Medieval and Renaissance art differ in several respects: in the depiction of spatial depth, in the scale of human figures, in the relationships of figures to one another and to the environments in which they are placed, and in the drawing of three-dimensional objects.
These compositional differences are directly related to the dissimilarities in the world view of the two cultures. The distinction between Medieval and Renaissance painting is not one of competency in perspective drawing; these world views were not alike and hence called for unique forms of visual representation.
Medieval art was hierarchic. Figures were often ranked in size on a scale of ascending importance. The figure’s importance was fixed by religious tradition. In such a scheme it was necessary that the most significant figure in the painting be the largest and that all other figures, according to their rank, be of diminishing size regardless of their placement in the painting, whether in front of, alongside, or behind the central figure.
In Medieval painting, moreover, a religious event could be depicted in serial fashion so that all key episodes were presented within one frame because the painting was a visual representation of God’s handiwork. Since God was not of time or in time, the picture did not have to represent life as experienced by human beings. The picture did not require natural surroundings or realistic panoramas. Information acquired through the five senses was suspect. Man was viewed as a puny and confused mortal. True knowledge could only be gained through faith. Life was illusory, hence the pictures were representations of religious experience, not of human experience. In order to avoid any analogy to human experience and to enhance the other worldliness of the scene, Medieval settings were deliberately shallow in depth. Further, the application of gold leaf to the background areas conveyed a combination of messages: its purity and preciousness served as a sign of religious faith, and its presence served to remind the viewer of the existence of the painted surface or picture plane.
How different, then, is the Renaissance understanding of the picture plane. Leonbattista Alberti in his treatise on painting entitled Della Pittura, says that the picture plane should be treated as though it were of transparent glass through which the visual rays pass. Later he refers to the picture plane as an open window.
With this new concept of the picture plane came a dramatic change in the face of art. When the painted surface became an ‘open window’, the illusion of depth—the placement of figures on a ground plane in naturalistic relationship to one another and to the environments in which they were portrayed—was possible. The new rules of perspective enabled artists to give buildings and interior scenes a threedimensional quality.
The investigation of ancient Greek and Roman cultures by Renaissance scholars led to the “. . . formation of a humanistic culture that radically renewed the very foundations of knowledge and of life through a new conception of the essential values of nature and history” (Argan, p.12). The new focus of interest in these two ancient cultures was responsible for the direction taken by artists, a direction that changed the look of painting.
While the Middle Ages were concerned with the mysteries of God, Renaissance man now had a past history and a present place in the real or secular world. When depicting figures in a painting, it was important to show them standing on terra firma within and as part of a matural setting. The painted world was a stage set for significant human action that took place in a world that matched the natural environment of man. Thus the invention of perspective fit the humanistic standards of realism necessary to Renaissance art. The key words in Renaissance scholarship and rhetoric are: harmony, proportion and unity. In Renaissance art, human beings and the visual perceptions of the world they inhabit became the standard for evaluating paintings. The rules of perspective are based on the relationship between the viewer and the object viewed. Harmony, proportion, and unity, which in Medieval art had been tied to the divine, were now applied to human figures and to the compositions in which they were placed. These terms, with their humanistic emphasis, were achieved visually, by using a single point perspective. This perspective related all parts of the composition to the human viewer and the human world depicted. Thus, God looks at Medieval art, man looks at Renaissance art.