a history of western art

from the renaissance to the present

the high renaissance


people, terms, and concepts: Classicism, humanism, idealization, realism


The idea that the Renaissance period can be divided into ‘early,’ ‘high,’ and ‘late’ phases is the result of a belief, common at the time, that human societies or civilizations go through cycles of birth, climax, decline, and rebirth.  Today the terms ‘high Renaissance’ and ‘late Renaissance’ are used  by historians more for convenience than for qualitative judgment, but they do reflect a widespread popular belief that the three major artists of the High Renaissance, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael, were among the greatest artists who ever lived.

The name ‘High’ Renaissance is also somewhat appropriate in that this period was very optimistic about the ability of humankind to perfect themselves and their world (an outlook often called humanism).  This shows up in art as a tendency toward idealized naturalism as opposed to realistic naturalism. That is, where the Renaissance tended to represent nature realistically, "warts and all," with all of the imperfections and ugliness included, the High Renaissance tended to represent nature and the human body in an ideal state of perfect beauty.  (Contrast Michelangelo’s ideal David with Piero’s more realistic Federico da Montefeltro below, for example).  This is why you shouldn't use the word "realistic" to refer to a work of art that looks life-like: in art history, realism refers specifically to the representation of gritty, ugly, and imperfect reality.

This tendency of High Renaissance art to depict a idealized world of perfected beings performing exemplary acts is in turn related to the concepts of humanism and classicism. How do the works below exemplify a confidence in the potential of humankind to achieve great things by applying the special mental and physical powers granted to them by God? How do the form and/or subject matter of these works reflect knowledge of Ancient Greek and Roman art and philosophy?

A note of caution: not every aspect of all of the works below exemplifies idealization, humanism, and classicism. For example, Michelangelo deliberately departed from ideal human proportions in the hands of his David.  Also, biblical subjects such as David and the Last Supper are not Classical; and the second half of the Sistine Ceiling demonstrates the tendency of humanity not to live up to its potential. Indeed, Leonardo's Last Supper does not exemplify humanism, Classicism, or idealization to any significant extent.  The big lesson here is this:  style or period labels such as “High Renaissance” or “Cubism” and their associated characteristics are only rough generalizations.  They may help a lot on an initial approach to a specific work, but you should always let the work itself guide your analysis and interpretation, not the label.

Michelangelo, The Sistine Ceiling, High Renaissance, c. 1510

Raphael, The School of Athens, High Renaissance, c. 1510

Michelangelo, David, High Renaissance, c.1505

Botticelli, Birth of Venus, High Renaissance, c. 1480

Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa, High Renaissance, c. 1505

Leonardo, The Last Supper, High Renaissance, c. 1500