The Nudes of the Renaissance

People have been into nudes since the beginning of time. But one of the most fruitful periods for nude art was the Renaissance. Whether you want to learn more about art history, the importance of nudes in the Renaissance, or anything else, you’re in the right place! 

The Renaissance Obsession With Nudes

Renaissance started in the fourteenth century, and the word means rebirth. The idea behind it was the rebirth of science, art, learning, and medicine. People started being more interested in education, and they studied ancient Greek and Roman philosophers. Since human bodies had been a subject of interest since the dawn of time, they transferred to the Renaissance as well. 

During the Renaissance, the human body was a paragon of beauty. Moreover, religion became one of the most important aspects of the community, and the Bible states that God created humans in his image. As a result, the very idea behind the human body was nothing short of perfection. 

It seems obvious why many Renaissance artists wanted to capture this perfection. That is why you often see naked people in paintings and sculptures. Italian artists like Michelangelo (not the turtle) became famous for incredible paintings and sculptures during this period. Of course, that doesn’t mean they painted female nudes only. Many art pieces focused on the male form too. 

Also, Rubens, Michelangelo, and many others often used male bodies even when painting females — they added female faces and breasts later on. 

The Importance of the Nude Form

One of the primary reasons why nudity was so important is that it represented divine presence. But even long before the Renaissance, nudity played an important role in art and culture. The earliest nude sculptures represented fertility. For ancient Greeks, it was a way of appreciation of the human form and beauty. 

We should mention that ancient Greeks usually depicted males naked like gods, heroes, or athletes, while women usually wore clothes. At least until the fourth century B.C., that is. One of the first naked females was Aphrodite of Knidos, sculpted by Praxiteles. It showed an alternate idea to previously popular male nudity. 

In Hinduism, the naked form was rather popular. Kali was often depicted naked, and it represented the highest form of renunciation. Over time, nudity crept into western art, too — until Christians came to the scene, that is. All forms of nudity were removed from paintings except Jesus and the nursing Madonna. But everything changed with the Renaissance when female forms started reemerging once again, like Donatello’s David (not to be confused with Michelangelo’s sculpture).

Interestingly, that wasn’t the end of censorship. Michelangelo’s David, for example, suffered the slings and arrows of censorship for quite a while. There was even a fig leaf covering his genitals until 1890. To follow the example, Botticelli painted the famous Birth of Venus, which served as a ticket back for female nudity. 

For artists, it was a perfect way to express themselves and show incredible skills. And since everyone thought that the human body was divine, it was a perfect opportunity for them to start painting perfection. 

Religious or Erotic

Some people believed that a naked, athletic body represented virtue. For others, it was invoking lust. What was the truth? Were naked Renaissance paintings religion or porn? It seems that the answer is both. For some, nudity was a way to bring people closer to religion. We already mentioned that one of the first nudies were Jesus on the cross and Madonna. But even if you go a little bit back, you can notice that nudity had close ties to religion as well. 

Among the examples we mentioned are all religious characters like Kali, David, Aphrodite, Adam and Eve, etc. Christian art always represented the first two people naked, often covering their genitals. 

At the same time, many saw this form of art as erotic. Many people believed that other men would find Donatello’s David to be erotic too. While same-sex relationships were illegal at the time, over half of Florence was guilty of this “crime” in the fifteenth century. 

Furthermore, portraits of witches became rather popular during this period. Naturally, they were nude since many believed that witches had unusual (and unnatural) sexual powers. You probably heard at least one story about a magical woman looking to use her charm on poor and defenseless men. The most popular are probably sirens from Greek mythology. 

The Models

 

The story of models in nude art is rather interesting. Artists didn’t always use models for paintings, but things started to change in the Renaissance. Italian painters started using models, but they were most commonly male. It was a common practice for them to use male models and only paint breasts in the end.

That is probably the reason why many of Michelangelo’s paintings depicted boyish women. Raphael was one of the first artists to consistently use female models for his art, though. 

When it comes to the models themselves, they were most commonly courtesans and prostitutes. Interestingly, this made people in the art world look at courtesans in a whole new light. That was the beginning of the practice we can see even today, where nude figure drawing is one of the most important parts of artistic training and practice. 

RELATED: How A Virtual Nude Drawing Class Changed the Way I Think About Intimacy

Finally, we should mention Leonardo da Vinci and his famous The Muscle of the Shoulder drawing. He was one of the first artists to turn to science as a way of improving his artistic skills. (He is also the fourth ninja turtle, so we had to mention him in this article.)  

The Famous Nudes

Let’s take a look at some of the famous Renaissance nudes. The first one on the list is the one we already mentioned — The Birth of Venus by Botticelli. The painting takes inspiration from Greek mythology and the myth of Ouranos and his encounter with titan Cronus, as well as Aphrodite’s birth from foam. 

The second painting you should check out is by Albrecht Dürer, called simply Eve. It shows Eve in a way we all know here. She is naked except for the leaf covering her private parts. It is one of the pairs of panels, where the other one shows Adam. Another one with the same theme is The Temptation of Adam and Eve by Lucas Cranach. 

If you are looking for sculptures, you need not look further than Michelangelo and Donatello. We already mention both David statues, but there is another incredible statue of Saint Jerome by Donatello. It’s made of polychrome wood, and it is incredibly detailed and beautiful. 

The final oil on the canvas we’ll mention is (Reclining) Venus of Urbino by Titian. It shows a young naked woman often identified with the goddess. 

Of course, nudity in the Renaissance was quite common, and you can find numerous examples across the world, from Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam to numerous paintings of Venus and Aphrodite. If you are looking for some of the best collections in the world, you should check out the art pieces belonging to the Royal Collection Trust/Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (if you get the opportunity).