Major Renaissance Artists

The Renaissance was a huge cultural movement that took place primarily in Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries. It was characterized by a revival of interest in ancient Greek literature, a shift of focus from things spiritual to things secular, the ideas of humanism and individualism, and a growth in hostility towards the Catholic Church and its clergy. During the Renaissance art flourished. Artists took inspiration from great works of ancient Greece and Rome. Three of the major artists were Raphael, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci.

Raphael (1483-1520) was primarily a painter. He painted 50 Madonnas, and several self portraits. His most important work, The School of Athens (painted between 1509 and 1511), portrayed famous philosophers of antiquity. In center of the painting the two great Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, are shown standing side-by-side. Plato is pointing up, Sanzio_01in reference to his belief that there exist immaterial “forms” for everything in the universe, and are not part of the physical universe. Aristotle is gesturing towards the earth, because he concerned himself primarily with the physical universe during his career. This work was commissioned by Pope Julius II along with several others to decorate several rooms (now known as the Raphael rooms) in the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican. It personified the Renaissance interest in the philosophers of antiquity.

Michelangelo (1475-1564) was another great Renaissance artist who considered himself a marble sculptor above all else, but was very skiMichelangelo's_Pietà,_St_Peter's_Basilica_(1498–99)lled in painting as well. His greatest marble statue, also considered the greatest marble statue, the Pietà, portrayed the dead Christ in the arms of his mother, the Virgin Mary. It is the only work that Michelangelo signed. It was commissioned in 1498 by Cardinal Jean Bilhères de Lagraulas, and is now in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was truly a Renaissance man, and had a huge range of intrests, including art, engineering, architecture, war machinery, science, and others. His work, the Mona Lisa, is probably the best known painting in the world. It was painted between 1503 and 1506, and is said to portray Lisa Gherardini. It is now in the Louvre museum in Paris.

The Renaissance was a time of great artistic development, and saw the creation of many masterpieces. Among the great artists, Raphael, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci were the most well known. They have made lasting contributions to western civilization that hopefully will be appreciated for many centuries to come.

Invocation of God in ‘The Decameron’

The Decameron was a work of literature written after the Black Death in the mid-14th century by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375). It told the story of seven ladies and three men who fled the city of Florence during the plague and took up residence in an abandoned mansion. There they told each other stories to amuse themselves. They each told ten stories, or novels, a day for ten days, ending up with 100 (hence “decameron”). These stories reflected many ideas of the Renaissance, being very anticlerical and primarily concerned with humanity. In the very first novel, Boccaccio had the story-teller invoke the greatness of God. This may seem out of place in a secular work of literature. Its purpose was to establish the legitimacy of the following story, which was an attack on the Church.

Novel I told the story of a wealthy man who had debtors in Burgundy. He hired an evil man named Ciapolletto to collect his money, and it was said that “he was, perhaps, the worst man ever to be born”. While abroad, Ciapolletto fell ill, and owners of the house he was staying in feared he would die, because he was such a sinner that he would not have a Christian burial. This would bring great disgrace unto them. So Ciapolletto said that he would use deception to trick people into believing he was a holy man. On his deathbed, he confessed to a Friar, saying many minor sins with great pretended piety and sorrow. The Friar went away believing this great sinner to be an extremely holy person. After his death, Ciapolletto was declared a saint, and was revered by the people. The whole story was an attack on the veneration of saints, and on the system of the Catholic Church.

So why did Boccaccio have the story-teller invoke God in what would be an attack on the Church? The reason was to establish the story’s religious legitimacy, while still attacking the Church. Boccaccio was not attacking the Catholic religion, he was attacking the Catholic Church and its clergy. Without an invocation of God, this piece of literature may have been viewed as a criticism of something far more serious, and may have brought down sanctions against Boccaccio. The Invocation of God was to make sure that Boccaccio’s audience knew what he was attacking, and provided an escape hatch in case he came under persecution.

Machiaveli: ‘The Prince’

Niccoló Machiavelli (1469-1527) was an Italian writer and politician whose book, The Prince, expressed many radical ideas that represented a break from the medieval past. The Prince, written in 1513, was a sort of political guide for princes. It gave advice for effectively holding power, and for what the conduct of the prince should be. Machiavelli believed that the prince, or the political authority, was not bound at all by any form of moral principle. The prince could justifiably commit any crime for the good of the state, and it would become a “glorious crime”. There was no mention of natural law, and no citations of the Bible. This was a break from the past, because previous political thinkers would have determined what should be a prince’s moral conduct based on certain principles. Machiavelli believed that moral principles do not apply to the political authority. According to him, it is better for a prince to be feared than to be loved. however, it is not good to be hated, for this may endanger the state. The Prince was not a call to vice, however. It said that virtue should be practiced when possible in order for the people not to hate you. Machiavelli had very radical political ideas, which called for the supremacy of the state, and its complete freedom from any moral principle. It broke from tradition, ignoring natural law and human nature.


Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374) was a poet and an early humanist whose ideas personified the essence of the Renaissance. At an early age, he was fascinated with the great Roman and Greek classics, and later on devoted much effort in tracking down lost manuscripts. He was completely uninterested in the works of Aristotle, and general philosophy that relied on speculation. Consequently, he had no interest in Scholastic philosophy, which was often based on Aristotelian principles, as emphasized in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. The idea of the medieval period being a “dark age” sprung from Petrarch. He saw the time in which he lived as a barbaric period and much preferred the ancient world. He was focused on gaining worldly fame, and this was a precursor to the idea of individualism and secularism of the Renaissance. This is not to say that Petrarch was not religious. He always carried St. Augustine’s Confessions with him. In 1341, he became the poet laureate of Rome, resurrecting an office not used since the ancient world. He also invented a poetic form called the sonnet. Petrarch was a prolific thinker whose ideas were forerunners to those of the Renaissance. He was not irreligious, but he advocated secularism, and emphasized this-worldly pursuits. He sought after personal, worldly fame as a form of immortality, and laid the foundation for Renaissance individualism.

Law in ‘The Little Flowers of St. Francis’ and ‘The Song of Roland’

In two classic works of medieval literature, The Song of Roland and The Little Flowers of St. Francis, the law of God was central. It was necessary to follow the correct law in order to have victory in The Song of Roland, and it was necessary for salvation in The Little Flowers of St. Francis. Even though it was so important, the contents of the law of God were never really defined by either work of literature.

The Song of Roland was a work of literature that dramatized an actual event. This historical event was the military campaign of Charlemagne against a group of Muslims in the Iberian peninsula, and specifically the battle of Ronceveux pass. Through treachery, the Muslim king attempted to defeat Charlemagne by feigning a conversion to Christianity and switching his allegiance to him. This took place early on in the poem in stanza 6. In order to change his allegiance, it was necessary for the Muslim king to abandon the law of Islam, and to accept the law of Christianity. Right at the beginning religious law was presented as central to the hierarchical system. Later on, in stanza 260, the importance of law in hierarchy was again affirmed. At this point (in stanza 260), Charlemagne and the emir, the two leaders of the opposing sides, were in heated combat. Charlemagne said of law: “Accept the law which is given us, the Christian law, and I will love thee straightaway; then serve and adore the King omnipotent.” Allegiance to Charlemagne meant allegiance to the law of Christianity. The opposing laws were the reason thet the different sides opposed one another.

The victory of Charlemagne was influenced by the direct intervention of God. In stanza 79, it is stated that Christianity is in the right, and Islam is in the wrong. In stanza 263, it is said: “The heathen flee, for God has willed it.” The victory of Charlemagne over the Muslims was the victory of Christianity over Islam, the victory of the Christian law over the Islamic law. Victory was a sanction of God, administered to those who observed His law.

Law was a very central part of several aspects of The Song Roland, but it was never truly spelled out. It is obvious that the Christian law was what had to be followed, and was necessary to victory. Although its importance was stressed throughout the poem, the contents of this law were never laid out.

This treatment of law is similar in The Little Flowers of St. Francis. Throughout this work of literature, the importance of following the law of God is exhorted. In The Song of Roland, law was necessary for victory, but in The Little Flowers of St. Francis, law was necessary for salvation. Even though it had great importance, the law of God was not clearly defined in The Little Flowers. The purpose of The Little Flowers was not to lay out this law, however. Its purpose was to tell simple stories about St. Francis. The Little Flowers was not the Bible, it was series of short anecdotes about a very holy man.

Both of these pieces of literature, The Little Flowers of St. Francis and The Song of Roland, considered the law of God very important. In The Song of Roland, the Christian law was the basis of the hierarchical system within Charlemagne’s army, and the Islamic law was the basis of the hierarchy of the Muslim army. Law was also central to the victory of Charlemagne. In The Little Flowers, law was central to salvation. It was also complemented by several virtues that were necessary for attaining eternal life. Even though law was of importance, it was not shown exactly what the law was in either work. This was because The Song of Roland and The Little Flowers were not meant to be handbooks that laid out the law of God. They were simply stories, purely entertaining in the case of The Song of Roland, and of somewhat deeper religious meaning, as in The Little Flowers of St. Francis.

Key Ideas of the Renaissance

The Renaissance was a period of great cultural change that marked the end of the medieval period. It was marked by many new ideas that had not been considered before, including the rise of secularism, and the increase of interest in classical literature.

There was in the Renaissance a renewal of interest in the works of the great classical poets and writers, such as Virgil, Cicero, Ovid, Plato, and others. The humanists in particular wanted to bring back the ancient literature of the Greek and Roman masters, and went through great pains to locate lost manuscripts. There was rise in the concept of individualism, shown in the new practice of signing works of art. Gradually, the idea of the necessity of God’s grace was de-emphasized and the idea of man’s ability to attain whatever he wanted through his own merits was introduced. The idea of secularism was promoted, and an emphasis on the merits of the occupations of this world increased. Active, rather than contemplative virtues were exhorted, contemplative virtues being those of the Monks and Friars, and active virtues as those that the common man could easily attain.

Much of the Renaissance shifted focus away from the Church and away from God, and towards the perfection of man, and his infinite possibilities. That is not to say that the people of the Renaissance were irreligious, indeed many of them were quite pious, but there was a definite change to a more secular outlook on life.

Essay 15: On the Counter-Current Exchange

For animals with gills, such as fish, the processes of gas exchange (extracting oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide) are more difficult to accomplish than for terrestrial creatures with lungs. The reason for this is that gases always flow from an area of high concentration to an area of lower concentration. On land, there is a much higher concentration of oxygen in the air than in water, so oxygen in the air naturally wants to go into the blood. With water, however, there is a much lower concentration of oxygen, so gas exchange is much more difficult. The gills of fish have to be very efficient at extracting oxygen from the water, so they employ something called the counter-current exchange.

The gills are comprised of folds of filaments that are rich in capillaries. Blood that is low in oxygen passes through the capillaries, and gets replenished. The blood flowing through the gills flows in the opposite direction from the water that passes over them. This enables a much more efficient method of extracting oxygen because the water is always encountering blood of a lower oxygen content, and likewise the blood is always encountering incoming water of a higher oxygen content. If the blood and water were flowing in the same direction always, then the blood would be encountering water of a progressively lower oxygen content, leading to a very inefficient system. The very simple configuration that allows for counter-current exchange enables fish and other aquatic animals with gills to get the most possible amount of oxygen, and live more efficient and active lives.

Hope in ‘The Little Flowers of St. Francis’

The Little Flowers of St. Francis, a book chronicling the history of St. Francis and his order, the Friars Minor through stories and anecdotes, may seem to some not to have offered much hope for the salvation of the common man. In The Little Flowers of St. Francis, there were several stories that seemed to be very disheartening to anyone hoping to go to heaven. These stories, however, did indeed offer hope to the general population through the understanding of the true doctrine of purgatory.

To understand purgatory, one must understand the different kinds of punishment due to sin, of which there are two. First is the temporal punishment due to sin, and second, the eternal punishment due to sin. Eternal punishment due to sin is the damning of a soul to the fires of hell for all of eternity, which is incurred by dying in a state of mortal (grievous) sin. Eternal punishment can be avoided through the sacrament of penance, in which someone confesses his mortal (and venial, or lesser sins, if he chooses). Temporal punishment is not washed away through penance and is built up through every sin. To give an analogy, if a person throws a ball through another person’s window, he will have to apologize to that person, but he will still have to make it up to that person somehow, like perhaps through buying another window. If someone dies while having incurred temporal punishment due to sin, but not eternal punishment, he will no go to hell. Rather, he will have to make it up to God by going to a place of cleansing called purgatory. Once that soul has been cleansed of all traces of sin, it may enter heaven. All souls that end up in purgatory will with certainty go to heaven at some point. A person can lessen his time in purgatory by performing good works while still on earth, and thereby gaining indulgences. A soul’s time in purgatory can also be lessened by the prayers and good works of those on earth who offer up these things for the souls in purgatory.

In several stories, Friars who had died were seen through visions by other Friars, and some of them did not go directly to heaven but to purgatory. It may seem that these Friars, who were extraordinarily holy men, should not have had to go to a place of suffering before entering heaven. It may seem that the regular man or woman, who did not practice the extreme poverty and other virtues that the Franciscans did would have no chance at getting to heaven. It must be remembered what purgatory truly is: a place of temporary (temporal) suffering, not of eternal damnation. Those who enter it will eventually get out.

In chapter 50 of part one of The Little Flowers of St. Francis, a story is told that offered great hope for the common man. It said that a very holy Friar, Brother John of Alvernia, said a mass for the souls in purgatory, which caused many to be liberated from it. What offers hope is the great number of souls that were in purgatory, described as “innumerable sparks of fire coming out of a burning oven”. If there were so many souls in purgatory, then all of these souls would eventually have gone to heaven. This offers great hope for the common person, because if so many souls were destined for heaven, then getting there would not seem impossible. It would seem to be an attainable reward. Also, the very fact that a simple Mass said by a holy man could alleviate the sufferings of so many is very uplifting.

Contrary to what some may believe, The Little Flowers of St. Francis was an uplifting piece of literature that did offer hope for the common man. To someone who believes in predestination, however, The Little Flowers offed little solace. It provided no means for man to determine whether or not he was among the elect, or among the damned. But from a Catholic perspective, The Little Flowers offered hope to those of us who do not have the ability to live like the Franciscans. Purgatory itself may be a place of suffering, but it is also a place of great hope, much greater than on earth.

The Hundred Years’ War

Royal_Arms_of_EnglandThe Hundred Years’ War was a conflict between England and France that lasted from 1337-1453. It had its roots in the fact that England and France had been somewhat entangled since the year 1066 with the Norman conquest. When William the Conquerer (who was also Duke of Normandy) ascended the English throne in 1066 he linked England and France together because he held territories in France that would pass down to subsequent English rulers in the years to come. By 1204, however, France had managed to loose England’s control over these territories, leaving it with only the small region of Gascony in the southwest. With the death of Charles IV of France in 1328, the unbroken Capetian dynasty came to an end. Edward III of England then laid claim to the French throne, because his mother was the daughter of Philip IV of France. However, the son of Philip IV’s younger brother, Philip of Valois, was favored by the French nobility, and Edward accepted this decision. Nevertheless, in 1337 he restated his claims to the French throne, and initiated the Hundred Years’ War. In 1340, as a symbol of his supposed right to the French throne, Edward quartered the royal arms of France (gold fleur-de-lis on a blue field) with those of England (three gold lions on a red field) in the first and fourth quarters, which are symbolically the most important, as shown above. The English royal arms remained quartered with those of France until 1801.

In addition to the conflict over who was sovereign in France, there was the issue of Flanders, over which France had long claimed lordship. England had enjoyed a lucrative wool trade with Flanders, and was concerned with losing this profitable partner in trade. There was also the view among both Edward III and Philip of Valois that war was an extremely profitable venture, and neither side wanted to avoid it.

The English started strong, winning two major victories at Crécy in 1346 and Poitiers in 1356, and later on with the battle of Agincourt in 1415. After the battle of Poitiers, there was a treaty made (in which England got one-third of France) in 1360 that lasted until 1369. During this time and after, the French were able to push back against English holdings in France, and by Edward III’s death in 1377, English control was reduced to small outposts around Bordeaux. There was another treaty that lasted from 1389-1415. While all this was happening, in France there was a revolt of the peasants known as the jacquerie, which weakened the French government. England saw this as a golden opportunity to resume the war, so in 1415 Henry V of England launched an attack at Agincourt that was a great victory.

At this point it seems that France was doomed to lose the war. However, France had always had the advantage, and it was really social and political disorganization on the part of France that allowed all of these English victories to happen. With the help of Joan of Arc, the French defeated the English besiegers at the siege of Orléans in 1429. This boosted French morale, and the French had many other victories in the ensuing decades, including the battle of Formigny in 1450, and the battle of Castillion in 1453, which brought an end to the devastating Hundred Years’ War. The English territories in France were all recaptured, except for Calais.

The Hundred Years’ War was not a continuous conflict spanning an entire century. It was a series of conflicts, separated by periodic treaties. England never really had the resources to defeat France, and the confusion within France itself was why it suffered so many embarrassing defeats early on. What the Hundred Years’ War accomplished was the total disentanglement of France and England, which had been linked since the Norman conquest.

John Wycliff

John Wycliff (1320-1384) was a priest and a professor at Oxford whose ideas were precursory to those of the later protestant reformers. He believed in the idea of predestination, in which it has already been determined in the mind of God whether or not a soul has been saved. He said that a person’s works determine if he is among the elect, or destined to hell. John Wycliff was very anti-property and pro-state, believing that the Church should not have the right to own property, and if it would not give up any property it did own, it should be confiscated by the state. He also said that when a person commits a mortal sin, he loses all rights to any property he owns, because all men are vassals of God, and all property is God’s property, so when we offend God we lose stewardship of His property.

John Wycliff attracted the support of the government, which would benefit greatly from confiscated Church property. He also attracted support from the anticlerical party (which later abandoned him because his views went too far). With the outbreak of the Great Revolt in 1381 (in which the peasants revolted against the landowners), the government simply could not afford to support someone with anti-property ideas, and John Wycliff was thrown out of Oxford along with his supporters by king Richard II. If not for the Great Revolt, John Wycliff probably would not have been abandoned by the government, and it is possible that the protestant reformation would have started over a century earlier.