1. Religion & Spirituality
Send to a Friend via Email
You can opt-out at any time. Please refer to our privacy policy for contact information.

Discuss in my forum

The Mirror of the Gods: How Renaissance Artists Rediscovered the Pagan Gods

About.com Rating 3 Star Rating

By

The Mirror of the Gods: Renaissance

The Mirror of the Gods: How Renaissance Artists Rediscovered the Pagan Gods

As most people probably know, the “Renaissance” was a “rebirth” of scholarship and learning derived from ancient history — not just ancient philosophy, but also ancient religion. Most people are unaware, however, just how the reclamation of Europe’s religious heritage occurred. It wasn’t inevitable and it didn’t occur independent of contemporary political, social, and religious considerations.

Summary

Title: The Mirror of the Gods: How Renaissance Artists Rediscovered the Pagan Gods
Author: Malcolm Bull
Publisher: Oxford University Press
ISBN: 0195219236

Pro:
• Comprehensive and detailed examination of the origins of the Renaissance
• Demonstrates how ancient religious beliefs can be modified to suit current needs

Con:
• More an academic work for academic audiences - probably not for the average reader

Description:
• Analysis of how Renaissance artists appropriated ancient religious imagery & stores
• Explores the impact ancient religion had on early-modern Europe
• 200 black & white images, 16 color pages

Book Review

By the end of the Middle Ages, Christianity had so permeated European culture that the ancient religions had become completely foreign — foreign gods, foreign stories, and foreign concepts — despite the fact that the remains of ancient religion were literally lying all around at people’s feet. There existed, then, a curious contradiction in that Europeans were close physically but distant psychologically from the religious beliefs of ancient Rome and Greece.

Malcolm Bull’s The Mirror of the Gods: How Renaissance Artists Rediscovered the Pagan Gods is an exploration of how Renaissance artists, writers, and philosophers worked to close that distance and bring ancient religious beliefs back into contemporary consciousness. Bull takes us on a god-by-god tour of how the Renaissance didn’t simply rediscover, but also reinvented the ancient world that lay all around them.

Interest in ancient mythology began with minor decorations — things like painted wedding chests and, later, statues in people’s gardens. At least all of this must have appeared minor, but it represented a fundamental shift in culture. The Christianity which pervaded European culture was meant to be taken seriously and literally. Christianity was true and there was really no room for fiction. Ancient mythology, however, was fiction and people weren’t accustomed to that.

There was certainly no intent to undermine Christianity, and it’s not as though people started to tear down Christian altars and replace them with statues of Zeus; but the long-term and cumulative effect was corrosive. By the time of the Enlightenment, philosophers were using the example of ancient mythology to argue that religious beliefs could be widespread while also false.

The Mirror of the Gods: Renaissance

The Mirror of the Gods: How Renaissance Artists Rediscovered the Pagan Gods

During the Renaissance, mythological figures took on political significance. The use of mythology was transformed from “minor” decorations to symbols of the power of political office — Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, for example, was identified with Jupiter, king of the gods. The pagan gods became popular because they were useful and evoked powerful imagery.

Malcolm Bull’s book is an impressive work of scholarship that adds greatly to our understanding of the Renaissance and the modern appropriation of the ancient world, but it is also a primarily academic work that is aimed at an academic audience. The prose is clear, but deep. A knowledge of Renaissance history, literature, and art would be helpful here and I wish I had known more before starting. Less background knowledge about the ancient gods is necessary because the focus is, after all, on how the Renaissance appropriated those gods and reinvented them for new purposes.

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.