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  • Writer's pictureAccessible Art History

Art and Architecture of the Early Renaissance

Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! Today, I’m going to be starting a three part series on the Renaissance. This period of art history is one of the most popular because it represents a great shift in both thought and creativity. Starting at the beginning of the 15th century, artists started experimenting with what art could be. So, to learn more about the Early Renaissance, then keep on reading!


The Early Renaissance is often referred to as the “Quattrocento” period. It derives from the Italian words for the 1400’s. At this time, artists and philosophers started to reexamine the classical past for inspiration. They also started to believe in a more person centered mindset. Called humanism, it puts emphasis on the individual and their relationship to the world. As a byproduct, people started to wonder if the Church was needed as much for a relationship with the divine. It was still an important and powerful institution, but this was the beginning of the power slip.

Another major change was patronage. For centuries, it was only the wealthy that could afford art, primarily royalty, nobles, and the church. But, at this point in history, a middle class began to develop. For example, in Florence, the epicenter for the Renaissance, merchants became quite wealthy from the trade of wool. Eventually, they became quite powerful, like the Medici family who would go on to rule the city. Money was spent on beautifying the city and enriching cultural heritage. In order to illustrate these changes, let’s dive into three magnificent examples.


Example One: "The Gates of Paradise"

For many art historians, Lorenzo Ghilberti and his bronze doors are one of the first works of the Renaissance. The artist won the commission in 1401 at the age of only 21! The cloth guild of Florence sponsored a contest to redecorate the doors of the city’s baptistry. Although it took him two decades to complete, it was well worth the wait! One set of doors contains 28 biblical scenes, twenty from Christ’s life and eight featuring the saints. Another set of doors feature the 10 stories from the Old Testament. These works are considered to be so beautiful that even the great Michelangelo was taken aback. He dubbed them “The Gates of Paradise.”

These doors represent the tenants of the early Renaissance for a few different reasons. The first is the use of three dimensionality, especially through the stacking of figures. Ghiberti manipulated the material to create elaborate folds in the cloth, resembling the Roman togas of old. Finally, the figures interact with each other. This creates a dynamic storytelling effect not present in art for centuries.


Example Two: Massacio’s Holy Trinity

With the rise of patronage, wealthy citizens would commission artists to decorate their tombs so they would be remembered for eternity. One of these works is The Holy Trinity by Massacio. It was painted between 1426-28. In the work, there are life size figures of God, Christ on the Cross, the Virgin, St. John, and the two donors. By making the figures so large, Masacchio was eliminating the barrier between human and the divine.

This piece was one of the first to use a vanishing point for the creation perspective. All the lines converge downwards to the center of the ledge. This causes the viewer to look up at Christ. It is a clever painting technique that creates a sense of three dimensionality.

Masacchio also worked to bring the classical past into his work. The architectural details not only provide another element of depth, but they are reminiscent of the great Roman basilicas of the past.


Example Three: Brunelleschi’s Dome at the Florence Cathedral

Another classical inspiration came in the form of the dome of the Florence Cathedral. It was designed by a goldsmith named Brunelleschi. He saw the architecture of the Gothic period as ugly and heavy. This was because the walls were held up with flying buttresses. So, Brunelleschi looked to the Pantheon in Rome for inspiration. It took a decade, but it was finally unveiled in 1426.

Brunelleschi’s innovative solution was to build two domes, nestled inside each other. He used interior ribbing and hoops to help distribute the weight, taking the place of the flying buttresses. In addition, brick was used instead of stone. This was much lighter, taking some of the strain off of the ribbing and hoops. To this day, it is considered an engineering marvel. It was something that hadn’t been tried before, but Brunelleschi had the guts to try!


The early Renaissance was a period of tremendous growth in human thought and expression. This would continue into the High Renaissance, so keep an eye out for that post coming soon!



Gardner's Art Through the Ages


Cover Image: Dome of Florence Cathedral

CC 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici - Founder of the Medici Bank

Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Gates of Paradise

CC 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Masaccio's Holy Trinity

Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Dome of Florence Cathedral

CC 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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