Humanism was a new way of thinking that came about in fourteenth century, the time of the Renaissance. Many scholars refer to it as the Spirit of the Renaissance. Humanism was a lay phenomenon that emphasized human beings as opposed to deities as well as their interests, achievements and capabilities. Humanism is derived from the Latin word humanitas, which Cicero, the noted orator of the Roman Empire, referred to as the literary culture needed by anyone who would be considered educated and civilized. In history, art has often been used by the church to educate the illiterate. The church invested money to decorate its churches and cathedrals with art depicting scenes from the Bible.
Even if not commissioned by the church, artists often chose to depict Biblical scenes. As humanism became more widespread in Europe, however, art steadily became more secular. As classical texts brought about a deeper understanding of the ancient cultures, classical themes such as pagan gods appeared more often in art. Religious art, however, never disappeared. Artists depicted scenes differently.
For example, medieval artists depiction of Genesis showed the fall from grace of Adam and Eve, whereas Renaissance artists depicted the creation of man. Normal looking people also entered into the artwork. Artists depicted humans as humans and did not give them unnatural qualities as they had in the past. As people became conscious of their uniqueness, they wanted themselves to be immortalized in art. Patrons asked that they be depicted in artwork, whether as the main figure in the piece or as bystanders. Artists also often made self-portraits or portrayed themselves in the background of their artwork.
Gradually, art began to mirror reality more closely. During the renaissance, a new style of art called International Style, emerged. It was characterized by rich color, decorative detail, curvilinear rhythm and swaying forms. It was called the International Style because many artists in Europe used it. As humanism spread, artists became more interested with the human body. Donatello, who was appreciated for his variety in human nature, revived the nude as the subject of art in the Renaissance by creating a life-size statue of David from the Bible.
The David he depicted was a lanky youth who did not look like a hero, but the expression on the statue’s face showed a man proud to have slain a Giant. Michaelangelo, however, depicted more heroic looking men. His depiction of David showed a strong looking man. In general, the artists of this period depicted the human body in a more scientific and natural manner. The female body was voluptuous and sensual while the male body was strong and heroic. This glorification of the human body showed the secular spirit of the period.
During this time, the social status of the artist improved. Rich and powerful people commissioned artists to create works for their private collections or for public places. Merchants, popes, noble men and princes supported the arts as a method of glorifying themselves. Artists depended on their patrons for support.
Society respected and rewarded the artist as a genius. The social status of a distinguished artist would be secure for eternity. Also, an aspiring artist could now receive a formal education from a master for whom he worked.