Social Studies

How did Renaissance art reflect humanist concerns?

The Renaissance took place in the Italian city-states, beginning in the late 14th century. The first two decades of the 15th century represent the high point of this period of cultural activity. During that time, some very important developments occurred, including new forms of expression and artistic styles.

The term “Renaissance” literally means “rebirth” and is said in reference to the revival of Ancient Greek and Roman society. In ancient Greece and Rome, the arts were seen as a gift from the gods. Architecture, sculpture, painting, literature, and music served to glorify their gods. With the collapse of the Roman Empire, this tradition was largely abandoned. The Italian Renaissance attempted to revive these changes by looking back to antiquity for inspiration.

It’s all about Humanism

It would be impossible to understand Renaissance art without knowing something about the philosophical movement that affected it so strongly. Humanism is, in essence, seeing life and human nature as it actually was. It stressed the study of nature and human beings and focused on human thought, reason, culture, and the human experience. Humanist ideas were reflected in art during this period, especially with the study of the human body.

The humanists believed that man could achieve his fullest potential through education and knowledge, not because he was divinely inspired or chosen to believe.

Different areas of humanism, such as science and art, flourished in this period because people began to be more concerned with worldly life than the afterlife. Renaissance art is defined by the artist’s depiction of beauty within an earthly plane.

This doesn’t mean that religious figures were taken out of art. Quite to the contrary, many early Renaissance works had a highly religious tone, but they were more humanistic, showing portraits of biblical scenes or how people of the day were actually living.

Art in the Middle Ages

Art during medieval society was very bleak and focused on religion, but instead of being realistic, it pointed out what was most important with something called the hieratic scale. The higher something was in the hieratic scale, the closer it stood to God. For example, Jesus Christ was at the highest level of importance when he performed miracles or appeared before his disciples in human form. Saints were next on the hieratic scale, followed by priests and people who were responsible for praying to God. The lowest tier of this scale was reserved for the poor and the sick.

Artists used this scale during this time period to determine how important elements like color, size, and placement should be represented in their paintings. Figures of higher status had more colors associated with them because it was believed that power went hand-in-hand with wealth. Gold was shown as a color to represent something holy. The use of halos was also key to showing religious figures.

The Miraculous St. Martin of Tours: How did Renaissance art reflect humanist concerns?
Franconian School
Miraculous Mass of Saint Martin of Tours

The paint was also much darker, using a medium called “egg tempera”. It was made with a powdered substance called “tempera”, which was just ground-up eggshells. Egg tempera paint is very thick and dries quickly, so it allowed medieval artists to create detailed works with a high level of realism but did not allow for the blending or brightness of later oil paints and other mediums.

Because of its dark nature, many art historians see the symbolism behind the use of egg tempera as a reflection of the Middle Ages.

New Styles of Art

The significant changes in the new styles that emerged during the High Renaissance were grounded in the philosophy of Humanism, which says that humans are capable of their own thoughts rather than being ruled by God. This concept of individual human potential was reflected in the artistic trends of the time, which are all still very relevant today.

Artists started to become more interested in representing human detail and emotion, as well as natural things like plants and animals; this process is known as “naturalism.”

Vitruvian Man
“Vitruvian Man”

Another humanist idea that influenced Renaissance art was a sense of individualism. This is the belief in the value and significance of each person, which encouraged artists to make their paintings more personalized.

In addition to naturalism, there were also other important developments in Renaissance art during this period. For example, aesthetic principles of ideal proportion became an important concept for artists to understand. It can be defined as the realistic depiction of elements in a work of art by relating them to human proportions. The artists’ desire for realism led to another new concept, linear perspective, which is used to create depth and distance on a flat surface.

The Renaissance also saw the invention of art techniques like oil painting and fresco. These new techniques were directly influenced by the humanist focus on earthy details and realism, as well as a need for artists to develop their own ideas of how things should look.

Work of Italian Renaissance Artists

Some of the most famous artists in the world emerged during the Renaissance period. These Renaissance humanists and their work were major influences on art today.

Many of them were also known as “Renaissance Men” in the artistic community, which basically means they were good at many different things and had multiple individual achievements. For example, they might have been good artists but also good scientists and great at mathematical study.

Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci was an infamous Renaissance Man. He had a lot of different skills and interests which is reflected in his work.

Da Vinci was best known for painting The Mona Lisa, which is probably the most expensive drawing ever created, as well as for inventing other things way before their time, such as a helicopter, a tank, and a variety of other weird but cool things that displayed his scientific knowledge.

Mona Lisa
Leonardo da Vinci's Portrait of Mona Lisa del Giocondo (1503–1506) famous painting. Original from Wikimedia Commons. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

Leonardo studied many things from anatomy to geography, but none more important than art. He was great at drawing and sketching, in addition to sculpting and painting. He was also very good at engineering, an interest that combined with his artistic abilities to produce some of the most well-known paintings in history.

Another of Da Vinci’s greatest achievements in art is his famous drawing Vitruvian Man. This work provides two important things: a glimpse into the future of anatomical study and a theory about proportions. Da Vinci believed that great art depicted both the outside of people as well as their insides. In addition, he believed that every individual had a specific proportion for which they were best designed.

Vitruvian Man was important to art history because it showed how Da Vinci studied the human form from the inside out. It also implies how artists have a responsibility to depict accurate anatomy as well as proportion, not just on the outside of their subjects but for what is underneath as well.


Sandro Botticelli is another one of the most famous Renaissance artists whose work has influenced art to this day. His painting “Birth of Venus” is an incredibly important piece that helped to create the post-renaissance era. He was also one of the first artists to sign his work, which was something that had never been done before. This represents how more and more art was seen as an expression of creativity rather than just a reflection of reality or religion, which is what it had been throughout the Middle Ages.

"The Birth of Venus"
“The Birth of Venus”

Sandro Botticelli’s words are also telling because he signed “Apelles” to his work after the name of one of the most famous Greek artists. This shows that art historians back then were starting to see themselves as part of a tradition, where they could build on what had come before them rather than just imitating it.


Michelangelo was another one of the most famous Renaissance artists. In fact, he was probably the most ambitious artist to have ever lived because he painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling by himself using a new technique called “fresco”.

This meant that he didn’t have to paint in egg tempera as other painters did at this time. It allowed for a much brighter and more vibrant picture, which reflects the way Michelangelo flourished with his artwork.

The Sistine Chapel fresco in Vatican City
The Sistine Chapel fresco in Vatican City. Original public domain image from Flickr

He also sculpted the statue of David, which is one of the most recognizable sculptures in all of history. This true-to-life depiction of the Biblical David represents the rebirth of realism in art.

Also, because he was commissioned to create it by the city of Florence, this sculpture shows how important art had become in the Renaissance era when people were willing to pay for artists to make things that they could be proud of.

Art in the Renaissance was created by people who were interested in learning about the world, which really helped to pave the way for modern art.

Renaissance Ideas at the Center of the Natural World

Since humanism had such a significant influence on the major intellectual movement of the Renaissance, the revival of classical learning and classical art created this Renaissance style of life as time moved forward from the black death and focused less on religious works and more on life as it was in this earthly realm.

Studying the ideas of thinkers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle led humanist scholars to believe that there were universal truths in life—that you could learn things about humans just by studying nature. Advancements like the printing press and the invention of the scientific method meant that scholars could study the natural world instead of being constrained by religious dogma.

The key assumption for many philosophers was that there are universal truths, which you can discover through observation and experience, rather than just repeating what someone earlier said. Studying how shadows work in light led to advancements in optics and geometry. The new studies of astronomy allowed artists to show new geographical discoveries in their works, while new geography led cartographers to map out new areas of the world. The calculation of longitude improved navigation and enabled explorers to sail around the world to discover new lands.

All of these advancements in astronomy, geography, and cartography sparked a sense of curiosity about where we are located in the universe. The spirit of inquiry that people embraced meant that they wanted to understand how the natural world works. Truly, mankind advanced in leaps and bounds during the historical period of Renaissance society.

Why Teaching The Renaissance Matters

Teaching the Renaissance in schools holds immense significance as it serves as a pivotal chapter in the development of European society and culture, which has a direct effect on the world today. The Renaissance was a period of profound transformation, marked by a rebirth of classical texts, art, and ideas.

At its core, Renaissance humanism elevated the human mind, emphasizing the cultivation of human qualities and free will, a stark departure from the more dogmatic and religious focus of the medieval period. With the support of patrons like the Medici family in Renaissance Italy, a select group of Italian artists and scholars, including Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti, drew inspiration from the classical world, particularly ancient Rome and Greece.

Their works of art, such as “The Last Supper” and the “Creation of Adam,” celebrated human emotions, facial expressions, and the human form in ways that departed from the predominantly religious subjects of the preceding centuries.

The Renaissance’s impact extended far beyond Italy, reaching Northern Europe as well. Through the efforts of figures like Jan van Eyck and Albrecht Dürer, Renaissance ideas, classical mythology, and visual arts flourished in parts of Europe, contributing to the development of a distinct regional style. Humanist education, a key component of Renaissance learning, incorporated the study of classical literature, ancient sculpture, and moral philosophy, making it the best example of the Renaissance’s commitment to classical ideals. Moreover, the Renaissance facilitated a reevaluation of religious themes, reimagining the Virgin Mary and biblical narratives in a new way. 

The intellectual movement led by humanist thinkers such as Marsilio Ficino and Coluccio Salutati fostered a greater emphasis on the individual and their relationship with the divine, often illuminated by Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy.” By incorporating the works of writers like Giovanni Boccaccio and Francesco Petrarch and exploring the writings of Greek scholars, Renaissance humanism spread throughout Europe, shaping the humanist educational program known as “studia humanitatis.”

As a backdrop of political stability provided the ideal conditions for this flourishing of humanistic ideas and the development of the Renaissance, it has become essential to teach this period in schools to understand how it transformed the course of European history, the arts, and society from the late 13th century through the late 16th centuries.

Teaching the Renaissance is vital for global citizens because it offers insight into the profound shift in human values, intellectual exploration, and artistic expression that has shaped the foundations of modern society and continues to influence our understanding of the human experience and cultural heritage.

The Renaissance, with its intellectual transformations, artistic achievements, and the spread of knowledge through the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg, marks a profound turning point in human history. Emerging from the Dark Ages and the cultural movement of the Carolingian Renaissance, it breathed new life into the spirit of classical antiquity and humanism, not only in Italian cities but also in different countries across Europe.

The Renaissance’s impact transcended the end of the Middle Ages, ushering in the modern era and setting the stage for the subsequent Protestant Reformation, the exploration of new trade routes by explorers like Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan, and the scientific breakthroughs of figures like Galileo Galilei and Nicolaus Copernicus.

Through its influence on the English Renaissance, the works of William Shakespeare, and John Milton, and musical compositions by Josquin des Prez, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, and William Byrd became pivotal in shaping modern history and culture.

Understanding the Renaissance offers a window into a period of time when human history took a decisive turn toward the modern world, making it a critical part of the global cultural heritage for modern historians and citizens worldwide.

After moving from a teacher-dominated classroom to a truly student-centered one, Jenn found herself helping colleagues who wanted to follow her lead.  In 2018 she decided to expand outside of her school walls and help those out there who were also trying to figure out this fantastic method of instruction to ignite intrinsic motivation in their students.  Read more about her journey with Student-Centered World at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Student-Centered World