International School History - International Baccalaureate - MYP History

MYP4 Last update - 20 March 2018  
Unit 2 - Lesson 5 - The Renaissance: more than Italian painters

Let's start with how this is usually taught and what you probably know already...

What was the Renaissance?

The Renaissance (French for 'rebirth'; Italian: Rinascimento, from ri- 'again' and nascere 'be born') was a cultural movement that spanned roughly the 14th to the 17th century, beginning in Florence  in the Late Middle Ages and later spreading to the rest of Europe. Traditionally, this intellectual transformation has resulted in the Renaissance being viewed as a bridge between the Middle Ages and the Modern era. Although the Renaissance saw revolutions in many intellectual pursuits, as well as social and political upheaval, it is perhaps best known for its artistic developments and the contributions of such polymaths as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, who inspired the term 'Renaissance man'. In the Middle Ages, people had looked to the Church as the source of all knowledge to guide and direct them. During the Renaissance, the Church still played an important part in people's lives, but scholars and intellectuals also looked back at the lives and teachings of the Ancient Greeks and Romans.

Why did it begin?

This is what this unit of study is all about but, in brief: various theories have been proposed to account for its origins and characteristics, focusing on a variety of factors including the social and civic peculiarities of Florence at the time; its political structure; the patronage of its dominant family, the Medici; and the migration of Greek scholars and texts to Italy following the Fall of Constantinople at the hands of the Ottoman Turks.  Italy was particularly badly hit by the plague, and it has been speculated that the familiarity with death that this brought caused thinkers to dwell more on their lives on Earth, rather than on spirituality and the afterlife. With the invention of the printing press around 1450 and increasing literacy amongst the population, the seeds were sown for future change.


More on the Renaissance

Khan Academy on the Renaissance
Crash Course video on the Renaissance


The printing press

If we were to choose one invention during this period that was to change the world and take Europeans out of the Middle Ages it would have to be the invention and development of printing. The printing of books led directly to the increased and faster circulation of books and ideas throughout Europe. Consequently the influence the Church had over people's lives decreased because it could not control the ideas they picked up through their reading.

The Chinese had invented printing using blocks of wood, over 700 years before the first printing press went into production in Europe in around 1450. Over time, they developed their printing methods and started using movable letters. However, this invention was slow to reach Europe. At this time, books were beautifully hand-written and illustrated (decorated), with fine pictures and colours. They were written on vellum (animal skin) - a book of 200 pages would need the skins of about 100 sheep. As a result, books were very precious and rare, and were used only by the wealthiest people in society.

In 1438 a German craftsman named Johann Gutenberg and three partners contracted to develop printing techniques. By 1450 Gutenberg had refined his techniques enough to convince a Mainz merchant, Johann Furst, to sponsor his work. So it was that in 1450 the first printed version of the Bible was produced using the new method of printing with movable type invented by Gutenberg. The printing process consisted of a mould in which thousands of letters of equal sizes could be cast from hot metal.

Gutenberg learnt this skill in metalwork from his uncle, who was a master of a mint where money was made. Lines of letters were laid out and locked firmly together in a frame by wooden cases in order to make up a whole page of words. This is where the terms ‘upper case’ and ‘lower case’ come from. This page of movable type was then fixed into a printing press, possibly one developed from a wine or cheese press. A piece of paper was then placed over the inked type and held in place by a paper holder. The paper, paper holder and type were then slid into the press, where a large, flat, wooden plate was lowered on to the paper by turning a huge wooden screw on the printing press. This pressed the paper firmly down on to the inked type to print the page. A press of this kind could print about 300 pages a day.

Other businessmen quickly followed Gutenberg. William Caxton set up the first English printing press in 1476, in the precincts of Westminster Abbey. He was a travelling London mercer (cloth merchant), who picked up the skills of printing from his visits to the Netherlands and Germany. He was successful in producing a series of books in English, including some of his own translations. One famous book printed at this time was Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, in 1484. The printing of books and pamphlets became common over the next century. More and more people began to voice new ideas and wished to pass on their views to a wider and more literate public. In this way the development of the printing press was a major factor in the Renaissance movement. Up to this point the Church was, by and large, the main producer of written documents, controlling what was read. With the invention of printing the opportunities for the spread of new ideas and free speech grew, but for those people who criticised governments and prominent people life could be dangerous.

Why did it begin in Italy?

In the middle of the sixteenth century, Italy was divided into about 200 city states. Each city state was made up of a powerful city that controlled the weaker towns and countryside that surrounded it. The city states raised their own taxes, made their own trade laws and built fortifications and defences. Some of these cities, such as Florence, were republics where the people had power and a say in how the city state was run and there was no monarchy. This type of government was very similar to that of Ancient Greece and Rome. The leaders of the city states were called signori and they had huge power which many passed on to their families. One of the most famous of the signori was Cosimo de 'Medici. He became a patron of the arts (someone who gives backing and assistance, usually financial aid). Patronage was often given to glorify God as well as improve a patron's city because it enabled cathedrals and churches to be built and decorated


Painting and architecture

This is the thing you probably remember. During the Middle Ages the subjects of paintings looked flat and lacked any feeling of movement. Sculptures were often shallow carvings, called bas-reliefs and were used to decorate walls and other stonework. Medieval artists focused on the religious meaning of their work and did not try to make their subjects appear life-like. (see below) Painters like Michelangelo (1475-1564), Raphael (1483-1520), Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) learned new techniques to make accurate drawings of people, animals and plants. Leonardo da Vinci even drew cut-up bodies so that he could learn the shape of the muscles under the skin and paint more realistic figures. Artists like Raphael adopted a new style in their work. Paintings now had perspective, which meant that objects in a picture looked the same in relation to each other as they did in real life. Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) was one of the first to bring the laws of perspective into practical use in the design of buildings (see right). Most of his work was done in Florence - for example, the Foundlings Hospital and the cupola of the Duomo.  One of the most impressive Renaissance churches is St Peter's Basilica in Rome, the biggest Christian church in the world. In 1506, Pope Julius II decided to rebuild it and had the original church demolished. The cost of rebuilding was very great and some of the money was raised through the selling of indulgences, something that Martin Luther will be very critical of next lesson.

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The Medieval - Paris Psalter

The Renaissance - Raphael’s ‘Betrothal of the Virgin’


Humanism and the break from Scholasticism

When we speak of humanism today we mean people who reject the idea of a god and prefer to explain the world through human reason. Humanism during the Renaissance was different. Humanism was an educational philosophy that wanted to change the intellectual life that had dominated medieval Europe. As we have seen, medieval thought was restricted to thinking about issues raised by the study of Christian doctrine, especially after new Arabic translations of classical Greek texts began to appear and challenge Christianity after the Fall of Toledo in 1085. (see lesson two). Medieval intellectuals could be concerned with  complex problems and would employ highly rational thinking. This intellectual world restrained by the limits of Catholicism we call 'Scholasticism.'

Scholasticism - Aquinas incorporates Aristotle

The greatest philosopher of the medieval period, Thomas Aquinas, explained what happened during the Eucharist, one of the seven Sacraments. The problem to be solved was very practical. Why, during the Eucharist does the bread and wine not appear to change into the body and blood of Christ, after it is blessed? To explain this Aquinas used the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle argued there are two qualities to every object: its outer appearance that our senses can detect, (smell, taste, hear etc.) and its inner nature or fundamental structure that we cannot simply detect. The outer appearance changes all the time. For example, a chair can be made of wood or metal, but this is not essential to its being a chair: that is, it is still a chair regardless of the material from which it is made, these variations were called accidents. The fundamental property of all chairs, its inner essence - its ‘chairiness’ - Aristotle called its substance. The substance of an object cannot be detected by the senses, because to imagine a chair is to see a particular chair. So how did Aquinas use this? What happens during the Eucharist is that the accidental properties of the bread and wine do not change, but the substance - its ‘breadiness’ - does change in to the body of Jesus: the substance is changed, it is ‘transubstantiated’. Voila. Logical, rational and very learned. Medieval minds were not less logical or intelligent than ours!.

Its all about assumptions. If you assume there is a singular God, and that the word of God is contained in the Bible, that the Pope is God’s representative on earth and he and his priests interpret God’s will for us, then why would you think beyond these assumptions? These assumptions were unquestioned, hidden assumptions, but hidden in plane sight. Scholasticism rationalised and explained these assumptions. Humanism challenged them.

Activity 1 - Scholasticism

Read the text and watch the video extract above. Explain how Aquinas used Aristotle's ideas to help reinforce the concept of transubstantiation. Why is this a good example of scholastic thinking?



Rather than learning methods and logic to explain and defend Christianity, Humanism, was concerned with knowledge itself and in particular, knowledge about humanity. That meant that humanists were interested in subjects like poetry, language (especially ancient Greek) and history. This is what we mean when we say we study the 'humanities' today. One of the most significant consequences of the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 had been the arrival not only of the books from the greatest libraries in Europe, but teachers who were familiar with the Ancient Greek necessary to translate them. At almost the same time as it became possible to print and spread a new knowledge that was not controlled by the church, new knowledge became abundantly available.

Humanism was the original rallying call to think outside of the box. If the box was Catholic orthodoxy and Scholasticism was a thinking that fitted inside the box, humanism looked down at the box and laughed at how everything looked so square. A lot of what is remembered about humanism concerns how humanists made fun of the church. Humanists were often university academics who laughed at the ignorance of the priests and the strange superstitions of church ritual. The most famous of them, Erasmus made fun of how the priests 'brayed like donkeys in church, repeating the words of psalms they don't understand'.

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The name Erasmus today is associated with the European Union project that allows students within the EU to study for part of their degree in another European country. (The project began in 1987, so it is possible that some of your parents were Erasmus students.) The project is well named because Erasmus was a scholar who travelled and studied in many European countries. But he was was more than an itinerant master of satire. He was a serious, brilliant scholar who produced a new translation of the Bible from Greek manuscripts he had found in Basel and England. Published in 1516, Erasmus’s Bible changed how a number of key words had been translated and even suggested that some sections of the Bible had been added at a later date. For example, in one critical passage the the word ‘repent’ was replaced with ‘come to your senses’. With this change, the whole ritual of penance, so central to church orthodoxy, was open to question. This was something Martin Luther would pick up on later. In 1522, the English scholar William Tyndale began work on an English translation of the Bible based on Erasmus's earlier publication. Its importance to both English history and the English language cannot be overstated.

Activity 2 - Translating the Bible from the Greek.

Read the text and watch the video extract above. How had the
Fall of Constantinople in 1453 led to the translation of Tyndale's Bible? Why was it such a revolutionary book?


Albrecht Dürer

Perspective is what students remember about the Renaissance, because to our eyes perspective is obviously more modern. The we say ‘modern’, we mean more like us and what we have become. But perspective is also enormously symbolic, this one development can be used to stand for everything the Renaissance is about. It was the application of mathematical knowledge to the problem of representing three dimensional reality in a two dimensional space. And yes, medieval man didn’t know how to do that. But they had no reason to know that. Medieval art wasn’t interested in the perspective of man, how man saw the world. Medieval art was concerned with God’s perspective, how God saw the world and trying to logically make sense of that. That is a scholastic perspective. In contrast, Renaissance art was very much a human perspective, less interested in the unchanging and eternal, more concerned with the dynamic and ephemeral. It might be argued that the most significant painting of the Renaissance was Albrecht Dürer's self portrait of 1500. Not only were self-portraits by artists rare, a self-portrait in which the artist looks out directly at the viewer was unprecedented.  But even more than that, Dürer deliberately paints himself in the style of Jesus. See the Khan Academy on the self portrait.

Like Erasmus, Dürer was a self publicist who printed and sold cheap copies of his work to the general public. Like Erasmus,  Dürer made fun of the church. His woodcuts which could be mass printed were remarkable for their detail but also their subject matter. His Apocalypse series includes this image which shows the angels punishing Alexander VI (more about him next week) and the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I.

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Dürer was also a direct link between the humanism of the Renaissance and the German Reformation. In 1520 he wrote of his desire to draw Luther: 'And God help me that I may go to Dr. Martin Luther; thus I intend to make a portrait of him with great care and engrave him on a copper plate to create a lasting memorial of the Christian man who helped me overcome so many difficulties.' And finally, like so many humanists, Dürer was concerned with the science behind techniques of the Renaissance and did much to popularise it. (Video) Which leads us on to...



'Paradigm shift' in science

For centuries, scientists and philosophers had accepted the work of Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato, which they interpreted in the light of Christian belief. (Scholasticism) But now Renaissance astronomers now used the new scientific methods of experimenting and observation to study the skies. It was their sensational discoveries which shook European beliefs about the world. American physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn (1922–1996) described this process as a 'paradigm shift'. By 'paradigm' he means the scientific assumptions (and methods) that underlie what (and how) we know the world. The scholastic paradigm assumed that the ultimate truth was found in uncovering God's perspective as outlined in the Bible. This was replaced by a humanist perspective that suggested that the truth was to be uncovered by human observation of the natural world.

The ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras (c.570-495 BC) proved that the Earth was round and Aristarchus suggested that the Earth and planets revolved around the Sun. However, these ideas were replaced by Ptolemy's theories of the universe written in about AD100. Ptolemy was an Egyptian mathematician, astronomer and geographer who believed that the planets and stars all revolved around the Earth. This 'geocentric' theory fitted well with the Church's ideas of the heavens being a circle, because it was the 'perfect' shape. It also fitted with the idea of the Earth (God's creation), the Church and God himself being at the centre of the universe.

It wasn't until the beginning of the Renaissance in Europe that scientists and astronomers started to challenge existing theories about the orbit of the planets. One person who began to doubt Ptolemaic theory was Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), a Polish-German astronomer. Copernicus used the data for astronomical computing contained in the Alfonsine tables, of which he owned a copy after they were published in Venice in 1515. The Alfonsine tables provided data for computing the position of the Sun, Moon and planets relative to the fixed stars. As we have seen in lesson 2, the tables were named after Alfonso X of Castile, they had been compiled in Toledo. In 1543, he published his book The Revolution of the Heavenly Orbs. In it he said people should assume that the Earth moved around the Sun. This 'heliocentric' theory, which put the Sun not the Earth at the centre of the heavenly stage, aroused fierce religious opposition. Later scientists went on to prove scientifically that Copernicus' theories were correct.

Activity 3 - Paradigm shifts in science

What is meant by 'paradigm shift' and why was
Copernicus's theory a good example of how a paradigm had shifted?



The Northern Renaissance

The Northern Renaissance was the less well known Renaissance that occurred outside of Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries, with important centres in Germany, France and especially modern day Belgium and Holland.

Key differences with the Italian Renaissance:

The Northern Renaissance artists, however, were scattered about and few in number initially (very unlike their Italian counterparts). The north had fewer rich city states than did Italy. Italy, as we saw, had numerous Duchies and Republics which gave rise to a wealthy merchant class that often spent considerable funds on art. This generally wasn't the case in the north. In fact, the only notable similarity between northern Europe and Florence, lay in the Duchy of Burgundy. Burgundy, until 1477, encompassed a territory from present-day middle France northward (in an arc) to the sea, and included Flanders (in modern Belgium) and parts of the current Netherlands.

Renaissance artists in the north took a different approach to composition than Italian artists. Where an Italian artist was apt to consider scientific principles behind composition (i.e., proportion, anatomy, perspective) during the Renaissance, northern artists were more concerned with what their art looked like. Colour was of key importance, above and beyond form. In addition, detail was also very important.

Key similarities

Apart from the religious themes, the importance of new printed literature and the fact that most artists came through the guild system, the main similarity between the Northern and Italian Renaissance was the existence of an artistic centre.  In Italy, artists looked to the Republic of Florence for innovation and inspiration. In the North, the artistic hub was Flanders. Flanders was a part of the Duchy of Burgundy. It had a thriving commercial city, Bruges, which (like Florence) made its money in banking and wool. Bruges had cash aplenty to spend on luxuries like art. And (again like Florence) Burgundy, on the whole, was governed by patronage-minded rulers. Where Florence had the Medici, Burgundy had dukes.

More on the Renaissance

Khan Academy on the Northern Renaissance


The Northern Renaissance artist who is largely credited with developing oil techniques was Jan van Eyck, court painter to the Duke of Burgundy. It's not that he discovered oil paints, but he did figure out how to layer them, in "glazes," to create light and depth of colour in his paintings. 

This fantastic website allows for an extraordinary close up of the Ghent Altarpiece.

Three other key Netherlandish artists were the painters Rogier van der Weyden and Hans Memling, and the sculptor Claus Sluter. Van der Weyden, who was the town painter of Brussels, was best known for introducing accurate human emotions and gestures into his work, which was primarily of a religious nature.

Other early Northern Renaissance artists that created a lasting influence were the enigmatic Hieronymus Bosch (who we have already seen and will see again) and Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Activity 4 - The Ghent Altarpiece

Watch the film above on the Ghent Altarpiece. Why do you think many experts consider it to be the most important painting ever created? Include at least three reasons in your answer.


More on the Ghent Altarpiece

Website from the BBC series about the Northern Renaissance. Wikipedia on the Ghent Altarpiece.

Eight minute video explains why the Ghent Altarpiece is the world's most valuable stolen painting.

Khan Academy on the Ghent Altarpiece



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