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In What Ways Did Renaissance Art Incorporate Both Christian and Classical Themes?

Working towards a Bachelor of Arts, Simran writes articles on modern history, art theory, religion, mythology, and analyses of texts.

How did Christian and classical themes influence Renaissance artists?

How did Christian and classical themes influence Renaissance artists?

Renaissance Arts

Artists of the Renaissance period wove classical and Christian themes into their art. Italian Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli painted the ‘Birth of Venus,’ which portrayed both Classical mythology and ideals.

The aesthetic beauty of the human form in the Classical era was adopted through the painting, portraying the birth of love and beauty within the myth of Aphrodite’s birth.

Botticelli drew inspiration from Praxiteles’ ‘Capitoline Venus’ (4th century BC), ‘Aphrodite of Knidos’ (4th BC), Homer, Ovid, and ‘Venus Rising from the Sea’ by Apelles. Lorenzo Ghiberti’s 'Baptism of Christ' (1378-1455) was like the composition of ‘Birth of Venus,' portraying the Christian rite of Baptism.

'Baptism of Christ' delineated scriptures from the Bible to create a visual representation of Christianity for the illiterate in Renaissance Italy. Ultimately, Christian and classical themes were integrated into the Renaissance artists’ quests to depict aesthetic beauty and religious ideas.

Renaissance artists such as Botticelli and Ghiberti incorporated themes and ideas from the Classical period and Christianity. According to Aristotle, a beautiful face and body were divine blessings (Cicero 1896).

Classical artworks portrayed human figures as realistic and transcendent on painted ceramics, drawings, sculptures, and paintings (Macaulay 2015). In the Renaissance period, there was a resurgence of interest in classical thought and art since texts on Greek history, philosophy and law were translated.

Art aligned with the development of humanistic culture, idealising concepts of geometric proportions and aesthetic beauty historically provided by classical thinkers (Seiferle 2021). The ‘Birth of Venus’ was commissioned by a wealthy Florentine family, portraying a woman with Italian Renaissance qualities such as pale skin and an extended neckline (Winterson 2014).

Historian Bettany Hughes stated the ideal Classical woman was a full-figured redhead as portrayed by Botticelli’s Venus (BBC News 2015). These ideals of beauty and thought were thoroughly integrated into the renaissance artworks, while Christian themes were portrayed in both ‘Birth of Venus’ and ‘Baptism of Christ.’

Figure 2: Lorenzo Ghiberti, Baptism of Christ. 1378-1455, Gilt bronze, 45 x 52 cm. Reproduced from: fifth panel of the North Doors of the Baptistery of San Giovanni.

Figure 2: Lorenzo Ghiberti, Baptism of Christ. 1378-1455, Gilt bronze, 45 x 52 cm. Reproduced from: fifth panel of the North Doors of the Baptistery of San Giovanni.

The Christian rite of Baptism was portrayed in the door panel 'Baptism of Christ' which illustrated the death and resurrection of Christ. Renaissance churches were patrons of the arts, assisting the illiterate envision Biblical stories and devote themselves to (Christ Bloch 2009).

There was a contest held by the Arte di Calimala, where ‘Baptism of Christ’ was one of the 28 panels depicting the life of Chris in the baptistery, Florence (Hornik, Heidi J., Parsons, Mikeal C. 2015.)

The act of Baptism was a symbolic burial and resurrection to walk a new life as a Christian, (Peterson, Eugene H. 2018) symbolic of trusting and loving Christ (Hillsong 2021). Therefore, both Classical and Christian themes and ideas were expressed throughout Renaissance art.

Sandro Botticelli's ‘Birth of Venus’ was a prime example of how Renaissance art incorporated both Classical and Christian themes. The Greco-Roman myth of the birth of Venus was captured in Botticelli’s work, which was inspired by the Homeric hymn to Aphrodite.

Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite

“To Sea-set Kypros the moist breath of the western wind (Zephryos) wafted her [Aphrodite] over the waves … and there the gold-filleted Horai (Seasons) welcomed her joyously”

— Homer and Hesiod, 2008

The painting depicted this scene as the symbolic birth of love and beauty within this world, as accentuated by the pink flowers blowing in the wind, the bright colours and the beauty of Aphrodite (University of Birmingham 2017).

The red hair to the full figure alluded to the beauty standards of Classical artists. Her birth signified the rebirth of hope, beauty, spirituality, love, along with a social and cultural shift after the Middle Ages (Takac, Balasz 2018). Botticelli’s Venus showed the underlining the beauty and dignity of the human form prized in Classical society, thus thoroughly integrated into the Renaissance artworks.

By appealing to what was considered beautiful in Classical times, the artwork was a clear representation of how Classical concepts influenced Renaissance art. The style of chiaroscuro (Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia 2018) was utilised to create a three-dimensional form, and the statuette influence of her body was viewed in her milky complexion as though she was made of marble.

For example, she was in the Venus pudica pose where she covered her breast and pubic area as seen in ‘Capitoline Venus’ (4th century BC), standing as described by Ovid, “Venus herself… as she lays aside her robes... covers with her left hand her modesty” (Ovid. 1929). The dignity of the human form was represented through the themes of beauty elicited by the goddess and her nudity.

The painting paid homage to an artwork called ‘Venus Rising from the Sea’ by Apelles which centralised Venus’ beauty and nudity (Chaliakopoulos, Antonis 2020.). Thus, as ‘The Birth of Venus’ repeated existing concepts from Classical writings and artworks, delineating how Renaissance art intertwined Classical themes and ideas.

Figure 3: Praxiteles, Capitoline Venus. 4th century BC. Marble sculpture,193 cm. Reproduced from: Capitoline Museum.

Figure 3: Praxiteles, Capitoline Venus. 4th century BC. Marble sculpture,193 cm. Reproduced from: Capitoline Museum.

Figure 4: Apelles, Venus Rising from the Sea. 1st Century CE. Fresco, Unknown dimensions. Reproduced from: House of Venus.

Figure 4: Apelles, Venus Rising from the Sea. 1st Century CE. Fresco, Unknown dimensions. Reproduced from: House of Venus.

Ritualist concepts of Baptisms were depicted in Renaissance art, showcasing how artists integrated themes of Christianity into their art. In Ghiberti’s 'Baptism of Christ', Jesus was depicted as being baptised by his cousin, John the Baptist with a dove that symbolised peace and the Holy Spirit, descending from the heavens while Christ prays (Peterson, Eugene H. 2018.)

The composition between ‘Birth of Venus’ and 'Baptism of Christ' were strikingly similar where there was an angel flying to the left, a nude figure in the middle, and a person with an outstretched arm on the right (Krén, Emil, Marx, Daniel n.d.) A repetition of angels drawn with soft, curved lines immersed the sky while wiggly lines highlight the waves of the water and the land John the Baptist stood upon. Both Christ and Aphrodite were immersed in water as though undergoing a traditional baptism.

Botticelli’s work represented the birth of love while Ghiberti’s Christ represented a rebirth as a Christian via the holy spirit, his stance used by classical Greek sculptors (Hornik, Heidi J., Parsons, Mikeal C. 2015.) Henceforth, Christianity and Classical themes were expressed through Renaissance art through the portrayal of Baptism.

Classical and Christian ideas were thoroughly expressed through Renaissance art. Themes such as aesthetic beauty were portrayed through artworks such as ‘Birth of Venus’. Botticelli utilised elements from artworks and texts such as ‘Capitoline Venus’, the ‘Aphrodite of Knidos’ and works of Ovid.

Beauty was a vital theme within Classical art, as expressed by Botticelli’s depiction of Venus portrayed with red hair and a voluptuous body. The Christian rite of Baptism was present in ‘Birth of Venus’ and 'Baptism of Christ' as immersed in water, the central figures signified the birth of love and the rebirth of Christ.

Just as Renaissance artists were inspired by the Classical period and Christianity, generations will continue to look to the past to master their practice in the present.

Reference List

BBC News. 2015. “Would You Be Beautiful in the Ancient World?” BBC News (forthcoming).

Bloch, Amy R. 2009. Baptism and the frame of the south door of the Baptistery, Florence.” The Sculpture Journal 18 (1) 24-37.

Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. 2018. "Panorama." Encyclopedia Britannica.

Chaliakopoulos, Antonis. 2020. “Apelles: Antiquity’s Greatest Painter.” The Collector.

Cicero, Marcus Tullius. 1896. In On the Nature of the Gods. 1st Edition. London: Francis Brooks.

Hillsong. 2021. “What Is Baptism?” Hillsong.

Homer and Hesiod. 2008. Hesiod, The Homeric Hymns, and Homerica. 1st Edition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Hornik, Heidi J., Parsons, Mikeal C. 2015. “Baptism of Christ, by Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378–1455)”. Christian Century magazine (forthcoming).

Krén, Emil, Marx, Daniel n.d. “Baptism of Christ.” Web Gallery of Art.

Macaulay, Alastair 2015. “The Body Beautiful: The Classical Ideal in Ancient Greek Art.” The New York Times (forthcoming).

Ovid. 1929. Ovid; the Art of love, and other poems. 1st Edition. London: W. Heinemann.

Peterson, Eugene H. 2018. “Colossians 2:12-15”. Bible Gateway.

Peterson, Eugene H. 2018. “Luke 3:21-22”. Bible Gateway.

Seiferle, Rebecca. 2021. "Renaissance Humanism Definition Overview and Analysis". The Art Story (forthcoming).

Takac, Balasz. 2018. “The Birth of Venus - Breaking Down the Meaning of Famous Botticelli Painting.” Widewalls.

University of Birmingham. 2017. Botticelli - The Birth of Venus. Youtube video, 18:19.

Winterson. 2014. “Who Was Botticelli's Famous Venus?” The Winterson Journal (blog), February 25, 2014.

Botticelli - The Birth of Venus

The Birth of Venus (Art History Documentary) | Perspective

© 2021 Simran Singh


Iqra from East County on May 03, 2021:

A great article, It seems Christian art is never without a nod to classicism, but where early Christians utilized Roman religious symbols, Renaissance Christians embraced both the art and philosophy of the ancients.