Renaissance: A Rebirth of Christian Art

While many of the posts have concentrated on the development of humanism and individuality during the Renaissance (especially centered on the great shockwaves being sent out by what the Medici were doing in Florence), I wanted to focus on some of the styles and Christian art being developed during the time.  Although the Renaissance did typify a movement in art and architecture towards different and vastly unexplored or forgotten motifs and styles (it was after all, a “rebirth,” or, as is described by several literary examples from the period, a time of ad fontes, or ‘back to the sources’ seen in the Classical), the Renaissance also represents a rebirth of Christian art.  Included in this rebirth was a soaring to the heights of realism.

Leonardo’s anatomical drawings are a perfect example of how art was shifting to such an incredible level of intricacy and detail.  And yet, as seen in a number of his works, the great meticulousness with which he drew and painted was still being used to depict a number of Christian scenes.

One of Leonardo's Anatomical Drawings. His collection of drawings are dated as c. 1485-1516

Thus, in a time period where money, capitalism, individualism, and humanism were dictating much of what patrons were asking artists to produce, the door was also open for an artist’s creative powers to take what they were given, the “sources” everyone was clamoring back to, and redirect them to a different end.  What must not be forgotten is that even though the art world was changing dramatically, and perhaps more towards a materialism of sorts than anything else, the idea of Christian art as an act of spiritual humility and servitude to God is not entirely lost.

In class, we discussed several examples of how Michelangelo was a master of subtly critiquing his society (and even his patrons) while simultaneously appeasing the desires of those commissioning his work.  Another example which I would like to draw your attention to, however, is Titian.  In the artwork I have examined, Titian reworks famous symbols, secular and symbolic, into his own artwork, though these depictions are not always absolutely clear.

Comparing these two images, the first of Salome holding the decapitated head of John the Baptist, and the second of her with the cornucopia, the clash of Christianity and secularism in the Renaissance is apparent.  In the first picture, the rather girlish innocence of Salome’s face contrasts starkly with the morbidity of the head she is holding.  This image really emphasizes the disparity between her seductive nature described in the Bible and the seemingly pure appearance of her visage (though her slanted eyes do, perhaps, betray her).  Considering this work in perspective with the Medici, this picture has a number of strong implications concerning appearance and reality in the midst of the wealth-based enterprise that was art.  The rumor that he used a Venetian courtesan as a model for this picture only emphasizes the depravity of Salome, and, in a greater sense, the prostitution of art to material gain.

The second image, also of Salome, naturally recalls the first.  While Salome is now holding a basket of fruit as opposed to the head of John, the ideals have not changed.  Indeed, she is merely bearing up material goods, raising them up as she did with John’s head as a symbol of the fulfillment of her revenge and will.  And, though the comparison is not perfect, the two different depictions of Salome here reflect the ambiguity of the two Salome’s in the Bible (the infamous one we are talking about, as well as another who followed Jesus in Galilee and at the cross).

While the Renaissance may have been a rebirth of the Classical, originally driven by the greed of the Medici, there is so much allusion, simile, and poetic compression in Christian artwork that it must not be overlooked or overshadowed by these events.

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