Research point: Humanism

Part of my research for this part of the course is concerning Humanism and it took me a little time to fully understand the concept – the simple definition is of a movement that was concerned with human interest and values.  In short humanism was secular or non-religious and very much to do with concentrating on living in the here and now rather than the spiritual afterlife – it essentially meant that humanists thought about themselves and their world around them rather than what may happen when they died.  The concept is one of living in the present world and cherishing what you have now – in many ways many of us today would be classed as humanists when you consider the seeking of knowledge, enjoying life and the move in the modern world towards secularism again (here in the UK there is a distinct decline in Christianity or more specifically going to church).  This concept on a personal level makes a lot of sense – I am a survivor so far of a life threatening illness and the studying I am doing now is about doing something that I cherish and is for me alone but still with the balance of faith.  Humanists were a group of people who concentrated on their experience of life and also looked at the works of the human race i.e. of man and were scholars and writers and artists.

During the Renaissance there was a decline in the power of the Church and according to some sources and historians the combination of the great plagues that decimated the populations of Europe and also the rise of what is classed as the market economy.  Money essentially talked and consequently monarchies and city-states were governed by economic factors as opposed to religion – a major change which effected all trades.

A series of questions were asked in the course material to be considered:

  1. Did an interest in humanism mean a movement away from Christianity?

In essence yes I consider it was because the Church was weakened by the aforesaid affects of the bubonic plagues that so ravaged the populations – people prayed for salvation and the plagues to stopped and yet they continued. When the effects of the plague combined with the fact that the market economies of Europe were opening up and expanding began to be concentrated on living for themselves and without the religious restrictions of the  medieval period.  Humanism enabled people to cherish their lives and their surroundings as well as believing that study and the progress of human nature should be at the centre of their lives. As the title of one of my resources states humanism recognizes the beauty of the individual whereby the church was concerned with the spirituality of the people and believed that to be concerned with yourself or your rights was sinful.  For the Humanists at the time their new belief system which effectively resurrected the Greek beliefs in study and progress also changed the ideas of human individualisation – as the market economy grew so the Church declined and in combination with both the feudal system of the past shrank  – wealth had previously been based on land ownership and the poor were merely there to serve the rich.  Christianity at the time has been described almost as imprisonment within a set of rules and yet humanism was freeing to many – the move away came with the freedom to study and to concentrate on ideals of the ancient Greeks.

The problem was at the time humanism and the people of the Renaissance were effectively between two periods – that of the medieval Church with the strict imposing rules that dominated every day life and the advances in science combined with social stability that were yet to come.  These Humanists sought to express themselves individually and were scholars not just in one field but often in several and sought to further progress themselves through study and as mentioned revived the Greek beliefs and also the pagan beliefs but to give some idea of spirituality they believed in beauty, sometimes called their cult of beauty, as in essence humanism boiled down to a belief in aesthetics.  This belief in aesthetics surpassed the supernatural beliefs of the past and also the ever increasing scientific discoveries – life was about appreciating the beauty of the human existence and that of nature which was totally against the Church.

2. How was an interest in the classical world reflected in Renaissance art?

This is a much easier question (in theory) to answer – Humanists were interested in the Greek classics and this was directly reflected in the art.   Two prime examples are in WHA on p. 434 and p. 449 – one of the bronze equestrian monument in Padua sculpted by Donato Bardi (Donatello) and the other a small painting by Andrea Mantegna of Saint Sebastian.  The equestrian monument would have been a good piece of work for Donatello as at the time the cost of materials meant that sculptors could only work when patrons commissioned them.  It is clear by the bronze statue that he has taken inspiration from the one ridden by Marcus Aurelius and even without reading the text I was immediately reminded of it – it bears more than a passing resemblance but with the alterations to the perspective i.e. that the features of the rider are distorted in order to give the correct perspective to the viewer on the ground.  The other inspiration Donatello seem to have been aware of is the bronze horses on the façade of S Marco in Venice which are of an earlier date than the one of Aurelius.

There is also no doubt that Mantegna’s painting harks back to the classical world with the painting of the Corinthian style columns and the ornate capitals combined with the sculpture portrayed.  What I note is the column that Saint Sebastian is tied to is clearly marble and the arch seen is reminiscent of the type classical to the Roman period.  Not only is the sculpture itself telling the viewer of a classical influence for me personally the Saint himself is very much of the idealised figure of classical times – what is notable is that Venice had a vast amount of antique sculpture at the time of the Renaissance and was very close to Greece (bearing in mind that Venice owned much of Greece during the early 13th century).  Mantegna was able to draw on the antiquities that surrounded him in his works.

In WHA if you go back to p. 430 there is reference to the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi town house with the interior of Classical columns and circular reliefs above – it is described as ‘gravely Classical and solemnly decorus’.  The exterior of the town house although heavily textured has windows on the different layers which are reminiscent of the Colosseum in Rome – the arches being large and wide and few in number at the bottom but decreasing in width and height through the 3 floors which make for an imposing façade.

In fact much of the architecture of the period had a distinctly classical elegance to it which was a move away from the Gothic architecture of the medieval period – columns and capitals made reappearances even if as part of a façade and not as supporting structures.   Sculptors took inspiration from the idealistic figures of antiquity but gave them a realism not seen before in the expressions and some statues or carvings were striking in their spiritual message because of this.

Idealisation of figures was common in Renaissance art and harks back to the idealisation of Greek figures but there is a beauty about the figures and a realism too that the invention of oil painting gave the art work of the period – the realism coming from the expressions and the discovery of perspective which enabled the viewer to almost be a part of the work but the idealisation coming from the fact that the figures still seem too beautiful to be real.  Bellini’s Madonna of the Meadow on p. 451 of WHA is a good example of this – the figure is beautifully idealistic in its  beauty but it still has the realism through the colours of the skin and the perspective within the painting.

The fascinating aspect of this is as oil painting became more prominent the realism of the Renaissance combined with the idealisation of antiquity and with the study of the classics to produce works of unsurpassed beauty which ultimately was at the root of humanism itself.

Further evidence of the classical influence is seen through the use of classical mythology in Renaissance art – I am doing separate research posts on this to answer this very question but I cannot ignore Sandro Botticelli’s painting of La Primavera.  Botticelli’s figures are described in WHA has having a ‘Gothic quality’ in their gracefulness and lightness but the subject is unmistakably classical myth – Venus with Mercury, the 3 Graces, Flora a goddess, and earth nymphs as well as Zephyr who was the west wind.  The size of the piece is suggest that it may have been a cheaper version commissioned in place of the expense of a tapestry but on looking at it with no reading of the text it is immediately reminiscent of just such a piece of needlework.  The figures are undeniably idealist and remind you of the qualities associated with Greek and Roman sculptures – the women are not nude but seen partly clothed so although the body is clearly seen there is a modesty and dignity (dignity being part of the interests of humanism).  The women are also quite voluptuous in their form which was again common in Greek or Roman sculptures with softness of the body being paramount.  Mercury himself is seen as a fit and healthy young man as would be expected but still is dignified through the wearing of a robe of simple nature.  The setting though is one of nature – the figures are not surrounded by architecture but by the forest and this brings with it a freshness and beauty of its own and displays, in my view, the appreciate of nature that was a part of Humanist culture.

3. Was it possibly successful to combine Christian and classical elements in painting, sculpture and architecture? Try and come up with some examples.

I think in part I have already answered this with the mention of Mantegna’s painting of Saint Sebastian – you have an unquestionable Christian subject combined with classical elements.  There is the argument that this adds to the realism which you consider that the Bible ultimately was set in the Roman period and thereby it is totally natural that the two combine in Christian art.

Much of the Renaissance period art is still religious as opposed to secular – this is where I have misunderstood in the past over the differences between a Renaissance art work and a medieval art work.  Obviously I now understand that apart from the differences in style there is a huge difference in media too with the introduction of oil painting but also the development of pigments that were used in tempera and often the combination of both – as I become more immersed in the art world through my studies I see modern day mixed media with acrylic paint often being used under oils in the same way the tempera was used often as an under painting.

The religious art of the time seemed to be one of story telling but in a new way – the figures are often classical although with a new realism that as I have already said is very striking but the settings and how the story is told is very different.  Gone is the separation of the saints from the mortals on earth by the differing sizes of the figures but in comes scenes with linear or aerial perspective and light that bring life to each piece.

Personally for me what is glaringly obvious is the fact that classical architecture  is often scene in religious works – for instance in the background of Jan van Eyck’s painting of Madonna of Chancellor you have the classical Roman columns and arches but the figures are very much of the Renaissance period and wearing the clothing of the day. Architecture is often scene in paintings and it is something I have started to look for as it gives me an indication of the influence of classical times – it is also seen in architectural designs in later centuries such as Pickford’s House which I have visited for this part in the course.  The influence of classical times can often be subtle and literally in the background of art but it shows how the combination of a classical influence can be successfully combined with the Christian elements of religious works.

The clothing and the style of dress of figures within the paintings of the period was something worthy of note – like in other artistic periods artists have been able to bring what would have been ‘modern relevance’ to their works by painting the subjects in the fashion of the time.  This may not be a classical note but it is when you consider the figures may have had a classical influence themselves in the idealisation of how they are portrayed – idealisation was an idea of antiquity.

  • The last point is thinking about ‘how humanists’ interest in the natural world and comparing it with the way in which artists used knowledge gained through botany, anatomy and optics. From the sixteenth century, for example, some artists were interested in how the body worked and how they could represent it with an accuracy based on scientific knowledge rather than classical ideas of harmony and proportion.’

This is probably the hardest point for me to answer – it is undeniable humanists were scholars of their time and learnt about the rules of perspective and also about the sciences through the great discoveries of their time.  Artists gained their knowledge through intense study of their subjects and also the articles or their study of optics etc and this showed in their art – it is notable that even though figures are idealised in many paintings the anatomy and expressions are more realistic in proportions and how they are portrayed.  Humanist interest in the natural world meant they took the time to study what is around them – they learnt to cherish it and enjoy it and there is no doubt that this played a part in how nature is portrayed in the art works of the time.

In paintings perspective in both linear and aerial form has enabled the artists of the time to root the figures they portray more realistically within a scene and this would have been combined with a study of anatomy for the proportions or lines of a body.  Not only does the perspective play a part but increasingly botany was being studied more deeply – as the New World was discovered and exploration of our globe was being ever more common artists were bringing back drawings and sketches of flowers and fauna not seen in Europe before.  Surgery was advancing and the study of the human body was increasing with the development of almost theatres so pupils could witness them and you question how many artists attended such ‘lectures’ for want of a better expression.  If the humanists had an interest in the natural world and the beauty of it then it was the artists who somehow had to learn to portray these beliefs on their canvases and in the sculptures – the two for me must surely go hand in hand.  An ever increasing appreciation of the natural world only warrants more study – that is something I am personally learning through my own artistic journey because as you start to appreciate the world around you in a different way it makes you want to look ever more closely.  If an artist does as the course material suggested devoted his life to how the body actually works based on scientific knowledge rather than the classical ideas then it would be the same for the artist who is interested in botany or optics or any of the other scientific studies but if the artist is also a humanist then the study of the natural world would be a way of his personal expression and progression.

At this point I ask myself the question that if an artist does study those subjects then to me his beliefs are of humanism and therefore there is no comparison to be made for some as they are one and the same (and many artists were humanists of course).  – the artist has the freedom from religious restriction to be able to study without fear of being told it is self indulgent and therefore sinful and the beliefs of humanism centred on the aesthetics of the natural world and the study and progression of man.   Can an artist of that period really not be a humanist?  the trade routes and the increasing economy was beneficial to the professions of sculptors, architects, artists and also the skilled workers of stitch in tapestries and embroideries.  The latter is worth mentioning because it is evident that embroideries and the work of the tapestry artists that survive show great skill in the portrayal of botany.

The problem I have with humanism is I realise it is something I believe in strongly – I am not sure I will go so far as studying the anatomy in the gruesome ways the artists would have seen though during that time period!  Humanism lies in pagan and Greek beliefs and the interest in the natural world must have inspired many artists who travelled and studied in their respective fields and many were humanists as I have stated such as Alberti whose skills encompass the very model of Renaissance man.

Finally I note that earlier artists had painted with rigid formality due to the religious nature of the works but the influence of the humanists meant that paintings developed a sense of naturalism and an indication of the realities of the life that surrounded them – the artists gave the viewer the impression of real people and real life and this in turn was affected by the studies of the artists themselves as no doubt their patrons required.



All About Renaissance Faires (date unknown) The Humanism of the Renaissance [online]. Available at: [Accessed February 2016]

Allentown Art Museum (date unknown)  Humanism in the Renaissance [online].  Available at: [Accessed February 2016]

Boundless (2015) Humanistic Art [ online]  Available at: [Accessed February 2016]

Kreis, S. (2016) The History Guide. Renaissance Humanism [online].  Available at: [Accessed February 2016]

Honour J and Fleming J. (2009) World History of Art. Seventh Edition. London. Lawrence King Publishing.

J. Paul. Getty Museum (date unknown) From Line to Light: Renaissance Drawing in Florence and Venice [online].  Available at: [Accessed February 2016]

Siskin T. J.  (2001-2016) How did Renaissance Art reflect Humanist concerns [online]. Available at: [Accessed February 2016]

Spark Notes (2016) Art in the Early Renaissance [online]. Available at: [Accessed February 2016]

Whittemore J (2003-2016)  Humanism in the Renaissance – Recognizing the Beauty of the Individual [online}.  Available at  [Accessed February 2016]




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