Behold, I make all things new.

Revelations 21:5

During the Renaissance, European civilization discovered new regions of both the world and the human mind. Just as Christopher Columbus' voyage expanded the boundaries of the known world, so too the rediscovery of Greek humanist philosophy and literature expanded the boundaries of the mind. This reinvigoration of European thought led to a burgeoning of new ideas concerning Jesus, the Christian faith, and the world God created. The Jesus of the Renaissance was a symbol of "Vita Nuova" (new life). As Renaissance thinkers breathed new life into the Gospels by returning to the Greek New Testament, they in turn felt life welling up anew in them through the spiritually redemptive message of Christ. Thus it was that during the Renaissance thinkers reanimated the Christian faith and, in so doing, felt their own rebirth and all creation participating in the newness of life.
Behold, I make all things new.

Revelations 21:5

During the Renaissance, European civilization discovered new regions of both the world and the human mind. Just as Christopher Columbus' voyage expanded the boundaries of the known world, so too the rediscovery of Greek humanist philosophy and literature expanded the boundaries of the mind. This reinvigoration of European thought led to a burgeoning of new ideas concerning Jesus, the Christian faith, and the world God created. The Jesus of the Renaissance was a symbol of "Vita Nuova" (new life). As Renaissance thinkers breathed new life into the Gospels by returning to the Greek New Testament, they in turn felt life welling up anew in them through the spiritually redemptive message of Christ. Thus it was that during the Renaissance thinkers reanimated the Christian faith and, in so doing, felt their own rebirth and all creation participating in the newness of life.

© 2000, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Adoration of the Shepherds

This beautiful work gives expression to the sense of revival that characterized the Renaissance. New architecture is placed beside the ruins of the old; shepherds, symbols of a revitalized, simple faith, admire the Christ child's beauty; and the choir of angels imparts a simple elegance and grace.

Tommaso di Stefano (1496-1564).
c. 1525-1564
Oil on panel
Acc. no. 85/313. PMA:J99.1714.
© Art Gallery of Ontario.


What else is the philosophy of Christ which He Himself calls a 'rebirth' [renascentia], than the restoration of [human] nature to the original
goodness of its creation?

Erasmus of Rotterdam, Paracelsis

As Renaissance culture returned to the robust philosophy of Greco-Roman culture, it developed a deep appreciation for the majesty and dignity of the human body and spirit. The revivification of this sense of humanity's grandeur was inspired, at least in part, by a sense that the expansion of the world and the mind was reopening the gates of Eden and restoring men and women to their original state of wholeness and nobility. This rediscovery of the human world as the location of the sacred was intimately linked, in the minds of many Renaissance thinkers, with the figure of Jesus. A true Renaissance man - greatest of teachers, incarnation of all human virtue, vital link in the Great Chain of Being between God and humanity - Jesus became the paradigmatic symbol of all things valuable in the mind and spirit which had been lost and were now being recover Read More
What else is the philosophy of Christ which He Himself calls a 'rebirth' [renascentia], than the restoration of [human] nature to the original
goodness of its creation?

Erasmus of Rotterdam, Paracelsis

As Renaissance culture returned to the robust philosophy of Greco-Roman culture, it developed a deep appreciation for the majesty and dignity of the human body and spirit. The revivification of this sense of humanity's grandeur was inspired, at least in part, by a sense that the expansion of the world and the mind was reopening the gates of Eden and restoring men and women to their original state of wholeness and nobility. This rediscovery of the human world as the location of the sacred was intimately linked, in the minds of many Renaissance thinkers, with the figure of Jesus. A true Renaissance man - greatest of teachers, incarnation of all human virtue, vital link in the Great Chain of Being between God and humanity - Jesus became the paradigmatic symbol of all things valuable in the mind and spirit which had been lost and were now being recovered.

© 2000, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Christ at the Pool of Bethesda

For many Christian thinkers Christ's physical, mental and spiritual healings speak of restoring humanity to the fullness of life.

Artus Wolfort (1581-1641).
c. 1620-1630
Oil on canvas
Acc. no. 83/304. PMA:J99.1717.
© Art Gallery of Ontario.


Thus, in a cloud
Of flowers, that from those hands angelic rose,
And down within and outside of the car
Fell showering, in white veil with olive wreathed,
A virgin in my view appear'd, beneath Green mantle, robed in hue of living flame.

Purgatorio Canto XXX., lines 28-33

The connection between Christ and the Renaissance belief in rebirth is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in Dante Alighieri's (1265-1321) eloquent evocations of Beatrice, the joy of his soul and the Muse of his poetry. In Vita Nuova and Divine Comedy, Dante develops this beatific vision within a rich symbolic framework. Heralded by a character associated with both John the Baptist and Spring, Beatrice emerges from the pages of the Vita Nuova as a radiant incarnation of love and an image of Christ. In the Divine Comedy, she leads the poet out of Purgatory and in Read More
Thus, in a cloud
Of flowers, that from those hands angelic rose,
And down within and outside of the car
Fell showering, in white veil with olive wreathed,
A virgin in my view appear'd, beneath Green mantle, robed in hue of living flame.

Purgatorio Canto XXX., lines 28-33

The connection between Christ and the Renaissance belief in rebirth is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in Dante Alighieri's (1265-1321) eloquent evocations of Beatrice, the joy of his soul and the Muse of his poetry. In Vita Nuova and Divine Comedy, Dante develops this beatific vision within a rich symbolic framework. Heralded by a character associated with both John the Baptist and Spring, Beatrice emerges from the pages of the Vita Nuova as a radiant incarnation of love and an image of Christ. In the Divine Comedy, she leads the poet out of Purgatory and into the illumination of Christ and the Mother of Christ. A symbol of ascension from darkness into light, of the fullness of life foretold by Spring, and of the inspiriting love of Jesus, the character of Beatrice gives cogent expression to the Renaissance understanding of the joyful reawakening of humanity through Christ.

© 2000, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Queen of Heaven

"Thou shalt behold enthroned the Queen / To whom this realm is subject and devoted."

Gustave Doré (1832-1883).
The Vision of Purgatory and Paradise by Dante Alighieri
c. 1868
Engraving
PMA:J99.1734.
© The Provincial Museum of Alberta


Now, when Christ enters any human heart, he bears with him a twofold light: first the light of conscience, which displays past sin, and afterwards the light of peace, the hope of salvation. The lantern carried in Christ’s left hand is this light of conscience.

John Ruskin

As a "realist" painter, dedicated to "truth to nature," William Holman Hunt depicted Jesus in an orchard at twilight knocking on a door overgrown by weeds. This was meant to suggest the inaccessibility of the human soul to the divine call in a materialistic age. The figure of Jesus is that of an idealized human being as depicted in Renaissance art, unrelated to any historical epoch. This image of Jesus as the "light of the world" is devoid of doctrinal content but rich with universal appeal. Through the ability to produce high-quality prints for the mass market in the nineteenth century, this image became the icon of the emerging middle class - a personal Saviour unattached to the teachings of the c Read More
Now, when Christ enters any human heart, he bears with him a twofold light: first the light of conscience, which displays past sin, and afterwards the light of peace, the hope of salvation. The lantern carried in Christ’s left hand is this light of conscience.

John Ruskin

As a "realist" painter, dedicated to "truth to nature," William Holman Hunt depicted Jesus in an orchard at twilight knocking on a door overgrown by weeds. This was meant to suggest the inaccessibility of the human soul to the divine call in a materialistic age. The figure of Jesus is that of an idealized human being as depicted in Renaissance art, unrelated to any historical epoch. This image of Jesus as the "light of the world" is devoid of doctrinal content but rich with universal appeal. Through the ability to produce high-quality prints for the mass market in the nineteenth century, this image became the icon of the emerging middle class - a personal Saviour unattached to the teachings of the churches.

© 2000, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Light of the World

This replication of a William Holman Hunt painting presents the locked door overgrown with weeds as a metaphor for the stubborn human heart, closed to Christ's salvific message.

(Replication) William Holman Hunt
c. 1881
Engraving
PMA:J99.1523.
© The Provincial Museum of Alberta.


Know then thyself, presume not God to scan, The proper study of mankind is man.

Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man

In the nineteenth century, art historians saw a naturalism which was so "this-worldly" that it undermined - even profaned - the majestic religiosity of the subject matter in such monumental Christian works as Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper. More recently, however, art historians have persuasively argued that "naturalistic" Renaissance expressions of Jesus' sexuality were borne out of an incarnational theology which stands at the centre of Christian orthodoxy. Thus much of Renaissance art was the embodiment of a shared set of cultural beliefs about the divinity which inhered in humanity, a set of beliefs which found its noblest expression in Jesus Christ.
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan, The proper study of mankind is man.

Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man

In the nineteenth century, art historians saw a naturalism which was so "this-worldly" that it undermined - even profaned - the majestic religiosity of the subject matter in such monumental Christian works as Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper. More recently, however, art historians have persuasively argued that "naturalistic" Renaissance expressions of Jesus' sexuality were borne out of an incarnational theology which stands at the centre of Christian orthodoxy. Thus much of Renaissance art was the embodiment of a shared set of cultural beliefs about the divinity which inhered in humanity, a set of beliefs which found its noblest expression in Jesus Christ.

© 2000, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Rest on the Flight into Egypt

The radiant colours and acute sensitivity to detail in van Orley's work combine with the image of Mary suckling Christ to express the Renaissance belief in new life.

Bernard van Orley (c.1491-1541).
c. 1518
Oil on wood
Acc. no. 2456. PMA:J99.1107.
© Art Gallery of Ontario.


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • Place the figure of Christ in the historical context of Renaissance Europe;
  • Describe, with examples, the depiction of Christ in Renaissance art.

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