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  • Print publication year: 2016
  • Online publication date: August 2016

31 - The Bible and the visual arts in early modern Europe


The Renaissance recovery of the Bible in original-language texts contributed to far-reaching and revolutionary changes for European Christianity. As the other chapters in this volume indicate, text-historical scholarship resulted in different reconstructions of the Bible and fostered the formation of diverse positions on the authority and meaning of those texts. Because those innovations turned out to have profound political and social ramifications, Renaissance biblical philology has always been a prominent subject of inquiry for historians and theologians. One aspect of the rise of humanist biblical philology, however, that deserves stronger recognition is its symbiosis with the revolution in Renaissance visual arts.

After all, the phenomenon expressed by the term ‘Renaissance’ defines equally well the innovations in both biblical philology and visual representation, for the reorientation to Classical Antiquity (or idealisations of the Classical world) informed both textual and visual culture in the same fundamental ways. Artists and scholars looked to Antiquity for the substance of their work: subject matter, models of style, historiography, philosophy and theory, as well as technical methodologies. In particular, the Bible was perceived as the central discourse of the ancient world, and, as such, needed not only to be recovered in its pristine form but also to be visualised through the lenses of Classical art.

A recognisably Renaissance style emerged as artists transformed representations of the Bible from iconic to realistic (or illusionistic) images, a process that resulted from the reception of ancient artistic styles and techniques. This development is evident in both painting and sculpture from early fifteenth-century Florence, as we can see in pioneering works by Ghiberti, Donatello and Masaccio. Among the most significant biblical projects from the early Florentine Renaissance were Lorenzo Ghiberti's two sets of bronze reliefs for the doors of the Baptistery of Florence. The first set, begun in 1402–3 and sometimes described as the beginning of Renaissance art, features twenty panels, framed by medieval quatrefoils, with scenes from the life of Christ, along with portraits of the four evangelists and four doctors of the church (Ambrose, Jerome, Gregory and Augustine). The second set, which Michelangelo subsequently immortalised as the Gates of Paradise, has ten large rectangular panels with complex designs combining related scenes from Old Testament narratives in a fully developed Renaissance style.

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The New Cambridge History of the Bible
  • Online ISBN: 9781139048781
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