Early Renaissance, 1400-1500

Renaissance Background

Renaissance most literally means “rebirth” (French), yet historically refers to the 15th century European revival of ideals from Greek and Roman art. Early Renaissance art encompasses art from different regions in Europe, specifically from the Netherlands in the province Flanders and the city of Florence, Italy. Therefore, when thinking about Early Renaissance you should think of the “two F’s” – Flanders and Florence. Flemish and Italian artists are both influenced by Classical antiquity and have the same goal of precisely depicting physical reality through perspective; the styles vary in materials and thematic focuses. Here is a brief overview of Flemish and Florentine art of Early Renaissance in the 15th century:


Many of the greatest Netherlander artists were studying and painting in a province called Flanders; paintings from this area are characterized as “Flemish Renaissance.” The primary technique of the artists during this period was panel painting, favored by patrons for everything from altarpieces to small portraits. While Italian artists valued tempera (an oil based pigment), the Flemish artists skillfully mastered the art of oil painting during the 15th century. The more notable artists of the Flemish style are Robert Campin, Jan van Eyck, and Rogier van der Weyden for their use of light illumination, religious themes, and oil technique in depicting figures and landscape. Because many of the commissions were for churches, Flemish art was usually associated with religious themes such as the deposition, annunciation, or prayer scenes. The emotion and intellect in the scene were meant to heighten the spiritual connections of the viewers.

See if you can find the panel painting shown below in the 15th century gallery at the Walters!


Hugo van der Goes. Portrait of a Man at Prayer with Saint John the Baptist. 1475.


This is an oil panel painting done by Flemish portraitist, Hugo van der Goes. By using subtle facial expressions, Goes is able to capture the concentration of the man in a typical scene of prayer.

Below is a sculpture from the Walters Art Museum (15th Century Art Gallery).


Anonymous (Netherlandish). Figures form a Deposition. 1475.

Even though we don’t know the name of the artist that created the carved alterpiece that these figures were originally a part of, we can detect that from the positioning, it was influenced by Rogier van der Weyden’s Deposition. Van der Weyden’s work was very influential and served as a model for many religious scenes depicting Christ’s death.

Although much of the perspective innovations come from Florentine Italy, Flemish artists continued to use aspects of intuitive perspective to give the appearance of things receeding into the distance. Jan van Eyck combined this technique with atmospheric perspective (typically applied to landscape to show the background as hazy and less detailed) to create an overall realistic setting. Textiles were also prevalent in the Netherlands during the Early Renaissance, and were intricately designed for both tapestries and manuscript illuminations.


Early Renaissance flourished in Florence, Italy with the help of the Medici family, who were wealthy art patrons and intellectuals. Because the focus was primarily on appreciating the study of classical learning, Neo-Platonism (the revival of Plato and his followers) became a phenomenon within the artistic and intellectual community in Florence. Although there was a new interest in classical art, many of the paintings from this period are still predominately religious scenes. In painting, artists portrayed the new Renaissance style by depicting figures as solid, volumetric forms, using perspective, and incorporating classical references through both figures and architecture. Like the Flemis, the Italian artists wanted to be more precise in their depiction of physical reality, so they presented more idealized and anatomically correct figures in a space designed with a mathematical principle called linear perspective. Linear perspective is based on proportions (yes, there can be math in art!) and everything receeding into the distance meets at a single vanishing point, creating a sense of depth and inclusion.

Massacio. The Holy Trinity. 1427.


The Renaissance painter Massacio displays early linear perspective in his painting of the Trinity in the Church of Santa Maria Novella. The vanishing point is in the middle, just above the base of the cross. Uccello, another Renaissance painter, was also known for being obsessed with linear perspective.

Check out more details on the use of perspective: http://www.artic.edu/aic/education/sciarttech/2d1.html

Although Renaissance sculpture was highly influenced by ancient Roman models, artists also focused on individualized features, a sense of interaction between groups of figures, and an enhancement of the three-dimensionality. Some of the most important sculptures in Florence at this time were the Gates of Paradise done by Lorenzo Ghiberti and Donatello’s David. Both pieces are typical of Renaissance sculpture by creating figures with vitality and realistic aspects. Ghiberti also demonstrates a vanishing point in his pictorial relief sculpture.

Early Renaissance architecture was dominated by the construction of the Florence cathedral, particularly the innovative design of the dome by Brunelleschi. Much of the architecture in Florence is based off of Greco-Roman design, such as arches and columns. To find out more about Renaissance architecture, read this from The Metropolitan Museum of Art: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/itar/hd_itar.htm

Find the Ideal City (below) in the 15th century gallery!


Fra Carnevale. The Ideal City. 1480-1484.

This is the “Ideal City” by Fra Carnevale. This painting portrays the importance of Renaissance city arrangement, influences from classical Greek and Roman architecture, and is an example of skillfully executed central perspective.


Italian Renaissance outside Florence, second half of 15th century

Once the Renaissance began, it spread like wild fire. During the second half of the 15th century, the Renaissance ideals expanded throughout the rest of Europe (still in Italy, of course).  Consistent with the ideals and ideas in Florence and Flanders, artists in cities such as Rome, Venice, and Padua expanded on these features and stylistic aspects of Renaissance art. In sculpture, figures were made more dramatic through exaggerated poses and gestures. In painting, artists emphasized linear and atmospheric perspective with radical foreshortening and low vanishing points. Some of the more notable artists from this time were Piero della Francesca, Mantegna, Perugino, and the Bellini family.

Political and religious changes also contributed to the spread of the Renaissance. When the papacy was officially reestablished in Rome during the 15th century, the city decided it needed a complete makeover in order to be worthy of being the papal court. Many of the best Renaissance artists came to work on the Sistine Chapel walls (Late Renaissance). Perugino, one of the artists that traveled to Rome, brought the ideals of Renaissance art in his fresco wall painting Delivery of the Keys to Saint Peter. Not only does it justify the power of the papal court, but also shows all the principles of the Early Renaissance: figures modeled with consistent light from an unknown source, an idealized landscape, classically inspired architecture, geometrically planned city, and of course, linear perspective.

If you want to see Perugino’s use of harmonious colors and romanticized landscapes, come check out this painting in the 15th Century Gallery!


Madonna and Child. Perugino. 1520.

Essentially, Renaissance art was all about the resurgence of Greco-Roman influences with modern adjustments. In architecture, artists were able to apply more modern techniques to the already notable structures from Greek and Roman temples. Sculpture was mainly focused on adding more expression and drama to the Roman bronze models. Finally, by incorporating perspective and light, Renaissance artists were able to enhance their paintings and create a more accurate portrayal of landscape, architecture, and figures.

To see more art from Early Renaissance Europe at the Walters Art Museum click here:

http://art.thewalters.org/viewgallery.aspx?id=1257 or come visit the 15th Century Art Gallery in person!

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3 thoughts on “Early Renaissance, 1400-1500

  1. The portrait of an Ideal City is described as a work by Fra Carnevale but I’ve always believed the artist had not been identified. Is this a new discovery? I was just at the Frick in New York and believed the Ideal City might be the work of Bartolomeodi Giovanni since his work The Argonauts in Colchis 1487 looked like it was done by the same hand as that of the mysterious Ideal City. Fra Carnevale’s other work does not look like it was done by the same hand as the Ideal City but Fra Carnevale and Giovanni were active at the same time. Could the ideal City really be the work of Giovanni? I’m interested in your opinion.

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