Writers, poets and painters are all a part of and, in a way, products of their society. The artists of the Renaissance were influenced by what was going on around them; thus, in order to understand fully the culture of that era, one needs to broaden one’s perspective and look at what lay beyond the individual books, plays and paintings.
Progress and Conflict
The second half of the 16th century was in many ways when people took up the challenge of understanding man’s existence in the universe. This interest had mainly two directions: Philosophers wanted to understand man’s complexity and his moral and intellectual dimensions. And physicians sought knowledge about the universe, the planets and the laws of physics. What these projects had in common was that they both challenged the religious dogmas and authority of the church.
Science Comes Alive
Already many centuries earlier the Chinese and the Egyptians had taken an interest in observing and figuring out the system of the stars and planets. Their theories were now taken up and studied by European mathematicians and scholars. Copernicus had at the beginning of the century established doubt about the geocentric theory, which had been the prevalent view until then. Johannes Kepler took this hypothesis further and introduced a heliocentric theory, claiming that the planets are orbiting the sun and not the other way around. Kepler cooperated with the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe who invented and developed the telescope for planet observation. Isac Newton is another famous scholar whose theories about dynamics and gravity were ground-breaking research for modern physics. The world had already been circumnavigated and gradually it was accepted that the world was round. Another great scientific pioneer was Galileo Galilei, who elaborated on Newtons theories of dynamics and laws of nature. All these creative and innovative scientists were active between 1550 and 1650.
The new theories were of course seen as radical and revolutionary in a religious perspective. Religion had an important role in people’s lives and the church had until then been the authoritative source of information about heaven and earth. Now its dogmatic position was challenged by new, and what the church would call heretic theories. And indeed, this was a dilemma for many of the physicians and scholars. They were religious people who believed in the Holy Trinity and feared the wrath of God. But their findings and theories were published, and being devoted to their scientific vocation many of them suffered hard persecution from the church and were excommunicated after Inquisition trials. The conflict between science and religion has since then been a significant element in the quest for understanding human nature and life in general. This strife reached a climax two centuries later when Charles Darwin published his “Origin of Species”. The clash between creationism and evolution is even today a hot issue in many communities both in the USA and Europe.
The Renaissance has also been labelled the age of humanism. Man was seen as the most important factor in his own universe. He had to come to terms with his challenges and shortcomings on his own. The basic thesis was that man had the capacity to sort out whatever came in his way in terms of intellectual and moral obstacles. This attitude was also in conflict with the fatalist views of the church which would claim that whatever happens is God’s will, and cannot be challenged by man. But now the whole concept of being was confronted, and the philosophers claimed that man’s mere existence was determined by his capability to reason. The French philosopher Rene Descartes fronted this view and wanted to demonstrate the dualism and interaction between man’s spiritual and physical aspects. His famous statement, “I think, therefore I am” (Cogito ergo sum) formed the basis of his philosophical system of doubt and reason. Descartes was also a religious man and believed that man’s reason and intellectual capacity were gifts from God, and in that way he also claimed to have proved God’s existence.
All these intellectuals, scholars and scientists were prominent during the period we call The Renaissance, and they paved the way for the new cultural trend – The Enlightenment.