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Revolutionary Renaissance Artwork of Da Vinci and Buonarroti

Updated on November 3, 2019
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Myranda Grecinger is a graduate student in interdisciplinary studies at Liberty University studying American History & Executive Leadership.

David | Source
Pieta | Source
last supper
last supper | Source

By Myranda Grecinger

The renaissance period was an important time, culturally, historically, and artistically. The revolutionary cultural changes involved many things that were clearly reflected through the art of the time. Honor, wealth, talent, and political or social prominence as well as spiritual and scientific clarity were all of the most extreme importance to the people of the era, and many artists did a magnificent job displaying that. Among the most well-known and arguably the most talented were Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti. Both artists were the epitome of the renaissance era and in the same breath, ahead of their times.

Although many things in their art work differed greatly, such as style and approach, Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti also shared many things in their work. Some of the elements that can be found in the work of both artists are theme, reflection of current cultural trends, political and social influence, and above all, a destiny of greatness. The Madonna of the Rocks, The Last supper, The Mona Lisa, David, The Last Judgment, and Peita are just a few pieces of their timeless legacy. Theirs were the accomplishments that others would strive to achieve and the world would appreciate for ages to come.

The renaissance times marked a notable shift in ideas and focus; this focus can be seen throughout the works of Leonardo and Michelangelo New ideas such as the revival of classic culture were a strong influence on the art work of the time (Hegarty, 2005). The importance of education and philosophy were central to the current trends. It was a time of Power, strength and Prosperity. Moreover, it was a time to celebrate humanity and all things worldly. Art was highly regarded and artist such as Da Vinci and Buonarroti took their work very seriously. “In addition to personal and professional honor, court status and patronage were also at stake.” (Holman, 2005)

According to the explanation given in "Gardner's Art through the Ages" by Fred Kleiner, Humanism is a term that describes a period during the renaissance in which more emphasis was placed on the humanity of human beings in a worldly existence, the natural world, and the individual. It could also be described as a conceptual code of social conduct during this era. It was a time when education, philosophy and human values as well as the revival of classical culture were central to society. Artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti often depicted Christian or mythological themes in their artwork, yet, keeping with the times and often setting the example for the times, they managed to convey secular or humanist ideas through these same pieces. Two great examples of this are The Madonna of the rocks by Leonardo and the Pieta by Michelangelo. In both cases a biblical theme is present, and in both cases the figures are shown in worldly form, with the presence of spiritual elements.

Logical thinking such as Math and Science that focused on solid things that people could touch were an important part of renaissance art and were embraced by artists such as Michelangelo and Buonarroti. Leonardo Da Vinci provided wonderful works of art which focused on these areas. Evidence of the importance of logical thinking can be seen through the emphasis placed on elements such as converging lines and perspective. A perfect example of these elements can be found in Da Vinci’s Last Supper. In this piece all lines converge on Jesus Christ, who appears at the center of the piece. Centered in the picture is also a window that arches over the head of Jesus, once again creating a point for the viewer’s focus to rest on the savior.

Keeping with an emphasis on physical studies such as math and sciences, Leonardo also provides an interesting view of nature in many of his most famous pieces. The Mona Lisa, for example, displays a dark, desolate outdoor backdrop that includes seemingly endless winding paths throughout the landscape. He easily could have placed her in a fanciful hall or in his own studio, but instead, for reasons unknown, chose this mysterious outdoor scene. Another great example of his use of nature in his artwork is the rocky, canyon like scene depicted in The Madonna of the Rocks. The figures in this piece are seated in the center of a rather unwelcoming environment, full of pointed rocks and thin foliage that sort of blend together in shades of brown. In front of the figures however, a beautiful pond ripples at their feet, creating a heavily contrasting, yet somehow serene natural landscape. “Leonardo dispensed with such conventions as halos and produced an extremely natural-looking picture compared with what other artists were doing. A careful study of nature can be seen in the rocks and plants that surround Mary, the baby Jesus, the baby St. John and a watching angel. By not giving objects in the picture a sharp outline but letting them flow together through the use of shadows he gave the painting a three-dimensional effect” (Krystek, 2005)

Michelangelo was also influential in the push towards logical studies. Clear evidence of his focus in these areas can be found in his fascination with human anatomy. David, a colossal sculpture, is a magnificent example of the fruit of his labors over anatomical correctness. Proportionate limbs, torso and head as well as bulging muscles display his mastery of the human form.

Creativity and new age thinking were critical to this revolutionary time and free thinkers such as Leonardo Da Vinci had just what it took to fill the demand. Leonardo spent a great deal of time and effort on experimentation with new styles, color, materials and techniques. Experimentation and study were a big part of his process.“Leonardo delighted in the verbal and visual exploration of any branch of natural philosophy, endlessly searching for general rules and for the best way to present them. His investigations were based on the idiosyncratic mixing of notes and drawings derived from past authorities and from his own firsthand observations.” (Fiorani, 2008) Much of his work displays an obsession with light and dark and its effects on a piece, for instance, the fashion in which the figures in The Madonna of the Rocks are illuminated against the background which fades into a shadowy realm behind them. He also tried his hand at mastering the use of new colors such as the various shades of blue used in The Last Supper. Another experiment that can be seen in The Last Supper is his use of new paints, unfortunately in this case it was not a great experiment as the result is poor preservation over time.

New ideas, perspective, techniques and materials were not necessarily indicative of a complete abandonment of the cultural trends of the past. Spirituality continued to be a high priority of the renaissance people and was clearly exhibited as a continuous theme among the two artists. While it is true that humanism occupied a great deal of their work, it was often accompanied by or displayed through the depiction of biblical events. In the Pieta, the biblical Virgin Mary cradles the body of the murdered savior. The Madonna of the Rocks depicts the Virgin Mary, her infant son, as well as john the Baptist. The statue of David was intended to represent the biblical David who would slay the giant, and The Last Supper as well as the Last Judgment speak for themselves. Often though, a biblical story line was not enough to fulfill the artist’s desired spiritual result and they had to go further.

Michelangelo and Leonardo were both also famous for their additions of celestial elements and the inclusion of angelic figure. Such is the case with the cherub appearing in The Madonna of the Rocks by Leonardo. It clarifies the spiritual nature of the piece. The Last Judgment by Michelangelo also includes figures, however it seems that these components are almost necessary to complete the biblical story line in this piece. Still, other works of art such as the Pieta incorporate celestial elements that are less clear but ultimately present none the less.

Another thing that came with bringing in the new while preserving the old was placing new perspective on ancient stories, beliefs and figures. Michelangelo’s David is a great example of new improvements on old things. It is certainly a reflection on classical sculpturing, and yet its colossal size, anatomical perfection and bulging muscles are new additions. Also, Michelangelo incorporated a new element to the traditional David, when he chose to depict him prior to the battle as opposed to after. The strong, prepared stance with his head turned to the side as if awaiting some unseen foe were all certainly a new take on the character,

The ageless purity and beauty of women was also a common classical theme and was definitely revived during the renaissance and is seen commonly in the works of Da Vinci and Buonarroti. The Pieta displays a remarkable depiction of this tradition which can also be seen in the Mona Lisa and the Madonna of the Rocks. However, while ageless beauty, innocence, and purity remain, new elements emerge as well.

Evidence of new elements added to the traditional pure beauty of women can be found in works throughout the renaissance. The Mona Lisa, harbors a mysterious half smile as though she were hiding something. The Pieta, displays a mother filled with acceptance for the death of her son rather than the traditional mother torn and consumed by grief as she would have been depicted previously. So, while some things changed and others remained the same, the results became a miraculous mesh of ancient and modern art with themes and ideas and elements from multiple eras and cultures.

Michelangelo had an amazing way of displaying how focus on spirituality often brought with it a greater appreciation of life through the use of human characteristics. The Pieta does a good job of expressing strong emotion as well as invoking intense emotion in its viewers. When it was created, many people were upset, fairly outraged even, at the fact that the face of the Virgin Mary appeared younger than that of her deceased son. At the present time many viewers see the virgins face as pure and innocent. She harbors an expression of acceptance and understanding in the death of her son and invokes feelings of hope and gratitude in onlookers. The murdered body of her son, believed to be the savior of mankind, lays lifeless, bleeding and tortured across her lap, upon focusing on him it is difficult for one to not feel a tinge of sorrow and despair, yet somehow in the end, the entirety of this piece seems to convey a meaning of hope and peace as well as other positive emotions. It is a very conflicting piece riddled with human expression and emotion. “As she holds Jesus' lifeless body on her lap, the Virgin's face emanates sweetness, serenity and a majestic acceptance of this immense sorrow, combined with her faith in the Redeemer. It seems almost as if Jesus is about to reawaken from a tranquil sleep and that after so much suffering and thorns, the rose of resurrection is about to bloom. As we contemplate the Pieta which conveys peace and tranquility, we can feel that the great sufferings of life and its pain can be mitigated.” (Giuliani, 1995)

Another great example of Michelangelo’s gift in the inclusion of human characteristics into his work can be found in David. “This monumentally scaled statue of the Biblical David was commissioned as a symbol of the Florence republic. Destined originally for one of the buttresses of the Duomo, it was placed instead in the plaza outside the Palazzo Vecchio, the seat of Florence's government.” (Sullivan, 2001) The colossal statue appears to ward off enemies with his slingshot ready and his head turned to the side to see any approaching opponent. His body, rippled with muscles evokes such feelings of strength and power that it would not be at all surprising to suddenly hear the battle cry of a warrior when standing in its presence. “The sense of moral power and tense energy is conveyed not only through the anatomy but through the concentrated gaze of the Biblical hero.” (Sullivan, 2001) The energy involved with this piece is as enormous as its size, once again displaying Michelangelo’s amazing talents for human involvement in his art. “Michelangelo's profound influence on art is matched only by Leonardo and Raphael. His understanding of classical art, and his concentration on heroic and idealized male nudes, was profoundly influential” (British Museum, 2006)

Human life brings on the idea of the issues we all must face and these two artists did a wonderful job of depicting that in their work. The Pieta and David are good examples of human interaction and involvement included in the works of Michelangelo, but there was also The Last Judgment, which took things to a whole new level. This painting carries the theme of the biblical final judgment. There are messages of punishment and torture as well as messages of reward, hope and justice. Each of the many figures depicted in this painting are highly active in some form or fashion, some torturing the lost souls of the wicked, some souls floating off to the afterlife, and the hand of the almighty son of god rose in an angry position as if ready to smite the sinners of the world. The characters are arranged in groups interacting and gesturing to one another and drawing the viewer’s focus to each individual group so that none of the message is lost. The viewer is forced to admit his own mortality and contemplate what may be awaiting him after this life; one is also forced to consider the idea that there is more than just this life alone. It brings to mind questions about the life we are living now and where it may be taking us. It is a very conflicting piece with punishment and reward, peace and suffering, sinners and saints, and easily invokes a strong flow of mixed emotions and thought from its viewers.

Showing human interaction often involves emotional contrasts that we face every day, through art these contrasts can often be depicted in such a much more crisp and clean way than we typically would have the opportunity to experience it. Michelangelo understood this and certainly used it in his work. The contrasts of grief and acceptance or tortured and pure in the Pieta certainly made the connection clear. The combination of saints and sinners or peace and torment, as well as fear and hope in The Last Judgment are things that we face in this world all the time. These contrasts and positive blends that were shown so clearly in Michelangelo’s work do not stop with emotion, it is the people, personalities, life and death as well as physical existence and spiritual existence and they are all things that effect and touch all people.

Many things in art lead us to make connections between ourselves and the figures depicted or even between the figures themselves. One talent that these two artists certainly shared was their ability to make connections through their depictions, though they each had their own way of achieving this and sometimes it was very similar. Michelangelo created unified small organized groups in The Last Judgment, and Leonardo did the same with the disciples in The Last Supper. Unified groups are not the only way of connecting people, however, Leonardo’s Madonna of the Rocks provides another great example of connections among figures. The characters in this painting are connected through a series of gestures and hand signals such as pointing and blessing. “The rigorously ordered pyramidal composition does not hinder the movement of the figures, and the painstaking orchestration of their gestures (the superimposition of hands and interplay of looks) takes on a new intensity in the diffuse light which softens outlines without weakening the modeling of the figures.” (Loyrette, 2010)

Michelangelo’s David provides another unique form of connection, which is similarly found in Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, it is not a connection with another figure in the artwork, it is instead a connection to the outside world and the viewer. In both pieces the figure in the artwork appears to be gazing at an unseen person, making the viewer feel involved as though they are the ones being noticed by the figure in the piece. There are also unseen connections when we look at a piece and experience what the artist intended, it is somewhat of a connection between not only us and the piece we are looking at, but us and the artist.

Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti were quiet the intellects and visionaries for their time and aside from the aspects shared within their art they also shared several other things. Both Da Vinci and Michelangelo are believed to have created some of their most famous works through the inspiration of their mother’s faces. Michelangelo, for example, depicted his mother’s young, pure face on the Virgin Mary, in Leonardo’s case it was the smile on the Mona Lisa. The similarities do not stop there; both men were influenced in their work both politically and religiously. Michelangelo created The Last Judgment for the church and David for the government. Leonardo created The Last Supper for the church and The Mona Lisa for an aristocrat. Both men struggled with their greatest works repainting them time and time again in hopes of perfection, and most importantly, both men have left lasting impressions upon the world of art.

Michelangelo Buonarroti and Leonardo Da Vinci have both certainly left their marks on society, perhaps some of the most accurate representatives of the renaissance era were created by their hands. Their depiction of the renaissance way of seeing things has forever shaped our world. Though they may both have seen things somewhat differently and desired to interpret things in their own way, though they may have had their own styles and approaches, they shared so many things that it is often difficult to talk about one without mentioning the other, and even more difficult still to speak of them without mentioning their impact on the renaissance and its obvious effect on them. Whatever their differences and similarities, one thing remains undisputable, their timeless legacy will live on in the preserved pieces to be admired and studied as they have for generations and will for generations to come.


Kleiner, Fred, 2006, Gardner’s Art through The Ages

Giuliani, Fr. Giovanni, 1995, Guide to Saint Peter's Basilica

Sullivan, Mary Ann, 2001, David

Trustees of the British Museum, 2006, the Last Judgment

Hegarty, Melinda, 2005, Yale News Press, Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and the Renaissance in Florence Review. The Renaissance Society of America

Fiorani, Francesca, 2008, Renaissance quarterly, Review on Leonardo Da Vinci: Experience, Experiment and Design. The Renaissance Society of America

Holman, Beth, 2005, For Honor and Profit. The Renaissance Society of America

Henri Loyrette, Director of the Musée du Louvre, 2011, The Louvre, Mona Lisa

Krystek, Lee, 2005, Leonardo da Vinci

© 2011 Myranda Grecinger


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