Humanism exercise

Did an interest in humanism mean a movement away from Christianity?

How was an interest in the classical world reflected in Renaissance art?

Was it possible to combine Christian and classical elements in painting, sculpture and architecture? Try and come up with some examples.

The definition of Humanism is:

“A cultural and intellectual movement of the Renaissance that emphasized secular concerns as a result of the rediscovery and study of the literature, art, and civilization of ancient Greece and Rome”

In the 15th century, there was a growing interest in extending the individuals knowledge and education. Medieval scholarship had been dominated by the divine. The Renaissance humanists extended their knowledge to study subjects other than theology, including the arts, languages and  philosophy (these subjects are often referred to as the humanities).

That being said, there were several eminent churchmen who had a humanist education and it seems that at this period, the term humanism refers more to a breadth of education rather than a removal of the teachings of the church which the term refers to nowadays.

WHA refers to the “dichotomy rather than a conflict in Renaissance thought between Christianity and the humanism” in works of art. It seems the two were able to sit together in such works of art as Desiderio da Settingano’s monument to Carlo Marsuppini on which there is no hint of Christian beliefs or virtues being covered in classical carvings and flanked with two mortal boys rather than angels. However, crowning the monument is a relief of the Virgin and child showing the importance of religion in this setting.

Desiderio da Settingano

Works of figurative art were predominantly religious in Italy in the 15th century and yet this was in the setting of humanist attitudes showing that rather than a movement away from Christianity, at this time anyway, humanism and Christianity were coexisting views.

Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ 1445 is an early example of the marrying of Christianity and humanist interests. He has incorporated his mathematical and geometrical interests using the “Golden Section” so that the painting is based on a grid of three equidistant horizontals and four verticals. He was also one of the first to include a realistic landscape into his background showing the humanist interest in nature.


Renaissance art reflected the new interest in the classical world by incorporating not only the visual elements and motifs such as the Corinthian columns in Mantengna’s St Sebastian but also more subtly by incorporating classical ideals such as mathematics in linear perspective and geometry.


Later in the century the development continues with Bellini’s S Giobbe Altarpiece in 1485 which depicts a religious scene using all the spatial techniques of the Renaissance period and showing the saints with individual characteristics and using a novel atmospheric lighting all of which generates a receding setting making the viewer think they a re truly looking into another room.



The Free Dictionary

British Humanist Association website

WHA – Chapter 10 – The Fifteenth Century in Europe


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