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Studying the Renaissance with the Open University

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Looking at the Renaissance

Religious context

The Renaissance has in the past been associated with a process of secularisation, an association which now seems dubious in many respects. The church was the inspirer and purchaser of a vast quantity of Renaissance art. To understand man was to understand him in relation to his creator and humanist scholarship was devoted to furthering this end. The enthusiasm for classicizing did not mean an indifference to, or abandonment of, Christianity. Certainly there was a huge increase in the number of works of art, both literary and visual, that were concerned with matters secular. But the tools of the new learning were also applied to a better understanding of God - and used as a means of acquiring salvation.

Renaissance religious art was created to, and still does, inspire reverence and awe. But it also has to be seen as part of an elaborate insurance policy, increasingly funded by a laity that wanted assurance of salvation. Salvation within Catholicism was acquired through a combination of faith and good works, this latter taking many forms: the provision of masses for the dead; the artistic embellishment of places of worship; the provision of charity. Such works bought time off in purgatory, the place where the sinner suffered punishment for sins not fully paid for on earth. Only saints escaped a spell in purgatory, but plenty of good works would hopefully cut a substantial chunk off the duration for anyone else. Hence clergy and laity both had a vested interest in the lavish patronage of religious institutions.

Prayers for the dead being efficacious for those suffering in purgatory, it was desirable to commemorate oneself by a prominent memorial that would remind the living to offer these prayers. Leonardo Bruni's tomb in Florence does so in a style that characterises Renaissance aspirations. Bruni (1370-1444), a civic official and historian of Florence, was celebrated in a classically inspired sculpture, a reminder of his claim that Florence was the true heir of ancient Rome. His devotion to the service of the Florentine state is celebrated as a Christian virtue: his duty was to embrace the world not to flee from it. It became customary for families amongst the urban elite not just to pay for single memorials or works of art, but to take over patronage of whole institutions: monasteries, hospitals or churches. In this way an enduring family reputation, eternal salvation and the beauty of the city could be simultaneously achieved. Frequently religious patronage was expressed through confraternities, associations directed to spiritual ends, which ranged from a handful of humble artisans attached to a parochial altar to huge companies of the wealthy and powerful. The Medici effectively controlled the most potent of such associations in Florence, the Compagnia dei Magi, based in the Convent of San Marco; it gave them a vehicle for spectacularly pious donations and unrivalled PR opportunities as they re-enacted each year the journey of the Magi to Bethlehem.

The confraternity was the most characteristic form of organisation in the Catholic church of the Renaissance, indicative of a group mentality that sought spiritual protection in mutuality. Confraternities might also offer physical comfort to the distressed, based on the injunctions in Matthew 25:40 'Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me'. The Scuole Grandi of Venice are perhaps the best known, probably because the best at self-advertising, of the network of charitable confraternities and guilds that more or less held together the social fabric of cities and towns - more or less because the problem of the poor was an ineradicable one. Permanent underemployment amongst the marginals in urban society threatened to drive large numbers of people into destitution in lean years. The function of charity as social cement accounted for the increasing interest of the state in the administration of such charities. There was also a growing tendency for specialisation in the provision of charity, with the sick being particularly favourably looked on, catered for in specially designated hospitals such as Santa Maria Nuova in Florence.

Protestantism brought a revolutionary change. The split between Catholic and Protestant had complex roots; one contributory factor was the textual criticism of the humanist scholars. Textual criticism did not necessarily lead to a rejection of Catholic tradition, but this is where a reinterpretation of the New Testament took a number of radicals, including Martin Luther. Within Protestant theology there were no intermediaries between man and God, no need to appeal to saints, no purgatory to be escaped. There was a massive hostility to what was deemed to have been the superstition and idolatry that had erected this complex and expensive structure of salvation. Battle lines were hardened as print proved to be a devastating weapon in the ideological war, deployed to devastating effect in the form of cheap visual images and vernacular tracts that mobilised mass opinion. It was a split which came to manifest itself in every aspect of life from life-cycle rituals to international diplomacy.

So the values of the Renaissance were expressed differently in Protestant countries where there was active destruction of, rather than patronage of, religious art, and an emphasis rather on The Word, God as revealed in the text of the New Testament. The mass confiscation of the property of religious institutions and confraternities by Protestant authorities stripped away the purchasing power of a significant body of patrons. But the Protestant authorities could no more afford to overlook the socially destructive dimension of poverty, or avoid its challenge to conscience, than could the Catholic: hospitals, schools, houses for fallen women continued under the new dispensation.

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