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Toward the High Renaissance, an introduction

By Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker
When you think of the Renaissance, the names that come to mind are probably the artists of this period (the High Renaissance): Leonardo and Michelangelo, for instance. And perhaps when you think of the greatest work of art in the western world, Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling might come to mind. This is a period of big, ambitious projects.
Fra Filippo Lippi, Madonna and Child with Two Angels, c. 1460–65, tempera on panel, 95 x 63.5 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence)
Fra Filippo Lippi, Madonna and Child with Two Angels, c. 1460–65, tempera on panel, 95 x 63.5 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence)

How is the High Renaissance different from the Early Renaissance?

As the Humanism of the Early Renaissance develops, a problem arises. Have a look at Fra Filippo Lippi's Madonna and Child with Angels. We see a Madonna and Christ Child that have become so real—the figures appear so human—that in some ways we can hardly tell that these are divine figures (except perhaps for the faint outline of a halo, and Mary's sorrowful expression and hands clasped in prayer). On the other hand, in the Middle Ages, the need to create transcendent spiritual figures, meant a move toward abstraction—toward flatness and elongation.
In the Early Renaissance then, a tension arises. To create spiritual figures, your image can't look very real, and if you want your image to appear real, then you sacrifice some spirituality. In the late 15th century though, Leonardo da Vinci creates figures who are physical and real (just as real as Lippi's or Masaccio's figures), and yet they have an undeniable and intense spirituality. We could say that Leonardo unites the real and spiritual, or soul and substance.
Andrea del Verrocchio (with Leonardo), Baptism of Christ, 1470–75, oil and tempera on panel, 180 x 152 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Andrea del Verrocchio (with Leonardo), Baptism of Christ, 1470–75, oil and tempera on panel, 180 x 152 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
The best way to see this is in this painting by Verrocchio—an important Early Renaissance artist who Leonardo was apprenticed to when he was young. Verrocchio asked Leonardo to paint one of the angels in his painting of the Baptism of Christ.
Detail, Andrea del Verrocchio (with Leonardo), Baptism of Christ, 1470–75, oil and tempera on panel, 180 x 152 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Detail, Andrea del Verrocchio (with Leonardo), Baptism of Christ, 1470–75, oil and tempera on panel, 180 x 152 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Can you tell which angel is Leonardo's? One angel should look more like a boy—that's the Early Renaissance angel (the one painted by Verrocchio) and the other angel should look truly divine, sent by God from heaven (that's Leonardo's angel).
The angel on the left is Leonardo's.
Leonardo's angel is ideally beautiful and moves in a graceful and complex way, twisting her upper body to the left but raising her head up and to the right. Figures that move elegantly and that are ideally beautiful are typical of the High Renaissance.

Additional resources
Read a chapter in our textbook, Reframing Art History, about rethinking how we approach Italian renaissance art (art in republics as well as in sovereign states).

Essay by Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

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  • piceratops seed style avatar for user mcchesmt
    Is there a way to download these as a pdf to read offline? I'm going on a trip soon and would like to read these on the airplane. Thank you!
    (6 votes)
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    • leafers tree style avatar for user Hilary
      Web pages (any web page) can be saved through your browser (in Firefox it's called "Save Page"). Your web browser will download two things when you do this: a folder and an html file. Keep both. When you are ready to read the web page, open the html file. This will work for articles (not videos or audio). It will not save as a PDF, but instead will open in your browser just as if you were online (of course, the links will not work since you'll be offline on the plane). This would work for a laptop - not sure about cell phones!
      (10 votes)
  • piceratops sapling style avatar for user Victoria Sanchez
    What other paintings did Verrocchio paint?
    (5 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user gabrielle.m.gonzalez1999
    How did Leonardo learn to paint in the way that he did if he apprenticed under Verrocchio? I realize that everyone has their own artistic style, but shouldn't their painting styles be more similar due to Leonardo learning under Verrocchio?
    (3 votes)
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  • piceratops seed style avatar for user Mimi NL
    This makes so much sense - in terms of what differentiates early to high renaissance. To have a picture where the figures look real, but also divine. There's a sense of divinity when looking at the sculptures, paintings and drawings by michelangelo, or the paintings by leonardo. Something really elegant and transcendent. In terms of what makes these works so divine, it is really hard to articulate or deconstruct for me.
    What differentiates Baroque from Renaissance?
    (2 votes)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user aayala3004
    How did the Renaissance start?
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Harry Hardesty
    Why are the faces of babies and children made to look
    like adults?
    (1 vote)
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  • marcimus purple style avatar for user Katherine W
    Who else made their art look alive?
    (1 vote)
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    • piceratops tree style avatar for user Arthur Smith
      That's a big question requiring a very long and debatable answer. The short answer is many artists have, in many different eras and styles. From the Renaissance, a fair amount of artists have brought their characters to life, in a variety of ways. I'd recommend Giovanni Bellini, Titian, Veneziano, Hans Holbein... Raphael & Michelangelo, then Caravaggio, Mattia Preti, Simon Vouet, and a host of others. Many, many others. A lot of contemporary artists give their portraits a living, breathing quality. Look up William Whitaker, for example.
      (3 votes)
  • female robot grace style avatar for user catherinezhu2004
    Why did the high renaissance have such a realistic style while other periods of time were more abstract?
    (1 vote)
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    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user izrema
      I think its because earlier periods of art such as the Gothic era and even Byzantine art were made to express spirituality of their holy or "divine" figures such as Christ and Madonna, and in order to do so, I think abstraction was used to create "elongated and flat" figures. Other periods of art had other reasons for instance Abstraction was sometimes a form for expressing philosophy. I hope this answers you question.
      (2 votes)
  • leaf blue style avatar for user Mark Kennell
    What criteria could I use to compare the Early Renaissance with the Late Renaissance? Could I use the same criteria to compare the Italian Renaissance with the Northern Renaissance?
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user momkapandchan
    How where artist veiwed during this time
    (1 vote)
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