The Renaissance and Icons

I recently gave a talk at the Church of the Redeemer in Sarasota Florida on the Renaissance and Icons for an Advent series on church art. The following are excerpts from that talk:

Trinity by Massaccio

The Reniassance was making its appearance in art as early as the 14th century in Italy with the art of Massaccio and Giotto.    The art of the fourteenth century was a balance of medieval art and the new developments in art that included three point perspective.  

The contemporary of Donatello, Masaccio, was the painterly descendant of Giotto and began the Early Renaissance in Italian painting in 1425, furthering the trend towards solidity of form and naturalism of face and gesture that Giotto had begun a century earlier.  From 1425–1428, Masaccio completed several panel paintings but is best known for the fresco cycle that he began in the Brancacci Chapel with the older artist Masolino and which had profound influence on later painters, including Michelangelo. 

The Shift from A Theistic Worldview to Humanism

Often the term Renaissance  is used to describe an attitude toward life which valued Earth more than heaven, the immortality of fame rather than the immortality of the soul, self cultivation more than self effacement, the delights of the flesh more than asceticism, the striving for success more than justice, individual and intellectual freedom rather than authority, and Classical humanism more than Christianity.

The Renaissance ushered in, along with more naturalistic art forms, a humanist view of the world.  It was a new dawning where man considered himself master of the world.  This is a secular worldview in which God is marginalized.

Until the Renaissance, beauty and holiness were inextricably connected in art for worship, evoking the presence of God.  After the rise of realism, artistic virtuosity and competitive patronage began to be the engine that drove the production of art. The previous theistic worldview of the medieval and dark ages was shattered by the desire for carnal gratification and political power especially in Rome.

Ghirlandaio, Adoration

Ghirlandaio was part of the so-called “third generation” of the Florentine Renaissance, along with Verrocchio, and Sandro Botticelli.

This new attitude of realism and illusionistic perspective is clearly reflected in the art of the period.  

But the Renaissance is a study in contrasts  because it is also true that the genius of that age has rarely been equaled and never surpassed.

Later, all of Europe, from Spain to Poland wanted to emulate the Italian example of Renaissance painting.

Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael

Leonardo DaVinci The Virgin, Christ Child and Saint Ann

Leonardo da Vinci  was a painter, mathematician,, engineer and inventor.  Michelangelo a sculptor, painter, architect and poet. Both were passionate about learning how to represent the natural world and this included dissecting cadavers in order to accurately depict human musculature.

Michelangelo- Sistine Chapel

Standing alongside Leonardo and Michelangelo as the third great painter of the High Renaissance was the younger Raphael, His death in 1520 at age 37 is considered by many art historians to be the end of the High Renaissance period, although some individual artists continued working in the High Renaissance style for many years thereafter.

Raphael’s Madonna and Child

The Eastern Branch of the Church inRussia

Madonna of the Passion Icon

Russian Piety differed from the west and even from other Orthodox churches.    In Russia, religion stressed piety and self sacrifice. Such meekness was characteristic of the Russian ideal which encouraged the surrender of self in favor of a larger good, the family or the nation.

Andrei Rublev’s Madonna and Child Icon

Salvation meant not only the attainment of individual perfection, but also the transformation of society and of all mankind into nobler and holier forms.  For it was believed that the entire nation was holy and that each facet of daily life could be sanctified.  Meek behavior and proper manners were a religious as well as a social \ obligation. For the Russians, Christianity reinforced and broadened the ancient Russian Traditions that had considered each individual to be profoundly responsible for the well being of his neighbors and of all humanity. The art form for churches in Russia during the Renaissance period was Icons. They avoided naturalistic and illusionistic rendering and space in their work in order to keep the focus on God’s world.

The early Church Fathers of the Ninth Century wisely decided that the iconic tradition as a visual witness to faith appeals more to the heart than the intellect.  It is said that a painting offers us a window onto the world.  An icon does the same, except that it offers us a window into the invisible world of God- they make manifest to us the Kingdom of heaven. They portray to us not what we encounter in everyday life, but instead they picture a transfigured world, a world that is seen by the soul and not the eyes.

Rublev’s Christ Icon

In the icon we witness a world that is whole, an image of eternity.  The icon has come to be regarded not only as a work of art, but also  as a witness to the Christian faith in the incarnation of God. And that is why, as Iconographers, we only use models for our Icons from before the Renaissance period, ignorer to avoid the shift from a theistic world view to a humanist one.

Crucifixion Icon, C. Hales

 Father God, we ask that every time humanity loses its way, you will lift us up and set us out again on the right path, your path.  Beauty will save the world!

May the God of hope fill us with all joy and peace in believing through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

Blessings for a Safe and Healthy New Year!

Christine Simoneau Hales

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