Renaissance Art Movement: History, Artworks, and Artists

Renaissance Art Movement History, Artworks, and Artists

Renaissance art is defined as the painting, sculpture, architecture and other decorative arts created in Europe between the 15th and 16th centuries, just after the Middle Ages. The Renaissance period provided a rebirth of classicism and an appreciation of the classical learning of ancient Greece and Rome, influencing fine art, literature and philosophy based on Idealism, Humanism and Rationalism.

Madonna and Child with Two Angels. Fra Filippo Lippi. 1465. Uffizi, Florence, Italy.

The Birth of Venus. 1485. Sandro Botticelli. Uffizi, Florence, Italy.

The Last Supper. Leonardo da Vinci, 1495-1498. Santa Maria Gracie, Milan, Italy.

Mona Lisa. Leonardo da Vinci. 1503. Louvre, Paris, France.

The Creation of Adam (1508-1512) Sistine Chapel, Vatican City, Italy

The School of Athens. 1511. Raphael.  Vatican Museum, Vatican City, Italy.

Proto Renaissance

Proto Renaissance from the late 13th to early 14th century was the precursor to Renaissance art. Giotto di Bondone (1267? -1337) whose work is categorized as Late Gothic, but with a stylized departure, was the influential artist who created solid three-dimensional human body figures. Born just outside of Florence, he painted chapels in not only Florence, but Assisi, Rome, Padua, and Naples in proto-Renaissance style. Artists drew inspiration from these works leading into the Early Renaissance.

Early Renaissance Art

Early Renaissance art 1401 to 1490 arrived after the Middle Ages or Medieval period. It was first represented by Italian Renaissance gold smith and sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti, who entered and won a competition to design the doors for the Baptistry of the Cathedral of Florence, in 1401. The North doors are comprised of 28 panels, in which 20 depict the life of Christ.

Next, he was tasked with creating the East gate, standing 17 feet tall, from 1425-1452, using three tons of bronze. So beautiful was the work of 10 panels, with scenes from the Old Testament, that Michelangelo called it The Gates of Paradise. This work greatly influenced the Italian Renaissance art and Florentine art in particular.

Renaissance Art in Florence

The Renaissance marked a new beginning. The Catholic Church still provided patronage to Italian Renaissance artists. However, ruling families in Italian city states such as Florence, Rome, Naples, Sienna, and Venice, were generous patrons. The most dominant was the Medici family of Florence who ruled for six decades. Cosimo the Elder (1389-1464)  was the first who set about beautifying the city. It was his grandson, Lorenzo de Medici, who ultimately became the city’s greatest supporter in Italian Renaissance.

Art was a show of prestige for which the wealthy banking rivals, the Pazzi family, were in continual competition with the Medicis. This kept Italian artists employed. Young artists began to be famous to the point of celebrity. Italian art thrived.

The Expansion of Renaissance Art

Renaissance art spread across the nation, and then into France during the 15th century, before becoming popular in other parts of northern Europe. Two similar, yet unique styles of  the Renaissance period are represented geographically as Southern (Italian Renaissance art) and Northern Renaissance art (1430-1580) in France, Belgium (Flanders), Holland, Germany and England.

High Renaissance Art

High Renaissance Art (1490-1527) was centered in Rome and the city drew the finest High Renaissance artists.  During this time Italian Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci completed painting Mona Lisa (1503-05); The Virgin of the Rocks (1485) and The Last Supper (1495-98). Leonardo favored the use of chiaroscuro but with a lighter hand. He invented sfumato enabling him to blend tones and colors gradually which softened outlines.

Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo (1475-1564) was an architect and sculptor who had just learned to paint when he received the commission to paint frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. Of the works he created here, one of the most famous The Creation of Adam (1508-1512) is painted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

High Renaissance artist Raphael (1483-1520) completed paintings including The School of Athens (1511); Sistine Madonna (1512), which incorporates the world’s most famous cherubs, and Transfigurations (1520). High Renaissance painters changed the course of art history and today are still household names through their artistic achievement.

What are characteristics of Renaissance art?

Renaissance art was in reaction to International Gothic. Initially works were religious but gradually moved toward secular themes and humanism, with interests in anatomy, the human body and mythology.

Paintings during the Renaissance era were centered on the human form as well as classical male nudity. Subjects were shown in contrapposto. Modeling of figures was achieved using shade and light, a technique known as chiaroscuro.  The illusion of three-dimensional space was created through linear perspective. Renaissance painting illustrated a sense of balance often using pyramidal composition.

Madonna and Child with Two Angels (1465) is a fifteenth century Italian Renaissance painting by artist Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-1469). The work was meant as a devotional object, to not only guide prayer, but illustrate the piety of the patron. The Florentine painter portrays Mary and Jesus in a very humanistic way, illustrating the love between a mother and child. Even an angel gazes out toward the viewer. Mary is idealized physically as a young, beautiful woman. The figures are given weight using light and shadow or chiaroscuro.

Rationalism in the work is achieved through the calmness of the scene set against the naturalistic backdrop of mountains and the sea, viewed through a widow sill, which acts as a frame for the painting.

Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli’s (1445-1510), masterful Birth of Venus (1484-1485) is a fifteenth century Italian Renaissance painting using tempera on wood, commissioned by Lorenzo de Medici . The life-sized work measures five feet six inches by 9 feet and draws the viewer into the world of mythology. The Greek goddess Venus, born fully nude, as an idealized adult woman is emerging from a seashell. Symbolically, the seashell is a representation of Venus as are the pink roses. The Greek god of the wind Zephyr blows the goddess to shore, while supporting a nymph wrapped around his waist. The work emphasises the natural world through the landscape, seashore and rocks.

Based on classic art and Greek sculpture, Venus is depicted modestly with her hands covering her nudity. The whiteness of Venus’s skin, along with the stance in contrapasso alludes to classical sculpture influences.

Sculpture during the Italian Renaissance era were large in scale like Greek and Roman sculpture. Male form dominated. David by Donatello, an Italian Renaissance sculpture was created in the 15th century between 1440-1460. Standing five feet and three inches tall, it is almost life sized. The sculpture is based on the story of the shepherd David who slays the giant Goliath, in the Old Testament.

Idealized and youthful, David is cast in bronze and depicted as heroic. Yet, he is naked except for his boots and hat. During this time in history nudity was considered shameful. This work commissioned by Lorenzo de Medici, focused on reviving classical learning, through ancient sculpture, into Renaissance culture and Western art.


The architecture of the Italian Renaissance era incorporated classical forms such as domes, coffers and triumphal arches based on ancient architecture. Exterior walls were made of stone or brick and decorative details were highly contrived to replicate the works from classical antiquity.

Columns were based on styles from ancient Greece and Rome including Corinthian, Iconic, Doric and Tuscan. These could be part of the supporting structure of the building or simply decorative. Columns were used in churches, palazzos and palaces. Ancient Roman portrait busts were being collected and repurposed as a decorative element.

Books, a newly printed media, helped to spread the ideas of architecture. On the Subject of Building, the 1450 publication by architect Leon Battista Alberti became a popular reference guide. Alberti (1404-1472) is considered a founder of early Renaissance architecture.

Alberti is best known for his work on Palazzo Rucellai, in Florence. It was constructed using eight existing buildings that were redesigned and made into one residential space. The structure is comprised of a tripartite façade or a middle, base, and capital or cornice. Each level gradually decreases in size as it progresses upward giving the appearance of lightness. The architect used Roman arches and columns to frame windows and doors.

Engineer and architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) based his work on mathematical concepts, linear perspective, proportion and symmetry, all influenced through classical art and architecture. One of his most impressive projects is the Santa Maria del Fiore (the Duomo or Florence Cathedral) was constructed between 1420-1436. The Gothic church was designed by di Cambio but had remained roofless. Brunelleschi designed a classical Roman dome that he managed to blend into the existing architecture. His career flourished and he became the most famous architect of the Renaissance era.


Northern Renaissance Art

Northern Renaissance art (1430-1580) flourished, purchased by the increasing mercantile class made wealthy by trade. Like the Italian artists, northern Renaissance artists were attracted to subject matter depicting humanism, especially noted in religious subject matter. The Annunciation began to appear in everyday scenes of in Northern Europe. Halos were removed to make figures appear more humanized.

Northern Renaissance painters were recognised for extreme realism through oil painting. Tempura paint used by contempories in the south were replaced by oils allowing for greater detail. Glazes applied in layers allowed artists to produced light and reflective surfaces.

Symbolism provided narrative within the artwork of Northern Europe, although much was disguised. The term disguised symbolism is illustrated in artwork when everyday objects are given religious meaning.

Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece) the Flemish three panel artwork from the  Northern European workshop of Robert Campin was created between 1427-1432. The center scene shows the angel Gabriel visiting the Virgin Mary at her home illustrating a humanistic quality. It is rich with symbolism such as lilies representing Mary’s purity. The candlestick when lit symbolized the define light and presence of God, but here it is painted as recently extinguished foreshadowing the Crucifixion of Christ.

The panel in the right shows Joseph in his workshop, while the panel on the left is a painting of the wealthy, pious patrons witnessing the Annunciation. Details are deeply pronounced, and textures are highlighted in all painted elements of this altarpiece.

Arnolfini Portrait by Renaissance artist Jan van Eyck, court painter to the Duke of Burgundy, in the fifteenth century, is another Flemish work from the Northern Renaissance period, painted in 1434. The oil painting is so full of symbolism and mystery that art historians are still debating exactly what it means. A couple stands holding hands, while the arriving guests can only be seen in a reflection of the mirror. The woman’s green dress is a symbol of hope and the cherry tree outside symbolizes fertility. Textures are greatly detailed as noted in the fabrics of clothing and the rugs.

Engraving and print making were prevalent in Northern Europe, with amazing detail and line, by cutting metal surfaces to produce design, that were then transferred to paper. The most famous artist in this genre was German born Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), nicknamed “Leonardo of the North”. Famed works produced during his lifetime include: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; Self Portrait with Fur-Trimmed Robe; Young Hair; The Feast of the Rosary; Praying Hands; Melencolia I; The Rhinocerus; and Adam and Eve.

The Decline of Renaissance Art

Renaissance art made a slow decline after the High Renaissance, where the course of art history began to move away from the classical spirit, with the introduction of the Mannerist style.


Notable Renaissance Artists

  • Giotto di Bondone (1267? -1337)
  • Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455) Italian
  • Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) Italian
  • Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-1469) Italian
  • Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) Italian
  • Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) Italian
  • Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) Italian
  • Raphael (1483-1520) Italian
  • Michelangelo (1475-1564) Italian
  • Jan van Eyck (1390-1441) Flemish (Belgium)
  • Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) German


Related Art Terms

  • Tempera
  • Fresco
  • Perspective
  • Pyramidal Composition
  • Sfumato
  • Chiaroscuro
  • Contrapposto
  • Disguised Symbolism
  • Triptych
  • Tripartite Façade
  • Domes
  • Coffers
  • Triumphal Arches