The Development of Humanism in Thought and Art
from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance

Gold rule

Christianity, with its focus on God, is often thought to be fundamentally incompatible with humanism and its focus on man. However, in late antiquity Augustine successfully combined the ideas of classical humanism with Christian theology, and Christian humanism was developed further up to the Renaissance. Humanism as expressed in art was so subtle as to be virtually imperceptible during the dark ages, but as the Middle Ages progressed, the expression of humanism in art became more apparent.

Augustine, who wrote during a period in which the Roman Empire was collapsing but prior to the onset of the Middle Ages, continued the tradition of classical humanism while adapting that tradition to Christian ideology. Augustine concurred with Aristotle's definition of man as a rational animal:

A great thing is man, made in the image and likeness of God, not in that he is encased in a mortal body, but in that he excels the beasts in the dignity of a rational soul.

(Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, p. 18). Man is great because he is made in God's image; however, he has been separated from God and "encased in a mortal body." Man was given a rational soul so that he might be redeemed. Although man fell from grace, he is worthy of being restored to the divine presence.

Augustine wrote On Christian Doctrine in order to provide future preachers with "a way of discovering those things which are to be understood, and a way of teaching what we have learned." (p. 7). He explicitly states that the goal of learning is "expressing those things which are understood" (p. 72), and condemns the pursuit of understanding as an end in itself. Charity is the primary theme of Augustine's treatise: the biblical command, "Thou shalt love they neighbor as thyself," (Matthew 22:37) is repeated or referred to throughout the text. For Augustine, teaching others and guiding them to salvation is the highest expression of charity. Furthermore, Augustine notes that "the condition of man would be lowered if God had not wished to have men supply His word to men" (p. 5), and therefore that status of mankind is elevated by the very method through which redemption is brought about.

Despite Augustine's emphasis on Christian doctrine, he asserts that "the whole temporal dispensation was made by diving Providence for our salvation." (p. 30). Knowledge of other languages, logic, natural science, history, geography, medicine, and agriculture provides aid in understanding the Bible. Even pagan philosophy could be useful: Augustine said that the truths of pagan philosophers "should be taken from them as from unjust possessors and converted to our use." (p. 75). The discussion of rhetoric in Book IV of On Christian Doctrine is derived from Cicero, a debt Augustine unabashedly acknowledges.

Thus, with his affirmation of the dignity and the special role of man, his emphasis on pedagogy, and his respect for the diversity of human achievements, Augustime places himself firmly within the humanist tradition. The Lindisfarne Gospels, however, demonstrate the disintegration of humanism during the early Middle Ages, a period appropriately known as the Dark Ages.

The Lindisfarne Gospels represent a total renunciation of man and a radical focus on God. The only obvious trace of humanism appears in the ineptly executed portraits of the evangelists derived from sculptures and drawings of classical philosophers. But even though humanism is almost entirely absent in the Lindisfarne Gospels, some Augustinian ideas such as the theory of signs are present. Augustine states that all words are signs, and the calligraphy and illuminated letters of the Lindisfarne Gospels call special attention to the words. Augustine also says that "Some things are to be enjoyed, others to be used, and there are others to be enjoyed and used." (p. 9). Clearly the words in the Lindisfarne Gospels are to be both enjoyed and used. Similarly, the elaborate carpet pages also are signs; they strongly resemble oriental mandalas used to direct the mind to a transcendental reality, and the carpet pages seem to serve the same purpose. Interestingly, the designs of the carpet pages and illuminated capitals appear to be inspired by pagan art, reflecting Augustine's encouragement of converting pagan ideas to Christian use.

Most men and women of the Dark Ages were illiterate, and only a very small number knew Latin, the language in which the Lindisfarne Gospels were written. A translation of the Latin into Old English was transcribed between the lines of the text, a practice which conforms to Augustine's emphasis on teaching Christian doctrine in an accessible manner.

Even though humanist ideas are not readily apparent in the Lindisfarne Gospels, the ideas of a humanist can be detected. By the time of the High Middle Ages in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, however, humanism is expressed in both thought and art. Bonaventura builds on Augustine's ideas about man, but while Augustine speaks generally about mankind, Bonaventura shifts the focus to the individual.

Bonaventura accepts the definition of man as a rational animal, and asserts that "we are led to the divine by the powers of the rational soul itself." (Bonaventura, The Mind's Road to God, p.32). According to Augustine, our rational faculties make us capable of realizing God's truth; Bonaventura takes this idea a step further by asserting that rationality itself leads to truth. Bonaventura declares "there is nothing higher than the human mind except Him Who made it." (p. 25). Each milestone along the way to God, "sense, imagination, reason, intellect, intelligence, and ... conscience (p. 9) are components of the human mind. Furthermore, any man can make this journey; one does not have to be a learned theologian to obtain knowledge of God.

Like Augustine, Bonaventura recognized that one required assistance on the road to God, but where Augustine would have other men provide this assistance, Bonaventura believed that enlightenment required a direct relationship between an individual and the divine. Thus the ideal of human life included the presence of the divine.

Chartres Cathedral expresses ideas of both Augustine and Bonaventura. Like Augustine, Chartres Cathedral celebrates learning: many sculptures on the cathedral exterior hold books or scrolls. The depiction of the Annunciation on the Virgin Portal shows Mary as having dropped the book she was reading. Mary's aspect as patroness of the seven liberal arts is the subject of the tympanum over the Virgin Portal. The preeminent representative of each art -- Aristotle, Cicero, Euclid, Boethius, Ptolemy, Donatus, and Pythagoras -- all of whom are pagans -- is depicted below a personification of his respective art. In addition, bakers, stonecutters, and various other occupations and crafts are illustrated in the stained glass windows. The cathedral has often been called a visual encyclopedia. Augustine would have approved of the fact that these references to learning and skill were not merely ornamental, but were didactic tools intended to lead to conversion.

According to Bonaventura. God is contemplated "outside through his traces, inside through his image, and above through his light." (p. 34). Chartres Cathedral is a physical manifestation of the mind's road to God. On the exterior of the cathedral are a myriad of objects suitable for contemplation. Bonaventura explicitly compares the second stage of the journey to entering a church: "We enter into ourselves as if leaving the vestibule and coming into the sanctum." (p. 22). Once inside the cathedral one is drawn upwards and forward by the ethereal light streaming in through the stained glass of the clerestory and apse. Under such circumstances it would seem impossible to escape a transcendental experience.

Humanism reached its fullest expression in the Renaissance. Alberti's contribution to the development of humanist thought consists in the shift in emphasis from the subject of a work of art to first the artist and second the observer of art. Alberti declares that "[t]he aim of painting [is] to give pleasure, good will and fame to the painter more than riches." (Alberti, On Painting, p. 89). He carries this idea even further by stating that "painting contains within itself this virtue that any master painter who sees his work adored will feel himself considered another god." (p. 64).

Although the idea of the artist as divine creator was a commonplace of classical humanism, it is a radical departure from the Christian humanism of Augustine and Bonaventura. Eadfrith's work on the Lindisfarne Gospels was an act of self abnegating devotion. By the twelfth century a hint of a movement towards the position taken by Alberti is seen in Abbot Suger's writings on the restoration of the church at St.-Denis: Suger had his name included in the dedicatory verses inscribed on the doors, altars and other precious objects.

Alberti's treatise, then, provides a program whereby an artist might obtain fame. According to Alberti, "[t]he greatest work of the painter is the istoria." (p. 70). A successful istoria requires variety in facial expressions, gestures and postures. Expressiveness is of paramount importance. The istoria will move the soul of the beholder when each man painted there clearly shows the movement of his own soul." (p. 77). Alberti saw painting as essentially dramatic.

An artist obtains fame only by making a favorable impression on a large number of viewers. The purpose of the istoria is to produce an impact on its viewer:

The istoria which merits both praise and admiration will be so agreeably and pleasantly attractive that it will capture the eye of whatever learned or unlearned person is looking at it and will move his soul. (p. 75).

For Alberti, art was the means by which an artist controlled a viewer by first engaging the viewer and then creating a lasting impression.

Michelangelo's frescoes on the Sistine Chapel ceiling are superb examples of Albertian ideas. A profuse variety of human figures are depicted, and each shows individual character through facial expression, gesture and posture. The prophet, Jeremiah, leaning forward with his right elbow propped on his knee and his fingers intertwined in his beard, is absorbed in concentration; Daniel, his left arm and leg thrust forward, looks down curiously. The ignudi show a variety of emotions: some cower in fear, some are amused, and others simply gaze impassively.

While the ignudi, sibyls and prophets all contribute to the sense that something is happening, the central panels convey the primary drama: the story of man's creation, fall, and redemption. The most dramatic panel is the depiction of the Flood. The panel teems with turbulent, desperate activity. Individuals are again particularized through subtle variations in emotional responses: anguish, fear, despair. One would be inhuman if his soul was not moved by this tragic spectacle.

The Sistine Chapel ceiling's encyclopedic representation of humanity is the culmination of humanism: man is the creator of art, man is the subject of art, and man is the beneficiary of art. Even the portrayal of God seems to be a reversal of the orthodox Christian view: it is God who is created is man's image.

Gold rule

Written for Art and Ideas at University of Washington, February 1990. Grade: 4.0.

Gold rule


Gold rule

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Last revised: July 9, 2016.

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