The Renaissance saw a rebirth of Classical ideas and a renewed interest in art for purposes other than religious worship, although Christianity still formed the bedrock of most of its greatest works.
The following ten masterpieces epitomise Renaissance art, representing the skill, creativity and innovation that characterises this period of European history.
10. Hans Holbein, The Ambassadors
Another Renaissance artist to play with perspective was Hans Holbein. So many symbols are hidden in ‘The Ambassadors’, but the most striking of these is undoubtedly the magnified skull which stretches across the lower foreground.
Facing the painting, one can roughly discern the outline, but it is not until the viewer moves to the left that the full form becomes apparent. In this way, Holbein captures the essence of mortality, with death an ever-present but unpredictable feature of human life.
The magnificent figures of the two men appear to be mere accessories to the huge collection of allegorical and symbolic details shown in this masterpiece.
9. Benvenuto Cellini, Perseus with the Head of Medusa
The legendary goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini worked under the patronage of Cosimo de’ Medici, the most powerful man in Florence and head of the important banking family. His statue of Perseus, holding the decapitated head of the monstrous Medusa, was erected in one of Florence’s most central piazzas.
Beyond simply its striking appearance, the statue has several interesting features. For one, it is formed out of a single bronze cast, rather than arranged from multiple pieces like the majority of bronze sculptures at the time. Secondly, the very base of the sculpture is itself part of the overall design, as the figure of the hero stands on the slain body of Medusa.
In addition, Cellini’s own reflection can be seen in the back of Perseus’ helmet. Much like van Eyck’s painting, this encourages the viewer to consider the artist’s role in his creation. It also reflects upon the story of Perseus, who defeat the Gorgon by looking at her in the reflection of his shield.
8. Donatello, The Statue of David
Soon after Brunelleschi constructed the Duomo, his friend Donatello created the first free-standing nude male sculpture since the famous marble statues of the Classical period.
Donatello initially crafted another clothed ‘David’ out of marble, but his bronze version is far more famous. The half-naked man stands vulnerable but triumphant, capturing the spirit of the Biblical story while also hinting at the sensuality that was gradually being reintroduced after centuries of strictly censured religious art.
7. Bernini, Apollo and Daphne
Chiselled out of a single block of marble, Bernini’s ‘Apollo and Daphne’ captures all the movement and magic of the original myth. The Roman god Apollo, filled with lust, attempts to seize the nymph Daphne, but at the last moment she is miraculously turned into a laurel tree.
Bernini captures the transformation in a single moment. There is a clear contrast between the medium and the subject. Formed out of hard, unyielding rock, the statue is nonetheless fluid and dynamic. Movement and softness is expressed by the impression of his hand on her waist, the branching of her fingers into leaves, and the windswept robes scarcely covering the figures.
Bernini’s statue epitomises the technical skill, Classical inspiration and artistic ingenuity of Renaissance sculpture.
6. Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini Wedding
Although the Renaissance is most often associated with Italy, it is important to note the expansion of artistic styles in the Low Countries. The Flemish painter Jan van Eyck was at the forefront of Early Renaissance art. His most famous piece, ‘The Arnolfini Wedding’, provides an example of the complexity that began to characterise European art.
With the rich growing ever richer, portraits became an important status symbol, used to show off one’s personal fortune. In this painting, the ornate chandelier, grand bed and even the tiny dog all proclaim the subjects’ wealth.
Even more interestingly, if one looks closely at the mirror hung on the back wall, it is possible to see the miniscule reflection of a man entering the room. This detail raises questions about who this visitor might be, and suggests a new role for the artist and audience as participants in the scene.
Masterpieces such as this laid the groundwork for the new role of art in Europe.
5. Raphael, The School of Athens
The walls of the Vatican are filled with some of the Renaissance’s most famous and important artwork, not least the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
One fresco, however, perfectly captures the Classical spirit of the age. ‘The School of Athens’ by Raphael shows the great thinkers of the ancient world, from geographers to mathematicians, philosophers to rulers. In the centre stand Plato and Aristotle, who represent the pinnacle of Classical understanding and knowledge. The artist has also managed to capture an accurate perspective, so that the scene seems three-dimensional.
4. Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi
At the same time as Albrecht Dürer was fashioning himself as a Christ-like figure, Leonardo da Vinci was devoting his efforts to a depiction of the Redeemer himself. His ‘Salvator Mundi’ shows Jesus draped in the rich robes typical of Renaissance portraits, making the sign of the cross and raising a crystal ball thought to represent the heavens. He also fixes us with an inexplicable expression which conveys authority but also empathy.
The masterpiece is perhaps best known for breaking the world record for the most expensive painting sold at public auction, when it was purchased in 2017 for $450.3 million. Much of its value stems from the importance of its creator to Renaissance art, engineering, science and architecture.
3. Filippo Brunelleschi, The Cupola of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore
The Duomo of Florence Cathedral symbolises the birth of Renaissance architecture. In 1436, Filippo Brunelleschi succeeded in creating the first dome to be built on such a scale for a thousand years. Not only is the cupola itself a magnificent sight, but his achievement paved the way for other Renaissance architects to build some of Europe’s most captivating monuments, palaces and churches.
2. Albrecht Dürer, Self-Portrait
Albrecht Dürer displayed his artistic acumen from an extremely young age, completing some of his first sketches and engravings at only eight years old. But it is this masterpiece that truly stands out against any other self-portrait that had been painted to date.
The emotional intensity, realistic detail and sombre colours of the work entrance the audience, as Dürer fixes us with an undaunted stare. It is impossible not to notice his resemblance to Christ in this painting, which again suggests a shift in the relationship between religion and art. In this way, Dürer’s portrait could be said to represent Humanism, a movement that played a key role in the changing landscape of Renaissance Europe.
1. Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa
It is the most famous piece of art.
Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’ attracts over 10 million tourists every year with her elusive smile. The artist utilised recent breakthroughs in the understanding of perspective and proportions to shape his subject’s face so that her eyes immediately grab the audience’s attention.
They are at the centre of the image, and appear to follow the viewer at any angle. As a result, the portrait offers an interaction rather than simply a spectacle.
In 1962, insurance for da Vinci’s masterpiece was valued at the record-breaking $100 million, demonstrating its near priceless value.