108: Period of the Renaissance

Published by S.D. Cason Admin on Ecclesiastical Art History

Period of the Renaissance Audio

The great era of transition from the Middle Ages to modern times which is called the Renaissance may be divided into the three periods of the Early Renaissance, Full Renaissance, and Late Renaissance. Here again the influence of the Church is found just as strong and as defined as in the past. The growing desire to have magnificent churches created the necessity for other workers in art.

The first years of this period give in Italy the earliest workers known by name in fresco, and in portable pictures, Cimabue, Orcagna, Giotto, and others. In their "frescoed theology", decorating the churches of Assisi, Siena, Pisa and other parts of Italy, is seen the beginning of the long list of painters whom the Church enlisted in her service.

In bronze work Ghiberti produced the gates of the baptistery of Florence and with the appearance of Brunelleschi a new school of architecture for ecclesiastical buildings arose.

In this period belongs also the introduction of printing and here again, just as emphatically, the Church took the lead. The earliest printers mere Churchmen belonging to a religious order; the earliest books those of religion — the first actual printed sheet being the Indulgence of Pope Nicholas V — followed by a long list of religious and liturgical works, Sacred Scriptures, and patristic literature.

In the Low Countries the Van Eycks developed the methods of oil-painting and there arose a great school of artists, among whom were Van der Goes, Van der Weyden, Bouts, Cristus, Memling, and others who formed the transition from the Gothic school. Their most important works were altarpieces, and in some cases all their paintings were of a religious character, while in others the paintings not religious were portraits of the various patrons who had commissioned the altar-pieces, or who had their own private chapels decorated by these artists, therefore the intimate connexion between art and the Church was just as close as ever.

Towards the close of the Early Renaissance period is found the work in sculpture of Donatello and those of his school, Desiderio da Settignano, the Rossellini, Duccio, Verrochio, and Mino da Fiesole almost all the fine work of these men was for ecclesiastical purposes. Here and there are single detached statues, as for example the one of St. George by Donatello, but then it must be remembered that these were figures of saints, and intended for buildings more or less of a religious character, or for those erected by guilds distinctly religious, while some of the sculptors named, as for example Duccio of Perugia, were only known by the work they executed for the decoration of churches.

During this period among the workers in Germany were Adam Kraft, Veit Stoss, and the Vischers, who are associated with the superb tabernacle, the series of Stations of the Cross and the great bronze shrine in Nuremberg, all objects intimately connected with religious work. In England, the tomb of Henry VI and that of Henry VII by Torrigiano, both at Westminster must not be overlooked.

Every branch of artistic craftsmanship was at this time employed for the benefit of the Church. Finiguerra, Ghiberti, and others were at work at the great silver altar of the Florentine baptistery. The jewelers, Ghirlandajo, Verrochio and Francia were making jewels for altar vestments, medals for the great ecclesiastics, and pictures for the churches; Luca della Robbia was preparing his vitrified enamel medallions, that he might present the Blessed Virgin and her Child in attitudes of the most perfect tenderness on the exteriors of the churches and on the corners of the streets, while other potters were marking the sacred emblems on their finest productions, or painting religious scenes upon their vases and majolica plates.

The Arras tapestries of France, the English tapestries of Coventry, and the Van Eyck tapestries of Flanders, were being woven for the hangings of the churches, while Benedetto da Maiano was bringing his intarsia work to perfection that he might apply it to the decoration of the choir-stalls in the great churches of Italy. It was at this time that the great monastic painter Fra Angelico decorated the cells of San Marco with his perfect representations of the great events in the Divine Tragedy, while Gozzoli, Lippi, and Ghirlandajo adorned the churches, and Perugino, Pinturicchio, Francia, Albertinelli and Fra Bartolomeo, almost exclusively religious painters, prepared those masterpieces of religious art to set upon the altars of the private chapels and great churches of the day, that are now among the treasured masterpieces of all time.

This era was also the period of Humanism, of the return to the love of the classics. It may be difficult in this complex period to mark the boundary line between religion and that strange paganism which was an emblem of the classical revival, but the Certosa of Pavia and the work of the early German painters, represented by such men as Schongauer and the elder Holbein, mark that side by side with the Humanistic movement there was a strong religious one. In this religious movement art had its full share, and engaged in its tasks, not perhaps with the austere simplicity and singleness of aim which belonged to an earlier period, but still with a definite determination that the best products of artistic craftsmanship should be devoted to the service of God.

There was, however, a growing desire that the home should be more beautiful and more luxurious. The decoration of churches was ceasing to be the sole aim of the art-worker, and he was finding other fields, but the chief encouragement of art still came from the Church and for the Church, and even upon domestic work the Church set her hand and seal.

The period of the Full Renaissance may be taken as lasting from 1450 to 1550, and here must be noticed the advent of a new movement in art, or at least a stronger development of what had undoubtedly begun to arise in the previous century. Hitherto, in pictorial art, notably in that of Italy the aims had been form drawing, composition, devotion and the expression of spiritual conceptions rather than colour; but in the Venetian School, that took its rise in the earlier century with the first Bellini, Carpaccio and Crivelli, and that was to see its development at this time in the later Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, Paolo Veronese, and Tintoretto, the claims of colour gain a supremacy over the kindred branches of pictorial art. The Venetian School is the one in which brilliant colour attains to its apotheosis; and everything else is subservient to it.

The simplicity of aim which characterized such a man as Fra Angelico passed away, the devotional feeling that marked the works of Albertinelli and Fra Bartolomeo gave place to an overpowering desire for decoration as such, and in Venice, although the Church commissioned the great altar-pieces and the schemes of interior ornamentation for which these noble artists were responsible, it had to be content to accept Venetian tradition and to see religious scenes treated as gorgeous pieces of sumptuously coloured decoration.

Although there might not be the simplicity of a past generation, yet there still existed in the artists the same desire to offer to the Church the greatest works of their genius. In this period of the Full Renaissance are found the work of Raphael and of Michelangelo; of Clouet, Mabuse, and Scorel; of Dürer, Holbein, and Cranach; of Leonardo da Vinci and of Correggio, while in applied arts there was immense industry and great development. The German metal-workers and goldsmiths prepared church vessels innumerable; Cellini and Caradosso produced ornaments for church vestments; the screen and the woodwork for King's College Chapel, Cambridge, typified the ecclesiastical wood-carving of the time in England; while the stained-glass windows at King's College Chapel, in other chapels, and in great churches show ecclesiastical art.

The fall of Florence marked the close of the period of great art in that city while the paintings and tapestry executed for Francis I at Fontainebleau, for Lewis at Tours, and some sculpture done by Michelangelo for the Medici Chapel, all point out the enhanced power of the Humanistic movement and the destruction of that devotion to faith which had been so marked a feature of the earlier centuries.

The epoch of the Late Renaissance, extending from 1500 to 1600, and overlapping that of the Full Renaissance was still, however, distinguished by a considerable amount of earnest religious fervour in art.

The paintings of Luini, Gaudenzio Ferrari, Andra del Sarto, Sodoma, Bronzino, and Peruzzi, are strongly religious, full of right feeling, and almost exclusively done for churches, religious houses, guild chapels, and private oratories, but outside of Italy the connexion between the Church and art is by no means so apparent.

Spanish supremacy in Northern Europe had been destroyed, and 1576 was marked by the rapid decline of Spain. The Iberian goldsmiths and iron-workers still certainly produced their famous grilles, jewels, morses, chalices, and crucifixes while in needle-work the finest workers of Castile were elaborating some of the most perfect examples of church vestments that have ever been produced. In bronze, the smiths of Aragon were casting superb church candelabra, and some of the weavers in France and England were producing tapestry decoration for churches; but the greater part of the Gobelin, Brussels, and Mortlake tapestry-weaving; was for domestic use, the greatest architects were working on domestic architecture, the potters on domestic pottery, and the printers and engravers upon work which cannot be termed religious.

The names of certain men stand out, however, as representing persons of deep personal religion, who brought their own devotion to duty to bear upon the work they executed. Such men were Giulio Romano, Palladio, and the Behaims, but the period of that supreme hold which the Church had retained upon the art of the world, which she had initiated, developed, and encouraged, was passing away, never more to appear in its full fruition.

Some reference should be made to the system under which during this time many of the great decorative schemes of Italian painting were executed. The encouragement which the Church gave to the Italian painters took various forms. It was permissible for an influential or a wealthy family to have allotted to it a small chapel in the large parish or town church, and the decoration of the chapel was left to the care of the family whose name it received. In some cases, these chapels were built onto the church, and in such instances an architect, a builder, a decorator, and an artist were all employed. and the Church gladly gave permission for such additions to the church structure, in order that the family might have a meeting-place and an opportunity to make an endowment for perpetual Masses for its deceased members.

In cases where a new structure was not erected, a portion of the existing church was enclosed as a private chapel, perhaps in memory of a father, a mother, or some children and a painter of repute was called in to devise a scheme of decoration for its walls, in which would be introduced the figures of saints to whom the deceased persons had been dedicated, or scenes from the lives of such saints; in many cases life-size figures of the saints were represented with their hands upon the kneeling figures of the donors of the chapel. There was no thought of an anachronism; it was considered perfectly right that representations of persons who had died but a few weeks or months before should be introduced into the scenes in which the saints of early church history were depicted. It then became the ambition of later members to add to the beauty of the family chapel as means allowed. The walls having been decorated, an altar-piece would be painted by another artist, while perhaps, following him, yet a third would ornament the front of the altar, or craftsmen would be called in to supply objects used in the sacred service or vestments and books for the priests. In this way these little chapels became shrines for artistic work, the productions of many hands, representing the desires of many persons to place the best of work at the service of the Church, to act dutifully towards the family itself, and to make a suitable offering in recompense for crimes committed.

Another course sometimes adopted was to call in two painters, rivals in their profession, to decorate different walls of a church, or the two sides of an altar-piece, or again, when some great addition was made to the fabric on account of an important event, such as the canonization of a local saint, or a marked interposition of Providence on behalf of the town, different influential persons in the place would undertake to be responsible for portions of the building, each calling in his own favourite painter and in this way the work would be completed. Or it might be that an order desired to decorate a church dedicated to its patron saint, and the commission would be given to some notable artist, who perhaps was unable to complete the task or who died before its completion. In such cases, others were called in to complete it, and in this way the fabric was beautified by various successive hands.

The number of definitely personal commissions which the sixteenth-century artist had was small, as even in the instances where a patron ordered a picture, it was generally an altar-piece for the family chapel, or else the decoration of some building belonging to the trade guild to which he was attached, and this trade guild being nearly always a religious association, the commission came under the category of religious work.

It is all this which marks the great distinction between art and craftsmanship previous to the sixteenth century and after it. In the period from the triumph of Christianity to about 1260 in Italy, and about 1460 in Northern Europe, the dominant art is architecture, chiefly employed in the service of the Church, and the arts of painting and carving were only applied subordinated for its enrichment. During the Renaissance period the imitative arts, sculpture, painting, and the various art-crafts began to develop and detach themselves, to exist and strive after perfection on their own account, and while architecture still held an important position, it was no longer dominant; the arts which supplied the interior decoration of the building, and the objects needed in the service of the Church ceased to be considered as subordinate, but were taking each its own high position under the guidance of workers of supreme genius.

From the period, however, of the Full Renaissance the great dignity of architecture begins to diminish, especially as regards ecclesiastical buildings, and architects devoted themselves almost exclusively to domestic and civic work. Architecture ceased to be personal, democratic, local, and became professional and more or less uniform throughout the whole of Europe, while it suffered severely because the designing of detail became in many, cases the work of others than the executant workmen. The same sort of difficulty was befalling the pictorial art and the arts of the craftsmen. The personal element was no longer the main strength of an art. The ecclesiastical side of the work was almost non-existent, and the crafts suffered by reason of the fact that the commercial element had entered into art and the adornment of the house, the palace, and the person was considered of far greater importance than the adornment of the church, and the sacrifice of the life of the worker for the greater glory of God.