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  • nathan hayes

The Renaissance era, and how social class effected painting.

The Renaissance was a fervent period of European cultural, artistic, political and economic “rebirth” following the Middle Ages. Generally described as taking place from the 14th century to the 17th century, the Renaissance promoted the rediscovery of classical philosophy, literature and art. Some of the greatest thinkers, authors, statesmen, scientists and artists in human history thrived during this era, while global exploration opened up new lands and cultures to European commerce. The Renaissance is credited with bridging the gap between the Middle Ages and modern day civilisation. During the Middle Ages, a period that took place between the fall of ancient Rome in 476 A.D. and the beginning of the 14th century, Europeans made few advances in science and art. Also known as the “Dark Ages,” the era is often branded as a time of war, ignorance, famine and pandemics such as the Black Death .


During the 14th century a cultural movement called humanism began to gain momentum in Italy. Among its many principles, humanism promoted the idea that man was the centre of his own universe, and people should embrace human achievements in education, classical arts, literature and science. This allowed more artists and philosophers to work together and incorporate ideas, giving life to the renaissance era. Art, architecture and science were closely linked during the Renaissance. In fact, it was a unique time when these fields of study fused together seamlessly. For instance, artists like da Vinci, incorporated scientific principles, such as anatomy into their work, so they could recreate the human body with extraordinary precision. This aided the basis of Renaissance art to be characterised as realism and naturalism. Artists strived to depict people and objects in a true-to-life way. Architects such as Filippo Brunelleschi studied mathematics to accurately engineer and design immense buildings with expansive domes. Scientific discoveries led to major shifts in thinking: Galileo and Descartes presented a new view of astrology and mathematics, while Copernicus proposed that the Sun, not the Earth, was the centre of the solar system. I feel this time period was ground breaking towards where we are today, in society alone. And even though poverty and death still snuck its way back into society the way it is presented through history is so powerful towards how people felt at the time. Letting me indulge into how society may have depicted individuals, conveys this self identity and how it may have been put across in these paintings.


During this period, Religion was also at its highest, Humanism encouraged Europeans to question the role of the Roman Catholic church during the Renaissance. As more people learned how to read, write and interpret ideas, they began to closely examine and critique religion as they knew it. Also, the printing press allowed for texts, including the Bible, to be easily reproduced and widely read by the people, themselves, for the first time. I find this to really help my question of how self identity is portrayed through social classes, as during this time more people could be understood and opinions started to become more fluent. The world became more interconnected and more ideas were spread and ideas evolved, While many artists and thinkers used their talents to express new ideas, some Europeans took to the seas to learn more about the world around them. In a period known as the Age of Discovery, several important explorations were made. Voyagers launched expeditions to travel the entire globe. They discovered new shipping routes to the Americas, India and the Far East, and explorers trekked across areas that weren’t fully mapped. This overall era was a time for discovery and intermission, and feel it has benefited my understanding of self identity through the development of art movements, so I may be able to evolve and develop my own techniques towards my own deception on self identity. The people of the Renaissance were composed of four social classes: the nobles, the merchants, the

tradesmen and the unskilled workers. All of which gave the people of this era a place in society and a state of mind of which they portrayed to put forward their opinions and identity, allowing this homogenised atmosphere to surround these groups of classes. The class of the nobles was the most respected class during the renaissance period and owned most of the land. (Figure 6) The merchants were the newly rich people who gained wealth by working hard in the industries and mainly worked in fields like wool, banking and boat making etc. The middle class consisted of the shopkeepers and other professionals. (Figure 7) The lower class among the workers belonged to the peasants who lived in rural areas and worked on small pieces of agricultural land to produce foods and other staples for the rest of the population.


During the Renaissance era, society depicted how identity should stand depending on what lass these people where represented in. Nobles were wealthy individuals who were highly respected and lived on large estates. The nobles owned big businesses and followed the basic rules of chivalry. The nobles included the military officers, politicians and royal advisers. As well as this the merchants tried to marry into noble families to move up the ladder and become part of the nobles. But the nobles tried to maintain distance from the merchants due to this reason. Due to their hierarchy in society they can be seen to look down upon the middle class and peasants. This made their identity more powerful and desired, hence why I feel they became more prominent in this era of renaissance portraits. Artists depicted them as intelligent individuals and powerful almost as though they stood upon the clouds. As the Renaissance brought new wealth into Europe and started changing some ideas about social classes, the nobility tightly held on to the rights and privileges of their status. They insisted on being treated with the utmost formality wherever they went and held themselves to strict standards of behaviour. Due to this peasants and middle class workers made prominent understanding of overlooking the concept of money and admiring the nobles as though they where gods, and according to the Italian statesman Count Baldassarre Castiglione, who in 1528 wrote The Book of the Courtier, true nobles must be highly skilled warriors, masters of all social situations, proficient at dance, and exude grace and wit in all they do. I feel like this brought forward this idea of rule and power in identity towards the nobles, as now I can see how this is expressed in Renaissance paintings. Religion played a major role in the development of these classes, how the catholic church was at its highest during the Renaissance period. The whole concept gave hope and prosperity to lower class workers such as peasants, which is why I feel identity didn’t matter to much to them at the time as due to the bible and the final judgement people would only worry about whether they would respire to heaven or hell, this led to major questions into the work of god as many people identified only with religion and faith. As seen in paintings many of the lower class workers where either resented as happy or focused on life, this is also quite controversial as many couldn’t afford a artist hence why lower class paintings where focused on

group portraits of towns and villages, during this time as religion controlled how people felt, identity was focused around power and nobility towards society.


Overall The Renaissance period, was not only a time of discovery of land but of individuality and how different classes could be seen as one, towards their faith in the catholic church, I feel this really helps to define a sense of focus and prosperity as identity is implicated towards god himself. And people at the time where happier even though the risk of death was next door. This I feel is represented in all of these renaissance paintings and puts forward this question of; does modern society put pressure on individuality? The renaissance has taught me that identity can be put forward through these higher powers such as the catholic church and Nobel people of society, hence why I feel it would benefit me to learn more about modern day society also to see how this new concept of self identity is presented, in the aspect of higher members of this group to put pressure on individuality.




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