Religious & Philosophical Influences on High Renaissance Art

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  • 0:02 The High Renaissance
  • 1:03 Religion & Renaissance Art
  • 2:56 Philosophy & Renaissance Art
  • 5:19 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson you will explore the role of religion and philosophy in the art of the High Renaissance, and discover how artists blended them together. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

The High Renaissance

Hear ye! Hear ye! 'Tis ye olde lesson on the Rrrrrrenaissance! Today, we shall discusseth the profound impact of philosophies and religion in the creation of yon art. Waiteth a minute? Philosophy? Religion? Art? Is this lesson not about the faire to which I goeth in the summer to eat turkey legs and watcheth a joust?

Actually, no. The Renaissance was much more than a costumed festival; it was a period of new wealth, religious fervor, intellectual philosophy, and an extreme passion for the arts. In Italy, it lasted from the late 13th century through the 16th century. The part lasting from roughly 1490-1530 is called the High Renaissance, when Italian artists perfected the styles of this period. Art in the Renaissance was strongly based in an intellectual culture, so it had meaning, and that meaning came from religion and philosophy. But don't just take it from me, let's go and taketh a look.

Religion and Renaissance Art

Italy in the Renaissance was a deeply religious society. The Catholic Church, based in Rome, the center of Italy, was at its strongest. It was rich. It was powerful. It was the center of the European world. Church officials in every town across Italy were politically powerful and had lots of money. Disobeying the Church was really not an option. So, Italy had an extremely strong devotion to Catholicism. The vast majority of artwork we see in the High Renaissance has a religious theme, for example, Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper, which depicts Christ at the Last Supper.

But, who pays for it all? The wealthy like to make a point to show off how much they support the Church, so they commission large works of painting, architecture, and sculpture to go inside churches. In addition, members of the Church are commissioning art as well.

Portrait of Pope Julius II
Pope Julius II portrai

This is Pope Julius II, or at least this is his portrait by the artist Raphael. In this portrait, he looks sad because he just lost a war, but most the time he was a pretty happy guy. And being both wealthy and intellectual, he liked art and spent massive amounts of money commissioning art for the Vatican. Under Julius' patronage, Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, depicting scenes from the Bible, starting in Creation and ending in the Last Judgment. Raphael was hired to paint the Stanze, the Papal apartments. Bramante was hired to create this.

Architecture was also commissioned during the Renaissance
St. Peters Basilica

Yeah, all of this. Pope Julius II was the one to rebuild St. Peter's Basilica, a project started by Bramante and finished by Michelangelo. So, religion was a major subject of art, and a major patron of art. It also made sure that art was completed; Pope Julius II once threatened to attack Florence with his armies if Michelangelo didn't complete his projects at the Vatican.

Philosophy and Renaissance Art

So, I guess religion was the only thing that mattered to Renaissance artists. But wait, let's back up a minute - there's something funny going on in Raphael's Stanze paintings. These figures don't look very Christian to me. That's Apollo, a Roman god, surrounded by the Muses, goddesses of inspiration, in the mythical home of poetry, called the Parnassus.

Renaissance art was heavily influenced by the Classical era
Classical scene from the Stanze

And this is the Pope's apartment? Why are the pagan gods here? The artists of the High Renaissance were not only focused on religion. They were also obsessed with classical traditions, meaning those of Ancient Greece and Rome. Renaissance artists saw the classical civilizations as the basis of European culture, and they studied the poetry, literature, histories, mythology, and science of the ancient masters. In art, this lead to many depictions of mythological scenes, but generally in a symbolic way. For example, Raphael's image represents the virtue of poetry, not the actual existence of these mythological figures.

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