The Renaissance. The Reformation


Культурология и искусствоведение

In the XIV-XV centuries Europe saw an increase in trade and economy. A result of the flourishing economy was the growth of a number of rich people. Rich people wanted to buy expensive things as an indicator of their importance in society. That desire to show their richness produced a demand for luxury goods. Thus art became the means of manifestation of power and prestige.



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The Renaissance

In the XIV-XV centuries Europe saw an increase in trade and economy. A result of the flourishing economy was the growth of a number of rich people. Rich people wanted to buy expensive things as an indicator of their importance in society. That desire to show their richness produced a demand for luxury goods. Thus art became the means of manifestation of power and prestige. The demand for luxury goods stimulated the development of architecture, sculpture, and painting. In the Middle Ages the Church was the major customer of art. Now many wealthy merchants and business people substituted the Church in that role. Medieval artists were anonymous. In fact they were considered not as artists but rather as craftsmen. Nobody was interested in their names. In the Renaissance time the situation changed. New customers wanted the artists, they placed their orders with, to be well known people. The more famous the artist was, the more prestigious was his work. So artists were not anonymous anymore. Their new customers were not interested in that.

The Renaissance (an intellectual and artistic revival built around the art and literature of antiquity) originated in Italy. Italy’s geographic location was very favorable for trade. Italian merchants often acted as middlemen in Mediterranean trade between Muslim and Christian countries, so they accumulated a lot of wealth. Merchants invested their money in the development of industries in Italian cities, contributing in such a way to the increase of a number of wealthy people. The development of trade stimulated traveling. Travel, in its turn, fostered an exchange of ideas between different cultures. Italy was a cradle of the antique civilization as well. Thus it possessed a lot of ancient monuments.  All these reasons explain why the Renaissance began in Italy.


The word Renaissance itself meant the revival of ancient Greco-Roman classical culture with all its values. Hence the medieval values started to crumble. The cult of a naked body returned. Body was not considered the prison of soul anymore. That switch in ideology was broadly reflected in the Renaissance sculpture and painting. Asceticism stopped to be valued as well. Interest in worldly life returned in contrast to medieval emphasis on heavenly life.

The Renaissance gave birth to a new intellectual current called humanism. Humanists were intellectuals fascinated with the values of the Greco-Roman culture. They often formed circles for discussion of new ideas in literature, art, philosophy, and politics. The basis of humanism was the anthropocentric worldview with its cult of the individual typical of the Classical Greek culture. Like ancient Greeks humanists glorified the harmoniously developed person. Humanists also claimed that human beings have freedom of action, make their own destinies, and hence should be responsible for their way of living.

New Renaissance ideas were mostly the revived classical ones:

  •  Freedom of thought
  •  Respect for human dignity
  •  Belief in human capabilities

The founder of humanism was Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374), who put forward a new idea that man was born for a happy life on earth, not for suffering. He also argued that people themselves should earn their virtues, not to get it by blood (by noble birth). Another famous humanist and cleric Lorenzo Valla (1407-1457) wrote in his famous book “On Pleasure,” that sensitive joy was natural, it was not a sin. A young Italian scholar Pico dela Mirandolla (1463-1494) stated in his treatise “On Dignity” that man is the creator of his own destiny because he was made in the image of God. Such humanistic ideas put human beings in the center of the universe, freed them from humility and the sense of guilt, and gave them ideological background for initiative and creative life. Hallmarks of the Renaissance society were secularism and individualism. Gone was medieval emphasis on the virtue of self-denial and the sin of pride. Instead emphasis was put on the satisfaction of ambitions and realization of potential. It should be noted, however, that all these new ideas touched only a small percentage of the population, mostly a thin layer of educated people. Ordinary people continued their traditional way of life. Nevertheless, the Renaissance set an example of what people might achieve in art and architecture, education and urban culture. In many fields, the Renaissance set the cultural standards of the modern age.

Artistic Achievements

What were the unique characteristics of Renaissance art?  The humanists’ emphasis on cultivating individual talent inspired Italian artists to express their own values, emotions, and attitudes. Although much of the art was still devoted to religious subjects, it had more secular, or worldly overtones. Interest in ancient Greece and Rome moved artists to include classical mythology as well as biblical themes in their works.

To make their creations lifelike and captivating, artists experimented with new techniques. For example, they learned to create a sense of perspective, which gave their painting depth. They studied anatomy so they could portray human figures more accurately and naturally. They also learned to depict subtleties of gesture and expression to convey human emotions.

The public in Renaissance Italy appreciated works of art and hailed great artists as geniuses. Nobles and townspeople used art to decorate homes as well as churches. They lavishly rewarded artists and gave them a prominent place in society.


During the Renaissance architects turned to the classical style. They sought both comfort and beauty in their buildings, adorning them with tapestries, paintings, statutes, finely made furniture, and glass windows. Unlike the anonymous architects of the Middle Ages, Renaissance architects took credit for their fine buildings.

The most famous Italian Renaissance architect was Filippo Brunelleschi, best known for the dome he designed and completed in 1436 for the Cathedral of Florence. Until Brunelleschi submitted his design, no one had been able to come up with a way to construct a dome large or strong enough to cover the cathedral without the dome collapsing from its own weight. Brunellesci’s design – based on his own study of the domes, columns, and arches of ancient Rome – was considered to be the greatest engineering feat of the time.


 Renaissance sculpture reflected a return to classical ideals. In fact, the free-standing statutes of nude figures sculptured in bronze or marble during the Renaissance resembled ancient Greek and Roman sculptures of nude figures more then they did medieval sculptures. Human figures in medieval sculptures had usually been portrayed only as they appeared when clothed – in a stiff, stylized manner.

Some of the best-known Renaissance sculptors – Donatello, Michelangelo, and Ghiberti – came from Florence. There the Medici family opened a school for sculptors. Donatello was the first sculptor since ancient times to cast a statue in bronze. Although the brilliant sculptor Michelangelo Buanarotti later moved to Rome to sculpt works for the pope, he learned his craft in Florence. Florentine sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti took 21 years to create 10 magnificent New Testament scenes on bronze doors for Florence’s cathedral baptistery.


The introduction of oil in painting in the fifteenth century caused a great artistic advance. Since oil does not dry so quickly as fresco pigment, the painter could now work more slowly, taking time with more difficult parts of the picture and making corrections if necessary as he went along. The majority of the painters of the fifteenth century were Florentines. First of them was Masaccio (1401-1428). Although he died at the age of 27, Masaccio inspired the work of many painters for hundreds of years, especially by his application of scientific perspective and depiction of natural lighting. Among of his most noted works are: The Trinity (1425), and The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise (1427). The revival of antiquity in Florence kindled a new interest in pagan mythology, which influenced the art deeply. A good example of that influence is The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli (1444-1510), who was a master at painting the female nude.

  The most distinguished artists of the Renaissance were Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), and Raphael Santi (1483-1520). All of them were closely associated with Florence, and all of them were contemporaries.

Leonardo was a scientist and engineer as well as a great artist. He was an expert at fortifications, an inventor, an anatomist, and naturalist. Leonardo worshiped nature, and was convinced of the essential divinity in all living things. It is not surprising, therefore, that he was a vegetarian, and that he went to the marketplace to buy caged birds, which he released to their native habitat. Among the most important of his works are The Last Supper, St. John, and La Gioconda (the Mona Lisa). The Mona Lisa is an example of an artistic invention of Leonardo’s – what the Italians call sfumato. Leonardo left the outlines of the face a little vague and shadowy, and thus made it more lifelike and mysterious.

Michelangelo was a sculptor, painter, architect and poet – and he expressed himself in all these forms with a similar power and in a similar manner. His model in painting came from sculpture; his paintings are sculptured drawings. At the center of all of his paintings is the human figure, which is always powerful, colossal, and magnificent. Michelangelo’s greatest achievements in painting appear in a single location – the Sistine Chapel in Vatican. Most famous are the sublime frescoes Michelangelo painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel from 1508 to 1512, depicting scenes from the book Genesis of the Old Testament. All the panels in this series exemplify the young artist’s commitment to classical Greek aesthetic principles of harmony, solidity, and dignified restraint. The Creation of Adam is the most famous of these superlative frescoes.

Among his greatest sculptures are David, Moses, and The Dying Slave. As an architect, he designed the dome of the St. Peter’s Cathedral in Vatican.

Raphael, the last one of these artistic giants, is especially famous for the sweetness of his Madonnas. The most famous of them is The Sistine Madonna in Vatican.


Renaissance individuality, with its concern for personal fame encouraged writers to write on various topics and in the languages they wanted to use.

Major Renaissance writers:

  •  Francesco Petrarch (1304-1347). Composed 366 sonnets to Laura, which were widely imitated throughout Europe.
  •  Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375). His most important work is The Decameron – a collection of prose tales famous for its humor and eroticism. That book is widely regarded as the first and finest masterpiece of the Italian Renaissance.
  •  Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571). Besides his achievements as an artist was also famous for his brilliantly written autobiography, where he vividly described his adventures and intrigues at the courts of different rulers.
  •    Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527). His major work The Prince became classical treatise of political science and was especially popular with dictators such as Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, and others. The book teaches how to gain and retain power. The major idea of his work is that the end justifies the means.  
  •  Erasmus of Rotterdam (1566-1536). In his famous satire The Praise of Folly Erasmus attacked superstition and the evils and errors of the Church authorities. He advocated a return to simple Christian ethics.
  •  Thomas More (1438-1535). Went into history thanks to his book Utopia where he described an ideal society, where the interests of the individual are subordinate to those of community at large. On the island of Utopia all people must work and all land is owned in common. More, who was a statesman as well as a writer used the fictional Utopia to satirize conditions in England.
  •  Francois Rabelais (1494-1553). First of all noted for his satirical books Gargantua and Pantagruel. Rabelais criticized contemporary society and advocated individual liberty.


Legacy of the Renaissance

Begun in Italy the Renaissance cultural movements spread out all over Western Europe and prepared the way for the periods of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. Above all, however, the Renaissance left to the world monuments of artistic beauty that define Western culture.


The Reformation

 The Reformation is the great 16th-century religious revolution in the Christian Church, which ended the ecclesiastical supremacy of the pope in Western Christendom and resulted in the establishment of the Protestant Churches and the formation of new cultural currents. With the Renaissance that preceded it the Reformation completely altered the medieval way of life in Western Europe and initiated the era of modern history.

 Causes of the Reformation:

  •  Moral corruption of the Roman Church. Many clerics had illegal children, accumulated formidable sums of money, consumed a lot of alcohol, and lived in luxury style. Educated people wanted to return the Church to the pure moral stance which it had at the beginning of Christianity.
  •  The development of economy in the Renaissance produced a bourgeois middle class which wanted a cheaper church to save money for business.
  •  Humanists advocated freedom of thought; they did not feel comfortable under the church censorship, which restricted the proliferation of new ideas. Thus, they wanted to diminish the church ideological control.
  •  Absolutist monarchies wanted to control the Roman Church lands on their territories and collect money themselves. So the monarchs were interested in weakening the power of the pope.



The Reformation started in 1517 when Martin Luther, a German monk nailed his famous 95 theses against the selling of indulgencies (indulgence – is a church document forgiving sins) to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. Luther argued that only God can forgive sins, that no one can buy forgiveness for money from the Church. Later Luther and his followers (most noted of them was John Calvin) put forward new ideas:

  •  Salvation is attained not through the church ceremonies, but through the faith in Jesus Christ alone. This statement was a serious blow to the Roman Church as the intermediary between God and people.
    •  Since everybody is a sinner there should not be any group of people closer to God than others. That was an attack on the hierarchical system of the Church, according to which the clergy were closer to God than ordinary people, and hence had more authority.
    •  The Bible is the only source of truth. This thesis deprived the writings of the Roman Church authorities of value.
    •  Everybody should read the Bible in his own language. That statement contributed to the spreading of literacy and the development of national languages. Before the Luther time the Bible was only in Latin. Besides, only clerics had the right to read and interpret it before Luther’s reforms.
    •  Sexual desire is normal; sex is not a sin, but only in the wedlock. This statement put an end to monasticism. Many monks married nuns. Attitude to women did not change sharply. Their role remained traditional. The principal tasks of the woman, according to Luther, were:  the children, the kitchen, and the church (piety).    
    •  Labor is a divine obligation, a calling of God. One should serve God through serving people, not by pursuing secluded monastic life. God gave everyone certain talents; everyone must not bury his talents but rather use them for the sake of the community. If God gives you an opportunity (earning money, acquiring a good profession etc.) and you refuse it, you sin, for you refuse to serve God.
    •  Wealth is not a sin if one uses it properly (for developing your business for instance, because your company can contribute to the good of society on the whole). One should not consider his business as a means of getting rich but rather as fulfilling his calling. Businessmen should live modestly and invest their money in the development of industries.
    •  Success in work – is the confirmation of one’s salvation. Protestants believed that God showed His favor by granting success for diligent work. That statement stimulated initiative in business or other activities.

The Results of the Reformation

A new kind of church appeared – the Protestant Church. It was much cheaper than the Catholic one. Its decoration was modest: no icons, no statues, no exquisite altars and other expensive things. It also did not have relics, as they were often sources of numerous speculations and abuses. The Protestant Church did not have monks; its clergy was married and was elected by the laity, to avoid corruption. The Protestants did not believe in Purgatory, holy water, and did not pray for the dead.

The religious unity of Europe was broken. The XVI-XVII centuries are noted for a series of merciless wars between the Catholics and Protestants. The religious division is still exists: Northern Europe is Protestant and Southern Europe is Catholic.

The obligatory study of the Bible by the laity resulted in the rise of a number of schools in the Protestant countries. The Bible was translated from Latin into main European languages.

The new religion gave a solid foundation for the development of business activity. A new type of businessman appeared – honest, diligent, pious, sober, thrifty, self-disciplined, and punctuated. The honest and industrious businessman became a new ideal of the time in contrast to the medieval ideals: the monk and the knight.

The European monarchies were strengthened at the expense of the Catholic Church. The pope lost all his lands in the Protestant countries and decided to share his wealth with the loyal catholic monarchs to maintain them under his influence.

The Reformation gave birth to the Counterreformation, a movement in the Catholic countries aimed at the defense of Catholicism. In 1545 the pope convened the Trident Council to carry out reforms in the Catholic Church.

The decisions of the Council were:

- forbid the selling of indulgencies and church positions;

  •  reduce financial spending on the pope court;
    •  purify the church from immoral clergy;
    •  exercise control over the behavior of the clerics;
    •  introduce a strict financial accountability for the clergy.

The purpose of these measures was to raise morality of the Catholic priests. On the other hand the Church decided to pursue more aggressive policy toward heretics. The famous index of forbidden books was introduced at that time. The inquisition increased its activity aimed at eliminating the enemies of the Roman Church.

A part of the Counterreformation movement was also an increase in the number of Catholic schools, created with the purpose to counteract the influence of the Protestant schools. Another result of the Counterreformation was that painting in Catholic churches became more modest too. Many nude figures in the church paintings were dressed at that time (including those of Michelangelo’s in the Sistine Chapel in Rome).


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