The Integration of the Sacred & Secular in Renaissance Art

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  • 00:00 The Sacred and the Secular
  • 1:03 Using Real Subjects
  • 3:10 The Modern World in…
  • 4:48 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 ways that the sacred and secular were intertwined in both Italian art and Italian life during the 15th century. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

The Sacred and the Secular

Let's take a look at Renaissance society. But how? We don't have a time machine, and we're pretty sure that there aren't any living survivors of the 15th century to tell us about their lives. So how can we explore a society that is so long gone?

Here's an idea, how about their art? Artists do more than just depict some fictional scene. They include clues about their lives and their societies. When we look at Italian art of the 15th century CE, guess what pops out? A lot of religious scenes! The Renaissance was all about religion, leading to a high use of sacred themes in their art. But, that's not all. Mixed in with all of these religious themes, we also see plenty of secular images, meaning they are from daily, non-religious life. So there you go. Life in Italy in the 15th century was a mixture of the sacred and secular. That mixture defined their society and their art, as well.

Using Real Subjects

One of the ways that Renaissance artists mixed the sacred and the secular was through the use of actual world around them for inspiration in their religious paintings. Take a look at this painting, Madonna with Child and two Angels by Fra Filippo Lippi. As he did with many paintings, Lippi actually painted a real person as Mary, not some idealized, fictional version of her. In this case, the woman is most likely Lucrezia, Lippi's mistress.

Madonna with Child and two Angels
Madonna with Child and two Angels

But beyond that, look at the background. Again, rather than some idealized and fictional scene, Lippi painted the Arno River Valley, which ran through the heart of Tuscany, where Lippi lived. The Virgin Mary did not live in Tuscany, so these details are not to create a more realistic scene, but to connect the viewer to the painting in a personal way. Lippi was famous for his ability to present religious subjects in a very human way, emphasizing their humanity and strength. For years, artists had depicted religious figures as otherworldly, even frail, to show their detachment from the physical world. Lippi rejected this and combined the sacred and secular nature of their existence into a single composition.

Enthroned Madonna and Saints
Enthroned Madonna and Saints

Real subjects found their way into Italian religious art in other ways as well. Patrons, the people who commissioned art, often asked that their own images be included in paintings, as a way to show off both their wealth and piety. This painting is a good example: Enthroned Madonna and Saints by Piero della Francesca. See that man kneeling in the front? That's Federico da Montefeltro; he commissioned this painting. He is seen here worshipping the Virgin and saints, but dressed in his armor as a military commander. The connection is simple. As he fights to protect his city, Urbino, from other powers, he does so as a servant of the Virgin and relies on her for victory. This mentality was very common in 15th-century Italy. War was rampant, and cities prayed to their patron saints for deliverance and success. In daily life, the secular and sacred were fused together to create a religious, complex society.

The Modern World in Religious Art

Since Renaissance society so frequently mixed the sacred and secular in daily life, there really wasn't any problem with people mixing these themes in art. Another common way to show this was by depicting religious scenes in a modern setting. Obviously, the world had changed a lot in the 1400 years between the birth of Christ and the Italian Renaissance. However, many painters chose to show scenes from the Bible in a 15th-century setting.

Birth of the Virgin
Birth of the Virgin

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