Summary of High Renaissance
The High Renaissance, subsequently coined to denote the artistic pinnacle of the Renaissance, refers to a thirty-year period exemplified by the groundbreaking, iconic works of art being made in Italy during what was considered a thriving societal prime. A rejuvenation of classical art married with a deep investigation into the humanities spurred artists of unparalleled mastery whose creations were informed by a keen knowledge of science, anatomy, and architecture, and remain today, some of the most awe-inspiring works of excellence in the historical art canon.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- Although many artists vied for status and commissions during the High Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, and architect Donato Bramante are undoubtedly the period's most notable legends who exemplify the term "Renaissance" man in their proficiency and mastery of multiple subjects and interests.
- During this period, a cultural movement toward Humanism arose, compelling artists to return to Classical Roman and Greek philosophies concerning universal man and his place in the world. This was a departure from the medieval era's idealized religious iconography and resulted in fresh depictions of divine subjects infused with a more resonant and human emotionality and expression.
- High Renaissance artists utilized and perfected a bevy of techniques borrowed from Early Renaissance artists. This included the use of linear perspective to create extreme depth, highly accurate and scientifically correct depictions of human anatomy, the foreshortening of figures and subjects within elevated paintings and sculptures to provide an authentic viewing experience from below, and trompe l'oeil effects to seamlessly incorporate architectural elements into a work of art.
- A rise of new styles arose that were groundbreaking for the time. Leonardo created sfumato, a glazing effect that revolutionized the blending of tone and color, and quadratura, or ceiling paintings, were born, meant to rapturously draw the gaze of viewers up into a heavenly visage.
- The period is noted for infusing ideals of beauty back into art. Whether depicting religious figures or everyday citizens, in architecture and in art, the High Renaissance artists' key concerns were to present pieces of visual, symmetrical, and compositional perfection.
Overview of High Renaissance
Celebrating, as he said, "the divine quality of the ancients' minds," Raphael portrayed a gathering of all the great classical thinkers in his Academy of Athens. At the same time his masterpiece epitomized High Renaissance ideals.
Important Art and Artists of High Renaissance
This painting focuses on four figures: the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist and Christ as young children, and an angel. The Virgin is the central figure at the top of a pyramidal composition that emphasizes her importance, framed by rocks. Gazing downward, she reaches out her arm in blessing toward Christ but also outward to invite the viewer into this intimate scene. In the foreground, a pool is visible, with plants such as an iris and an aquilegia growing along its edges. The background is a dramatic vista of boulder formations, pinnacles rising up from earth, the shadowy depths of caverns, and an overarching roof of stone and fallen trees. Through the gaps, a sinuous river of blue green water moves toward the misty horizon on the upper left.
The title of the work originated from the mysterious and all-encompassing landscape that frames the sacred narrative. The vertical pinnacles and massive stone create a vivid contrast with the luminous figures, their curvilinear forms, and the softly draped clothing the Virgin and angel wear. The landscape is, as art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon wrote, "a fusion of fantasy and precise observation." The geological formation of the rocks and pinnacles resemble Italy's Dolomite mountains where Leonardo visited, writing in his 1480 notebooks: "Drawn by my eager desire I wandered some way among gloomy rocks, coming to the entrance of a great cavern, in front of which I stood for some time, stupefied and uncomprehending such a thing... Suddenly two things arose in me, fear and desire: fear of the menacing darkness of the cavern; desire to see if there was any marvelous thing within."
This painting was innovative for several reasons. Rather than depicting the Virgin as an idealized Queen of Heaven upon a throne with the customary halo, he created her as the Madonna of Humility, a version of Mary that would also be adopted by Raphael. Beauty and grace become the conveyor of the sacredness of the scene rather than traditional iconographic symbology, thus diffusing the boundaries between ordinary man and religious figures. This painting also pioneered the technique of sfumato to create the soft and gentle transitions of facial expressions to convey the fluidity of human interaction rather than a static, merely two-dimensional image.
Charles Hope, the art critic, wrote, "only Leonardo was able to capture movement and the play of emotion," an ability which the critic attributed to "his complete mastery of the drawing medium...Leonardo was the first to understand how to use the sketchy, spontaneous possibilities of drawings to develop coherent and lively compositions in his paintings."
There are two versions of this painting, though the second one featured in the National Gallery in London, has also been attributed, by some scholars, to Leonardo's assistants. However, both have been equally influential upon later artists.
This iconic work is one of the world's most recognizable paintings. It depicts Christ, his form creating a triangular hub in the center, from which flank his disciples seated beside him at the Last Supper on the eve of his most famous betrayal by Judas. The group sits behind a long rectangular table, which forms a boundary between the viewer and the occupants of this most sacred moment. The walls on either side create diagonals that narrow toward three open windows in the background behind Christ, further illuminating his central importance to the scene, and the powerful dramatic results obtained from the use of linear perspective.
In this work, Leonardo deviated from the tradition of depicting Judas separate from the group, and instead conveyed his betrayal by showing him stiffly hidden in shadow. Previous artists had portrayed this instance of Judas being named as the traitor, but Leonardo chose to paint, for the first time, the moment just before, when Christ said, "Verily I say unto you that one of you will betray me."
This artistic choice highlighted a tense psychological moment, showing how the disciples reacted, each in their own individual way that conveyed their deepest feelings. Leonardo wanted to portray the Apostles in motion, as each gesture conveyed the movement of the soul. As he wrote, "One who was drinking has left his glass in its place and turned his head towards the speaker. Another wrings the fingers of his hands and turns with a frown to his companion. Another with hands spread open to show the palms shrugs his shoulders up to his ears and mouths astonished. Another speaks into his neighbor's ear, and the listener twists his body round to him and lends him his ear while holding a knife in one hand and in the other some bread half cut through by a knife."
Along with his innovative approach to the subject matter, Leonardo's study of optics, shadow, and light inform the work, creating a sense of movement that flows through the group like a wave of emotion. As a result it becomes what art historian Jacob Burckhardt called a "restless masterpiece."
The artist's radical experimentation with media can also be seen. To achieve an effect like oil painting, Leonardo used oil and tempera to paint on a dry wall, after first applying plaster and then adding an underlying layer of white pigment to increase the vibrancy of the colors.
Also of interest is the way Leonardo integrated elements into the scene in regards to its location. Duke Ludovico Sforza commissioned the painting for the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie monastery's refectory, and the artist created it so that Christ and his disciples seemed to be an extension of the space where the monks ate dinner. By using Italian models for the disciples, depicting a Tuscan landscape, and including a plate of orange slices and grilled eel, a popular dish at the time, he brought ordinary elements that the monks would recognize into the famous religious scene.
Within the first few decades the paint started to deteriorate, and other events have damaged the work. Nonetheless, the work has had an extensive influence, being referenced in works by Salvador Dalí, silk screens by Andy Warhol, and works by the artist and filmmaker Peter Greenaway. One of the most popular and recognizable of artworks, it has been reproduced in countless consumer items from wall calendars to velvet tapestries. The contemporary art critic Peter Conrad wrote of the fresco, "I wonder if Leonardo didn't intend it to decay. He knew that creativity fights a losing battle with destruction and that art cannot outwit nature: what better way to illustrate those morbid truths than to produce a miraculously beautiful painting that almost immediately begins to revert, like the bodies and minds of all who look at it, to unformed chaos?"
This image depicts the innovative Tempietto in the courtyard of the Church of San Pietro, cross-aligned with the spot where St. Peter was crucified. The round temple consists of a single chamber, inspired by Bramante's knowledge of classical buildings such as the Pantheon (113-125) and the Temple of Vesta (3rd century). It smoothly incorporates references from both Greek and Roman architecture into one unified effect. The sixteen columns that ring the building are a variation of the Doric column, which came to be called the Tuscanic column as it used a simpler round base and in its proportions followed the ratios of the Ionic column. The entablature above the columns depicts the keys of St. Peter and elements of the Catholic Mass. Above the columns a balustrade encircles the hemispheric dome, meant to symbolize the heavenly vault and the universe.
Bramante's original design placed the Tempietto within a circular courtyard, its columns and niches proportionally designed to radiate from the temple, making the building seem larger than it was. The plan was never completed, and subsequent building boxed in the temple, creating a cramped effect. Bramante wanted to create a building that was a perfect fusion of Humanist beliefs, derived from the classical world and Christian faith, as shown in the circular building's resemblance of both a Greek temple and the circular form traditionally used in tombs for Christian martyrs. The symmetrical design follows mathematical proportions derived from Leonardo's study of the Roman architect Vitruvius and his application of those proportions to the human body as seen in his Human Figure in a Circle and Square, illustrating Vitruvius on Proportion (1485-90), which Bramante studied when working with Leonardo for the Duke of Milan.
This building was considered to be an exemplary High Renaissance building, as reflected by architect Andrea Palladio in his treatise on ancient temples. Called a "jewel" of the Renaissance, the building also prefigured Bramante's design, though not carried out, for St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.
Useful Resources on High Renaissance
- 38k viewsDocumentary: The High Renaissance
- History of the Renaissance Documentary
- 669k viewsLeonardo's Universe: National Geographic DocumentaryOur Pick
- 93k viewsLeonardo da Vinci DocumentaryHistory Channel
- Secrets of the Mona Lisa2015 Documentary / Discovery Channel
- 528k viewsRaphael: A Mortal GodOur PickBBC
- 225k viewsMichelangelo Artist and Man: DocumentaryOur Pick
- 28k viewsRaphael's Fresco of the Disputa of the Vatican's Stanza della SegnaturaColumbia
- The Genius of Leonardo da VinciCBS New
- 735 viewsMercedes T. Bass Lecture: Leonardo da Vinci and His GeniusThe Aspen Institute
- 23k viewsLeonardo da Vinci DrawingsHelen Burnham, Pamela and Peter Voss Curator of Prints and Drawings / Boston Museum of Fine Arts
- 47k viewsLooking Back on LeonardoOur Pick
- 1k viewsLeonardo SculptureMarietta Cambareri and Jetskalina H. Phillips / Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
- 6k viewsRaphael's Vision: A Discussion of the Paintings in the Stanza Della Segnatura in the VaticanFr. James Lehrberger
- 10k viewsMichelangelo as DraughtsmanTalk by Hugh Chapman / Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
- 245k viewsThe unheard story behind the Sistine ChapelOur PickTed talk by Elizabeth Lev
- 8k viewsFrancis Broun on the Sculpture of MichelangeloOur Picktvo channel
- 8k viewsMichelangelo and the Intrigue of DrawingsJulian Brooks, curator, Department of Drawings, J. Paul Getty Museum
- Raphael School of AthensColumbia University
- The Culture of the High RenaissanceOur PickBy Ingrid D. Rowland
- Michelangelo: The Complete Sculpture, Painting, ArchitectureOur PickBy William E. Wallace
- Leonardo da VinciBy Frank Zöllner and Johannes Nathan
- Leonardo da Vinci: NotebooksOur PickBy Leonardo da Vinci, Irma A. Richter, and Martin Kemp, et al.
- RaphaelBy Achimm Gnann
- CorreggioBy Lucia Fornari Schianchi
- In Florence, the David Gets Dressed and Gucci Gets a GardenOur PickBy Guy Trebay / New York Times / January 10, 2018
- Tracing the Education of MichelangeloBy Cammy Brothers / Wall Street Journal / November 11, 2017
- The Myth of the Mona LisaBy Charles Nicholl / The Guardian / March 28, 2002
- Leonardo and The Last Supper by Ross King - reviewBy Charles Nicholl / The Guardian / The GuardianOctober 19, 2012
- The Last 'Last Supper'Our PickBy Charles Hope / New York Review of Books / August 9, 2001
- The Virgin of the RocksThe Louvre
- The Wrong Leonardo?By Charles Hope / New York Review of Books / February 9, 2012
- How Women Artists Flourished in Northern Italy During the RenaissanceBy Karen Chernick / HyperAlergic / October 21, 2019