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The Philosophy of Renaissance Culture Explained

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Here is an excellent video that was recently sent to me by Fr Brad Elliot, O.P., a 20-minute lecture that contrasts the attitude of the leading figures of the Renaissance to beauty, goodness, and truth, especially beauty, with those of modern artists, architects and city planners.

I take the presenter – who is not named – at face value in what he says. He makes a very clear case for the superiority of the approach of the theorists of the 15th century to city planning, art and architecture, compared with those of today. It is this analysis that makes this video worth watching.

However, it also highlights the great flaw of the period, which is evident in what is not said. Nowhere is the Christian faith a consideration. The arguments are purely philosophical, and philosophy separated from the Faith will lead to error.

As a general critique of the times, we would go to Benedict XVI, who said in the Spirit of the Liturgy that the Renaissance was too enamored with itself and pagan beauty, forgetting that beauty is not an end in itself, but rather, a sign of the Divine. The source of all beauty is God.

As an example of this, we can see in the video that the attitude to human beauty is crucially flawed. It deliberately objectifies the feminine form in order to create a disordered erotic response in men, which they believed could be channeled to a greater good. This is not a Christian attitude, since it objectifies the human body.

It was in the Renaissance that we first saw the nude as part of the artistic canon and as part of the training of artists. In the foreword to my book, Painting the Nude, The Theology of the Body and the Representation of Man in Christian Art, Dr Christopher Blum of the Augustine Institute explains how this change in the attitude to nudity in art began with Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72) and his influential book On Painting in the first part of the 15th century. Alberti was no Christian apologist, and he was going against centuries of Christian tradition in proposing such an approach to art.

This idea of stimulating and channeling the libido towards creativity did not die with the artists of the High Renaissance. It has become part of the mainstay of popular psychology, and the justification of so much that is bad in popular culture and what constitutes high culture today.

For example, in his book Think and Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill cited this instinct as the driving force for making money. In a brilliant and cynical marketing ploy, he conflated lust for money and lust for sex, in order to appeal to our base nature, and sold millions of books. I wrote a critique of this 20th-century positive-thinking religion, called “Think and Grow Greedy”, in my book The Vision for You.

The observation that the culture of today is impoverished compared to that of the Renaissance is well made in the video. However, I would say that the two periods are more similar than this video suggests for the reasons cited. The difference is that even the most anti-Christian non-believer in the 15th century tried to dress this up as high culture; moderns don’t even pretend to have such aspirations.

Nevertheless, it is only Christianity that offers hope for a truly elevated culture that directs us to the source of all beauty and the inspiration of all that is good, and can raise us up above both. The art and architecture of the Renaissance period are, I agree, vastly superior to that of our current age in the West and we can learn from that, but also in some respects far from the ideal to which we should aspire today.

The façade of Santa Maria Novella, the principal Dominican church in Florence, Italy, designed by Alberti.

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