The English Renaissance


The European Renaissance was a breeding ground for absolutely magnificent Italian painters and sculptors. Carravagio, an early Rembrandt, is a particular favourite of mine, his macabre use of shadowing is stunning. Bernini’s sculptors in the centre of Rome, define the city for me. But the likes of Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Titian, Donatello and Botticelli are synonymous with fantastic art work. Especially when you view them up close. Standing in the centre of the Sistine Chapel and gazing at Michelangelo’s handy work, is simply incredible.

So one wonders, why were there no great English Renaissance artists? Why did we miss out? I honestly cannot name one great English Renaissance artist up until the Hellenism of the Eighteenth Century; but even then, our artists were nothing in comparison to our Poets who invoked Antiquity when speaking of paradise. Lord Byron and John Keats among those.

Oscar Wilde wrote of this particular brand of English Renaissance as:

“of the vision of Homer as of the vision of Dante, of Keats and William Morris as of Chaucer and Theocritus. It lies at the base of all noble, realistic and romantic work as opposed to the colourless and empty abstractions of our own eighteenth-century poets anti of the classical dramatists of France, or of the vague spiritualities of the German sentimental school”

He shows here that 18th Century Romanticism, and Hellenism of the pre-Raphaelites were essentially the English catching up to the methodology of the Italian Renaissance artists two centuries previous. The essence, being a passionate romantic humanism. You can see this very essence, in the works of Millais and Rossetti. Works that take their inspiration from Antiquity, and Renaissance Europe. If you go to Tate Britain, you will see “Ecce Ancilla Domini” by Rossetti. You could be forgiven for thinking it was created in Ancient Greece or Quattrocentro Italy, or Renaissance Florence; it was produced in 19th Century England. And whilst these works certainly take inspiration from the Italian Renaissance (despite the Pre-Raphaelite’s apparent disdain for Renaissance artistry), they still have a wonderful individual quality of their own, that separate them into something entirely new, yet I can never quite figure out what that quality is. It is simply there. The Pre-Raphaelites represented a lost idea of spirituality, in an age of enlightenment. We can safely say, that England gained it’s Renaissance, two or three centuries after the rest of Europe.

But that still begs the question, why wasn’t England producing any art of any worth during the 15th, 16th, and 17th Centuries. I’d suggest, it was all because of Religion.

The Italian Renaissance artists of the 15th-17th Centuries, were all Roman Catholic. They followed the Catholic tradition to it’s very fundamentals. And whilst the art itself may have presented Holy figures as mere mortals, the grandeur of those Holy figures, was supremely Catholic; colourful and striking, romantic backdrops and visions of the Divine with human emotion and imperfections. The artists were commissioned by Popes and grand Catholic nobles like the Medici. Renaissance art in Italy, was Catholicism on canvas.

England, around that same time, had spent the 1530s breaking with Rome, and separating ourselves entirely, from the Continent. Catholicism became a dangerous practice. Even the Catholic Queen of England, was lucky to have survived it. Queen Catherine just so happened to be a close relative of the powerful Holy Roman Emperor, who was a staunch Catholic. She had his support. If it wasn’t for that relationship, she would have been almost certainly executed during the English Henrician reformation. Catholicism was dangerous in England in the 16th Century. Catholic extravagance, including it’s art, were not appreciated in England. The Reformers considered them to be the same sort of anti-Bible sentiment, as idol worship. The Pope, the great art work commissioner, was considered an anti-Christ, in the eyes of the English reformers. And so, by that logic, i’d argue that any attempt at such elaborate and extravagant art works used for the eminence of the Catholic Church, would have been utterly obscene, to the English Court.

The Court painter, the man behind the great portraits of Thomas More and Jane Seymore, was Hans Holbein, a man who followed the writings of Luther, and Erasmus. Holbein was a humanist, and gradually became very anti-Catholic. Perfect for the Tudor Court.

Catholicism, whilst it has been rather violent, and has a history of very unchristian-like viciousness, has undoubtedly produced some of history’s most beautiful works of art. One wonders what great works of art may have been produced throughout England, had the break from Rome not happened, and had Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon produced a son and heir in the first place.

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