History of Sculpture: Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque & Rococo

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  • 0:02 Medieval Sculpture
  • 2:23 Renaissance Sculpture
  • 4:30 Baroque Sculpture
  • 5:42 Rococo Sculpture
  • 6:28 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will study Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, and Rococo sculpture. We will explore the primary characteristics of sculpture in these ages and look at some of the major sculptural works.

Medieval Sculpture

Hey. The name's Rocky, and I'm your guide through the history of sculpture. What? You've never seen a talking statue before? You'd better get used to me because we have a lot of ground to cover. In this lesson, we'll be talking about Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, and Rococo sculpture. Before we begin, though, let's quickly define sculpture. It's really just three-dimensional art. Some of it appears in the round, that is, free-standing. Other pieces are in relief, which means that they stand out from a base surface, kind of like a 3D picture.

All clear? Then let's just jump right in to Medieval sculpture. Christianity was the driving force in Medieval Europe, and it was also the driving force in Medieval sculpture. Sculpture was actually rather rare in the early Medieval period, and the examples we have from that era are mostly items used for religious worship, like altars and chalices. Sculptors in the early Medieval world also enjoyed using delicate ivory to create intricate little statues of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and Christian saints, as well as reliefs for altars.

About 1000 CE, however, a new style of sculpture arose. Romanesque sculpture was bold and large. Sculptors tried to copy ancient Roman works and in doing so, incorporated Roman elements like round arches and columns. Figures tended to be rather abstract, angular, out of proportion, and sometimes even quite grotesque as sculptors' imaginations ran wild through interpretations of Biblical scenes. The tympanum, a semi-circular relief often found over entrances, was a popular type of sculpture in this period.

By about 1200 CE, another new sculptural style appeared on the horizon. The Gothic style attempted to soar to the heavens through the towers and stained glass windows of great cathedrals. These magnificent buildings were generously decorated with statues of Biblical figures and saints that took on a very life-like appearance. Gothic sculptors tried to capture realistic expressions, poses, and proportions, and they created figures with long, slim, vertical lines that drew the eye upwards and attempted to teach the beauty and wonder of Christianity in what art historians call 'sermons of stone.'

Renaissance Sculpture

We'd better keep moving right along. We've got a lot of ground to cover, and it's time to talk about Renaissance sculpture (c. 1400-1600 CE). The word 'renaissance' means 'rebirth,' and, indeed, the era was about rediscovering the classical art of the Ancient World and giving it a new birth. Following their ancient models, Renaissance sculptors strove to achieve harmony, balance, restraint, and realism in their works. They carefully studied the human body and tried to represent it in all its natural and individual glory.

Sculpture reached a high point during the Renaissance as artists like Donatello, Lorenzo Ghiberti, and Michelangelo created famous works including Donatello's bronze David, Ghiberti's Doors to the Baptistery in Florence, and Michelangelo's marble David and Pieta, in which the Blessed Virgin Mary holds the dead Jesus tenderly in her arms.

Most Renaissance sculpture was still religious in its subject matter. Churches were filled with elaborately carved tabernacles, pulpits, tombs, altars, baptismal fonts, and statues. As they learned more about classical art, however, sculptors also worked in forms of the pagan past, including equestrian (horse and rider) statues, portrait busts, and male nudes. Further, art wasn't just for churches any more. The Renaissance era brought art into people's homes, especially wealthy people who could afford to commission artists to create decorations for their niches, walls, ceilings, fireplaces, and fountains, and to memorialize their faces in stone or metal.

As the Renaissance progressed through the 16th century, sculptural styles changed a bit. Lines grew even longer, postures more convoluted, and designs more elaborate. Sculptors played with the anatomy of their subjects, making their limbs long and their muscles more defined. Complexity was key, and elegance and style started to take precedence over realism. This new fashion became known as Mannerism.

Baroque Sculpture

It would be easy to get lost in the marvels of the Renaissance forever, wouldn't it? But, it's time to transition to the Baroque era. Baroque sculptors of the 17th century reacted against the trends of Mannerism to recapture realism in their works. Baroque sculptures had three primary characteristics. First, artists strove for technical perfection. They wanted their works to be as detailed and real as possible, right down to the textures of fabrics and armor, the natural appearance of hair, and the characteristics of human skin based on sex and age.

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