Achievement Standard as90493 Renaissance Art History Examine a theory and its role in art Internal Assessment Credits: 4 Due Date: This achievement standard involves outlining a theory related to Italian Renaissance Art

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Achievement Standard AS90493

Renaissance Art History
Examine a theory and its role in art
Internal Assessment

Credits: 4
Due Date: __________________________

This achievement standard involves outlining a theory related to Italian Renaissance Art, demonstrating how this theory is applied in artworks and evaluating its significance for the art of the Renaissance period


This activity requires you to write an essay (1000 words approx.) that examines the role of a theory in a period of the Italian Renaissance. Your essay will have three parts, including an introduction that outlines the main principles of your selected theory, a section that demonstrates and explains its application in at least 3 Renaissance artworks, and a conclusion where you will evaluate the significance of your selected theory for the art of the Renaissance period.


This activity will be completed over a five week period, including homework time and one class research period.


  • Please submit your essay in word processed form

  • Submit the assignment including completed cover sheet, your essay, a bibliography and all annotated research notes neatly in a folder

  • This assignment must be received by 3.30pm in the art office on the due date

  • For information on internal assessment procedures (eg: extensions) please consult your ‘Course Information’

Task One: Select a Theory

Select one theory from the Italian Renaissance art period:

  • Humanism in 15th Century Italian Renaissance Art or,

  • Mathematical Perspective in 15th Century Italian Renaissance Art or,

  • Neo-Platonism in Italian Renaissance Art

Task Two: Introduction to the Essay

  • Outline the main principles of your selected theory (c.350 words)

Task Three: Discussion and explanation of Examples

  • Select three artworks by three different artists that demonstrate the influence of your theory, from the period specified with your theory selection. Identify visual imagery and/or iconographic motifs in your selected art works that reflect your selected theory, and demonstrate how your theory is evident in your selected art works by explaining the relationship between the theory and the three art works (c. 450 words)

(1 artwork by each artist, eg: for mathematical perspective, write about one work by Uccello, a second by Piero della Francesca and a third by Leonardo da Vinci – you may choose to write about more artworks)

Task Five: Evaluative Conclusion

  • Write a conclusion to your essay in which you evaluate the significance of your theory for the art of the Renaissance period specified (c.200 words)

Submission Checklist: Submit neatly in a folder…

  • Assignment including completed cover sheet and research plan

  • Essay

  • Bibliography

  • Annotated research note


Theory and Art period

Key words or ideas from class notes

Possible information sources

One or two sentences summarising what the theory is about…

Evidence of Theory

Evidence of Theory

Evidence of Theory

Assessment Cover Sheet: Examine a Theory and its Role in Art

Student: __________________________________________ Class: ___________ Teacher: Miss Campbell

Subject Reference

Art History 3.4 (AS90493)


Examine a theory and its role in art

Level: 3

Credits: 4

Assessment: Internal

Subfield Visual Arts, Domain Art History.

This achievement standard involves outlining a theory related to art and demonstrating how the theory is applied in art works.

Achievement Criteria


Achievement with Merit

Achievement with Excellence

  • Outline a theory related to art.

  • Explain the relationship between a theory and art works.

  • Evaluate the significance of a theory for the art of a particular artist(s), period or movement.

  • Demonstrate how the theory is evident in art works.

Authenticity: This is to state that I had no outside assistance of any kind to complete my work. What has been submitted for assessment is entirely my own work.
Student signature: _________________________________________________ (Sign before handing in)
EVIDENCE (Submitted in order, in a folder or scrapbook):

Assignment handout with completed cover sheet

1000 word essay with bibliography

Copies of annotated source material, written notes and drafts


Teacher Signature: _______________________________________________ Date: _______________
Student signature________________________________ (indicates sighting and acceptance of mark)

Renaissance and Theory Outline for Students.

Summary of the Renaissance
13th Century Christian painting and sculpture were just beginning to break away from the restraints of the dogma and conventions of the earlier medieval period. Breaking away in order to give greater human emotional content to religious subject matter. The life and teachings of St. Francis of Assisi had been largely responsible for this. Also responsible were the contacts with French Gothic art.
14th Century Once attention had been drawn to human emotion, it was only natural that interest in the human being himself and in his physical surroundings should follow. The resulting secularization of religious subject matter is apparent in the paintings of the 14th century.
15th Century More detailed observation of man himself and of nature followed in the 15th century with the growth of interest in anatomy, perspective, details of nature, landscape backgrounds, and form and color in light. Paintings of the 15th century also reflect the growing curiosity about man's achievement in Italy's past--that is, the Classic past. It is this preoccupation with and study of Classic culture and art that gave the Renaissance in Italy its particular character. Classic culture also brought with it mythology and the ideal of beauty.
16th Century Christianity was added to Platonic ideal: Neo-platonism. Michelangelo in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and Raphael in the Vatican Stanze are representative of this movement at the beginning of the 16th century; they brought the Renaissance to the highest achievement in painting in Rome. But the attempt to reconcile paganism and Christianity foundered. The Reformation intervened and the works of the Mannerists show what resulted in painting. The Counter-Reformation ushered in the new period, the Baroque.


Humanism was the basic concept of the Italian Renaissance. It is the term used to define that philosophical movement in Italy at the end of the 14th century and during the 15th and 16th centuries which asserted the right of the individual to the use of his own reason and belief, and stressed the importance and potential of man as an individual. This concept can be identified with a belief in the power of learning and science to produce "the complete man". This rational and scientific conception of the world is the basis of our modern civilization. Modern Humanism originated in the Renaissance when scholars, writers, poets, artists, philosophers and scientists sought regeneration in the freer intellectual spirit of Classical times. The Humanists saw no conflict between the New Learning--the newly rediscovered wisdom of the ancient world--and the authority of the Church. They felt that the study of the ancient great writers of Greece and Rome was a tool for the understanding of true Christian doctrine, and that Platonic philosophy (the belief in the ideal of physical beauty as the mani-festation of God, the One Supreme Being) could only illumi-nate, never undermine, theology.


Neo-Platonism in the Renaissance was the philosophy based on the teachings and doctrines of a group of thinkers of the early Christian era who endeavored to reconcile the teachings of Plato with Christian concepts. The Neo-Platonists, being at the same time both lovers of the pagan past with its Platonic ideals of physical beauty, and being Christians, wanted to fuse this pagan idealism with Christian doctrine. The art and taste during the Renaissance for complicated mythological fantasies intermingled with allegories and symbolisms tried to achieve this fusion of the Platonic idealism with Christian doctrine. The allegorical value of the art lies in this union of the Classical antique and the Christian. The Neo-Platonists conceived of the Christian religion as an eternal doctrine existing even before the advent of historical Christianity. The main object of the Neo-Platonic Academy in Florence in the 15th century was the reconciliation of the spirit of antiquity with that of Christianity. The meaning of God to the Neo-Platonists was thus: God was Beauty and the source of Beauty. God's image is Man. Therefore, the ideally beautiful Man is the closest approximation of God on this earth. Michelangelo was the greatest Neo-Platonic artist who believed that the spirit of Classical art inspired and guided the formation of the concetto (concept) of beauty in the mind.


In the Renaissance, another school of classical learning was coterminous and was finally reconciled with Neo-Platonism, called Aristotelianism. Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72) first formulated this concept of art based on the writings of Aristotle via Vitruvius (early 1st century A.D. classical author). It is the Aristotelian conception of the visible world as ultimate reality. Alberti's concept of beauty in a work of art is the harmony between all the parts so that nothing can be added to it or taken from it without impairing the whole. The work of art is synthesized by adding together the most beautiful observable examples of the component parts. Leonardo da Vinci, always the scientist, even when a painter, was the chief exponent of the Aristotelian concept.

The Classical in the Renaissance

In the broadest artistic sense, Classical art is that art which is based on the study of classical models, and art which emphasizes qualities considered to be characteristically Greek and Roman in style and spirit. These characteristics can be summed up in one term: Harmony - Reason, Objectivity, Discipline, Restraint, Order, Balance, Discipline, Restraint.

The Renaissance's Five Great Achievements: There are five fundamental elements in the great achievements of the Italian Renaissance in the world of Art: Naturalism, Organization of space, Invention of parallel perspective by Filippo Brunelleschi: the scientific use of a perspective based on lines that come together at a single vanishing point on the horizon, The use of classical motifs, The new dignity of the individual.

Characteristics of Renaissance Painting: Harmonious proportions among all elements of a painting, Reintroduction of chiaroscuro: the gradations of light and dark within a picture, especially one in which the forms are largely determined, not by sharp outlines but by the meeting of lighter and darker areas, The perfection of geometric or parallel perspective.

Assessment Schedule: Examine a theory and its role in art (AS90493)






Not assessed



An essay has been written in which the main principles of a selected Renaissance theory (humanism or perspective or neo-platonism) are outlined.

Theory – Neo-Platonism
A reconciliation of Aristotelian and Platonic ideas with Christian beliefs.

Platonic ideas such as the concept of three stages of human thought – intellect, soul and reason – were seen as prefiguring Christianity. Neo-Platonism provides a philosophical rationale for the combination of classical and Chritian imagery that characterises the Italian Renaissance.

Evidence of the selected theory in three appropriate art works from the Renaissance is demonstrated.

Neo-Platonism was an important influence on works produced in High Renaissance Rome, such as Michelangelo’s Pieta 1498, which shows Jesus as an idealised naturalistic figure that has been influenced by Greek and Roman statues of nude heroic figures. The classicising of the figure of Jesus is intended to embody such Platonist principles as intellectual and spiritual truths.

As for Achievement

As for Achievement


Evidence from this task may be used to supplement the evidence from Task Four when making a holistic judgement for Achievement.

The relationship between the theory and each selected art work is explained.

Raphael’s School of Athens, 1509-10, gathers together philosophers and intellectuals from western history to create an allegory of philosophy and intellect. When this work is related to the Christian iconography in The Disputa on the opposite wall the Neo-Platonist relationships between classical philosophy and Christianity became apparent with the central figures of Aristotle and Plato in the School of Athens indicating the classical concept of the physical order of the universe and the figures of the Trinity in the centre of The Disputa indicating the spiritual order of the Roman Catholic universe.

As for Achievement with Merit


Evidence from this task may be used to supplement the evidence from Task Four when making a holistic judgement for Achievement.

Evidence from this task may be used to supplement the evidence from Task Four when making a holistic judgement for Achievement with Merit.

The significance of the theory for the art of the selected period is evaluated.

Neo-Platonism was a significant influence on the development of High Renaissance art which was characterised by classical, idealised naturalism. Classical pictorial conventions were used for both Christian and classical subjects to reflect the renewed appreciation of ancient philosophers such as Plato and an acknowledgement of the influence of Platonism on the development of Christian principles.

This theory was a major factor in Roman Catholic thinking in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It flourished in Florence in the reign of Lorenzo de Medici, who nurtured a group of scholars, poets and artists, dominated by the scholar Marsilio Ficino. The group was known as the Neo-Platonist Academy. By the end of the fifteenth century it had become a strong influence in papal Rome.

Student Exemplar:

Examine a Theory in Art

Neo Platonism

Alison Tang

Epsom Girls Grammar School
Neo-Platonism stems from a school of Greek philosophy that was established in Alexandria from the 3rd century. Based on the teachings and doctrines of Plato and Plotinus, translated by scholars, this philosophy was a unification of the love of the pagan past and its Platonic ideals of classical beauty, with Christianity and the teachings of the Church. The art and preference during the Renaissance for mythological stories imbued with allegories and symbolism, displayed this fusion of Christian beliefs with humanism. Thus Neo-Platonism during the Renaissance was characterized by the desire to reconcile the spirit of antiquity with that of the Christian doctrine. The formation of the Neo-Platonic Academy in Florence during the 15th century is testament to the evolution of a system that would fuse these two beliefs.
Neo-Platonism (meaning “new Platonism”) derives from the philosopher Plato’s ideas. The dialogues with Socrates as the main protagonist, and other such teachings of Plato form the ground work onto which the Platonic tradition was constructed. Plato ran an academy of philosophy during the early half of the fourth century BC, with the belief that the universe consists of two realms: a realm of appearance and a realm of eternal forms. The “Theory of forms” was one aspect of his belief which argued that the material world we see and live in is not the real world, but in fact merely a shadow of the real world, and instead the real world is the realm of eternal forms consisting of models and abstract representations of the things we see around us. Other Platonic ideas included the concept of three stages of human thought –intellect, soul and reason –which were seen as prefiguring Christianity. However, although based on Plato’s theories, Neo-Platonism extends beyond, albeit in a similar direction, led by the philosopher Plotinus in the third century.
Plotinus (205-270 AD) considered to be the father of Neo-Platonism taught that there is a supreme being, the “One”. Plotinus argued that there were three hypostases: the One, the Intelligible, and the World Soul. The “One” is not any existing thing and nor is it merely the sum of all such things, but rather precends all other existences. The two other hypostases "emanated" from the One, consisting of the Intelligible or “Divine mind” which took its form as a reflection of the One, and the “World souls”. The physical world came into being as a result of the emanation of Souls from the Intelligible. All souls, however, eventually seek to return to the One. Along with being the founder of Neo-Platonism, Plotinus created an elaborate hierarchy of spiritual levels through which the individual soul could rise in order to unite with the “One”.
The meaning of God in the Neo-Platonic scheme of things was that, “God was Beauty and the source of Beauty”, where man is God’s image, a reflection of the Divine and a tribute to God’s own beauty. In the words of Michelangelo: “Nowhere does God, in his grace, reveal himself to me more clearly than in some lovely human form, which I love solely because it is a mirrored image of himself”. Here we see the human body, beautiful to not only reflect the inner-self of man, but beautiful as to reflect God's beauty. Therefore by this understanding we are inclined to believe that the most supremely beautiful Man is the closest approximation of God on this earth. This idea underlies the thought system of Neo-Platonism and proved to have a profound impact on the work of many artists in particular Michelangelo during the High Renaissance.

Cosimo de’ Medici was an important humanist patron who from the 1460’s hosted informal meetings at his Villa in Careggi. The “court of Medici” was a centre of literary and philosophical culture, around which the philosopher Marsilio Ficino had formed the “Platonic Academy”. This consisted of a loose club of intellectuals who fostered the kind of thought that was subsequently to become known as Neo-Platonism. These discussions were inspired by Plato’s school of philosophy which had been established in Athens in 387BC.

Lorenzo de Medici, who had been a proud supporter of the Neo-Platonic Academy, was also a prominent patron of the arts. Interested in Classical themes and the revival of Platonic philosophy, the Medici family supported philosophers such as Marsilio Ficino who is regarded as one of the most important of the Renaissance Neo-Platonists. He translated Plato's dialogues into Latin and wrote a number of commentaries although his most significant and systematic work was the Platonic Theology, in which he outlines Neo-Platonism and synthesizes it with other philosophical systems, in particular, Christianity. He wrote during this period “Consonantia Mosis et Platonis” an ideal union of Platonism and Christianity.
Ficino developed his ideas from that of Plato and was the founder of the Academy of Florence under the auspices of the Medici. The main aim of the Academy was to synthesize thought systems as they believed that all human thought and artistic insight could be discussed in a common language based on Neo-Platonic ideas. They wanted to find a universal philosophy that would encompass the countless contending philosophies, and this was no better embodied than in Neo-Platonic philosopher Pico della Mirandola. Pico della Mirandola attempted to synthesize Arabic philosophy, Jewish mysticism, Hebrew thought, with philosophies of antiquity such as Aristotelianism, Stoicism and Platonism to form one cohesive philosophical system.
The art of a period is a direct reflection of the religious and political forces at work during that period. The influence of Neo-Platonism can thus be seen in the artwork during the Renaissance especially in the artists mentioned in this discussion. The artwork of Botticelli, Michelangelo and Raphael all display Neo-Platonic thought, influenced by the philosophers and circumstances of the time.

The Birth of Venus (c. 1485-1486) Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Sandro Botticelli, whose real name was Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi, was one of the foremost painters of the Florentine Renaissance. His unique style is characterized by a sense of melancholy with graceful executions of details that make his paintings appear like lavish still lives.

Born in Florence as the son of a tanner, Botticelli served an apprenticeship with the painter Fra Filippo Lippi, and later with the painter and engraver Antonio del Pollaiuolo. He was also influenced by Andrea del Verrocchio, and spent most of his life working for the great families of Florence, especially the Medici family, for whom he painted portraits, most notably Giuliano de' Medici. Once thought to have been commission by the Medici and hung in Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco’s villa, now housed in the Uffizi Gallery, the Birth of Venus shows a synthesis of Platonic thought and Christianity in an ideal union.

This mythological painting of Sandro Botticelli which is one of his most celebrated works depicts not a Christian legend but rather a pagan myth, exemplifying the interest in pagan subjects during the Renaissance. The philosophical movement at the time that impacted on Botticelli’s works was the ideas of Neo-Platonism. The mythological myths from ancient civilizations were admired by the educated laymen of the day, who thought they contained more profound and mystical truths embedded in them.
As the story goes, to give birth to Venus the sea was fertilized by Saturn, this being a metaphor to mean the fertilisation of mankind by divinity and the birth of beauty in the human soul. The emergence of Venus from the ocean could be interpreted symbolically as the way in which the divine message of beauty and love is communicated to this world. As part of the talented intellectual and artistic assembly at the court of Lorenzo de' Medici, Botticelli was influenced by its Neo-Platonic discussions, passionate about the reconciliation of both classical and Christian thought systems.
Similarly, Sandro Botticelli also adhered greatly to the philosophies of Marsilio Ficino and Agnolo Poliziano (tutor to the Medici children) and was influence by ancient mythologies which are evidently reflected in his work. According to Ficino, the nature of Venus is both divine and earthly and this is echoed in Botticelli’s portrayal of her in the “Birth of Venus”. Venus was the pagan goddess of love and beauty. And love was essentially the basis of Neo-Platonism, with its origin from Plato's Symposium which argued that love was the link between everything. Similarly, Ficino noted that love was "only another name for that self-reverting current from God to the world and from the world to God" which would have complied with the Christian beliefs of the time. After all it was love had motivated God to create this world and it is again love which motivates his followers to return to him. “Love's ultimate goal is reaching God, who manifests himself in beauty”. Therefore in other words, Ficino’s definition of love is as "a desire for the fruition of beauty”.
Here, “The Birth of Venus” can also be successfully interpreted within this framework. The nude Venus derives from the sculptures of ancient Greek Aphrodite, which came to symbolise both the Divine beauty and the inclination to transform spiritual beauty into physical beauty. “On both sides, therefore, there is love; there is a desire to contemplate beauty, here a desire to propagate it. Each love is virtuous and praiseworthy, for each follows a divine image”- Ficino. Venus’s portrayal in soft golden light, with elongated features, flowing hair all echo her elegance and reaffirm Venus as a symbol of both pagan and Christian love. The use of gold in the white blossom of the flowering orange groves helps to emphasis their precious nature as well as the divinity of Venus.
Furthermore, there is some evidence to support the notion that the “Birth of Venus” was inspired by Ovid. This again reinforces the idea of reconciling mythological and Christian concepts. Venus could be loosely linked back to the Virgin Mary and the nymph Hora (“the Hour”- Greek goddess of the seasons) who holds out a lavishly embroidered robe, correlating to St John and his relationship with Christ.
There is such a level of harmony and beauty in Botticelli’s depiction of Venus that one hardly notices the technical distortions, such as in the unnaturalness of her neck length or her sloping shoulders, transporting the observer beyond the realm of anatomical accuracy. In the words of Stephen Spender, “The beauty of design and of poetry and colour overwhelm all other considerations.” This harmony could also be seen in the way in which two founding philosophies are blended together in such an ideal union that one over looks any discrepancies - the harmony of Neo-Platonism.

School of Athens (c. 1509-1510) Palazzi Vaticani, Rome.
Through his admiration and imitation of those great painters before him, Leonardo and Michelangelo, Raphael became “the ideal third in the great trinity of Renaissance painters”. His painting the “School of Athens” is considered by many to be the paradigmatic work of the Italian High Renaissance. It is almost as if the work of Ghiberti, Donatello, Bramante, Leonardo and Michelangelo are all synthesized into this unique creation. Perhaps this parallels the content of the work. Raphael gathers a large group of lively men of varying ages (many of whom are the great philosophers and intellects in western history) into a vast hallway. They debate the seven liberal arts and depict the stages of a man’s education, and in doing so creating an allegory of philosophy and intellect.
Natural and moral themes are explored in this work with Plato shown in the middle to be pointing to the Sky and holding his Timaios in one arm, exuding a sense of calm and assurance. Next to him is Aristotle holding his Ethics, providing a harmonious contrast to Plato and his laws of cosmic harmony with his own laws of moral behaviour. In the famous words of Saint Bonaventura, “And so it appears that, of the philosophers, it was the gift of Plato to speak of wisdom, to Aristotle of science; the former looked mainly toward the upper things, the latter toward the lower ones”. These two men are generally agreed to be the two greatest philosophers of the ancient world, and it is in their harmonious portrayal together that Raphael has achieved a thought synthesis that is characteristic of the Neo-Platonic philosophy. “Plato de naturalibus agit divine, quemadmodum Artistoteles, vel de divninibus natruraliter agit” (“Plato deals with the natural things divinely while Aristotle even with divine things naturally”)-as the great Neo-Platonic philosopher Marsilio Ficino expresses in the context of this painting, their ideal union parallels the reconciliation of Platonic and Aristotelian idealism with Christian theology.
For the Renaissance, it has been said that Plato and Aristotle were like Moses and the prophets, precursor of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. There are many theses that argue the Christian meaning embedded in this painting, which during the time of Raphael would have been felt by the sensitive onlookers of his works. In a time when there was not much distinction between the secular and sacred, much of what Raphael painted was thought to emanate a profoundly Christian spirit. In the context of its surroundings, the allegorical nature of the painting is highlighted. On the opposite wall to the “School of Athens” is the fresco painting of the “Disputa”. When seen with the strong Christian iconography of the “Disputa”, a clear relationship between Classical philosophy and Christianity can now be observed. The central figures of Aristotle and Plato illustrate the classical concept of the physical order of the universe while the figures of the Trinity in the centre of the “Disputa” allude to the spiritual order of the Christian universe. Here again we see the qualities of Neo-Platonism in the reconciliation of classical philosophies with Christian beliefs.

Tombs of Giuliano and Lorenzo de’ Medici. (1526-1531) Medici Chapel, San Lorenzo, Florence.

Michelangelo from an early age was taken under the wing of Lorenzo de Medici, as both Condivi and Vasari records, where he was brought up like one of Lorenzo’s own sons. Under the Medici tutor Poliziano, the foundations of Michelangelo’s Neo-Platonic and classical interests were laid. In the Medicean circles, Michelangelo had much contact with other Neo-Platonic philosophers such as Pico della Mirandola and Marsilio Ficino.

Each of the two sarcophagi in the Medici Chapel embodies this Neo-Platonic thought and portrays the idealised portrait of its Medici inhabitant in Roman armour and poses, the active Giuliano and contemplative Lorenzo. The classical attire evokes ties to Neo-Platonic ideals, where the content of the sculpture is derived from classical antiquity. The theme portrayed in the sarcophagi is of the passage of time, with allegorical references which in Christian terms could be interpreted as the resurrection of the soul and eternity.
What is significant is the sculptural programme in which the sarcophagi are placed, helping to convey the full allegorical message. The Chapel also housed a statue of the Virgin Mary, which is where the eyes of the Medici sculptures are directed. This relationship between the classical iconography employed in the sarcophagi and the Christian statue of Mary clearly illustrates the link in the two belief systems which characterises the philosophy of Neo-Platonism- the reconciliation of the Christian doctrine with classical beliefs.
The Christian ideas of life after death are explored through the use of Neo-Platonic iconography. To understand the iconography we must first study the qualities of this philosophy. Aspects of this theory in particular attracted the Christian, such as Neo-Platonism's three-fold model of divinity which fit very well with the Christian theology of the Holy Trinity. Neo-Platonism’s stress on the transcendent realm as the highest good also appealed to the austere Christian. Translations of Plotinus’ writings entitled “the Ethical Treaties” reveal theories of the three hypostases. These consist of the transcendent “One” -who is the principle of the universe- the “Nous” or Intelligible known as the divine mind, and the lower “World soul”. (Refer to introduction).
In the context of Michelangelo’s tombs one can see the parallels in the levels of each sarcophagus. At the top is the sculpture of the Medici son, suggesting their return to the realm of the highest being, their reunion with the “One”. The theme of the soul's return to the One or God was one frequently observed in Michelangelo's art. The tombs of the Medici illustrate this theme of the triumph of the soul over the material world in a quest to reunite with the One, thus it can be interpreted within a Neo-Platonic scheme. However, within these works Neo- Platonism operates very much in conjunction with Christian ideology. The struggle of the soul to free itself from matter is equated with the Christian doctrine of resurrection and eternal life. At the ground-level of the Chapel are the River Gods representing the Underworld, and then above: the four Times of the Day (Dawn, Dusk, Night, and Day) representing the transient world, and the cycles of nature. On top are the dead, idealized beyond their humanly sphere and into the realm of ideas.

Michelangelo’s philosophies were very much Neo-Platonic, he believed in the term “intelleto” which described of one’s ability to paint as a gift from God. "Fine painting is nothing other than a copy of the perfections of God and a remembrance of his painting, and lastly a music and melody which only the intelleto is capable of hearing" In such poetic terms he is remarking that one of true artistic genius does not need to rely on artificial techniques to create art. For Michelangelo, the purpose of art was to represent ideal beauty, believing himself to be like a God. Similar to the way in which God created beauty in the physical world, the artist is God when creating the “concetto” (or art forms) in materials. Consequently, faithful representations were not important to Michelangelo, as is evident in his portrayal of the Medici heirs in their tombs at the Medici Chapel. The depiction of Lorenzo bears little in the way of resemblance to the real Medici subject. In fact, the finished product was not everything as unfinished work could possess just as much merit in “communicating the whole image even though it is itself fragmentary”. This is evident in the unfinished Day on the tomb of Giuliano de’ Medici, which is powerful all the same.

The philosophy of Neo-Platonism had a significant influence on the development of the High Renaissance art style which was exemplified by such artists as Michelangelo. Artists were deeply engrossed in the theories discussed among well known philosophers at the time including Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola. Although Platonism never really faded out of the western culture, the period of the Italian Renaissance forged new philosophies from Plato’s doctrines which would go on to have a great impact on the development of European science and belief. Augustine and Boethius made Neo-Platonism the fundamental philosophy in their legacy to Europe, and the writings such as Timaeus of Plato were read and contemplated throughout the Middle Ages. Similarly, the Byzantine philosophers made great strides in synthesizing the major philosophies of Platonism and Christianity.

Characterised by a classical and idealized quality, the art of Neo-Platonist artists like Raphael, Botticelli and Michelangelo can be seen to exhibit classical pictorial conventions in their portrayals of both Christian and classical subjects. Their desire to classicize their artwork within the Christian framework shows of the influences of the philosophy prevalent at the time. This reflected the general appreciation of ancient philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle by Renaissance intellectuals and philosophers, and a conscious acknowledgement of the influences of these classical philosophies on the development of Christian theology.

Through the study of Plotinus’ Enneads one theme that links particularly favorably to art is the notion of "the tendency to identify the beautiful, the good, and the true as one and the same". This prominent Neo-Platonic belief in the symbolic nature of the ideal nude male figure as nuditas virtualis (or of an innocent state) is one clearly embraced by the talented artist Michelangelo who claimed the “nude figure to be far nobler than anything that might clothe it." This belief that the nude male body is ideal and completely void of sin also adheres to the Christian Neo-Platonic belief - of it being the mirror image of God himself. Thus this allowed for works such as that of Michelangelo’s more secular works to be present in a Christian context.
As in the case of Michelangelo, the purpose of art for him was to represent ideal beauty, similar to the way in which God created beauty in the physical world. The idealized naturalistic figure recurring in the three selected artworks all exemplify this influence derived from ancient Greek and Roman statues of nude heroic figures. As shown they contain many elements that invoke Neo-Platonic ideas, and embody the fundamental Platonist principles such as intellectual and spiritual truths. The often underlying complexities within the artworks express the philosophical fusion of pagan and Christian beliefs, illustrating the extent to which they have been blended.
Renaissance Neo-Platonism diffused into the many cultural facets of life at the time, particularly in literature, music and of course art. In addition, Ficino’s doctrine of Platonic love spread even more rapidly throughout the contemporary culture. Along with Platonic love, the emphasis placed on mathematics was another aspect to Neo-Platonism that would prove to be the most influential on the history of western culture.

Hughes, Anthony (1997) “Michelangelo” Phaidon Press Limited, London.

Murray, Linda (2000) “Michelangelo” Thames & Hudson, Singapore.

Butler, Adam and various (2006) “The Art Book” Phaidon Press Limited, London.

Hartt, Frederick and Wilkins, David G. (2003) “History of Italian Renaissance Art” (fifth edition) Pearson Inc.

Oberhuber, Konrad (1999) “Raphael- The Paintings” Prestel Verlag, Italy

De Vecchi, Pierluigi (2002) “Raphael” Abbeville Press Publishers, New York and London.

Varari, Giorgio (1987) “Lives of the Artists- Volume 1” Penguin Classics.

Hartt, Frederick (1953) “Botticelli” Harry N. Abrams & Pocket Books INC.

Murray, Linda (1990) “The High Renaissance and Mannerism” Thames and Hudson, London.

Spender, Stephen (unknown) “Botticelli” Faber and Faber
Internet sites:

Summary of the Renaissance with Neoplatonism:

Wikipedia Explanation:

Answers Explanation:

Neoplatonism by Richard Hooker:

Michelangelo and Neoplatonism:

Internet Philosophy Encyclopedia:

Medici Chapel


Notes on Neoplatonism and the relation to Christianity and Gnosticism

by Lewis Loflin

Neoplatonism by Nima Hazini

Neo-Platonism and Analytical Psychology by Hazel E. Barnes

The Alexandrian Tradition by I. M. Oderberg

Biography of Sandro Botticelli

Michelangelo and Botticelli

Hypatia of Alexandria

Student Exemplar:

Examine a Theory in Art

Neo Platonism

Tian-yi Lu

Epsom Girls Grammar School

The Synthesis of Ideas

Renaissance Neo-Platonism and its Influence on Renaissance Art


I am weary already of this prison-house, the body, and calmly await the day when the divine nature within me shall be set free from matter.”
Those are the words of Plotinus, the father of Neo-Platonism, who based his teachings in the 3rd century AD on the dialogues of Plato and the metaphysics of Aristotle. Plotinus taught the existence of a transcendent One, Absolute or Source, from which emanated all existence, and constructed an elaborate hierarchy of spiritual levels through which the individual soul, by contemplation, could ascend to remerge with the Source.

His doctrine came to dominate the Greek philosophical schools until the decline of pagan philosophy in the 6th century, but was revived by the Renaissance humanist Marsilio Ficino who translated and extensively commentated on many of Plotinus’ works in the 15th century. Ficino’s synthesis of Neo-Platonism with the predominant philosophical system of Christianity captured the imagination of many influential secular and religious figures, patrons and artists throughout Europe, but no more so than in the academic city of Florence, Italy, where neoteric ideas were flourishing under Lorenzo’s politics.

This philosophy was seen as the ideal balance between the Christian faith and the fresh humanistic concept of man’s advancement through the search for knowledge. This was due to the fact that contemplation of the spiritual rather than the physical was believed to be the route to both Christian and Neo-Platonic salvation. Many famous renaissance artists like Botticelli, Michelangelo and Raphael were influenced by this philosophy and their artworks demonstrated Neo-Platonic concepts such as the synthesis of classical and Christian ideals, the idealistic portrayal of beauty, and the soul’s struggle from physical existence to divine perfection.
Renaissance Artists of the 15th Century


Art work: Primavera, c. 1482, Sandro Botticelli
Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi (1445-1510), more widely known as Sandro Botticelli, was one of the first renaissance artists who were exposed to Ficino’s revolutionary Neo-Platonic ideas. Indeed, the notebook of Ficino was passed onto him during his time at the court of Lorenzo de’Medici and there is no doubt, through Botticelli’s early pagan artworks like Primavera, that he was profoundly influenced by its teachings.

Neo-Platonism steered away from outwardness, the literalistic and naturalistic and focused on the soul contemplating idealistic beauty in ethereal realms. Botticelli epitomizes this idea in the both the style and subjects of his works, and Hartt stated that “in his art he withdrew from the world around him”. Botticelli’s exquisite and harmonious use of line is said to be unrivaled by all renaissance artists and brings to mind the complex yet balanced structure of 15th century polyphonic music. Botticelli also ignored the conventions of proportion in his figures by elongating their necks and torsos, although the viewer readily accepts the distortions due to the mythical mood it evokes. This adept use of line and his disregard for literal proportions give his forms an ethereal beauty that echoes the Neo-Platonistic idea of perfect, eternal love, captured in a moment of time.

Greek mythologies were fashionable in the Court of Lorenzo and the elegant society of the Florentine patriciate, as part of the resurgence in the interest of classical ideas. Primavera, as a commission by Lorenzo de’Medici, is an illustration of this interest, yet it also subtly follows the Neo-Platonic concept of synthesizing classical stories with Christian history. On first glance the scene is a mythical pagan celebration of Spring, yet it can also be interpreted as a depiction of Christian ideals, the three graces being a representation of the trinity and Venus being the romantic idealisation of the Virgin Mary. In a more literal interpretation, the figures represent individual characters of Beatrice, Matilda, Faith, Hope and Charity in Dante’s sacred Garden of Eden in Purgatory, the transitory region of Heaven, where Matilda says “Here spring is everlasting”.


Art work: School of Athens, c.1510-11, Raffaello Sanzi
Raphael (1483-1520), full name Raffaello Sanzi, was an Italian painter and architect best admired for his clarity of form and ease of composition. Raphael was introduced to humanistic and classical philosophies through his father at court, and later his work was also celebrated for its visual achievement of the Neo-Platonic ideal of human grandeur.

School of Athens was part of the Raphael’s commission to decorate the Stanza della Segnatura which was intended by Pope Julius II to glorify the Roman Church’s power through the justification of humanism and Neo-Platonism. Not only does it use classical pictorial conventions, but the well-balanced and harmonized composition of a gathering of philosophers and intellectuals from western history also reflect the renewed appreciation of ancient scholars and an unprecedented acknowledgement of the influence of classical virtues on the development of Christian Principles.

Plato, being the central figure on the left, holds a copy of his Timaeus and gestures upward to the aetherial realm of eternal forms. Plato is said to be a portrait of the idealistically handsome Leonardo Da Vinci, although ironically Leonardo often challenged the techniques of Neo-Platonic artists such as Botticelli and Michelangelo. In his “Parmenides” Plato writes of a dialectical ‘triad’: “I can only grasp the one if there is a second, which is different from the first. This difference between the first and second constitutes the third”. This divine principle of the triad can interpret Plato’s gesture as the anticipation of the Holy Trinity, not to be fully revealed till the coming of Christ, four centuries after Plato.

Not only does this work represent the synthesis of classical and Christian ideas but also the new humanist ideas of observable ‘science’. Aristotle is given equal importance as Plato, motioning to the earth indicating that wisdom comes from empirical observation. Furthermore, following the quasi-scientific belief that all matter was composed of four elements, the colour of Plato’s garments are red and white, representing the upward-moving elements of fire and air, as opposed to Aristotle’s brown/blue alluding to the ground-seeking elements of earth and water.

The large and grandiose architectural framework, is probably inspired by late Roman architecture or by contemporary architect Bramante’s project for the new St Peter’s which is itself a symbol of the synthesis of pagan and Christian philosophies. Bramante himself is included in the painting as Euclid, who is explaining to his pupils a geometric diagram he has drawn on a slate.


Art works: Tomb of Giuliano de’Medici, (1526-31), Michelangelo

Tomb of Lorenzo de’Medici, (1526-31), Michelangelo
There is no doubt that Michelangelo was one of the greatest and most influential artists of his time. As a young boy, Michelangelo was exposed to Neo-Platonic ideas in Lorenzo de’Medici’s court, as well as contact with Marsilio Ficino himself. His works are often attributed to Neo-Platonic principles, not only in the subjects he portrayed but the conflicted and tense potential energy of his forms.

Like Botticelli’s forms, Michelangelo’s figures often have unrealistic proportions, described by Vasari as being “nine, ten, and twelve heads long” whereas the accurate measurement of the human body, according to contemporary Leonardo’s observations was only eight heads long. He also violated the rules of perspective, often making objects in the background appear larger than they should be. I believe that unlike Leonardo da Vinci who only sacrificed proportion so that a work may be well-balanced and pleasing to the eye, Michelangelo did not stress the literal imitation of nature at all and completely worked with the Neo-Platonic idea of ideal beauty in mind. To him, beauty with Divine, and was the one way that God chose to communicate with Man, and the role of the sculptor was not to create but to free the forms that are already inside the stone.

Commissioned by Pope Leo X (son of Lorenzo the Magnificent) and his cousin Cardinal Giulio (who later became Pope Clement VII) in 1520, the sarcophagi of Giuliano and Lorenzo de’Medici consisted of three levels which indicated different realms of Neo-Platonic theory. Above the actual tombs, representing the physical realm of the flesh, there are four reclining personifications representing Night, Day, Dusk and Dawn, alluding to the realm of cycles. Such personifications had never appeared on tombs before, and they refer, according to the artist himself, to the Neo-Platonic idea of the inevitable movement of time, which is circular and leads to death.

The two princes above these personifications not only depict idealised portraits of the tombs’ occupants but also represent action and thought. Their garments of classical Roman armour evoke associations with antiquity, yet their heads are turned towards a statue of the Virgin Mary, emphasising their devotion to Christianity. Thus the Renaissance Neo-Platonic ideal of fusing classical and Christian concepts are fully realised in these tombs, as both Christian and Neo-Platonic ideas of eternity or transcendence due to religious contemplation are demonstrated.

The Decline of Synthesis

After having discussed the significant role that the philosophy of Neo-Platonism played upon many artists and their works during the 15th to early 16th centuries, it is important to consider why this theory did not continue into the 21st century as other Renaissance philosophies, such as humanism, did.

An obvious answer would be the fiery sermons of the Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola in the late 15th century, whose fundamentalist attacks on pagan culture and corrupt church practices struck a responsive chord in many Neo-Platonic artists. Neo-Platonism was censured as heretical during the Counter-Reformation, leading Botticelli to burn many of his pagan works to focus on deeply religious subjects for the remainder of his life. Michelangelo was also deeply affected – in his last years, he renounced all his Neo-Platonist ideals in favour of an ascetic piety, and turned away completely from the figurative arts. This change is radical for someone who once considered his artistic genius as a divine gift. In one sonnet, he wrote:

“Thus I now know how fraught with error was the fond imagination which made Art my idol and my king…no brush, no chisel would quieten the soul.”

Yet the Counter-Reformation can not be accused as the only cause of the decline of Renaissance Neo-Platonism. Personally I believe that the synthesising nature of Renaissance Neo-Platonism which brought about its popularity can be seen as its downfall. Indeed, it allowed a strictly Christian society to justifiably unite itself with its classical and pagan past, but Ficino’s attempt to accommodate both Christian and Platonic concepts drew many ambiguous interpretations and often contradictory renditions. It steered away from outwardness and naturalism yet it was firmly rooted in the humanist idea of the pursuit of knowledge, and its attempt at uniting Platonic spirituality with Christianity failed because of the its occult nature. Christianity involved, transparently, one God (despite the trinity) and one heaven, whereas Neo-Platonism, particularly influenced by classical and medieval beliefs, was steeped in numerous spiritual realms and Gods, the occult and the mystic.

These conflicting ideas can be seen in the conflicting styles of artistic interpretations of the theory. For example, Raphael faithfully followed perspective and proportion whereas Botticelli and Michelangelo did not. Botticelli’s Neo-Platonic forms are full of harmonious line, Michelangelo’s are tense and convey the great struggle of the human soul in obtaining perfection.

To many art historians, the role that Neo-Platonism has played in history has been over-emphasised and over-romantised. In reality, it was significant for only a brief period, and had it not been for the daring pursuit and patronage of the Medici family, it could have slipped into obscurity long before the Reformation.




Hartt, Frederick (1969) “History of Italian Renaissance Art”, Thames and Hudson Ltd, London

McDonald, Jesse (1994) “Michelangelo”, Smithmark Publishers, Saturn Books Ltd

Buck, Stephanie & Hohenstatt, Peter (1998) “Raphael” Könemann, Cologne

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