Introduction: The High Renaissance

As the name implies, the “High Renaissance” was a high point in the period of the Renaissance.  Artists of the High Renaissance consolidated the discoveries of the 15th century and took it to the next level.  Although the pioneers of the Renaissance had discovered a great deal, there was still much to be explored — including the use of oil paint, the representation of movement, and the expression of emotion or psychology. These three things are amongst the qualities that set the work of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael apart from their Renaissances predecessors — whose work seems “lifeless” by comparison.

Uniting the Human and the Divine
High Renaissance artists also solved the problem of uniting the human and the divine.  As Renaissance representations of religious subjects became more and more naturalistic, they also risked becoming too much like our world, thus sacrificing the sense of “divinity” that had been preserved in medieval paintings with the use of halos and golden backgrounds.  Artists of the High Renaissance solved this problem by depicting Mary, Jesus, and the Saints as convincingly human, but endowed with a “superhuman” grace that set them apart from the everyday world. Their grandeur and beauty makes their divine nature inescapably clear, and renders the need for halos obsolete!

Learn more:  Toward the High Renaissance, Smarthistory

Where was the High Renaissance?
While the Early Renaissance began in Florence, and was funded by wealthy banking families like the Medici, the High Renaissance was centered in Rome, and was sponsored by powerful Popes such as Pope Julius II, who sought to proclaim his earthly and spiritual powers through the medium of art.  During this brief period Humanism was brought into harmony with the Church — but if the High Renaissance was a “high point,” it also marked a turning point in the history of the church.  As we will see in the next section, The Protestant Reformation (which was itself a product of the questioning spirit of the Renaissance) ultimately posed a challenge to the authority of the Church of Rome, and the period ended in turmoil, captured perfectly in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel.

Status of the Artist
The status of the artist changed dramatically during the High Renaissance.  Artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were treated as near equals by their patrons, which included Popes and Kings.   Artistic genius came to be valued even more than skill, and artists were given unprecedented freedom to pursue their own creative ideas, rather than adhere strictly to the demands of their patron.  This is the moment that our modern notion of the artist as a kind of “genius” with special creative powers begins to emerge.

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