Early Renaissance Artworks
Artworks and Artists of Early Renaissance
Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1426-27)
This fresco portrays a nude Adam and Eve as they are expelled from the Garden of Eden. They walk out through an arch from which black lines emanate, representing the angry voice of God, with a red clad angel holding a black sword hovering above to usher them on their way. Adam buries his face in his hands, his body language and facial expression conveying deep anguish. Eve 's face is open mouthed and stricken, her hands held in a Venus Pudica pose to cover her breasts and pubic area as if in shame. The background is bare, only earth and a singular rock formation, evoking the hard fate ahead for the expunged couple. The composition is remarkably elegant, emphasizing the pair's banishment with heightened emotion. The line dividing earth and blue sky diagonally runs from left to right to highlight the pair's forward motion, as their opposing feet mirror each other along the path. The nudity of the two figures, classically proportioned, is not sensual but suggests the starkness of their situation, stripped of God's favor.
This scene is part of a fresco cycle of Biblical scenes in the Brancacci Chapel painted by Masaccio, as well as Masolino and other artists. In depicting the two naked, the artist departed from the Biblical account in which they wore fig leaves, and also, boldly, created the first nudes in painting since the Roman era. He also added the arch and reduced the multiple cherubs mentioned in the Biblical account to focus on one angel.
The scene resides at the left entrance to the Chapel hall, becoming the first image encountered by visitors, launching them into the famous narrative, as Adam and Eve walk out of the arch that is a painted extension of an architectural column. The artist's inclusion of the architecture into the pictorial space was not his only radical innovation. His use of linear perspective, chiaroscuro (the strategic use of shadow and light to create depth), and a realistic figurative approach were in direct opposition to the standard flat iconographic style of presenting religious stories and figures. The result is that Adam and Eve become humanized, rather than relegated on the devotional pedestal as sacred symbols. The pair are fully embodied and expressive, inhabiting real space, their shoulders bent, and their steps weighed down by the enormity of their expulsion. Art critic Clyde Haberman noted that Masaccio "broke with medieval traditions by giving raw realism to human forms and expressions. No one can doubt the anguish of his Adam and Eve as they are expelled from Paradise."
Subsequent artists would go on to envision their own work within this new aesthetic paradigm of Masaccio's vision. Both Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci extensively visited the Chapel to study and sketch Masaccio's human figures, which da Vinci called "perfect." Later artists like the sculptor Henry Moore also studied his works.
Fresco - Church of Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence, Italy
The Holy Trinity (1426-1427)
This fresco depicts the Holy Trinity. Christ, crucified, is the central figure with God the Father standing behind him. A small white dove above Christ's head represents the Holy Spirit. Within the architectural niche that holds the three, Mary can also be seen, dressed in blue on the left while John the Disciple stands at the right, both gazing up at Christ in devotion. On either side of the columns, the commissioned work's unidentified patrons kneel in profile. Below them, a skeleton lies in a tomb bearing the inscription: "I once was what you are and what I am you also will be," representing a memento mori, or an object that serves as a warning or reminder of the inevitability of death.
Customary to Masaccio's work, this piece helped revolutionize painting with its use of one point linear perspective, creating the illusion of three-dimensional space. The artist intentionally aligned the sighting of the fresco with the existing architecture of the church to enhance the trompe l'oeil effect. To create the work, he used a grid framework etched into the surface, and consulted Brunelleschi on linear perspective, as the perspective of even the nails in the cross show his rigorous approach. The design used a Roman triumphal arch and barrel vault to create a rational but divine space that the life-sized holy figures occupy, while the patrons and the skeleton, placed outside the barrel vault, occupy the space of the viewer. Visitors at the time were amazed at the artist's ability to create a work so realistic that many thought they were peering into a real chapel. A visceral experience of the work was spurred, creating an experience of contemplation in regard to mortality and timelessness.
The life-sized figures also present a remarkably naturalistic effect of volume, movement, and deep emotional expression. As Mary McCarthy, art historian, wrote, "The fresco, with its terrible logic, is like a proof in philosophy or mathematics, God the Father, with His unrelenting eyes, being the axiom from which everything else irrevocably flows." At the same time, Mary, her face solemn, creates a bridge between the divine and the human by looking toward the viewer and gesturing toward her son, providing a way into the sacred realm, through contemplation. As Vasari wrote in his Lives of the Artists (1550) about Masaccio's work, "Everything done before him can be described as artificial, whereas he produces work that is living, realistic and natural."
Fresco - Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy
Dome of Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (Florence Cathedral) (1420-1436)
This photograph shows Brunelleschi's famous octagonal dome crowning the Florence Cathedral. Its red stone, emblematic of the Florentine love of stonework and Medici red, dominates the skyline with one of the world's most recognized and iconic views. Consisting of over four million bricks, it remains the largest masonry dome in the world.
Brunelleschi's architectural genius can be seen in the structure's sense of buoyancy with its white ribs emphasizing the vertical lift and the steep curvature narrowing at the top. Brunelleschi also designed the white lantern at its tip, though his friend, the architect Michelozzi, completed it in 1461, fifteen years after Brunelleschi's death. The dome became a visual symbol of "The New Athens," as Florence dubbed itself, as it evoked a sense of classical restraint and proportion, echoing the octagonal shape of the cathedral below and drawing it heavenward.
The dome was a revolutionary masterpiece, as the architect dispensed with both the internal scaffolding and the external supports (like buttresses) that were previously thought necessary. Instead, he created a dome within a dome, thus inventing a new system of support, where bricks lain in an inverted arch of herringbone pattern directed weight outward rather than downward. He also manufactured the technology he needed to materialize his project, including the first mechanical hoist and, later, the castello, or horizontal crane. Other structural innovations included the use of a catenary arch, a type of pointed arch, for support and internal wood, stone, and iron chains, formed in octagonals, to work like barrel hoops to hold the dome together.
This work was informed by Brunelleschi's careful study of the Pantheon (113-125) and other ancient Roman buildings. Yet, in his customary fashion, the architect kept his discoveries to himself, working without notes or plans. As he was later to say, when he applied for and was awarded the first modern patent for a water transport vehicle, "we must not show to all and sundry the secrets of the waters flowing in ocean and river, or the devices that work on these waters. Let there be convened a council of experts and masters in mechanical art to deliberate what is needed to compose and construct these works." Because of his enigmatic working fashion, many critics initially deemed his designs impossible. He was to prove them wrong. As historian Paulo Galluzi wrote of the Cathedral, "It is one of the most beautiful, technically audacious buildings ever constructed. It unites technology and aesthetics in an astonishingly elegant way. It symbolizes perfectly the union of science and of art."
All the architects of the next generation were influenced by Brunelleschi's work, and Leonardo da Vinci was fascinated by both his architecture and the technology he invented.
Sandstone, marble, brick, iron, wood - Florence, Italy
This iconic five foot tall sculpture shows the Biblical hero David, depicted as a Classical inspired nude. Wearing only boots and a laurel-ringed Florentine hat, he stands in a jaunty contrapposto pose upon Goliath's severed head, holding a sword in his right hand, its point resting on a victory wreath. His right leg meets the diagonal of the sword to create a triangular space that emphasizes the sensuous curve of his hip. The overall effect is an unusually provocative and intimate rendition of David. With his expression of reverie and an enigmatic smile upon his lips, he jauntily assumes his role as the first freestanding nude created since the Roman era.
Donatello also revived and refined the classical technique of lost wax casting to create this work. After casting the form, he finished it by hand, adding a thin layer of gold to create a lustrous surface with warm tones. A sense of the tactile informs the work, as the sleek smoothness of the youth's skin contrasts with the rough materials of Goliath's hair and helmet. One of the wings of Goliath's helmet extends up the back of David's leg, as if caressing him, adding a homoerotic element to the work. At the same time on the fallen giant's helmet the sculptor depicted a scene of Bacchus, the Greek god of wine and excess, suggesting that the virtue of beauty has conquered the pagan warrior.
Having recently defeated the larger and more powerful city-state of Milan, Florence identified itself with the story of the shepherd boy who defeated the giant warrior Goliath with a single stone from his slingshot. Later depictions of David by Andrea del Verrocchio, Bartolomeo Bellano, and most notably, Michelangelo and Bernini, took Donatello's sculpture as the starting point, whether drawing upon or countering its influence. Vasari wrote of the work, "This figure is so natural in its vivacity and softness that artists find it hardly possible to believe it was not moulded on the living form." Contemporary criticism in The New York Times stated, "Donatello's sculptures are startling, dramatic and unpredictable.... a sustained meditation on time."
Bronze - Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, Italy
The Annunciation (1450)
This fresco, depicting the moment at which an angel announces to Mary that she will be the mother of Jesus, has a classical simplicity. Sitting on a wooden stool in the cloister, Mary, her form a subtle contrast of dark robes that frame her delicate pink tunic, leans forward listening intently. The angel too leans forward, one knee bent, as his robe unfolds in softly curving vertical lines. Both figures have their arms folded across their chests in the shape of a cross, creating a feeling of intimate understanding, emphasized by the matching pink hues of their clothing, cloister walls, floor, and columns. The setting is devoid of many extraneous details, just a patch of grass on the left and a wooden fence with Tuscan cypresses behind it.
The emphasis on an ordinary but intimate moment was radically new and reflected Humanism's appreciation of the individual. It also reflects the Early Renaissance's distinct move away from traditional medieval imagery of religious narratives, removing the barriers between the sacred and the everyday in ways that invited viewers to feel part of the devotional tales in more familiar ways. The perspective, emphasizing the repeating diagonal line of Corinthian columns on the left, the arch framing Mary, and the foreground's horizontal edging and column, emphasizes the sacred space the two inhabit, while the viewer stands outside, as if listening in upon a private conversation.
The Medici family commissioned this work, along with more than fifty additional frescos and a new altarpiece in 1440, to complete the redesign of the friary of San Marco, which also included the first public library since the Roman Era. Fra Angelico, a Dominican friar, painted small frescos of Biblical scenes in the monks' cells to aid in devotional meditation. His intention was to bring the sacred into the monks' everyday physical reality, and he painted this scene, one of the last frescoes to be painted, in front of the staircase, so that monks returning to their cells would encounter it first.
Michael Glover, the art critic, has noted, "austere and more intimate in mood... The whole scene is a masterpiece of quiet understatement."
Fresco - Museum of San Marco, Florence, Italy
Flagellation of Christ (c. 1455)
This painting, divided vertically down the center by Roman columns, depicts the flagellation of Christ in the background on the left in contrast to three aristocratic Florentine men engaged in conversation in the foreground on the right. In the artist's time, religious subjects that employed perspective would usually focus the vanishing point central on Christ. This innovative use of perspective, though, further emphasized the division between the two scenes, conveying the dissonance between two worlds; the self-preoccupation of the important and wealthy ruling class of Florence implicitly critiqued by the suffering of Christ taking place in the adjacent space. Furthermore, the orthogonal lines divide the frame vertically and, contrasting with the red horizontal bands, create a division between interior and exterior space. A separate light source is portrayed in each scene, furthering a sense of the enigmatic relationship between the two. Various scholarly interpretations have tried to identify the various figures depicted, suggesting the power of the work to both suggest and resist narrative.
It was notable as an early example of oil painting on a small panel, for which Della Francesca departed from the large frescos, painted with tempera, favored by the artists of his day. A precision of detail and line is evinced in his treatment of the architectural motifs, as seen in the intricate slats of the building on the far right, and the lines of the figures, with a curiously modern effect. The work conveys a sense of surreal calm and order, its almost architectural harmony contrasting with the flagellation. With its precise delineation and scientific use of perspective, the artist, who was also a mathematician, created a naturalistic work that is both convincing, and yet almost modern in its dissonance.
The art historian Kenneth Clark was to rank the painting as one of the ten finest paintings of all time.
Oil and tempera on panel - Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino, Italy
Camera Degli Sposi Frescoes (1465-74)
This fresco depicts an illusory oculus, opening to reveal a painted sky. The oculus is ringed with figures looking down into the room below. An orange tree and a peacock, both symbolizing Juno, the Roman goddess of marriage, perch prominently on the edge.. A number of Cupids - one placing a wreath on his head, one holding an arrow while looking out at the sky, and a third holding an apple that seems as if it might suddenly drop, ring the balustrade. Three housemaids, clustered beside the orange tree, gaze down smiling. On the other side of the tree, an aristocratic young woman stands beside a slave woman in a striped turban.
Mantegna's fresco was groundbreaking for the time as it was the first example of di sotto in sù, or illusionistic ceiling painting. It also employed trompe l'oeil to create a scene where the architecture and painting become indistinguishable from each other within the fictive space. He incorporated the fresco into the building by painting the ceiling ribs and lozenges to resemble marble, and the triangular areas at the edge to look like mosaics.
He also used extreme foreshortening in the figures to tweak the viewer's perception of the height of the ceiling. This work embodied Alberti's argument in his De Pictura (1435) that a painting should be a window into reality.
The Gonzaga family commissioned this piece for their Camera degli Sposi, a small square reception room in their Ducal Palace. In addition to the ceiling fresco, he also painted The Court Scene (1465-1471), portraying the Gonzaga family on the north wall, and The Meeting (1465-1471), with two other smaller scenes on the west wall, and the last two walls with a decorative pattern.
Mantegna's work greatly influenced not only Renaissance artists like Raphael, but also artists of the Baroque and Rococo movements.
Fresco - Palazzo Ducale di Mantova, Mantua, Italy
Lamentation over the Dead Christ (c. 1480)
This remarkable image shows the dead Christ, lying upon a marble slab, his lower body shrouded by a piece of linen, as the stricken faces of St. John and the Virgin Mary peer over him. The extreme foreshortening and vivid details, like the nail holes visible in Christ's feet, result in an experience of intense intimacy for the viewer. Christ becomes less a divine figure, and merely an affronting human cadaver, His flesh is hyperreal, and a harrowing feeling becomes further emphasized by the bloodlike stain of red that imbues the scene. A static stillness is created by the vertical lines of Christ's body and the edge of the slab contrasted with the horizontals of the bolster, the bottom edge of the slab, and the creases at his elbows and ribs. The placement of the scene within a window frame, cropping the viewer from the mourners, creates the claustrophobic sense of being in a morgue. Also known as The Dead Christ or The Lamentation, the image was painted following the death of two of the artist's sons and was meant to convey suffering and grief.
The artist's mastery of foreshortening to create a pictorial plane that becomes architectural, as well as the work's near graphic directness, was not only ground breaking for its time, but potently modern. Mantegna's sculptural sense of the human figure is apparent in the image, but his radical innovation was his sense of the painting as part of a total spatial illusion. His techniques influenced artists of his generation but also later masters, like Leonardo da Vince, Albrecht Dürer, and Correggio. Contemporary art historian Nicholas Fox Weber has called the work, "an unsettling masterpiece," where "Mantegna's vision of agony as a prelude to resurrection and celebration resounds."
Tempera on canvas - Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, Italy
This masterpiece is a complex and mysterious allegorical work, depicting figures from classical Greek and Roman mythology in the garden of Venus. The goddess of love, framed by an intricate nimbus of sacred myrtle, stands in the center, raising her right hand in a gesture of welcome associated with the Virgin Mary from the Annunciation. The goddess, traditionally shown nude, wears the discrete clothing of a married woman. Above her, a blindfolded Cupid aims his arrows toward the three graces, who wear diaphanous robes and dance, their hands entwined. To the far left, stands the god Mercury, looking upward as he reaches toward one of the golden fruits that glow like orbs in the overarching canopy.
On the far right, the artist has combined two myths from the Roman poet Ovid. In the first myth Zephyrus, the god of the wind, depicted here with bluish green skin and puffed out cheeks, raped the nymph Chloris. In the painting, her nude figure, clothed in a diaphanous gown, falls forward, with feet that have already left the ground. As she turns back to look at him, tendrils and flowers emerge from her mouth, leading forward to the figure of Flora, the goddess of spring. The myth states, that full of remorse, Zephyrus changed Chloris into the goddess of spring.
This work, commissioned by the Medici family for a wedding celebration, broke new ground by borrowing from classical mythology for its subject. But it also reflects the integration of scientific observation into art as the artist depicted over 500 identifiable plant species into the piece. Each detail in the work is allusive in meaning. For example, the golden oranges allude to the symbol of the Medici family, the orbs of Hesperus from Greek myth, and to the Garden of Eden. The result is, as art historian Gloria Fossi has written, "one of the most written about, and most controversial paintings in the world."
Visually the work also presents an idyll of beauty, its female figures depicted with a linear rhythm, soft contours, and subtle color, to create what art historian Kenneth Clark described as, "one of the most personal evocations of physical beauty in the whole of art."
Tempera on panel - Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
Christ Handing the Keys of the Kingdom to St. Peter (1482)
The scene is meant to embody the New Testament moment when Jesus said to Saint Peter, "Upon this rock I will build my church... and I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven." The fresco focuses equally on that biblical narrative as well as the architecture, emphasized by the gold diagonal lines of perspective extending toward The Temple of Solomon in the background. Christ is emphasized slightly in scale and by placement, outlined and set apart by the space that surrounds him, and the diagonal that leads to the Temple's entrance of the building, which begins at the top of his head. The key is directly in line with the Temple entrance, and isolated, too, within its own space.
Behind, in the middle distance, two scenes from the New Testament are depicted. The scene on the left shows Christ and the disciples paying the tribute money, and the scene on the right shows Christ escaping from an attempted stoning. Two identical arches, resembling the Arch of Constantine, built by the Roman Emperor who in 313 legalized Christianity with the Edict of Milan, flank the Temple in the background. Beyond the plaza, mountains recede into the distance, due to the artist's employment of aerial perspective. Behind Christ on the left, and behind Peter on the right, illustrious figures of the era, including a self-portrait of the artist, mingle with the disciples. The central one point perspective married with the calculated composition of the painting's subjects, create a perfectly balanced symmetry.
The architecture of the scene reflects many things elemental to the Early Renaissance period. The work, commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV for the Vatican, was meant to illustrate the doctrine of apostolic succession and signal the rising importance of papal patronage in commissioning grand works of religious significance. The transmission of divine authority from Christ to Peter also harkens to the same transmission from Temple to the Vatican. Lastly, it is an example of the principles of science, mathematics, and design being injected into art by the leading artists of the time.
The elegant figures in their refined clothes, flowing drapery, and delicate detail reflect the influence of Andrea del Verrocchio's figurative treatments on the artist. Vasari was to credit Perugino with creating a new style that blended the Florentine line with a "delicacy blended with color," and the artist's sense of visual rhythm was to influence later artists, including Vasari himself.
Fresco - Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome, Italy
The Birth of Venus (1483-1485)
This seminal, iconic work, inspired by the Roman poet Ovid's Metamorphoses (8 A.D.), focuses on the birth of Venus, the goddess of love, riding her scallop shell as she arrives on land. To the right, a female with billowing dress and hair leans toward Venus holding out a swirling red robe to clothe her. Flying at a diagonal and also leaning toward Venus, Zephyrus, the god of the wind, puffs out his cheeks, blowing her toward the shore, as pink flowers fill the air around them. Linear flow and movement in the swirling hair of the figures, the billowing draperies that soar along with Zephyrus's flight, and in the curvilinear forms of the figures accentuate the singularity and centrality of the nude. Some have seen in the spirals and swirls of Venus's red hair, Botticelli's allusion to Leon Battista Alberti's words in On Painting, "I am delighted to see seven movements in hair, which is especially pleasing when part of it turns in spirals as if wishing to knot itself, waves in the air like flames, twines around itself like a serpent, while part rises here, part there."
The enigmatic work has compelled multiple descriptions. Vasari identified the young woman with her arms entwined around Zephyrus's waist as Aura, a mythological figure personifying light breezes. The woman on the right was thought to represent the Hora of spring, one of three such figures who were attendants of Venus. Other scholars connect this work to Botticelli's earlier Primavera, and have argued that Zephyrus's companion is Chloris, as shown by the symbolism of the flowers, and that the woman on the right is Flora, the goddess of spring. The artist also employed contemporary political symbolism. The laurel trees and Hora's laurel wreath visually pun upon the name "Lorenzo" of the Medici family who commissioned the work, while the motifs and colors of Hora's clothing and the robe she carries allude to the Republic of Florence.
The work was innovative for its large scale, for being painted on canvas, as well as it use of alabaster powder to brighten the paint and of gold to create highlights on the wings, the hair, the fabric, and the shell. But these innovations were overshadowed by its unprecedented depiction of the female nude in a pagan setting. While the figure created an impression of classical beauty, the artist has diverged from classical proportions. For instance, her body is off center, and her right leg curves too far over for her left leg to bear her weight. As the art historian Kenneth Clark noted, "Her differences from antique form are...rhythmic and structural. Her whole body follows the curve of a Gothic ivory. It is entirely without that quality so much prized in classical art, known as aplomb. She is not standing but floating." In this too, the artist was innovative, almost modern in his willingness to depart from naturalistic depiction in order to express an imagined internal concept of beauty. The work shows, as contemporary art historian Frederick Ilchman said, "Botticelli's attitude, his yearning to express ideals of beauty and human form." The work also is seen to reflect the era's Neo-Platonic philosophy that the mind could be drawn to the knowledge of divine beauty by contemplation of earthly beauty.
During the High Renaissance, Botticelli's works were eclipsed, and he became relatively unknown in the centuries that followed. The title "Birth of Venus" was given to this painting only in the 19th century when Botticelli's works were revived by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and embraced by the Arts and Crafts movement. Subsequently this work has become one of the world's most recognizable paintings, and artists including Salvador Dalí, Renée Magritte, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, and the Superflat artist Tomoko Nagao have revisited it. The painting has endured fame in popular culture as it has been referenced in film, television, music videos, and has also informed the work of fashion designers like Elsa Schiaparelli and Dolce & Gabbana.
Tempera on panel - Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
Portrait of an Old Man with His Grandson (1490)
This tender portrait vividly evokes a moment of embrace, juxtaposing a man toward the end of his life with a child at his beginning. The older man wears a red fur-lined robe, and the younger, a red doublet and cap. Behind them, the wall of the interior room is depicted in black and grey rectangles, framing a window that opens onto a landscape of winding roads through fields that lead toward a small church at the bottom of a terraced hill. Next to it, a monolithic rock rises out of a lake. The golden locks of the boy, echoed in the folds of his doublet, draw the viewer's eye up to the window, which, framed by somber grey and black, evokes a feeling of contrast between the two subjects' phases of existence. The painting creates a poignant moment marked by a sense of mortality.
Ghirlandaio was primarily known for his frescos, often portraying notable Florentines, as seen in his celebrated Tornabuoni Chapel cycle (1485-1490). What he brought to Early Renaissance painting most, though, was a vividly detailed and emotionally expressive portrayal of contemporary life and ordinary people, an emphasis that this singular portrait shares. The man's grey hair, the mole on his right forehead, and his deformed nose, indicate that he has the skin disorder rhinophyma. These characteristics are depicted with a remarkable realism that made the painting unique for its time. The work also subverted social attitudes, which associated defects in appearance with defects of character, by emphasizing the man's gentle and wise expression and quiet affection. Art historian Bernard Berenson wrote of this work, "There is no more human picture in the entire range of Quattrocento painting, whether in or out of Italy."
Ghirlandaio was also a notable teacher, as his most distinguished student was Michelangelo.
Tempera on panel - Louvre, Paris, France