How did religion influence subject matter and style of art during the Renaissance and Baroque eras? Consider the mingling of humanism and Christianity in Renaissance art and the effects of the Reformation, Counter-Reformation and iconoclasm during the Baroque period.
Regarding Renaissance art, religion played a significant role in shaping various ideas and themes represented through pieces of artwork from that period. Most notably, Christian art coexisted with motifs such as humanism and attention to viewer perspective, both of which made for a blending of styles as seen below in Masaccio’s “Holy Trinity.”
The painting depicts Christ in the center of a scene where an element of linearity was emphasized to direct onlookers to him through extensive usage of lines (as seen in the columns, plus on the ceiling above him) both of which are also geometrically composed, thereby adding an element of humanism as well. Biblical art also was in focus during that period but not without an added element that the Greeks have practiced in antiquity, the (near) nude freestanding posture. Alongside mixing of this Greek practice with religion, Renaissance artists like Michelangelo contributed to changing the depiction of religious art, as noted in one of his works where an interpretation of Adam and Eve evokes humanism as given by the highlighted and exposed naturalist setting accompanied with correctly proportioned and realistic human bodies.
Jumping ahead, as the effects of the Protestant Reformation had caused many to break away from the Catholic church, the general interest in detailing the natural world had still persisted but not without an increased interest in classic Italian model art. In that same period, German artist Albrecht Dürer had adopted this style and along with his native Northern take, yielded a blend of nature and the natural human body as depicted in his piece, “The Fall of Man” where Adam and Eve are once again the focus of both humanism and religion via the Bible. Meanwhile, the Counter-Reformation movement tried to reaffirm faith and religion in Catholicism by having the church renovate and recreate cathedrals and other places of worship. The architecture and design of these projects were meant to warmly welcome people back to the religious scene.
Around this period, a new era of art had emerged called Baroque which seemingly had evolved most ideas from the Renaissance period but with new twists. For example, the statue of David had a newer interpretation from artist Bernini as he is clothed and full of intense emotion when contrasted to Michelangelo’s more calmer and modest David. As Baroque art is defined as one that involves movement and theatrics, Bernini’s David wouldn’t be the only example of having a religious figure in such a dynamic fashion; Italian artist Caravaggio used raw emotion and tenebrism to convey the entombment of Christ as a very dark but also very dramatic account as one would be drawn to the fluidity of the figures’ movements and mood in the painting.
Lastly, as iconoclasm was being practiced by Protestants in the Baroque era, religious art was limited as there was little church commission and the severing of ties to Rome meant defiance against further emphasized Christian artwork. Nonetheless, artists like Rembrandt took religious art from Italy and the Northern countries and simply “improved” on them through new techniques and unusual compositions. Genre scenes depicting the biblical Last Judgement and behavioral postures reflected from a subject’s action and reaction to their background setting have also became practiced in this era with more emphasis on depicting moral messages as illustrated by Dutch artists.
In all, religion has influenced an artist’s subject matter and style in a multitude of ways; it all depends on the timeframe and what was popular and necessary to show through art during a given era. Generally, the Renaissance period was a comeback of ancient forms of artistic portrayal from the Greeks mixed in with humanist, Christian-influenced ideas and themes whereas the Baroque period continued this trend but due to the Catholic-Protestant split, had resulted in stronger and more visually encompassing art forms (i.e. dynamic movement in painted figures; more architecturally appealing places of worship) from the Catholics and more spiritual efforts (i.e. evoking the feeling of right or wrong not always necessarily with religious context) from the Protestants.