At the beginning of C. S. Lewis's novel The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the Pevensie children are astonished by how real a painting of a ship on the bedroom wall looks. It has depth and movement and is so lifelike they can almost feel the ocean spray. As they step forward to take a closer look, they are drawn straight through the frame of the painting into the world of Narnia. No longer spectators, they have become participants in the story.     

The painting in this chapter of Lewis's novel is not just a pretty picture on a wall to be admired but a window—even a doorway—into something beyond itself, a new kind of reality, a story that can draw viewers in and transform them. Many 21st-century Protestants may find this concept foreign, but in the 14th through the 16th centuries, this is precisely what artists were after. In an age whirling with changes, art—reaching a magnificent level of naturalism not seen since the days of the ancient Greeks and Romans—had a vital role to play.

A shift in outlook was sweeping through Western Europe, starting in Italy and spreading north into Germany, France, England, and the Netherlands. Those living in that time spoke of rinnovato—renewal—to describe their sense of entering a new age very different from the early Middle Ages. Nineteenth-century historians later called it the "Renaissance" (rebirth). For the church, it was a hinge between medieval faith, piety, and church order on the one hand and the Protestant and Catholic Reformations on the other. Some of the same impulses that drove the reformers to clear away the obstructions to pure, biblical Christianity motivated Renaissance artists to dive back into the past, recover the styles and techniques of classical sculpture, and make the Old into something radically New.

It was a time of experimentation—with artistic techniques, philosophical ideas, religious beliefs, political and scientific theories, and new technologies like the printing press. It was a time of exploration—to wild, undiscovered lands beyond the Atlantic Ocean and to the seemingly inexhaustible limits of human reason and creativity. It was also a time when ideals and reality didn't always match up.

Picture this

It may seem strange to say that a culture that produced Machiavelli's political philosophy, a slew of corrupt despots constantly at war with each other, and a notorious pope like Alexander VI, devoted to women, wealth, and his ten illegitimate children, was also a culture thoroughly steeped in Christianity. But that was the case. Fifteenth-century Italy wove religion into the fabric of everyday existence. Life was liturgical—measured in holy days, feasts, festivals, baptisms, masses, penances, marriages, and last rites.

At the same time, many people knew that all was not well in the land of piazzas and pilgrimages. Over the course of the century and into the next, there was increasing dissatisfaction with the state of the institutional church and the moral decay of society, accompanied by a desire for more authentic expressions of faith. In the monastic communities, this took the form of "observant" orders, which called for a return to the moral standards and spiritual dedication of their founders. Laypeople sought out personal, emotionally engaging forms of spirituality, and new "confraternities" allowed the laity to actively participate in worship and in devotional rituals that were previously the exclusive privilege of clergy and monks.

In this highly visual culture, Christianity, society, and art were inextricably linked. Works of art were not made to hang passively in museums. They were essential parts of the public landscape, with specific purposes. Statues in town squares symbolized political clout or civic allegiance. Carved pulpits and stained glass windows preached biblical stories in pictures. Elaborately decorated crucifixes and altarpieces inspired spiritual feeling and devotional commitment. Grand buildings proclaimed the power of a pope or the prestige of an aristocratic family. Murals in monasteries or private chapels chronicled the lives of founders, ancestors, and saints.

Patrons who commissioned these works—whether popes, churches, monastic orders, town guilds, or individual citizens—did so because they knew that art was powerful. It could establish social status, assert authority, teach doctrine, evoke emotions, incite someone to prayer or action, and lead to social change. Therefore the style and content of art was not just a matter of taste. It could have profound—even eternal—consequences.

Most artists were not independent geniuses "doing their own thing"—at least until the appearance of larger-than-life figures such as Michelangelo. They were members of a community, with responsibilities to that community and with the ability to express visually that community's deepest concerns. And in an age of such enormous cultural and religious transitions as the Renaissance, this was power indeed.

Oh, the humanity!

"Without Plato," said the Florentine statesman Lorenzo de' Medici, "it would be hard to be a good Christian or a good citizen." This statement has been called the manifesto of humanism, one of the most important forces behind the Renaissance in the 15th and 16th centuries. Later, the Enlightenment thinkers looked back at the humanists as the forerunners of individualism and secularism. But in reality—as Timothy Verdon and others have shown—they were very concerned with exactly what Lorenzo said: how to be good Christians.

Modern conservative Christians have the slogan "Back to the Bible." Renaissance humanist and biblical scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam had a similar slogan: Ad fontes, "Back to the sources." The phrase captures his age's hunger to recover something that had been lost, a golden era before the medieval "Dark Age" muddied the window of vision. If only we were more like ancient Athens or Rome, thought the humanists, our government and our society would not be so corrupt. If only we could learn to make art like the Greeks and Romans did, we could achieve ideal beauty. If only we could study the earliest biblical manuscripts in their original languages, we could understand what Scripture means. If only we could go back to the purer, simpler faith of the early church fathers, we could get closer to God.

The humanists had boundless optimism about human potential ("A man can do all things if he will," pronounced Leon Battista Alberti), though they also recognized that free will could cut two ways. In his Oration on the Dignity of Man, Pico della Mirandola wrote that humans may use their unique, God-given freedom to rise to become like angels or sink to the level of beasts.

For the humanists, exalting the beauty of the natural world and the inherent worth of human beings created in the image of God was a way of worshiping God himself. They believed in the ennobling effects of education and the continuity between the wisdom of antiquity and the truth of Christianity. Their delight in Latin and Greek literature extended not just to Plato, Cicero, and Caesar but also to early church fathers like Augustine and Jerome.

In their quest for the purity of the past, humanists stressed that Christianity was not a matter of endless ceremonies and rites but an inward affair of faith and individual conscience rooted in the example of Christ. As Erasmus scolded, "If you believe in what takes place at the altar but fail to enter into the spiritual meaning of it, God will despise your flabby
religion." In this and many other ways, they fed the fires of Protestant reform, particularly in northern Europe.

Seeing is believing?

Humanism was a movement among intellectuals, but similar changes were afoot throughout the church. Since the 12th century, there had been a growing emphasis on the humanity of Christ, particularly in his suffering and death. St. Francis, who had brought a joyful love of nature to the common people, so identified with Christ's physical sufferings that he miraculously received the "stigmata"—wounds in his hands and feet like those Jesus bore. His followers emphasized both in their piety and their preaching the image of the fully divine yet fully human, crucified Savior. Fifteenth-century devotional practices called worshipers to enter imaginatively into the scene of Christ's passion, and so be transformed.

These new intellectual and religious attitudes demanded a new kind of art. The two-dimensional, highly symbolic icons of the early Middle Ages were intended to evoke an eternal reality, not a this-worldly one. Driven by a new goal to "imitate nature," Renaissance artists looked back to the sculptures of classical antiquity for inspiration. They developed techniques—including the use of perspective—to make their statues and paintings as lifelike as possible and to create the illusion of three-dimensional space.

In part, this reflected the humanist concern to portray the beauty of the creation and the dignity of the human being, but the aims of devotional art went beyond that. The sixth-century pope Gregory the Great had called paintings "books of the illiterate," and the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 had legitimized the veneration of images. Renaissance naturalism, however, took the relationship between a work of art and its viewer to a whole new realm.

The abstract doctrines and Scriptural stories of the church became concrete, visible, almost palpable. People could experience the events and emotions they were seeing in a visceral, transformative way. It is no coincidence that this was also the era of elaborate theatrical productions, particularly during Holy Week, bringing the passion of Christ to life before people's eyes with unprecedented realism and special effects. 

Reforming art

But there were cracks beneath the surface. The visual splendor and opulence of Renaissance Italy at times betrayed an underlying greed on the part of some patrons, who were willing to spend money on art to show off or gain spiritual merit but ignored the needs of the poor. What would St. Dominic think, asked the Dominican Archbishop Antonius, of "houses and cells enlarged, vaulted, raised to the sky, and most frivolously adorned with superfluous sculptures and paintings?"

The fiery preacher and reformer Girolamo Savonarola not only scoffed at the idea that classical philosophy and the Bible were compatible—"Any old woman knows more about the faith than Plato"—he also condemned the tendency among some Renaissance artists to flirt with paganism at the expense of piety: "Do you imagine that the Virgin Mary went about dressed as she is shown in paintings? I tell you she went about dressed like a poor person with simplicity and her face so covered that it was hardly seen. … You make the Virgin Mary look like a whore. How the worship of God is mocked!" The fact that some artists cast their "worldly" paintings into Savonarola's "bonfire of vanities" in the center of Florence is evidence that his words hit home.

After 1500, reforming voices increasingly questioned the state of the church, and the state of art also came under close scrutiny. Artists, patrons, and church leaders debated the proper function of images, the issue of nudity, and the merging of biblical stories with classical myths and apocryphal legends. Protestant reformers abhorred the way laypeople blurred the boundaries between veneration of images and idolatry, as well as the church's sale of indulgences to pay the bills of papal art projects. Catholic reformers at the Council of Trent, in addition to addressing the Protestant challenge, reaffirmed the use of images in worship but laid down much stricter criteria for style and content.

The soul of the beholder

The issues at stake in Renaissance art went to the very heart of the church and its worship:

If we truly believe that God was incarnate in Christ, and that Christ was fully human as well as fully divine, then what does that say about the goodness of the created order and the dignity of the human being? What does it mean to be truly human in this world? Is nature a prison to be escaped or a beautiful creation of God to be celebrated?

If the Creator God made us creative beings, how should we exercise that creativity?

What should be the focus of our worship? What should our minds be contemplating: Christ's saints or Christ himself? the sufferings of Christ or his triumph over suffering and death?

If visual images have such a powerful effect on the way people think, feel, believe, and behave, then how should the church wield that power—if at all?

Five hundred years later, these questions are still relevant. As we search for answers, we could certainly do worse than take a closer look at the Christ-haunted, art-drenched world of Renaissance Italy. We might even find ourselves sucked through a picture frame into a story beyond.

Jennifer Trafton is managing editor of Christian History & Biography. For sources this article drew upon, see the Recommended Resources section.