Renaissance Humanism – the Origin & History | Church History
Toward the end of the Middle Ages, Europe experienced a general revival of the interest in human beings, art, and literature. This revival was afterwards referred to as the Renaissance. The word Renaissance is French for “rebirth.” It was called this for two important reasons. First, the Black Plague, which swept through Europe and killed one-third of the human population, was coming to an end. People had more optimism that they were going to live now that the Black Plague was subsiding. Second, the movement was a revival in academic matters and appreciation for the power and beauty of the human being. It felt like an escape from the Dark Ages. The spirit of optimism and free inquiry swept through Europe and caused a revival especially in arts and literature.
It may be helpful to draw a few contrasts between the Dark Ages and the Renaissance. In the Dark Ages in Europe, ideas about art and education were controlled by the Roman Catholic Church. Artists and educators used religious methods to meet religious goals. In the Renaissance, the focus became people and creation rather than Heaven and angels. The methods artists and educators used in the Renaissance were driven by the skill of human observation and science. Research and discovery in the Renaissance era were for the sake of discovery, wherever it would lead. In the Dark Ages, it seemed that research was intended to support the status quo whether in politics or the church. Therefore, Renaissance thinkers and artists were regarded as rebels, to a degree.
As Renaissance ideas traveled northward across the Alps into Germany and Switzerland, the movement came to be known as Humanism because of its emphasis on the human mind and body. Portraits of saints in the Dark Ages were darker in color and somber in mood. People were portrayed as suffering or waiting on God to deliver them. The human mind was tortured by spiritually dark forces and the heaviness of sin. In Humanism, people’s minds and bodies got to be celebrated. To the Humanist, the human mind was capable of understanding truths on its own inquiry. People did not need to be spoon-fed the truth of the church. They could research and come to their own conclusions. The human mind was valuable, and the human body was valued as well. Renaissance art revived realism that celebrated the nuances of the human body. Veins, muscles, shadows, eyes, and other parts of the body were carefully researched and represented in art. Leonardo da Vinci, for example, used to cut open cadavers to research how best to represent the human body in his art. The human body and the human mind became beautiful again—not tortured but celebrated. In the Dark Ages, portrayals were especially made of famous people, but in the Renaissance era, common people with their common lives were also portrayed in art. This emphasis on art among the common people was a welcome change. The ancient Greeks were not afraid to celebrate the beauty of human anatomy. This trend revived itself in the art of the Renaissance.
The Renaissance itself can be traced back to Florence, Italy during the height of the power of the Medici family. The Plague hit the town of Florence hard. In 1348, about forty percent of the town’s population succumbed to the Plague. As the town was rebuilding, the Medici family patronized the arts and commissioned beautiful paintings and sculptures to adorn houses and the public square. Some of these sculptures included nude portrayals of people. Conservative townspeople objected. A famous preacher by the name of Girolamo Savonarola preached energetically against this new direction in art. He successfully had the Medici family expelled from the city, but soon after, they returned, and Savonarola was burned at the stake.
Although the church did not embrace the new art at first, one of the Medici family ascended to the papacy and took the name Leo X. He did patronize the arts and sought to bring the same type of Renaissance paintings to Rome to adorn his new St. Peter’s Cathedral. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, which he painted in 1508-1512, is an example of the religious application of Renaissance art in Rome. Soon, churches around Europe embraced the new style of realistic human portrayals, and Renaissance art found its way into cathedrals and chapels around Europe.
Besides issuing a new era in art, the Renaissance was also a time of revival in interest in ancient Greek and Latin literature. As Muslim troops made further inroads towards Constantinople even in the fourteenth century, Greek scholars began removing some important ancient Greek literature from Constantinople’s collection and transferring it west. When the Greek scholars and classic Greek literature arrived, it sparked a renewed interest in the Greek language and literature. One of the most helpful contributions to the church of this newfound interest in ancient Greek literature was improved studies on the New Testament. The New Testament was originally written in Koiné Greek, and the earliest manuscripts of the New Testament were also in Greek. Therefore, students of the Bible who wanted to dig into the New Testament in its original language had many more resources to help them translate and discuss the original language. Erasmus of Rotterdam, a leading Humanist of the early sixteenth century, collected ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament and published a Greek text that became a standard Greek text for translators up to the present day.
There was also a renewed interest in classical Latin literature such as Cicero, Virgil, and Horace. Literary experts began engaging in literary criticism, in which various sources of the same writing were compared and contrasted to figure out which source contained the correct form of the earlier writing. All of this interest in ancient Greek and Roman literature not only created a science of investigating ancient literature but an awareness that there was a great body of ancient secular literature that was worthy of studying. The church had long banned, or at least discouraged, the reading of ancient secular literature, so this revival of interest in ancient sources seemed somewhat rebellious to the church. People who believed the church had headed in the wrong direction, especially concerning the financial spending of fourteenth century popes in France, the subject of another video, now had another set of ancient literature to consider. Maybe there was beauty and knowledge outside of the church which God intended for people to enjoy.
One of the reasons an interest in literature was able to take off during this era was the invention of the printing press. Johannes Gutenberg invented a system of moveable type in 1439, and by 1455, copies of the Gutenberg Bible began circulating around Europe. Before the invention of the printing press, copies of books were too expensive for middle or lower class readers. However, once the process of printing was mechanized, the price of books dropped considerably, and the quantity of books increased notably. This invention helped perpetuate Humanist ideas and eventually allowed criticism of the church to circulate more widely. The Reformation in the sixteenth century was also greatly helped along by the invention of the printing press.
Theologically speaking, the emphasis on humanity in art brought with it a renewed interest in theological anthropology—or, the theological issues related to being a human being. Erasmus, for example, wrote On the Freedom of the Will, which claimed that both people and God are essential to a person’s receiving grace. Whereas the thought of the Augustinian scholars throughout the Middle Ages was that salvation is completely a matter of God’s grace, Erasmus suggested that people actively use their free will to choose God. The Renaissance prompted theological questions about the abilities and properties of human beings as a primary subject of inquiry.
The Renaissance and Humanism, which surfaced suddenly after the subsiding of the Black Plague, started in Italy and moved northward as far as Scotland. It revived an interest in the human body and mind as well as an interest in classical Greek and Latin literature. It would be one of several waves of secular thought that would challenge the assumptions and traditions of the Christian church. The church would sometimes embrace it and sometimes shun it, but the Renaissance and Humanism laid a foundation for further church-reforming thoughts, especially the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century.
- Theodore Ernst Mommsen, “Petrarch’s Conception of the Dark Ages,” in Medieval and Renaissance Studies (New York: Cornell, 1957), 106-129.
- Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church: Volume Six—The Middle Ages, A.D. 1294-1517 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1910), 59-60.
- Leonardo da Vinci, The Notebooks of Leonardo DaVinci (Old Saybrook, CT: Konecky and Konecky), 93-190.
- Dennis Sherman and Joyce Salisbury, The West in the World: Renaissance to Present, second edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004), 353.
- Dennis Sherman and Joyce Salisbury, The West in the World: Renaissance to Present, second edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004), 341.
- Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, volume five—The Renaissance (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1953), 78-79. Justo González, The Story of Christianity: Volume One—The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, revised and updated edition (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 438.
- Ruth Tucker, Parade of Faith: A Biographical History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 212.
- Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, volume five—The Renaissance (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1953), 80.
- Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, volume five—The Renaissance (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1953), 84.
- Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church: Volume Six—The Middle Ages, A.D. 1294-1517 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1910), 560.
- Justo González, The Story of Christianity: Volume One—The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, revised and updated edition (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 438.
- Ruth Tucker, Parade of Faith: A Biographical History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 213.