Art + humanism + societal change

The Italian Renaissance (1400-1600 A.D.) was a period of monumental cultural and social change. The movement saw the resurgence of humanistic values, a philosophy that focused on the potential and possibilities of humanity in shaping the structures, beliefs and activities of society as opposed to a reliance on Christian doctrine. Religious beliefs were not entirely dismissed. Rather, the worth and value of individual and collective humans was progressively acknowleded for the contribution they make to the shaping of knowledge and values.

Madonna with Child
Giovanni Bellini ‘Madonna and Child with St.John the Baptist and a Saint John.’ (1500-1504). Oil on panel.

During the Renaissance many philosophers, writers, musicians and artists began to explore this system of thought. Classical texts and art forms were used as references to support people’s learning and development. Wealthy patrons started to collect books and natural artefacts as a representation of their education and worldliness. A deep connection emerged between humanistic values, the arts and societal transformation. Visual artists closely associated with the early Renaissance include Giovanni Bellini, Andrea Mantegna, Masaccio, Fra Angelico and Antonello da Messina to name a small few. These artists created deeply symbolic paintings that explored the complexity and richness of these new-found understandings. Art became a site for humanistic discourse.

So why am I writing about this on my children’s art and pedagogy blog? Well, the epistemological connections between the Italian Renaissance and my practice/research are strong and congruent. My research expands upon socio-cultural learning theory, an educational approach that emphasises the specific social, cultural and historical context that knowledge is produced. This also explores the contribution individuals make to their learning, development and growth.

Bellini
Giovanni Bellini ‘Madonna in the Meadow’ (1500). Oil on panel. Image credit: National Gallery of Art

Take Giovanni Bellini’s ‘Madonna in the Meadow’ (pictured above). The female figure is sitting in the rural landscape of Northern Italy nursing her child. All symbols of ethereal divinity, such as the heavens and gold rays, have been removed and replaced with a scene of provincial life. To me, the painting connects the internal world of the woman with the everyday events happening in the landscape. This suggests that the development of her spiritual, emotional and intellectual being is deeply intertwined with her own human experience and not being determined from above. Such a proposition supports an understanding of human growth as being actively constructed within an individual.

The connection between art, education and society is a deep and enduring one. Humanism suggests that societal change begins with individual transformations catalysed by both intrinsic and extrinsic factors. This process emphasises an individual’s responsibility in the actions they take, the decisions they make and the beliefs they construct as opposed to a dependence on tradition, authority and dogma. Carl Rogers, the great human-centred psychologist (Mia Vainio I will forever be indebted to you for introducing me to Rogerian theory) expanded upon this trail of thinking in the construction of his person-centred approach to therapy. John Dewey incessantly intertwined humanistic values in his writings on education, art and culture.

Further Links

National Gallery of Art website (2017) Italian Renaissance Learning Resources (NB: this is ace)

Goffen, R (1989). Giovanni Bellini. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Khan Academy website (2017). The Renaissance in Venice resource. (

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