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Mona Lisa and Renaissance Humanism

The word ‘Renaissance’ literally means ‘rebirth’, but most people today associate the term with a specific time period in Western European culture. Many of these go even further to think specifically of Italy, or perhaps more specifically still, of Florence.

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This is because this cultural revival, which happened roughly between the years 1400 and 1600, had its start earlier than other countries in Western Europe within the major city-states of Italy.

“The term ‘Renaissance’ might now be defined as a model of cultural history in which the culture of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Europe is represented as a repudiation of medieval values in favor of the revival of the culture of ancient Greece and Rome” (Campbell, 2004, v-vi).

Many of the ancient works of these cultures focused on representing nature in perfected form (Greeks) or nature as it existed (Romans). The Renaissance period is characterized primarily by a philosophical focus on humanism. To more fully understand humanism, it is helpful to examine its principles as they are expressed through one of the era’s more representative pieces, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.”

Humanism is basically a secular worldview which holds that nature is all there is. In its strictest interpretation, this worldview does not allow for the existence of God, therefore man is left to construct morality for himself in order to establish civilized, ethical culture and society.

However, the role of God has shifted in emphasis nearly from the beginning. Petrarch’s humanism held that all people were essentially equal in God-given graces and that these graces were best explored through the arts, philosophy and the works of the ancient Greeks and Romans (de Bracton, 1994).

Under this vision, this entailed the provision of public services to bring these arts to the common people and worked somewhat against the teachings of the church in that it assumed that people were provided with certain rights regardless of whether they had promised themselves to God through the church.

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The “Mona Lisa,” probably created between 1503 and 1506, epitomizes many of these ideas as it is essentially a portrait, believed to be that of a wife of a Florentine cloth merchant and therefore no one particularly important yet brought to center focus.

The woman in the scene is shown from approximately her waist up, the first time such a pose had been used in such close-up, in such a way that she dominates much of the available space. Behind her is a fantastic landscape seen as if in the distance, through a window reinforcing the humanist emphasis on nature.

It remains unclear who Leonardo’s patron was for this work as it was one of only two that Leonardo kept with him until the day he died. The painting is strongly influenced by the techniques developed throughout this period in its focus on realistic modeling and the creation of an illusion of three dimensional space.

Throughout this entire period, Humanism as an ideology was being developed and promoted through a variety of thinkers. “Renaissance Humanists placed great emphasis upon the dignity of man and upon the expanded possibility of human life in this world” (“General Characteristics”, 2000).

The values of this movement held that men should be involved in the world they lived in. “Individual achievement, breadth of knowledge and personal aspirations were valued” (“General Characteristics”, 2000). Desiderius Erasmus was a Dutch humanist who wrote about the essential humanistic element of true Christian worship, that blind faith or simply following the outward expressions of the church was not sufficient for a true faith.

He urged for a sincere approach to study and religion based on sound principles and a desire for righteousness. “The chief evil of the day, he says, is formalism, a respect for traditions, a regard for what other people think essential, but never a thought of what the true teaching of Christ may be” (“Erasmus”, 2003).

Here again, Leonardo illustrates the idea of original thinking and man’s essential involvement in the world outside within the confines of this small painting. Leonardo uses atmospheric perspective and proportion to establish the feeling of three dimensionality and incredible depth in the painting.

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Although the woman takes up a majority of the frame, the landscape behind her depicts an entire countryside including agricultural fields and roads as well as wilderness areas and riverfronts. The composition is based upon the pyramid of the woman’s body, giving the painting a great deal of stability, as well as the organic curvilinear forms of the feminine.

As is pointed out by the Louvre, the composition of the background in relation to the woman is constructed so as to illustrate Leonardo’s conception of woman. At the level of her heart, men are permitted to move about, but at the level of her head, thoughts remain untamed.

Perhaps Erasmus’ most influential work in terms of helping to instigate the Reformation was his careful translations of the books of the New Testament. “It was the first attempt on the part of a competent and liberal-minded scholar to ascertain what the writers of the New Testament had actually said” (“Erasmus”, 2003). At the same time, it fostered widespread questioning of the wisdom of the powerful Catholic Church.

It was from this book that Martin Luther transcribed the Bible into German to make it available to the laypersons of the country just as it was this book that was used by William Tyndale for translation into English for the first time in 1526 (Kreis, 2004).

Presuming that this book had a profound impact upon the start of the Reformation is also based upon the fact that the outbreak of the Lutheran movement took place less than a year after the publication of this book. “It made the issue between European society and the Roman Church system so clear that no man could quite escape the summons to range himself on one side or the other of the great debate” (“Erasmus”, 2003).

The fallout of these ideas was that the sumptuous trappings of high society in the form of expensive and exotic silks, ostentatious adornment of expensive jewels and ribbons or other gross displays of wasteful spending began to fall out of fashion in favor of a more down to earth approach.

This was also brought out in Leonardo’s painting. As a part of his superior modeling, Leonardo presents a rich and varied implied texture that remains in keeping with the more humble qualities of the woman. The clothing draping the woman’s figure looks as if it could be touched, pulled out and tested between the fingers and found rough.

The gauzy weave of the dress presents a slightly ribbed or ruffed appearance while the scarf around her shoulders is obviously gathered from a much wider strip of fabric. The heavier fabric of her overdress retains the suggestion of tapestry work around the neckline and the sleeves as a subtle touch of understated wealth. The woman wears no jewels and her juxtaposition with the outer world suggests she must be at least marginally involved in what occurs.

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Within his painting, Leonardo captures the very essence of the Renaissance Humanist movement. His focus on the natural world as it is seen in the background is reinforced by his colors and the natural state in which he presents his figure.

He demonstrates a strong willingness to break with the rules of tradition in the unusual pose in which he places his subject even while he remains focused on the concept that every person is worthy of artistic attention in his selection of this subject.

Finally, although he retains a sense that the woman lives within the wealthier segments of society, any indication of this, such as expensive jewelry or exotic fabrics, is downplayed. These elements of his painting reflect the basic ideas of humanism as an emphasis on nature, on equality of every man and on the need to reject the outer chains of a material culture.


Campbell, Gordon. (2004). Renaissance Art and Architecture. New York: Oxford University Press.

Campbell presents the major themes and works of the Renaissance, giving his readers a basic idea of the context in which these ideas grew. He presents his material in an almost dictionary-like format that makes it difficult sometimes to see how elements interacted, but a careful reader can begin to gain an appreciation for the Renaissance culture.

Da Vinci, Leonardo. (1505). “Mona Lisa.” The Louvre, Paris.

This fantastic museum website provides a detailed view of Leonardo’s masterwork complete with close-ups of the painting and a brief discussion of its features, techniques and ways in which it differs from other paintings of the era.

De Bracton, Nicolaa. (1994). “Humanism: An Introduction.” Wide Open Doors. Brigham Young University.

This article provides a helpful introduction to the concepts of humanism. It includes a discussion of why it seemed to have taken early root in Italy, who the major players were in its spread and what some of the impediments were for its widespread adoption.

“Erasmus.” (2003). English Bible History.

This site provides a detailed biography of Erasmus including the development of his thought, his extensive travels and how his ideas became influential throughout the remainder of Europe. This is helpful because Erasmus was influential in developing the concepts associated with humanism.

“General Characteristics of the Renaissance.” (2000). Renaissance. Brooklyn College. 

This site provides a great deal of information about the major themes of the Renaissance. It explores the major influences that helped to shape the ideas coming out of this age. This includes the ‘great chain of being’, the concepts of humanism, the effects of the Reformation and how these all affected literature. While art is not specifically discussed, many of the concepts related to literature are applicable to the present study.

Kreis, Steven. (2004). “The Printing Press.” The History Guide.

This article documents the development of the printing press and how it managed to have such a great impact on changing thoughts during the Renaissance and beyond. In relating this information, he also begins to outline some of the more important elements of how ideas were spread both before and after the printing press became widely available.

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