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What Was the Renaissance Worldview?

Determine the most significant change in worldview brought about by the Renaissance by comparing the implicit worldviews in paired examples of Medieval and Renaissance creative works; e.g., paintings, sculpture, architecture and music.

Outcomes References Related Resources

Suggested Activities

Students learn about Medieval and Renaissance worldviews by examining examples of creative works from each era and determining the most significant change in worldviews between these two historical periods.

Gather resources on Medieval and Renaissance paintings
Before beginning this challenge, collect examples of paintings from the Medieval period (also known as the Middle Ages) and Renaissance. Look for similar themes from each time period so students can compare two art works on similar subjects, such as two paintings of daily life, of churches or of the resurrection of Jesus. Where possible, select paired images from different regions in Europe (see References).

Introduction to concept: Renaissance
Explain the meaning of the word "renaissance"(rebirth). Suggest that the word implies a period of great change, but that we need some understanding of what came before the Medieval period in order to appreciate these changes.

Inform students that they will investigate the Medieval and Renaissance worlds through primary sources, namely creative works, to gain insights about each period’s worldview—its system of beliefs, attitudes, values and knowledge about the human and natural worlds.

Compare two paintings
Display two paintings with similar themes from each era. As a class, discuss the central focus or subject of each image. Note the background or supporting details. Consider similarities and differences in the paintings and the portrayal of subjects. For assistance, in examining the paintings, you may want to consult an art teacher or Princeton Online website (see References).

Identify elements and principles of design
Introduce principles of design; e.g., balance, emphasis, contrast and unity. Also introduce elements of design, e.g., line, colour, shape, perspective, texture. Many websites provide examples and definitions of these elements (see References).

Principles of Design

Elements of Design

  • Balance—the arrangement of objects to create an impression of equality in weight or importance.
  • Emphasis—the use of placement, contrast, size, and colour to give special attention or importance to one part an artwork.
  • Contrast—the use of opposing elements, such as colours, forms or lines, to produce an intensified effect in a work of art.
  • Unity—the arrangement or location of figures or objects to form a complete impression or feeling.

  • Line—a visual path left by an object.
  • Colour/Value (lightness and darkness)—the particular hue that is seen when light is reflected off an object.
  • Shape (2D)/Form (3D)—the dimensional shape of an artwork or an element within the artwork.
  • Perspective—the technique that creates the illusion of depth in a two-dimensional artwork.
  • Texture—the feel of the surface of an object or work of art; e.g., metal has a smooth texture and sand has a rough texture.

"Art Smarts' Glossary of Terms." Art Gallery of Hamilton. (16 March 2007).

Explain that artists use these principles and elements to create effects and to communicate a message or impression. As a class, examine each design element and principle evident in the selected artwork. Discuss how each adds to the overall effect; e.g., mood, feeling, aesthetics.

Decipher the implied worldview in paintings
Suggest that some paintings reveal explicit—those that are easily identified—messages or stories. Others have implicit—underlying or symbolic—messages that the viewer has to infer; i.e., use clues in the painting to figure out the message. For example, some artists draw a picture not only to portray a particular historical event but also to symbolize a larger issue, value, purpose or perspective; e.g., good and evil, courage, struggle, views of human nature.

Invite students to imagine the artist’s worldview in each image. Discuss criteria for plausible inferences, such as:

  • supported by details or facts in the artwork
  • supported by known facts about the historical period.

Encourage students to use the details in the images as well as their knowledge of design principles and elements to draw plausible inferences about the artist’s worldview.

Arrange for students to work with a partner to decipher the worldview expressed in the two images.

For an example of an analysis of two images, see Sample Image Analysis (Background Information).
To structure and assess this activity, you may want to adapt the chart Interpreting the Artist’s Message found in Supporting Conclusions (Support Material).

Analyze more artifacts
After students have had sufficient guided practice with the initial images, distribute to each individual or group of students another set of paired artifacts, e.g., art, music, architecture. Alternatively, invite students to access links to artifacts on the Internet (see References). Direct groups to present to the class their interpretations of the worldviews expressed in their artifacts.

If you are using more than one type of creative work, it may be helpful to discuss the key characteristics of each type before students begin their analysis. See Characteristics of Medieval and Renaissance Art (Background Information) for a comparison of typical features in painting, architecture, sculpture and music. Use a search engine for more information on these comparisons.

Compare similarities and differences in worldviews
After each group presents its findings, direct students to compare, individually, the worldviews of the Renaissance and the Medieval periods.

You may want to adapt the strategies and charts in Comparing Differences (Support Material) to structure and assess this comparison.

If using a data chart, add the following worldview elements for comparison:

  • view of human nature
  • view of the good life
  • equality with others
  • responsibilities to others
  • relationship between the individual and the state
  • relationship of humans with nature
  • sources of ethical wisdom.

Analyze the most significant worldview changes

  • Ask students to analyze and report on the most significant changes using the following sentence stems:

    • Some key changes in the Renaissance worldview are …
    • The most significant change from the Medieval worldview was …
    • This was a significant change because …

Extension: Research Medieval and Renaissance worldviews
Invite students to compare their analysis of the Medieval worldview to the Renaissance worldview. You may want to provide additional background information on the Renaissance to assist in this task. Encourage students to add new information to their comparison charts. To draw additional inferences about the worldviews of both time periods, students may use other primary sources; e.g., maps, literature, documents, letters.

Last updated: July 1, 2014 | (Revision History)
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