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Useful Facts About Renaissance Paintings


Art from the Renaissance period (c1300-c1600) fills the walls of many art museums around the northern world. The National Gallery in London has a wing devoted to Renaissance pieces, the Prado in Madrid is crammed full, and the Uffizi in Florence and Metropolitan in New York are just some of the places where Renaissance art is given pride of place.


 The word Renaissance means ‘rebirth’ of interest in the culture of Ancient Greece and Rome. Yet none of the artists we associate with this period would have heard of the term, as it was dreamt up in the 19th century.


The style of painting, sculpture and decorative arts identified with the Renaissance emerged in Italy in the late 14th century; it reached its zenith in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, in the work of Italian’s such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael.


In addition to its expression of classical Greco-Roman traditions, Renaissance art sought to capture the experience of the individual and the beauty and mystery of the natural world.The Renaissance produced some of today’s best known artists – Titian, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Lotto, Crivelli, Botticelli, Tintoretto, Caravaggio, and in England Van Dyck, Holbein.


The Renaissance also took place in Northern Europe. In the 15th century, the countries we know today as Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg were controlled by the enormously wealthy Dukes of Burgundy. The courts of the Dukes of Burgundy were the most important patrons of the early Northern Renaissance, but newly wealthy private citizens also commissioned art as part of a growing interest in private meditation and prayer. Portraits were also commissioned in growing numbers. Northern Europe’s wealthy merchants and nobles supported the art of van Eyck, Bosch, Dürer, Brueghel, and Holbein; art that invites us back to their world.


Renaissance works are very varied. Our tour features paintings that touch on a range of issues from alchemy to the nature of the universe and biblical stories. What unites them is a shared idea of human qualities and characteristics. For the first time in art Renaissance artists put the idea of humans as thinking, feeling persons at the centre of their work.They capture in paintings and sculpture the humanity and life force of people caught often at a moment in time.


Some of the paintings appear to us as ‘spiritual epics’ or their artists as ‘geniuses’. These interpretations come from 19th century commentators rather than from the period in which the artists worked. This type of mystification that surrounds so much Renaissance art prevents us from really appreciating how the image was seen at the time, and so deprives us of our history.


Renaissance period artists were not free agents making whatever they wanted. Artists were hired by patrons for specific jobs. Artists came from all strata of society; they usually studied as apprentices before being admitted to a professional guild and working under the tutelage of an older master. Far from being starving bohemians, these artists worked on commission and were hired by patrons of the arts because they were steady and reliable. Italy’s rising middle class sought to imitate the aristocracy and elevate their own status by purchasing art for their homes. In addition to sacred images, many of these works portrayed domestic themes such as marriage, birth and the everyday life of the family.


Indeed, the great majority of paintings on display from this period would not have been seen as ‘works of art’, let alone masterpieces. They did not come from an artist’s specific beliefs but largely from the tastes, desires and needs of the person who commissioned them. The painting represents the artist’s interpretation of his (and it was largely men) brief. The nature of the relationship is highlighted by the fact that some artists were even expected to turn their hand to decorating their patron’s rooms or organising their public festivals. Understanding this relationship is critical to appreciating paintings. It is key part of the story that is often untold in descriptions of paintings on gallery walls.


Many of the Renaissance paintings have religious themes as religious beliefs dominated this period of history; others are drawn from classical stories and myths. But reducing Renaissance art to religious or mythical art misses the point. The bigger story behind a painting can sometimes be lost as a result of our 21st century prejudices, presumptions, lack of knowledge or views on religion.


When we view art painted hundreds of years ago, we are time travellers in history. Paintings are more than narratives or visual records of a story. They work on a number of different levels, playing on our visual senses and intellectual emotions. Most of this is calculated by the artist using symbols, light, shade and colour to maximise the impact. That’s why we need to look closely at paintings but with new eyes and try to move beyond the image.


This guide takes us on a journey from the rarefied atmosphere of today’s gallery to the grubby studio where art was made, the places where the paintings were first hung, and the relations between the patron and the artist. A lot of questions are asked, and hopefully there are some interesting answers. All the paintings used are in the National Gallery, London.


The School of  Athens, Raphael, 1509/11

The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci,  1495-98

Birth of Venus, Botticelli. 1482

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