The Renaissance

Changing attitudes

Between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries there was a changing attitude to religion, part of a movement now known as the Renaissance (meaning re-birth). This affected many areas of life, from art to exploration.

The rebirth referred to is the rediscovery of classical literature (ancient Greek and Latin), philosophy and architecture. The study of these texts led many scholars to question the Church's long-standing claim that Christianity, represented by the Catholic Church, was the only guide on how to live and the only true path to salvation.

There was also a renewed interest in the individual human subject and humanist ideas, strengthened by the presence in Italy of Eastern scholars who fled to the west after the fall of Constantinople (the modern Istanbul) to the Turks in 1453, bringing with them important ancient manuscripts.

Printing: an information explosion

The spread of new knowledge was hugely accelerated by the invention of printing in Germany in the mid-fifteenth century (about 1450). In England, the first printing press was set up by William Caxton in London in 1476. The impact was like that of the internet today.

Chained BibleMore on printing: Printing had actually been known in China for centuries, but not in Europe. Prior to this, information, including such lengthy works as the Bible, had to be copied out by hand. This was usually done in monasteries under the supervision of the Church. There were very few books available and they were very expensive. Hand-written manuscripts were so precious that few people, even the wealthy, owned any and books kept in churches or the libraries of the two universities in England (Oxford and Cambridge) were chained to prevent theft

Once material was easier to reproduce by printing, scholars could much more easily disseminate information. Adventurous new ideas could spread rapidly, including material criticising institutions such as the Church.

Marlowe's education and reading

See Author > Family, background and King's School and Marlowe and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. It is interesting to note that, in Doctor Faustus, the gaining of knowledge from books is highly significant — an activity which, a little over a century earlier, would have been almost impossible.

Discovery and exploration

Frequently undertaken at this time were voyages to find out new sea-passages to China and India and to discover other continents. In England, some of the most famous names from the time of Marlowe are those of explorers such as Sir Walter Raleigh or Sir Francis Drake.

Developments in the visual arts

Religious art

As interest grew in areas of life not governed by the Church, art also began to change. Previously, virtually all visual art in Western Europe had been religious, drawing its material from the Bible and from various versions of the lives of the saints. Bibles and prayer books were often richly decorated for the use of wealthy aristocratic families.

Much of this art was commissioned by the Church, for the decoration of cathedrals, churches, chapels and altars. Other works of art, usually commissioned by noble families, were for devotional purposes in private chapels or other rooms. Popular subjects included the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Madonna and Child, the visit of the Magi or Three Kings, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. Lives of the many saints in the Catholic hierarchy were also painted, often for use in churches dedicated to their subject.

Patrons of the artists, ranging from popes and cardinals to monarchs and other powerful people, were sometimes included in the painting. It was assumed that, by commissioning work in this way, the artist's patrons would help ensure their own salvation.

Humanism in art

Religious paintings had often included ‘ordinary' people (even in religious paintings, pictures of the Madonna and Child would include realistic landscapes as a background) – spectators at the visit of the Three Kings, jeering crowds at the Crucifixion – but with the Renaissance there was a decisive shift towards more secular art.

Classical subjects began to assume equal importance with religious paintings. Scenes from the classical myths became enormously popular with patrons, artists and spectators.
These paintings also enabled artists to explore a wider range of subject-matter, since myths often function as a means of dramatising and interpreting human behaviour.

The Renaissance also brought an explosion of interest in the human form, derived from an admiration for rediscovered Greek and Roman statues. It soon came to be believed that these displayed a kind of ideal of the body to which artists turned with great enthusiasm

Two of the leading artists of the Renaissance, Leonard da Vinci (1452-1519) and Michelangelo (1475-1564), studied anatomy and worked from live models, producing brilliant and detailed sketches.

At the same time, strengthening a new sense of realism, came advances in the techniques of painting. In particular, a greater sophistication in perspective gave paintings a greater sense of the three-dimensional. This meant that figures and buildings looked less ‘flat' and appeared to be occupying real space.

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