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Christian Art and Renaissance in Western Art: The Main Themes for Each Period

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From late antiquity forward, Christianity was integral to European culture, and the life of Christ was understood (as it is still) as an essential embodiment of Christian teachings. This explains the prevalence of scenes from Christ’s life in European art, and yet there is more to the story

In a society that laid great emphasis on religion and required religious images, artists performed an indispensable service and had to work within the structure of tradition. It is often assumed that such conditions would stifle creativity, but thoughtful observation shows that this is not so. The most ambitious illustrations of Christ’s life show full-blown inventiveness, and even lesser examples demonstrate the fruitful interaction of the artist’s imagination and society’s requirements.

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A striking aspect of the Christian art of the third century is the absence of the imagery that will dominate later Christian art. We do not find in this early period images of the Nativity, Crucifixion, or Resurrection of Christ, for example. This absence of direct images of the life of Christ is best explained by the status of Christianity as a mystery religion. The story of the Crucifixion and Resurrection would be part of the secrets of the cult. While not directly representing these central Christian images, the theme of death and resurrection was represented through a series of images, many of which were derived from the Old Testament that echoed the themes. For example, the story of Jonah—being swallowed by a great fish and then after spending three days and three nights in the belly of the beast is vomited out on dry ground—was seen by early Christians as an anticipation or prefiguration of the story of Christ's own death and resurrection. Images of Jonah, along with those of Daniel in the Lion's Den, the Three Hebrews in the Firey Furnace, Moses Striking the Rock, among others, are widely popular in the Christian art of the third century, both in paintings and on sarcophagi. All of these can be seen to allegorically allude to the principal narratives of the life of Christ. The common subject of salvation echoes the major emphasis in the mystery religions on personal salvation. The appearance of these subjects frequently adjacent to each other in the catacombs and sarcophagi can be read as a visual litany: save me Lord as you have saved Jonah from the belly of the great fish, save me Lord as you have saved the Hebrews in the desert, save me Lord as you have saved Daniel in the Lion's den, etc.

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Masaccio clearly aims at using the perspective as the key method of expression and the means of structuring both the picture and the messages behind it. As Adams has noted, “Masaccio follows Brunelleschi’s system in which viewers are assumed to look upward” (Adams 92), and this shows in The Virgin and the Child – the Virgin Mary looks downwards, as if trying to reach out for the crowd beneath; the entire picture looks very massive and does not create the impression that there is a connection between the picture and the viewer

The use of parallel verticals should also be noted as a very efficient way of rendering the concept of orderliness, which provides the basis for the Christian religion.At first, the similarity between Masaccio’s Madonna and the representation of the Virgin Mary by Lippi is embarrassingly obvious. Seeing how Masaccio’s works have had a direct effect on Lippi’s art, the link between the artists’ visions of Madonna is quite expected, though. One should note, though, that the choice of the stylistic means of expression, which Lippi picked for his portrayal of Madonna, has defined the uniqueness of his artistic style, at the same time allowing to keep the original message intact (Christiansen 39).

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As shown above, scholars no longer believe that the Renaissance marked an abrupt break with medieval values, as is suggested by the French word renaissance, literally “rebirth.” Rather, historical sources suggest that interest in nature, humanistic learning, and individualism were already present in the late medieval period and became dominant in 15th- and 16th-century Italy concurrently with social and economic changes such as the secularization of daily life, the rise of a rational money-credit economy, and greatly increased social mobility.

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Adams, Laure Schneider. Italian Renaissance Art. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. 2001. Print.

Castagno, Andrea del. The Last Supper. 1447. Web.

Christiansen, Keith. “Florence: Filippo Lippi and Fra Carnevale.” From Filippo Lippi to Piero Della Francesca: Fra Carnevale and the Making of a Renaissance Master. Ed. Keith Christiansen. 2005. 39–66. Print.

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