Literature, Arts and the Humanities: Analysis and Interpretation

Many people, even those who aren’t greatly familiar with the art, recognize the word Renaissance as referring to an explosive period in arts and the humanities and vaguely link it to Middle Age fashions and lifestyles. In reality, the Renaissance period began in 14th century Italy as the people there began rediscovering the knowledge and achievements of the ancient Greeks and Romans. During the following 200 years, the movement grew and spread across Western Europe. Meanwhile, Italian culture had already moved on to a new artistic focus now known as the Baroque. As compared to the Renaissance, the Baroque period was characterized by more emotional appeal, a greater focus on natural depictions and higher emphasis on grandeur. It is possible to provide a basic description of what made these two periods different from one another, but they are easily confused. Therefore, it is easier to convey these differences when comparing specific works of art. Representative works of each of these two periods, such as “The Tribute Money” by Masaccio and “The Calling of St. Matthew” by Caravaggio, illustrate the differences between the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

During the Renaissance, the artistic and scientific lessons that were learned from the remnants of the ancients contributed significantly to technical developments in ‘realistic’ painting. These paintings gained new dimensions through the use of shading, chiaroscuro and linear perspective. These techniques were demonstrated and made famous throughout the period through the efforts of masters such as Masaccio, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo. Da Vincis famous Mona Lisa provides a strong example of chiaroscuro in which the background becomes hazy with distance while Michelangelos Sistine Chapel demonstrates foreshortening and awareness of linear perspective to make the figures appear in proper relationship to the viewer. As the period waned going into the 16th century, Baroque artists such as Caravaggio, Rubens and Bernini used these same techniques but chose to focus more upon elements of natural expression, form, and emotion in their work. This was different because it took the focus off of the technical mastery of the painterly techniques and transformed it into a more realistic portrayal of the underlying subject and human experience.

Masaccio’s painting “The Tribute Money” is dated to around 1420, which places it near the beginning of the Renaissance period. Within this painting, there are several contextual elements that classify it as a classic Renaissance work. Since a great deal of the focus of the Renaissance was based on the concept of mathematic purity, developing methods of perspective and modeling and perfection of form, these elements stand out strongly within the image. There is strong development of the single point perspective as the painting illustrates a scene from the Gospel of St. Matthew. Masaccio also employs the Renaissance technique of chiaroscuro or atmospheric ambiance. This creates a sense of depth and transition into the field of the painting rather than remaining on the surface as the eye moves from one figure to another. This is particularly noticeable by comparing the image of St. Peter extracting money from the fish in the midground which is not as clear as the image of him paying the money to the tax collector in the foreground.

“The Calling of Saint Matthew” is a painting that was completed by Caravaggio in either 1599 or 1600. This situates it historically right at the beginning of the Baroque period. Again, it is because of the contextual elements of the painting that classify it as Baroque rather than the date it was made. As has been stated, the major characteristics of the Baroque period were a new focus on natural expression and emotional content. In keeping with this spirit, Caravaggio’s painting is very emotional in its content. It depicts the moment from the Bible in which Jesus brings the light of true spiritual life by calling Simon out of his life of evil and darkness. The scene is placed within a dark room full of men with the only illumination being a bright shaft of sunlight coming from a high up window just above and behind the place where Jesus is standing. The people in the image are dressed in very natural-seeming clothing for the period, full of folds and creases and their poses as they sit at the table or stand are not the stiff and formal positions they have in Masaccio’s painting.

Both paintings, like both periods, demonstrate high awareness of the new techniques of painterly expression to create more realistic images from what had been produced in the past. During the Renaissance period, the focus was mostly on identifying and perfecting these techniques, which produced a somewhat stiff, highly mechanical expression. The Baroque period worked to soften this mechanical approach into more natural expression, opening the way for the later Rococo style that flourished in France by the mid-1800s. Just as the Baroque used the techniques of the Renaissance to react to the harsh mathematics of the period, so the free-spirited styles of the Rococo caused reaction into the Neoclassical age.