. Studies were conducted which involved astrology, mathematics, and the human anatomy, which illustrates the desire for information during this time period. The Renaissance, however, is most closely associated with the artists that emerged from Italy beginning in the late 1400s. These artists all displayed one common theme in terms of the pieces they created—religion. Religion was one of the most influential factors in the Renaissance, affecting everything from the way people dressed to the way they approached life. Michelangelo Buonarroti’s art, in particular, is indicative of the presence of religion within High Renaissance society, as all of his works allude to God or the Bible in one way or another. In order to observe the impact that religion had on artists of the Renaissance era, one must simply consider figures like Michelangelo and the infamous artworks that he produced.
The Renaissance encompasses the years approximately between 1450 and 1600. As their main purpose, people during this era sought to restore the old ways of thinking and acting by emulating the societal views and way of life that the ancient Greeks and Romans maintained (Ginn and Lorusso, 2008, p. 295). From a scientific perspective, the Renaissance was extremely important when it came to scientific discovery. This is because, for the first time in history, scientists were allowed to conduct autopsies and dissect human bodies in order to study them. Perhaps there was a negative stigma in regards to human dissections prior to the Renaissance, because people believed it to be either primitive or inhumane. In addition, concern regarding the human soul surrounded the concept of human autopsies. The fact that autopsies were legalized shows how society shifted to value learning and science as opposed to maintaining former views. It was not only a sign that intellect and discovery started to be prioritized, but it also demonstrated how people’s religious philosophies changed. The fact that people started to believe that the soul was no longer contained within a deceased individual’s body shows a deeper pattern of thinking when it came to religion—that the soul belongs on a higher plane and that the human body is merely a vehicle for one’s soul. Leonardo Da Vinci, one of history’s most renowned Renaissance artists who was also religious, even conducted autopsies in his basement, because of his own fascination with the human anatomy. During this new era of scientific discovery, “Opinions about the brain and body changed during this period as both notomia and autopsia were born. During the Renaissance notomia meant dissection and was used to refer to a method of research and not a discipline of knowledge, [while] autopsia meant seeing-for-oneself in dissection, the careful observation of the body” (Ginn and Lorusso, 2008, p. 295). It was not uncommon for doctors or scientists to hold autopsies that were open to the public to witness, showing how a desire for new knowledge was not confined only to scientists, mathematicians, astrologers, or artists.
Although human dissection was not a social norm during the ancient Greek or Roman years, the concept of medicine stemmed from that era, which is the foundation upon which the people of the Renaissance built their own philosophies. What is interesting about the Renaissance is how individuals did not necessarily specialize in one area of research or development. It could be said that there was a sort of cross-fertilization that took place, especially between the areas of art and science. Da Vinci, as previously stated, was a skilled artist and scientist. He also was a remarkably advanced inventor. Among his sketches were the building plans for contraptions such as the military tank and the helicopter—inventions that were not even built until centuries after his time. Even Michelangelo, who is thought to have concentrated only on art, hinted at an interest or curiosity in neuroscience; and although this is only a theory proposed by some people, his art does illustrate a certain element of complexity that extends beyond simply painting a Biblical scene. Ginn and Lorusso (2008) argue that many of his frescoes reveal the knowledge of neurophysiology and neuroanatomy according to what was understood during the Renaissance period. They describe one of his most famous frescoes, The Creation of Adam, as such: “As God reaches toward Adam, in order to impart to Adam his soul, God with a host of angels is painted against what appears to be a midsagital slice of the brain, which… symbolizes the soul. One of the angel’s buttocks and legs appears to coincide with the pons and spinal cord” (p. 306-307). All areas of discovery during the Renaissance, essentially, were somehow interconnected; and art was a particularly effective way in depicting everything, from science to religious philosophy, according to what was believed at the time.
Regardless of the new scientific or mathematical findings that took place, Renaissance art still reflects the theme of religion more so than any other influence. During this time, extreme religious reform was taking place simultaneously with complications and conflict regarding the Catholic Church. One example of the radical changes that took place involves Girolamo Savonarola, who believed that the Apocalypse was coming and that the Pope was actually the Antichrist. As a result, “He preached the importance of inner faith, as well as the necessity of restoring the republic in Florence” (Mayer, 2006, p. 33). Disputes regarding the religious theory in the past resulted in the spread of humanistic philosophies; and many of the Renaissance’s first humanists originated in the Church itself. The idea behind humanism is that humans are of the utmost importance—that is, they are solely responsible for themselves and are in control of their own lives. As a result characteristics such as rationality, discipline, and dignity were thought to be essential aspects of anyone’s own personality and behavior. Humanism in and of itself is said to reflect “…the spirit and cultural ideals of High Renaissance Rome… It was the humanists of the papal and cardinalitial courts who designed the festivals of pageantry, created the artistic programs, delivered the sermons and orations, composed the poetry, [and] wrote the histories and theological treatises…” that have become the definition of the Italian Renaissance (Hankins, 2003, p. 497). The combination of religious reformation and the concept of humanism greatly affected how people approached religion, especially Michelangelo. While the Catholic Church and other religious institutions faced collapsing, Michelangelo’s own faith and belief system grew more internal, and he began to search for a deeper relationship with Christ. Mayer (2006) discusses Michelangelo’s religious thought processes as such:
He used his art—whether painting, sculpture, drawing, or poetry—to recover an understanding of Christianity rooted in the believer’s own experience. Following the apostle Paul, Michelangelo conceived of salvation as entirely dependent on God’s grace. The believer’s best efforts, even a believer as driven as he was, could contribute nothing: “all my efforts apart from your blood do not make a man blessed” he wrote in a poem. Outward rituals and observances do not save… (p. 33).
This shows the cognitive aspect of religion in relation to Michelangelo’s art. By believing that salvation was given only at God’s own will, he suggested that God was the ultimate source of power and that he had complete control of mankind on their day of judgment. The religious ceremonies or rituals that a person may attend mean nothing when it comes to salvation, because God judges the internal rather than the external.
Michelangelo’s personal religious philosophy had a major impact upon his work. Most of his pieces, in fact, are known for the powerful messages that he intended them to convey to the audience. When describing one of his drawings, Benefit of Christ’s Death, he said “And what can man do in order to merit such a great gift and treasure as Christ? This treasure is given only through the grace, favor and mercy of God, and it is faith alone that receives such a gift and allows us to enjoy the remission of sins” (Mayer, 2006, p. 36). His glorification of God underlined the fact that he believed humans to be imperfect, and therefore inferior, beings. As a person, he believed that he was meant to seek salvation at God’s mercy; and as an artist, he sought perfection even though he believed that it was impossible. This battle between his desire to achieve perfection in his work and the belief that only God Himself was capable of perfection provided Michelangelo with a source of artistic torture. Consider the fact that he valued God and his image of perfection, and wanted to recreate that perfect standard in his own work. Now, consider his belief that humans are imperfect beings. This was a very conflicting mindset for him, because although he dedicated his entire career as an artist to creating one perfect piece, he knew that it was all in vain and that perfection at the hands of a human was impossible. Even though Michelangelo is known today as arguably the greatest sculptor in history, his work never satisfied his search for perfection; and this is due to the impact of religion and his theory that only God could be perfect.
Michelangelo maintained the artistic mindset that he would never be able to create a perfect piece of art; but this did not stop him from creating hundreds of pieces “in the service of religion” (Graham-Dixon, 2009, p. 35). Most of his pieces were reflective of his religious views, which were prompted by the Renaissance’s religious reformation, and served to illustrate various messages and scenes from the Bible. One of his signature characteristics was the depiction of power; but not the same way in which other artists have depicted it. A prime example of religion in combination with his artistic point of view is his iconic Statue of David. David, from the story of David and Goliath, stands in a relatively relaxed pose. Even though his muscles indicate that he has a great amount of physical power, he is not actually shown as expending any of his energy. In Michelangelo’s paintings of God as well, God’s arms are never fully extended, nor is he displaying a real sign of his power. This is because Michelangelo believed that potential energy was more effective in illustrating power than having his figures showcasing all of their strength. It is as if he is saying that these Biblical figures are so strong, that there is no need for them to prove how much power they really have; and this shows a great amount of respect and regard for the religious figures he painted, drew, and sculpted. Aside from the David was Michelangelo’s painting of the Sistine Chapel—one of the greatest examples of religious significance in art. Depicting stories from Genesis in the Bible on a series of frescoes, the figures “…are all-encompassing: the origin of the universe; the origin of Man; the origin of evil and the nature of life, as it must be lived, in the world after the Fall” (Graham-Dixon, 2009, p. 69). The Sistine Chapel has become one of the greatest works of art in art history to date; not only because it was painted by Michelangelo, but because it displays the fusion of religion, artistic brilliance, and other factors of the Renaissance era. It also shows how religion provided inspiration for some of the world’s most famous masterpieces. Without the high regard for Christianity and Biblical influences, perhaps Michelangelo would not have created some of his iconic paintings, statues, and drawings; and without religious reformation, his artistic perspective certainly would have lacked some of its depth and cognition.
The role of religion during the Italian Renaissance not only affected what people believed, but it altered their overall approach to life. By observing the life and works of Michelangelo, it is evident that religious influences were particularly powerful when it came to art and forming an artistic point of view. It also related directly to other areas of discovery that took place during that time period. Religion ultimately helped to shape Renaissance society as well as the artwork and philosophies that were produced.
Ginn, S.R., and Lorusso, L. (2008). Brain, Mind, and Body: Interactions with Art in Renaissance Italy. Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, 17(3), 295-313.
Graham-Dixon, A. (2009). Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel. New York: Skyhorse Publishing.
Hankins, J. (2003). Humanism and Platonism in the Italian Renaissance. Rome: Edizioni Di Storia E Letteratura.
Mayer, T.F. (2006). The Art of Grace. Christian History & Biography, (91), 32-36.