It seems Christian art is never without a nod to classicism, but where early Christians utilized Roman religious symbols, Renaissance Christians embraced both the art and philosophy of the ancients. As the darkness of the middle ages was ending, the re-discovery of Greco-Roman artwork complemented and mirrored a shift in ideology in Europe: “The development of the Julian High Renaissance was supported by the pope’s interest in the grandeur of ancient Rome…and by the sensational discovery of the sculptural group of ‘Laocoön and His Sons’” (Hartt 494). In form, Renaissance artist began to replicate the artists of antiquity in their idealization of the human form. And although the Catholic Church continued to rule over the continent—especially in the South—the proliferation of the intellectualism associated with Ancient Greece began to flourish in the Mediterranean in conjunction with Catholicism.
These two ideologies, which were at odds during the repression of the Middle Ages —classical philosophy and religion—take on a new partnership in the Renaissance period: “Artists and philosophers, each in their own way, combined Christian belief and ancient philosophy into a balanced, rational, humanistic system” (Stokstad 315). These interests even shaped the Church’s theological stance on ancient doctrine: “This [conflation of art and religion] was made possible because of a rare confluence of interests between the artistic and theological cultures of the papal court, especially concerning human nature and the human body” (Campbell 349). And thus, art and religion began to modernize together under the veil of Christian Humanism.
Artists like Michelangelo and Raphael took Christian art to a radical new place with works such as “The School of Athens,” and “The Creation of Man.” Gone were the days where religious art was strictly functional, although that role still held its place: “Michelangelo aimed to demonstrate art’s capacity to represent and even reveal Christian principles” (Campbell 348). In the Renaissance, painters not only asserted their technical dominance, but also pushed forward the Renaissance ideology (both artistic and religious), which placed artists in the realm of philosophers. In the Renaissance, for the first time in the history of Christian art, there was a decidedly pro-artistic tradition developing. That is, the artists of the Renaissance are notably different from the anonymous artists of earlier eras in that they asserted their own philosophies in tandem with their religious imagery.
The School of Athens: Raphael, Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican Palaces in Rome, 1509 (Photo c/o Wikipedia)
Raphael’s School of Athens, apart from being one of the most widely recognized Renaissance paintings, offers great insight into both the mental frame of the Renaissance as a whole and the mission of the Renaissance painter. While not being a religious work per se, elements of the piece seek to grasp a unified theory of theology and philosophy, as it appears in the Pope’s “signature room” in the Vatican Palaces. This aim is also highlighted in that the work appears opposite Raphael’s Disputa, a decidedly religious painting of the same author and the same era.
To draw out the religious connotations of the piece, one must look to the setting. Despite being populated with ancient philosophers, the “school” takes place under the central dome of the Basilica of St. Peter’s, in Rome. In placing the characters here, Raphael sought to create an arena in which the humanism of the Romans and Greeks could coexist with the ideology of the Catholic Church in a post-medieval display of intellectual ecumenism. Adding further to the ecumenical nature of the school, Greek and Roman gods adorn the walls of the Basilica, a clear nod back to early Christian artists’ tendency to depict the divine in terms of pagan Gods.
This desire for unification wasn’t only felt by Raphael. Julius II’s intense affection for classic artworks was reflected not only in his choice of artists, but his theological leanings. Christian Humanism, above all, celebrated the accomplishments of men in tandem with God. Thus, where pagan philosophers once had no place in a church, now they were depicted teaching in the House of God.
The second crucial element that one can most clearly derive from School of Athens is the image of painter as philosopher. This message is delivered twice. First, as David Rosand argues, “Raphael, the painter himself, is, in the final analysis, the true inventor of this grandly populated summa of Renaissance intellectual values” (214). In a close analysis of the painting, Raphael’s message can be discovered in ways that were never possible in art before. The separation of sides according to the Platonic and Socratic, the grouping of philosophers according to study, and the delicate contrapposto in Plato and Socrates all demonstrate Raphael’s intense understanding for the philosophy of ancient times, thus demonstrating both its popularity and the painter’s ability.
In conjunction with this mission statement, Raphael uses another technique to firmly entrench Renaissance painters in the school of philosophy. Among the Greek titans, a melancholy figure sits at a desk in the foreground of the image. By placing the distraught Michelangelo front and (slightly) center, as he awaits divine inspiration, Raphael again asserts to the viewer that the artist, does in fact, belong with the philosopher. In a similar, and perhaps more vital fashion, Raphael places a nondescript Renaissance man to the far right of the painting, gazing knowingly at the viewer from behind a group of scientists. Along with Michelangelo, Raphael, too, pictures himself among these titans of thought. Thus, the philosophical art of the Renaissance was born.
Creation of Adam: Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, Vatican Palaces in Rome, 1512 (Photo c/o Wikipedia)
Once Raphael established the artist’s role as philosopher, the flow of Renaissance ideology found in art didn’t stop. When Julius II needed the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel redone, he called upon the master of classicism, Michelangelo. The young artist’s pervious works, both for the Vatican and abroad, extolled a skill for the human form that no artist since Roman times had shown; where Raphael was interested in the minds of the Greeks, Michelangelo took an intense interest in their bodies. In painting the ceiling, and, in particular, The Creation of Adam, Michelangelo combines this technical finesse with a dogmatic statement concerning the human body, one that was echoed, literally, in the halls of the very chapel itself.
As noted in “A New History of the Italian Renaissance,” Christian Humanism involved not only a respect for the capabilities of the mind, as Raphael demonstrated, but also a respect for the body: “The preachers in the Sistine Chapel delivered sermons in elegant Latin modeled on the Roman orator Cicero, extolling the dignity of man as the image of God, and the glorification of human flesh in Christ’s incarnation” (Campbell and Cole 349). Thus, The Creation of Adam reflected that sentiment in both the depiction of Adam and that of God. Adam, limp and inactive on the Earth, illustrates the idealized man in Michelangelo’s eyes. His muscular contortions mirror that of the ignuti surrounding him, and his nudity shuns the idea that the body is a place of shame.
Similarly, God the Father, incarnate, is as human as art has ever seen him. Where most prior depictions embrace the human face, Michelangelo shows the full human form of the Father. Not only did he embrace that form, but also he took the liberty of showing the legs and arms of God. Undoubtedly, Michelangelo sought to illustrate the idea that “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them” (Genesis 1:27). In the face of God, one can also see human emotion developing. In the past, God had been a stolid, mild figure, at least in facial expression. In the ceiling, Michelangelo depicts a determined God creating the Sun and Moon and a compassionate God touching life into Adam.
While this interpretation was a radical leap of faith for many Christians, Michelangelo’s image of God has become, by and large, the classic image of God. Perhaps this is because, more so than any image before, God the Father takes on a truly human form—and that was exactly the point.
While this piece was made for the state and not the Church, its Renaissaince theological connotations can still be considered. In the statue of David, Michelangelo again expresses his interest in creating a perfect human form. Unlike previous representations of David, he attempts to draw out the humanity of a pre-victory David. To do so, he had to employ both a skillful display of contrapposto and expression, thus turning a mythical hero into the human that he was.
In his stance, Michelangelo’s David displays courage, but also apprehension. While his upper body prepares for battle, slingshot in hand, his legs lean back, as if rearing at Goliath in the distance. This duality, besides showing off Michelangelo’s finesse, firmly places David in the realm of the living. Whereas Donatello saw David solely as victor, Michelangelo sees him as human.
David’s face also lends credence to his portrayal as everyman. Again, there is a deft mixture of courage and fear. His face looks outwards, with a firm mouth and fiery eyes. But his fearful brow, ever so slightly arched, betrays the courage necessary to face Goliath. We don’t have an inevitable hero; we have a human who was capable of doing heroic things.
Thus, David is treated in a similar light as God. Where God is usually a passive hero, Michelangelo makes him a dynamic human, capable of compassion and aggression. Similarly, David’s one-dimensional past is largely ignored as Michelangelo creates a fearful victor. This play enhances the Renaissance ideals of humanism in that it celebrates humanity by bringing biblical characters to life in ways that art never has. For while Renaissance artists may have embraced a perfect form, that form was only the means to illustrate the deep humanity of the faith.
The Last Supper: Leonardo da Vinci, Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, 1498 (Photo c/o Wikipedia)
Perhaps the most analyzed painting in the world, da Vinci’s Last Supper is yet another work in the artistic philosophy of the Renaissance. Predating both Raphael and Michelangelo’s works here, da Vinci influences both artists’ philosophy by imbuing each character with humanity reminiscent of the ideals of Christian Humanism and imparting his own interpretations on the iconic image.
Da Vinci’s separation of each group of apostles serves to isolate their responses. In each group, the individual apostle’s reaction is highlighted by this technique. Ranging from surprise to anger to confusion, da Vinci is able to portray these larger than life figures as humans, capable of all emotion that we are. Even Christ appears melancholy at the news that he himself delivered.
Apart from the Christian Humanism of the piece, da Vinci’s symbolism appears throughout. Far from the overdone conspiracies of The da Vinci Code, Leonardo’s symbolic nods are subtle and apt. The separation of apostles into threes, as well as Christ’s triangular figure, reference the presence of the Holy Trinity in the room. Even the sources of light—the three rear windows—make that divine presence abundantly clear—the light literally is coming from the holy trinity. And even despite the absence of halo’s, Christ still comes off as divine—his halo is the natural light of the vanishing point. Thus, da Vinci’s symbolism is different from Raphael’s—his is entirely consumed with Christianity, rather than the latter’s obsession with the Greco-Roman classics.