What Are the Characteristics of Renaissance Art?

By Nidhi Nangia. Updated: December 11, 2017
What Are the Characteristics of Renaissance Art?

The Renaissance period began by the end of Middle Ages, starting in the 14th century and continuing until 16th century. This was the period when Europe underwent an astonishing renewal in the fields of fine art, painting, architecture, sculpture and drawing. Artists like Sandro Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci started straying away from religious works of art to embrace individualism, nature and humanistic learning. Renaissance art works were both scientific and creative. These masterpieces bore a great combination of movement, perspective and light. In this oneHOWTO article, you will come to know what are the characteristics of renaissance art.

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Renaissance artists introduced realism and real life things into their art works. Most of the art works prior to this period used to primarily focus on religion and Christianity. While many Renaissance artists also painted scenes of religion, they moved more towards humanistic themes, power and the identity of a person as an individual. Renaissance sculptures and paintings brought more realistic approach to their mythical figures, most of the times in the midst of their movement or activity. Realism downplayed secular and religious dogma and attached greater significance to the worth and dignity of individuals.


Instead of being stereotypes, symbolic figures, paintings started representing humanism of individual figures. The paintings became realistic, and more attention was given to details. Human bodies and faces became more real, and kids looked more like kids rather than miniature forms of human adults. More emphasis was given on the fact that man has more control over their destiny, rather than God and fate. Many of the Renaissance paintings included uplifting messages, motivating people to rise and act. These art works also made an attempt to examine human evil.

What Are the Characteristics of Renaissance Art? - Humanism

Anatomically Approved Bodies

Leonardo da Vinci was a Renaissance artist from Italy who set higher standards for painting and drawing bodies that were anatomically correct. To have correct understanding of the human body, including its functioning and placement, he performed around 20 autopsies to learn musculature, organ placement and bone structure. He represented this study in his drawings, paintings and sculptures as well. Renaissance artists incorporated figures to make complex scenes, allowing a broader perspective to peep into the lives of the rich and the wealthy. Shadows, perspectives and light elements were efficiently used to bring attention to certain figures in the paintings. Some of the art works that show anatomically approved bodies are Mona Lisa, David, Frescoes, Birth of Venus and others. Renaissance sculpture and architecture primarily reflected the human figure, most importantly the male nudity. Artists like Michelangelo and Donatello heavily depicted human body in nude form, but never used it for vulgarity. Instead, they used the male nude for deeper spirituality and its meaning.

What Are the Characteristics of Renaissance Art? - Anatomically Approved Bodies
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With an aim to add 3-D space and depth to their art work, another of the characteristics of Renaissance art is that their painters rediscovered the ideas of horizon line, vanishing point, linear perspective and others. Linear perspective was rendered by drawing in such a way that someone is looking out of a window and drawing exactly what is seen on the pane. All objects in the painting were not sized the same, as farther away objects were painted smaller, and closer objects were bigger. Horizon line is the distant point where things become so small that they shrink to the size of a single line. At vanishing point, parallel lines converged at a distance, usually near the horizon line. This kind of effect can be experienced by standing in the middle of a road and looking at the edges receding into the distance. 'The Last Supper' by Leonardo da Vinci is a perfect example of how Renaissance artists drew their viewers into their painting by showcasing a scene filled with emotion and psychology. Different reactions of the apostles are shown and the head of Jesus is situated at a vanishing point.

Light and Shadows

Renaissance art works played with how light creates shadows and hits the objects in their path. Renaissance artists used light and shadows to draw a person’s attention to a specific point in the drawing. Renaissance art was significantly characterized by representation of light via space, and its shadows and reflection on various surfaces. It aimed at achieving perfect realism in still life. This was made possible with the use of oil paints by Renaissance artists. Richer colors could be laid out using oil painting. As they took longer time to dry, the artists had more time to keep reworking on the painting, and achieving finer details with greater realism.

Nature and Reality

Renaissance artists aimed at making their drawings more realistic and natural, especially people. After studying human anatomy and measuring proportions, they sought ideal form of human bodies in their paintings and sculptures. Human figures in these art works displayed emotions and looked solid, allowing the viewers to connect with their thoughts and feelings. While earlier paintings focused mainly on religious scenes and classical mythology, or they depicted the lifestyles and richness of the wealthy only, Renaissance art works featured domestic interiors of common people, and portrayed lives of the peasants carrying out their everyday tasks. For instance, in Raphael’s 'Madonna del Cardellino', Mary has a more real form, with real facial expressions, real limbs, and the kids look like actual babies. Mary, John the Baptist, and Christ seem to form a pyramid.

Weakness of Church

Churches and Christianity was going through a period of decline and weakness during the Renaissance period, and this clearly showed in the paintings of those times. As the Churches became weaker, more significance started being given to humanism and human actions. Popes started spending extravagantly on paintings, sculpture and architecture to recapture the influence they lost during that period. The Sistine Chapel frescoes are the perfect examples of this perspective. This attempt to revive lost identity continued showing in the art works until the end of 16th century. Although Christianity remained a dominant theme in a number of visual art of that period, Renaissance art aimed at depicting them as real people, expressing emotions, and in real-life poses and postures.

What Are the Characteristics of Renaissance Art? - Weakness of Church


In terms of art history, many of the characteristics of Renaissance art and its period parallels the beginning of an age of discovery. During this period, people developed a great craving to explore each and every aspect of the world and their nature. European explorers were discovering new continents and sea routes, and establishing new colonies at that time. European sculptors, painters and architects were also looking for newer methods of gaining and imparting knowledge and perspective. The society was going through a phase of respect for art, and artists were developing a desire to imitate and study things in their natural form. All these desires and their consequences could be clearly seen in Renaissance art.

Ancient art influence

Apart from being a rich trading country among the Orient and Europe, Italy had a massive repository of artifacts and classical ruins as well. Roman architecture could be seen in almost every city and town, including replicas of lost art works from Greece. Many Greek scholars also emigrated to Italy and brought with them significant texts of Greek classics. All these factors joined together to begin Renaissance in Italy influenced by the ancient Roman art. Being laid by a number of social, political and economic factors, Renaissance period was primarily led forward by Italian artists. Some of the most prominent sculptors, painters, designers and architects of that period include Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo and Titian.

What Are the Characteristics of Renaissance Art? - Ancient art influence

Want to learn more on the Characteristics of art? Check out our articles on the main Characteristics of Pop art, or check out everything you need to know about Andy Warhol for more!

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