When considering Europe, the great cultural capitals of Italy, Spain, and France have an almost mystical allure. The majesty of the architecture, the awe-inspiring sculptures, and the paintings of almost superhuman composition, feed the soul and captivate us with a fierce ferocity. No period in history contributed more to this than the Renaissance. But where did this sacred movement begin and why did it come into being?

What was the spark that ignited the greatest cultural revolution in all of history?

Could the European Renaissance of the middle ages be purely explained as a movement of heightened human creativity? What factors led to such an explosion of human creativity after the bleakness of the Early Middle Ages (also known as the Dark Ages)? Especially in Italy, which is considered to be the birthplace of Renaissance art and the home of the highest concentration of Renaissance born masterpieces known to man. Out of the long-standing darkness of the Middle Ages came the glorious creativity of the Renaissance… Why?

‘Madonna of the Book’ c.1480 by Sandro Botticelli. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The place of the Renaissance in history

In the history of Europe, the Middle Ages (or medieval period) lasted from the 5th to the 15th century. It began with the fall of the Western Roman Empire and merged into the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery towards its end. The Renaissance was a time of extreme creation and brilliant vision that occurred between 1300 and 1600 AD. It marked the transition from the turbulent late Middle Ages, a time of constant disease, superstition, war, conflicts and clashes of the people, to the Early Modern Ages. The European Renaissance was a time of cultural, political, artistic and economic rebirth.

Catholocism and the Renaissance

Entering this era, Christianity was also gradually blossoming into a more accessible religion. The birth of the Protestant Church happened during this period, and The Bible, thanks to the invention of the printing press in 1440, became more widely available. Catholicism, however, remained the primary religion of Western Europe, its influence at its strongest since the fall of Rome. Renaissance art, with its focus on depicting the majesty of Christianity and its Lord and Saints, flourished in parallel to this popularism. The art of this era is often referred to as Christian art.

The foundation of the Renaissance movement was the celebration of the Christian God. The dark uneducated and violent Early Middle Ages had passed and the wealth of the late Middle Ages had begun.

The Renaissance flourished in its efforts to depict God, religious iconography and Saintly scenes of brilliance. With the celebration of the Christian God came the celebration of humanity and huge leaps forward in technology, philosophy, creativity, and artistic techniques.

‘The creation of Adam’ (1512) – Michelangelo’s painting on the Sistine chapel’s ceiling. (Photo: Wikipedia)

‘The Last Supper’ (1498) by Leonardo da Vinci. (Photo: Wikipedia)

The reintroduction of classical works and a thirst for knowledge

It is hard to consider the position of the European Renaissance in history without also considering that it happened at a time of great, and never before seen, peace. The war between England and France had ended, peace reigned supreme across Northern Europe, and the wars in Italy only aided in the process of spreading ideas. Thinkers finally had the space to ponder, painters had the time to paint, scientists had new questions to ask and writers had material to write. All had much experience to draw from and newly attained resources.

Along side this, there were a great many works returned to circulation post the crusades. Inspiring materials from all across the Christian world were returned to circulation after the fall of the Byzantine Empire and Constantinople in 1453. This triggered a new thirst for Christian iconography, study, and academic research. The lifeblood of the Renaissance.

The birth of humanism, commission and the rising middle class

On the other edge of the coin, with the deepening of academic study, came a rise in literacy, free thinkers and ultimately humanism. This development, alongside the invention of the printing press allowing for the introduction of schools and universities, birthed a new sort of man. The Renaissance man. He was multifaceted, accomplished in many principles and had a thirst for multiple outlets and forms of expression. A true Renaissance man, such a Leonardo da Vinci for example, was a master of sculpture, anatomy, engineering, and painting.

Leonardo da Vinci. (Photo credit: Photo credit: Fæ on VisualHunt.com / CC BY)

All of a sudden there were great families commissioning works, studies, and sculpture. The concept of impressing one’s neighbor was deeply rooted in society, so privately funded pieces were suddenly a huge area of expansion for creativity. The Church was no longer the only paying customer. It was not unheard of for ‘great men’ to attempted to legitimize themselves with conspicuous investment in and public flaunting of art and architecture.

The Black Death

A rather more gloomy contributing factor to the ignition of the European Renaissance was the devastating effects of the Black Death. In the 14th century, the black death swept across Europe killing off more than a third of the population. Uncomfortably, the black death (or the plague) left survivors financially well off and living substantially better lives than before. There was simply more to go around fewer people.

This newly found surplus also led to people investing in art and culture, the finer things in life. The economic and social growth was enormous.

The great men of the Renaissance

The Renaissance period produced many geniuses from all across Europe, men such as Leonardo da Vinci, William Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Nicolaus Copernicus, Michel De Montaigne, and Galileo Galilei, all of whom are household names still to this day. These men were thinkers, writers, artists, and scientists. From Michel De Montaigne’s creation of humanist thought to the earth-shattering galactic realizations of Nicolaus Copernicus that our planet is not at the center of the Solar System. These men shaped the modern world, were the designers of the age of enlightenment and the creators of modernity.

They were indeed incredibly gifted individuals, many of whom believed their talents to be gifts from God. But one thing is for sure, without the preoccupation of peacetime, the new accessibility of literature, and the injection of privately owned fortunes investing in their endeavors, the Renaissance could never have found momentum.

Renaissance Philosophy Triggering a Dramatic Transformation

‘The School of Athens’ (1509–1511) by Raphael. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Ideologically speaking, the philosophy of promoting sharing love and compassion formed a profound humanist foundation in all strata of society, right at the beginning of the Renaissance.

These humane ideologies were like underground water penetrating widely and profoundly through every aspect of life. People then started to pursue the fulfillment of art and of other life-affirming practices.

A ‘great change’ in human ideology combined with a continued strong belief in the righteousness of God, led to a comprehensive development that produced the most brilliant period of cultural advancement known to civilization.

If the theme of God was the sole theme in art for the previous 5-7 centuries with restrained and limited forms, then in the Renaissance, the religious theme in art was expressed in a much richer manner. Merging the brilliance of man with the glory of God.

In terms of material and expressive form, Renaissance art is a period of radical experimentation and profound innovations across many disciplines. Painting with Oils was discovered during this time and has been used ever since. Theories on shaping techniques were also developed in this time, including the theory of perspective, the gold ratio, projection, anatomy… The list is endless.

The supernatural creativity of the Renaissance

Nine scenes from the Book of Genesis (1508-1512) – Michelangelo’s paintings on ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Many hold the view that the essence of the culture of mankind is passed down from heaven or at the very least inspired by its glory. It can be said that Renaissance art is a concrete testament to that.

The masters of this period pursued perfectionism, a comprehensive depiction of all aspects of their subject and complete anatomical accuracy in every painting and sculpture crafted.

Michelangelo is, in this sense, no exception.

The dedication it took to meet even just the physical demands of many of his works seems almost mortally impossible.

No other Renaissance masterpiece more proves this point than the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo. In order to complete the great masterpiece in the most immaculate detail, the painter had to lay face up for four years. A feat far surpassing that of the average human.

In other words, it could be argued that Renaissance painters were gifted special powers beyond the average human, bestowed upon them in order to produce higher depictions of the Lord.

To paint a muscle, an understanding of its anatomy is essential. To paint God, one must have an intimate insight into His glory.

‘The Conversion of Saul’ (1542–1545) by Michelangelo. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Under the correct circumstances the true power of man unfolds endlessly

‘The Last Judgment’ (1536–1541) – Michelangelo’s painting on the wall of Sistine Chapel. (Photo: Wikipedia)

It can be said that the Renaissance was the most beautiful period of human civilization for the past few thousands of years.

Newly found social mobility during a time of unprecedented peace, under the watchful eye of the church, provided the perfect environment for an intellectual and artistic revolution like none other. Human life was newly academic, economically diverse, especially imbued with modern humanistic thought and the continued belief in God, so little more could have happened than the introduction of the greatest minds the world has ever known.

These great minds contributed significantly to the process of human development and ushered in the modernist age. The cultural achievements left behind by the Renaissance masters are the most brilliant, most sophisticated and most divine treasures gifted to the world in its long history.

(The cover photo: ‘Annunciation’ by Leonardo da Vinci and Andrea del Verrocchio, dating from circa 1472–1475. (Photo: Wikipedia))