From Halos to Nudes

The Renaissance Rediscovers Nature

I hope my main simplification, that there are three Romes, will not keep anyone from seeing that each of these three must be subdivided. In particular, something big happened in the Renaissance, and “Christian Rome” changed.

Renaissance means “rebirth,” of course, and what was reborn was a renewed appreciation of classical antiquity. The thinkers, artists, and statesmen of Ancient Greece and Rome again became models for serious study and imitation, and in some cases an alternative and rival to the culture promoted by the Church.

Another way to put this is to say that Renaissance artists and thinkers rediscovered nature, and studied it in addition to, or instead of, the supernatural and miraculous. Now there were two books, the Bible and the “book” of Nature, and their relationship became a more frequent matter for scrutiny.

Nature had not been entirely lost, of course, and St. Thomas Aquinas made it, and Aristotle, an important part of his studies. But simple observations, like the frequency of halos in medieval paintings and of nudes in ones from the Renaissance, help to document the kinds of changes that took place. The study of perspective by Renaissance artists is another.

Coming pods will take up works by Michelangelo and Raphael, especially their masterpieces in the Vatican Museums.

For now, I note only the wonderful epitaph that Cardinal Pietro Bembo wrote for Raphael:


Powerful though she is, Nature needs great interpreters if she is to live in our thoughts and lead us away from the Scylla of groundless hopes and the Charybdis of aimless confusion. In the sphere of art, at least, Raphael was one of these.

As for Michelangelo, it was looking at his Sistine Chapel that suggested to me the title for this section: his magnificent frescoes contain no halos and many nudes.

Charlie Wheeler’s photo of the Last Judgment captures the closest thing I’ve seen to a halo in all of Michelangelo’s fresco work in the Sistine Chapel. It is a glow that comes from behind Christ. As for nudes, there were more before the artist Daniele da Volterra was hired to add some loincloths and fig leaves, which earned him the nickname “Il Braghettone” (“The breeches maker”). Some have since been removed.

Michelangelo's Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel

Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel

The Return of the MArtyrs