Renaissance artists changed the course of Western art history by making the nude the center of artistic practice. The revival of interest in classical antiquity and a new focus on the role of images in Christian worship prompted artists to draw from life, resulting in the development of a new vibrant representation of the human body.

The ability to represent the naked body would be the standard measure of artistic genius but its depiction is not without controversy, especially in religious art. Although many artists argue that athletic, subtle proportions communicate virtue, others fear their potential to incite lust, often with good reason.

Renaissance Nude at the Royal Academy in London explores the development of nude across Europe in religious, classical and secular forms – revealing not only how to achieve its dominant position, but also the often shocking attitudes to nudity and sexuality that existed at the time.

The Renaissance Nude review

Nudity has appeared regularly in Christian art throughout the 13th and 14th Centuries. As Jill Burke, co-editor of the exhibition catalog, said: “The first figure to be naked repeatedly is the figure of Christ.” But from the 14th century, there was a major shift in people’s attitudes towards Christian art and the ways it can be used in personal devotion and worship. “They are attracted to the idea of ??empathy and use images as a way to really feel the pain of Christ and the saints,” said Burke.

As a result, artists strive to make images more honest, with the figures of Christ, the Saints and other religious figures gradually becoming more real. This development is evident in the figures of Adam and Eve, painted by Jan van Eyck for the great altar of Ghent (completed 1432). Considered one of the first to be taken out of life, they are very rich in observed detail. Adam is shown to have sunburned hands while a linea nigra runs over Eve’s gently protruding belly clearly revealing she is pregnant.

In their depictions of nudes, Van Eyck and other northern artists draw rich and complex indigenous traditions that combine not only religious art but also secular themes, including bathing scenes and brothels, produced in media ranging from manuscripts to ivory relief. Their development of rich, lustrous oil painting techniques would allow for a much greater degree of naturalism.

The naked eye

Northern artists also benefit from a generally relaxed attitude of nudity. “There’s a lot of genitals in things like contests in the North,” Burke said. This is in stark contrast to Italy, where “they have really receptive ideas about seeing a woman’s body, even in marriage. Husbands shouldn’t see their wives naked for example,” Burke said.

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