Nov 15, 2018 in Analysis

Renaissance versus the Middle Ages Essay

Renaissance versus the Middle Ages

The Medieval age is typically referred to as one of the foulest, yet glorious, noble, and impressionable periods in the history of mankind. Renaissance, on the other hand, is mostly characterized by a great deal of temperance, aspiration for perfection, and the power of reason. At the same time, reconsidering the main principles of Antiquity is counted among the peculiar features of Renaissance as well. The key distinctions between the Middle Ages and Renaissance lie in the perception of human nature, beauty, destination of a man, vision of the world, and the conception of God. Disambiguating and reconsidering the key principle of Renaissance is topical within the framework of culture study, historiography, philosophy, and aesthetics. All things considered, Medieval and Renaissance art had much in common, but the distinctive features of both constituted the essence of each epoch respectively. 

To begin with, it is worthy of note that each period in the history of art positions itself as a complex, multifaceted historical, cultural, philosophical, partly social, and aesthetic entity. As far as the claims about the character of the human nature in the period of Renaissance are concerned, it is important to admit the following. Human nature, according to Niccolò Machiavelli, is not capable of changing (qtd. in Kristeller 125). In this regard, the fact, that antique, i.e. classical, writers were considered, mostly by the men, to be the role models of thought and the men of letter, deserves particular attention (Kristeller 125). Humanism, which is claimed to have developed “within the limited area of rhetorical and philological studies,” is regarded as one of, so to say, major philosophical conceptions of Renaissance (Kristeller 123). However, humanism “represents the complete picture of Renaissance science and philosophy” by no means (Kristeller 123). It does not expel and/or replace “all those traditions of medieval learning … associated with the term ‘scholasticism’” either (Kristeller 123). The ideas of scholasticism and the dominance of church were opposed to the power of reason and simple in their nature but fundamental scientific researches.   

Developing this statement further, it is important to admit the fact that, influenced mainly by art, a change has occurred in the human consciousness in a sense that a man has become a) regarded as a measure of all things, and b) feelings, passions, emotions, and experiences were taken into consideration as the factors through which one man’s inner world and psychological state manifest themselves. The Medieval tradition, in its turn, admitted the existence of human soul and has attached particular importance to it. Another landmark in the history of Renaissance as the artistic movement and aesthetic-philosophical category was transition from the theocentric to heliocentric model of world.   


As far as the understanding of the nature of human happiness that prevailed in the period of Renaissance is concerned, the following points deserve particular attention. Aristotle’s perception of happiness was largely exploited in the age of Renaissance. Happiness, according to Aristotle, positions itself as “activity of the soul that expresses virtue” (qtd. in McMahon 6). Pomponazzi, who is considered to be one of the Aristotle’s most prominent followers, noted that “the central position of man in the universe and the importance of the practical rather than the speculative intellect for human happiness, which are both of humanistic origin.” Each of these aspects was essential for understanding the perspectives through which basic cognitive processes, virtues, and abstract notions, happiness in particular, were contemplated in Renaissance (Kristeller 41). Going by this particular statement, it is possible to assume the following. Above all, the statement proves the pivotal role and the unique position of humans within the framework of other beings, events, and entities (Kristeller 41). Secondly, the Renaissance thinkers distinguished between practical and speculative types of intellect, even though that both of them base on the humanist philosophy (Kristeller 41).

McMahon asserted that there is also a pessimistic, fatalist approach towards understanding happiness, which claims happiness to be “a plaything of the gods, a spiritual force that is beyond our [human] control” (7). In the Medieval times, happiness, to a great extent, has meant avoiding of sins. Moreover, in the times of the Middle Ages, happiness stood opposed to hedonism, a doctrine of “maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain” (Peterson, Park, and Seligman 25). Aristotle’s notion of ‘eudemonia’, i.e. the state of “being true to one’s inner self” stands opposed to the concept of hedonism as well (Peterson et al. 26). At the same time, it is admitted that “Renaissance philosophers such as Erasmus (1466–1536) and Thomas Moore (1478–1535) argued that it was God’s wish that people were happy, so long as they did not become preoccupied with “artificial” ways of achieving pleasure” (Peterson et al. 25).

As far as the Renaissance conception of artistic beauty is concerned, the following points should be addressed. Beauty is typically referred to as something that is essential, useful, at the same time – “difficult to address and impossible to quantify” (Schwartz 145). There is a discrepancy between the concepts of beauty and justice in a sense that beauty can be classified as a subjective category, whilst both, justice and beauty, have to do with aesthetics (Schwartz 145).

Writing on architecture, Alberti defined beauty as “an order or arrangement such that nothing can be altered except for the worse” (qtd. in Haughton 230). To be more specific, it is important to admit that the differences in the perception of beauty in the Middle Ages and Renaissance manifested themselves through different ways of portraying female characters. The Renaissance pictorial art was characterized by attention to details, a masterful disclosure of the latter, a richer color palette if compared to that of the Middle Ages, vividness, and transparency. Themes and motives of the Renaissance fine arts accorded with the themes and motives of the medieval painting; however, the Renaissance artists laid special emphasis on Antique plots. Perception of beauty in Renaissance Europe varied throughout states and cities, even (Haughton 233). Anthropocentricity was one of the most significant characteristics peculiar to Renaissance art. Realism and a tendency to reflect the reality objectively have become the distinctive features of Renaissance art as well. 

Renaissance music was characterized merely by further sophistication of structural, rhythmic, and harmonic patterns. It is admitted that, even though scientists at present times have very little details about ancient music, musical theories sound justifiable within the framework of certain Renaissance innovations (e.g. the so-called “humanist reform of handwriting” that was based on the Carolingian minuscule and resulted in the appearance of Roman character, which are in use until nowadays) (Kristeller 21). 

As far as the issue of artistic innovations that were implemented in the period of Renaissance is concerned, it is important to mention the following aspects. The atmosphere of creation and experiment required financial support by all means. However, there were artists who resisted what by its nature was the process of commercialization of art. At the same time, merely technical aspects of artistic innovation asserted themselves. Neil Haughton points:

  • Many different disciplines cooperated to create new advances in painting. Anatomical dissection led to new accuracy in depicting musculature and the form of figures, mathematics helped develop the laws of perspective to position those figures into a believable landscape, and chemistry blended new pigments to enhance their impact (230).

Thus, it is possible to assume that the Renaissance period was marked by a tendency towards the rapprochement between art and science.

Taking all the aforementioned facts into consideration, it is possible to resume as follows. Alongside with Antiquity, Classicism, and Enlightenment, Renaissance can be classified as the realistic epoch. Medieval epoch is typically classified as a romantic/non-realistic period in the history of art. The key distinctive features of Renaissance are as follows: restoring the basic principles of Antique philosophical and artistic practices (humanism, tendency towards explanation, reflection, and realism), combining the spiritual and material, taking into consideration the psychological constituent of a work of art, its characters and imagery, a transition from the theocentric to heliocentric model of the world, anthropocentricity, and objectivity. Middle Ages and the age of Renaissance differ in terms of their vision of human nature, beauty, and happiness. Renaissance was the first epoch to assert the unique position of human species, whilst the medieval epoch was the first to admit the existence of soul. Medieval art appeals to the recipients’ senses/feelings/emotions, unlike the Renaissance art that appeals to the recipients’ reason and experience. Finally, it is important to admit that, having originated in Italy, Renaissance has spread across the Europe, and by doing so, has become a multifaceted, complex, and varied whole. Finally, it is important to admit that Medieval and Renaissance art had much in common in a sense that the epoch of the Middle Ages was the basis for further evolvement of beauty, happiness, innovations, and human nature as the fundamental artistic, ethical, and philosophical concepts. To put it more simply, Renaissance has made use of the achievements of medieval art and reconsidered them. Renaissance art and philosophy can be viewed as a great leap forward in terms of cognition, perception, and aesthetic principles of art.   


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