Renaissance Art: Characteristics & Religion (2023)

What do you call a multifaceted individual with skills in several areas? A Renaissance man. This idiom links back to 14th-16th-century European arts, when some of the most notable artists were also sculptors, engineers, architects, inventors, scientists, and even art historians. The Renaissance, literally a rebirth, became one of the most important and creative periods in the history of Western art.

Renaissance Art: Characteristics & Religion (1)

A detail from The Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli, ca. 14848-1486. Source: Wikipedia Commons: (public domain).

Renaissance Art: Background

Renaissance art gradually replaced its Medieval counterpart. Some art historians refer to the late 13th-early 14th century in European art as "proto-Renaissance" because this style developed the key traits of Renaissance art.

The term "Renaissance" was first used by Giorgio Vasari, rinascita, in his book The Lives of the Artists.

Medieval Art

The Middle Ages is a period that lasted for a thousand years. Its art did not remain unchanged. However, what unified Medieval art is its stylized nature rather than realism. The artists prioritized symbolism and religious themes instead of a naturalistic depiction of their subjects. They also followed particular conventions set for religious imagery, not relying on observing nature. For example, late Medieval (Gothic) art features elongated human figures. Sometimes artists also relied on geometric motifs and patterns and a non-existent perspective featuring fantastical themes.

Renaissance Art: Characteristics & Religion (2)

The assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket, 13th century, manuscript illumination. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain).

Proto-Renaissance Art

In contrast, Renaissance artists began to create images based on observation of the world around them. One of the earliest painters in this category is Giotto (1267–1337). He represented the proto-Renaissance. Giotto painted religious subjects, but his style defied late Medieval conventions and looked more natural as if Giotto had observed his subjects from life.

Renaissance Art: Characteristics & Religion (3)Giotto, Kiss of Judas, Scrovegni Chapel, 1304-1306. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain).

Characteristics of Renaissance Art

Renaissance art featured the following characteristics:

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    • the use of oil paint;
    • the use of marble in sculpture;
    • the use of frescoes (wall painting on wet plaster);
    • realistic (naturalistic), although the idealized, depiction of the human body;
    • one-, two-, three-point linear perspective to create the appropriate sense of depth, especially in landscapes and cityscapes;
    • foreshortening to beget a sense of depth when depicting the human body;
    • Biblical and mythological subjects, nature, landscapes, important historical and contemporary figures (religious, political, and military leaders);
    • inspiration from ancient Greece and Rome in style and themes;
    • a sense of harmony, balance, and the golden ratio (divine proportions).

The most famous Italian Renaissance artists–Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo–defined many of the rules.

Renaissance Art: Characteristics & Religion (4)Leonardo da Vinci, a study of linear perspective for the Adoration of the Magi, ca. 1481. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain).

Renaissance Humanism

The latter part of the Middle Ages was defined by Scholasticism.

Scholasticism blended the work of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle with Christian philosophy and used logic to explain important religious concepts.

In contrast, the Renaissance period in Europe was based on humanism. Humanism drew upon ancient Greek and Roman thought and culture, which is why the term referred to a rebirth. Humanists advocated a balanced lifestyle comprising internal contemplation and external action. They promoted classic virtues such as honor. Humanists also believed that classical education, comprised of the study of history, grammar, rhetoric, and philosophy, could improve humanity.

Humanists also gradually grew to prefer the vernacular version of Italian instead of Church Latin. The key Italian authors were:

  • Dante Alighieri
  • Giovanni Boccaccio
  • Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch)

Religion in Renaissance Art

Artists treated religion in Renaissance art differently depending on the geographic region.


In Italy, religious subjects were inspired by Catholic thought, Biblical topics, and important Catholic leaders such as the Pope. Also, the Counter-Reformation movement (1560-1648), in response to the Protestant Reformation, featured a resurgence of the Catholic Church. It commenced in the late Renaissance period.

Examples of religious subjects include:

  • Pope Julius II (Raphael)
  • Sistine Madonna (Raphael)
  • The Virgin of the Rocks (Leonardo)
  • The Last Judgment (Michelangelo)
  • The Creation of Adam (Michelangelo)

Northern Europe

The Protestant Reformation inspired the arts and thought of Northern Europe.

(Video) A brief history of religion in art - TED-Ed

The Protestant Reformation (1517-1648) was a movement in northern Europe that sought to reform the Catholic Church and eventually established its own Christian denomination separate from Catholicism. Martin Luther is usually credited with initiating this movement.

Religious subjects in Northern Renaissance art include:

  • Ghent altarpiece (Jan and Hubert van Eyck)
  • The Annunciation (Jan van Eyck)
  • The Garden of Earthly Delights (Hieronymus Bosch)
  • The Procession to Calvary (Pieter Brueghel the Elder)

Renaissance Art: Periodization

Some art historians divide the Renaissance into Early, High, and Late Renaissance. Fra Angelico is an example of the Early Renaissance, whereas Leonardo and Raphael are indicative of the High Renaissance. Others also qualify the transitional period between Medieval and Renaissance art as proto-Renaissance. Other art historians describe Late Renaissance art as Mannerism: a movement focused on exaggerated technique and complexity.

Early Italian Renaissance artists

High Italian Renaissance artists

Late Italian Renaissance artists

  • Fra Angelico
  • Masaccio
  • Verrocchio
  • Giovanni Bellini
  • Donatello
  • Sandro Botticelli
  • Raphael
  • Michelangelo
  • Correggio
  • Leonardo da Vinci
  • Titian
  • Giovanni Bellini's late period
  • Parmigianino
  • Bronzino
  • Michelangelo’s late period
  • Pontormo
  • Tintoretto

Women's Body in Renaissance Art

Women were often depicted nude in Renaissance paintings. They were light-skinned, often blond-haired, of average build, and with rounded bodies. Art historians provide many interpretations of the female nude, including:

  • the objectification of women through the male gaze;
  • the mythological or religious references to different traits deemed appropriate for women, such as the virtue of purity and innocence;
  • the importance of the human body and its anatomy as part of empirical observation for Renaissance artists and scientists.

Famous Renaissance Art and Artists

Renaissance Art began in Italy and spread across Europe to the north.

Italian Renaissance Art

The Renaissance began in Italy in cities like Florence.

Early Renaissance: Fra Angelico

Fra Angelico (1395-1455) came from the Tuscany region in Italy. An Early Renaissance painter, he focused on religious subjects such as:

  • Christ Being Nailed to the Cross (ca. 1437-1446)
  • Mary Magdalene Sees the Risen Christ (ca. 1437-1446)
  • Annunciation (1450)

The painter's nickname, Fra Angelico, implied that he resembled an angel in his goodness. Statesman and banker Cosimo de' Medici was a patron for some of the painter's works in Florence.

Renaissance Art: Characteristics & Religion (5)Fra Angelico, Annunciation, San Marco, Florence, 1437-1446. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain).

High Renaissance: Michaelangelo

Michelangelo’s (1475-1564) full name was Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni. He was one of the key figures in Renaissance art because he was not just an accomplished painter but also an architect, engineer, and sculptor. The artist also received funding from the Medici family so that he could focus on creative pursuits. Michelangelo's figures are usually muscular and idealized.

(Video) Characteristics of Renaissance Art

Renaissance Art: Characteristics & Religion (6)Michelangelo, The Last Judgment, Sistine Chapel, 1536-1541. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain).

The artist created numerous works, the most famous of which include:






The Creation of Adam ceiling fresco

Sistine Chapel in Rome


The Last Judgment fresco

Sistine Chapel in Rome



Pietà marble sculpture

St. Peter's Basilica in Rome


David marble sculpture

Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence


Saints Peter and Paul marble sculptures

Siena Cathedral


Moses marble sculpture

San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome



Saint Peter's Basilica*


*with architects Carlo Maderno, Donato Bramante, and Gian Lorenzo Bernini


Laurentian Library*


*with architects Vasari, Tribolo, and Ammannati

Late Renaissance: Tintoretto

Tintoretto (1518-1594) was a Venetian painter whose works are typically described as Mannerist. The dramaticism of his style served as a bridge to Baroque, a style that came after the Renaissance. His exuberant portrayal of religious subjects coincided and was, perhaps, inspired by the Counter-Reformation.

Some of Tintoretto's works include:

  • Saint George, Saint Louis, and the Princess (1553)
  • Baptism of Christ (1580)
  • Christ at the Sea of Galilee (c. 1575–80)


As with painting, Renaissance architects' inspiration also came from the revival of ancient Roman forms.

For example, Renaissance architects used the Roman basilica, a long building with colonnades, and focused on balance and proportion. They also preferred large hemispherical domes (roof).

At this time, architects were also engineers and contractors and, at times, painters as well.



Filippo Brunelleschi

Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) worked as an architect and engineer in Florence. He influenced subsequent architects of the Italian Renaissance. Brunelleschi's most famous work is the large dome for the Florence Cathedral.

Donato Bramante

Donato Bramante (1444-1514) was a painter and architect. Bramante is credited with introducing the cities of Rome and Milan to the Renaissance style. Bramante collaborated with Michelangelo on St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

Giorgio Vasari

Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) was a Florentine architect and painter who also founded the study of art history by documenting The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. One of his famous architectural works is the dome created for the Basilica of Our Lady of Humility in Pistoia.

Northern Renaissance Art

The Renaissance came to Northern Europe from Italy. Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the movable type in Europe played no small part in disseminating knowledge across the continent. Northern Renaissance art was usually quite detailed and gradually developed toward realism.

Jan van Eyck

Jan van Eyck (1395-1441) was a key painter of the Early Northern Renaissance. His style is also referred to as the Early Netherlandish painting. At times, he worked with his brother, Hubert, on large projects like the Ghent altarpiece (1420s-1432). Influenced by late Gothic art and its elongated figures, van Eyck focused on a more realistic portrayal of the human form. His notable works include:

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  • Arnolfini Portrait (1434)
  • Annunciation (1434-1436)
  • Madonna in the Church (1438-1440)

Renaissance Art: Characteristics & Religion (7)Jan van Eyck, Arnolfini Wedding, 1434. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain).

Albrecht Dürer

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) was a German artist who operated out of Nuremberg. Dürer's work was known for its detail and realism. His self-portrait as Christ (imitatio Christi) is said to have been inspired by the movement that became the Protestant Reformation. The artist's other essential works include:

  • Knight, Death and the Devil (1513)
  • Saint Jerome in his Study (1514)
  • Melencolia I (1514)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Pieter Brueghel the Elder (ca. 1525-1569) was a Flemish Renaissance artist. He specialized in painting scenes from life, such as depicting farmers, metaphoric imagery, and landscapes. Brueghel's peasant studies, considered genre paintings, appear to have been observed empirically. However, they are somewhat stylized featuring bulky figures. His notable works include:

  • Blind Leading the Blind (1568)
  • The Hunters in the Snow (1565)
  • The Peasant Wedding (1566–1569)

A genre painting usually features scenes that were observed in real life.

Renaissance Art: Characteristics & Religion (8)

Peter Brueghel the Elder, The Peasant Dance, 1568. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain).

After the Renaissance: Baroque

After the Renaissance, came the Baroque style, which lasted from the 17th century until approximately the first third of the 18th century. This style appeared in visual arts, music, and architecture. Baroque was more detailed and exaggerated than its Renaissance counterpart. Baroque painters created a sense of drama, extravagant detail, and intense contrast between lights and darks (chiaroscuro). Baroque is sometimes associated with the Counter-Reformation.

Renaissance Art - Key Takeaways

  • Renaissance art originated in Italy, spread to northern Europe, and flourished between the 14th and 16th centuries.
  • Renaissance art (painting, sculpture, and architecture) was inspired by humanist thought and Greco-Roman culture.
  • Renaissance art is usually associated with Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo in Italy, and with Jan van Eyck, Albrecht Dürer, and Peter Brueghel the Elder in the north of Europe.
  • Renaissance art featured a more realistic portrayal of the human form, appropriate perspective giving depth to the works, the use of oil paint, and marble. The subjects ranged from Biblical themes to mythology, landscapes, and portraits of famous people.
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