Humanism During the Renaissance

Humanism was an important philosophy that helped ignite the curiosity and desire for knowledge that led to the beginning of the Renaissance. By the 13th century, people began wanting to learn more about classic Greek and Roman culture, literature, and philosophy. This study began to affect how people saw the world. One major effect was that people began questioning the systems they were living in. Humanists believed people should be educated in classical art, literature, and science. They also believed that God gave humanity great potential and that humans should make the most of it rather than blindly following a religious plan. Humanism spread through the 14th and 16th centuries inspiring the work of many important artists, scientists, and philosophers.

One of the founders of Humanist philosophy in the Renaissance is Francesco Petrarch. Through his writings and poetry he encouraged people to take interest in nature and value human qualities such as logic and reason. Giovanni Boccaccio was a writer and humanist philosopher whose work Genealogy of the Pagan Gods, helped guide renaissance thinkers to learn about the ancient Greek classics. Humanist aspects of these writers influenced later works such as Miguel de Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote which used satire to criticize aspects of the church and Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince which forced people to question how states were governed. 

Humanists celebrated the individual and this was also evident in the artistic techniques of Renaissance painters. The sculptor Donatello used perspective and natural human postures and stances in his St. Mark statue and bronze sculpture The Feast of Herod. The realistic portrayal of humans and use of depth and perspective is prominent in works such as The Wedding of the Virgin and Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Raphael, as well as in The Last Supper and The Mona Lisa painted by Leonardo Da Vinci.

Michelangelo’s works such as The Pieta and The Reaction of Adam show human emotions and have realistic features, a common theme in renaissance humanist art. Humanism drew its roots from Greek and Roman mythology, and Botticelli included these in his works The Birth of Venus and Venus and Mars, depicting Venus with realistic human features. Jan Van Eyck’s work depicts renaissance humanism in Northern Europe. Examples of his art such as The Arnolfini Portrait and the Madonna of Chancellor Rolin reflect humanism's intricacy with symbolism and detailed textures and lighting.