Top 10 Renaissance Artists and their Most Famous Masterpieces

Great Renaissance Artists and their Accomplishments

The Renaissance era saw the growth of many disciplines, especially in arts, politics, music, and literature. This age was perhaps the most important in the history of Europe as it paved way for later developments. Image: Renaissance artists (L-R): Caravaggio, Jan van Eyck, Raphael, Michelangelo, and Donatello

After the long and arduous years of the medieval period (also known as the Middle Ages) which were plagued by the Crusades and many atrocities, Europe entered into the period of enlightenment. This stage in their history was described as the “Renaissance Era”. The period, which lasted between the 14th and 17th centuries, brought about many discoveries and development in so many areas, especially in arts. The goal was simple: To improve upon the feats and ideas of classical antiquity, also known as the Greco-Roman world (8 BC – 5 A.D.)

In this article, we will focus on some great artists from the Renaissance era who changed the world with their creative works. From Italy’s Leonardo da Vinci to the celebrated German Albrecht Dürer, here are 10 of the most important artists during this “golden period”. This list is made in a descending order of influence and greatness.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

Michelangelo

Michelangelo, along with Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci, is revered as a great master of the Renaissance era. The Florence-born artist was known to be a polymath and contributed to fields like science, engineering, architecture, and literature.

Despite his knowledge in other fields, Leonardo da Vinci perhaps earned his greatest acclaim from his numerous breathtaking paintings. He has been described as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, artists of all time. Many historians have also labelled him as the “face of the Renaissance period”. Though he created his works some decades ago, da Vinci’s paintings are still popular in the modern era.

Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa

The Italian artist was best known for his work titled “Mona Lisa”. According to many records, the 16th Century painter began working on the half-length portrait in 1503 and completed it in 1517. It is also rumored that the woman depicted in the work was Lisa Gherardini, an Italian noblewoman who was the wife of merchant Francesco del Giocondo.

King Francis I acquired this masterpiece for France in the 1500s, and has since been kept at the Salle des États in The Louvre Museum, Paris.

Some facts about the masterpiece

Mona Lisa

Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is considered the greatest masterpiece of the Italian Renaissance era. Though the painting is considered priceless, the Mona Lisa is believed to be worth more than $850 million.

With an original dimension of 30 in x 21 in, the Mona Lisa is estimated to be worth close to a billion USD. As of 2023, it is housed in the Louvre Museum in Paris.

This masterpiece, which has been described as one of the world’s most famous paintings, attracts millions of visitors every year.

The time when the Mona Lisa got stolen

Since its birth in the early 1500s, the Mona Lisa has endured a number of vicious attacks. Considered a prized jewel in the world of art, it’s not surprising that there have been some unscrupulous persons that have attempted to steal the painting. For example, in 1911, a Louvre employee named Vicenzo Peruggia stole it. The art thief was able to sneak the painting out by wrapping his smock around the painting. Peruggia hoped to not only claim a handsome reward for the painting, but he also wanted to make sure that the painting be returned to Florence, a place he considered as the rightful home of the Mona Lisa.

Other famous works by da Vinci

Aside from the Mona Lisa painting, da Vinci produced other works. Among his well-known oeuvres were “The Last Supper”, which depicts the Biblical story; the “Virgin of the Rocks (Madonna of the Rocks”, which has been exhibited at France’s Louvre Museum; and the “Salvator Mundi”. The latter was bought for US$450.3 million in 2017, becoming the world’s most expensive artwork sold at an auction.

Raphael (1483-1520)

Renaissance artists

Born Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, Raphael was a great master of the Renaissance era. He ranks up there with Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo

At number two is another highly-rated Italian artist, Raphael. Born Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, this painter was one of the great Renaissance artists during the 16th century. He has been described as one of the “masters of art” of the Renaissance age. Most of his works were about angels and other religious figures.

Some popular paintings by Raphael

Raphael’s painting The School of Athens

The Madonna di San Sisto (Sistine Madonna) is a 104 inches × 77 inches painting which was executed around 1514. Described by renowned artist Giorgio Vasari as an “extraordinary work”, this masterpiece was one of Raphael’s last paintings on the Madonnas. When Pope Julius II commissioned it for the San Sisto Church in 1512, he required that the work should contain the images of Saint Barbara and Saint Sixtus. King of Poland, Augustus III purchased the work for around 120,000 francs in 1754. It was then kept in Dresden in Germany, before it was moved to Moscow during the Second World War (1939-1945). After a decade, the painting was sent back to Germany.

His other popular work was titled “The School of Athens”. Completed in 1511, this work is very popular among the Catholic Church. The 500 cm by 770 cm fresco depicts a gathering of many ancient Greek scholars. The scholars seen in this artwork include Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Aristotle, and Plato. Raphael designed this painting as a way of decorating the Stanze di Raffaello, which is located in the Vatican.

The Italian Renaissance artist Raphael is credited with decorating the Stanze di Raffeallo, i.e. the “Raphael Rooms”, in the Vatican.

Read More: 10 Most Famous Ancient Greeks and their Accomplishments

Donatello (c. 1386-1466)

Donatello

Donatello was an early Renaissance master sculptor famed for masterpieces such as the St George (1417), Bronze David (1430), and Magdalene Penitent (1455)

Donatello was a Florentine sculptor who gained critical acclaim as a pioneer of Renaissance art. He created most of his works from materials like wax, stones, clay, bronze and wood. According to art historians, Donatello changed the face of Western sculpture from the Gothic style to a style that in so many ways epitomized the Classical spirit.

He has been praised as the first artist to reintroduce and strengthen the character of the individual in artworks. This sort of realism had long been extinct since the ancient Romans. This explains why for large parts of the 15th century, his works appeared everywhere, especially in Italy.

Donatello also spread his technique across Italy and had a great impact on other artists, including later Renaissance artists Michelangelo, Andrea Mantegna, and Raphael. His interest in Roman and Greek sculpture led him to produce many works which became very popular over the years.

Donatello’s most popular works

Statue of David by Donatello

Donatello’s David at the Bargello, in Florence, Italy

Donatello was known for his “David” statues. Around 1408, he was tasked to design the first statue of the ancient king. Standing at 191 cm, the marble statue was sent to the Palazzo della Signoria in 1416. This work was tied to the tradition of the local people. In the 1440s, Donatello produced the bronze version of the work. This became the first-ever freestanding naked male stature since the antiquity. The work depicts a nude David with his foot on the head of Goliath. In the 17th Century the work was moved to the famous Palazzo Pitti (i.e. Pitti Palace) in Florence.

In order to give the Florence-based Orsanmichele Church a new look, Donatello was commissioned to design a marble sculpture named “Saint George”. It depicted a brave young man dressed in strong armor. It was sent to the Palazzo del Bargello in 1892, but was replaced by a marble version in 2008. The original edition was stolen but was retrieved in 1945 by art history professor Frederick Hartt.

Did you know…?

  • Donatello’s original name was Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi.
  • He had financial support from banker Cosimo de’ Medici to create the “David” sculptor.
  • The Florence-born artist briefly worked with artist Lorenzo Ghiberti.

Michelangelo (1475-1564)

Renaissance artists

Presumed self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci (c. 1510) at the Royal Library of Turin, Italy

Michelangelo Buonarroti was a master in both painting and sculpture. He was one of the most popular figures during the High Renaissance period (from early 1490s to 1527) which saw the rise of many Italian arts. His works are praised for having tremendous inspiration on later Western arts.

Because his works were accepted by many top officials, the Florence-born artist was given the nickname “Il Divino” meaning “the divine one”.

Alongside da Vinci, Michelangelo is regarded as one of the greatest artists in history. His works have been displayed at some well-known art centers across the globe. Below are a few of his most remarkable works:

The Sistine Chapel ceiling. This is a mural painting found on the ceiling of the famous Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. Michelangelo started this historic piece of art in 1508 and completed it four years later. The work forms part of the decoration of the chapel. The central portion of this art depicts some stories in the Book of Genesis.

In 1505, he was commissioned by Pope Julius II to create a sculpture of the ancient prophet, Moses. The 235 cm × 210 cm work was designed for the tomb of the pope. It was initially kept in the San Pietro in Vincoli (Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli), which is located in Rome, Italy.

Renaissance artists

David, completed by Michelangelo in 1504, is one of the most famous works of the Renaissance period.

Another masterpiece by Michelangelo was the “Madonna della Pietà”. The sculpture, which depicts the image of Mary and Jesus, can be seen at the Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City. Its dimension is 68.5 in × 76.8 in, and was created between 1498 and 1499. It was initially commissioned for Jean Bilhères de Lagraulas, a Cardinal from France who served as a representative in Rome.

He also created a 17 ft. × 6.5 ft. statue of David, a well-known figure in the Bible. It was initially placed at the Palazzo Vecchio (i.e. the town hall of Florence), but was later moved to the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, Italy.

Some interesting facts about the artist

  • His life has inspired many films and TV series including “Vita di Michelangelo” and 2018’s “Michelangelo – Infinito”.
  • Michelangelo’s last work was called the “Rondanini Pietà”. It has been stated that he worked on that work up until he drew his last breath. Today, Michelangelo’s unfinished work can be found at the Castello Sforzesco in Milan, Italy.

Masaccio (1401-1428)

Italian Renaissance artist Masaccio

Italian Renaissance master Giorgio Vasari regarded Masaccio as the best Italian painter of his generation.

Originally named Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone, Masaccio was one of the most influential Italian painters during the early renaissance period. He mastered the use of shadow and light which gave a new dimension of art during that era. He also introduced realism and the painting of natural figures. The Italian painter was also popular for his foreshortening and nude style which were rarely used before him.

Though he had a short career, Masaccio completed many works which have become very popular over the years. He was best known for his frescoes at the famous Brancacci Chapel in Florence, Italy. His paintings such as “The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden” and “The Tribute Money” have all been featured on the walls of the church.

Masaccio’s The Tribute Money, fresco in the Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence

His fresco “The Holy Trinity, with the Virgin and Saint John and donors” is also a popular piece of art in the Santa Maria Novella Church. This work has been described as one of the earliest paintings in the renaissance period to use the “linear perspective” style.

The Santa Maria del Carmine Church in Pisa, Italy, was the house of his artwork titled “Pisa Altarpiece”. The multi-paneled altarpiece was commissioned by Giuliano di Colino in 1426 for an amount of eighty florins.

Who did he influence?

Masaccio’s works had big influence on many artists who came after him. His realism technique was deployed by artists such as Andrea di Giusto and Giovanni dal Ponte. He was friends with Donatello and Filippo Brunelleschi.

Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455)

Renaissance artists

Revered as one of the key figures of the Early Renaissance era, Lorenzo Ghiberti originally began his craft as a goldsmith. He later ventured into sculpting, becoming one of the great Italian Renaissance sculptors.

Along Donatello, Florence-born sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti was one of the most popular sculptors during the 15th Century. A well-trained sculptor and goldsmith, Ghiberti was best known for his bronze doors located at the Florence Baptistery.

In 1401, he won a competition, which permitted him to design a door for the aforementioned church. He later established a huge workshop where he worked on his 28-panel door. Ghiberti spent over two decades on the work, which was used at the north side of the church. Twenty of the panels on the door portrayed the life of Jesus Christ.

The Italian sculptor was again tasked to create another door which would be used at the eastern side of the building. After 27 years, Ghiberti and his crew came up with a ten-panel sculptor. On the panels, he portrayed some interesting stories in the Old Testament. This work was described by Michelangelo as “the Gates of Paradise”.

Florence Baptistery doors by Lorenzo Ghiberti

Other popular works by Ghiberti

Aside from creating those famous masterpieces, Ghiberti was also commissioned to work on other projects. Between 1412 and 1416 he worked on a bronze statue of St. John the Baptist which would be placed at the Orsanmichele Church in Florence. And in 1423, he produced the St. Matthew statue for the church.

Some facts about Ghiberti that you probably didn’t know

  • His workshop served as the training center for other popular artists like Antonio del Pollaiuolo, Masolino, and Donatello.
  • In all, Lorenzo Ghiberti spent close to five decades to complete his famous bronze gates.
  • It is believed that he influenced famous artists like Michelangelo.
  • In his book titled “I Commentarii”, Ghiberti wrote extensively on arts and how to create amazing works.
  • While working on the gates, he received a yearly allowance of 200 florins.

Sandro Botticelli (c. 1445-1510)

Renaissance artists

Sandro Botticelli – Italian painter of the Early Renaissance era

Sandro Botticelli played a crucial role in what was termed as the “golden age” of the Renaissance period. The Italian painter was largely admired for his religious-themed portraits. His creativity earned him the description “the greatest humanist painter of the Early Renaissance”. His use of mythological subjects made him a popular figure in the 15th century.

What are some of Botticelli’s most popular works?

Throughout his career, Botticelli completed many arts. He was best known for his work “The Birth of Venus”, which was painted in the 1480s. This work had the image of Venus (Aphrodite in Greek), the Roman goddess of beauty and love, approaching the shore. It also featured a lady believed to be a member of the Greek Horae. The dimension of the original painting was 67.9 in × 109.6 in.

Sandro Botticelli's works

Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus was painted around 1485

His “Primavera” painting has been displayed at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. Though there have been controversies about the exact date the work was completed, it is believed that it was executed in the early 1480s. The 202 cm × 314 cm painting shows a group of ancient mythical figures gathered in a garden, including Flora, Venus, the Three Graces, and Mercury. The project was first named by famous art historian Giorgio Vasari in 1550.

Another masterpiece by Botticelli is the “Adoration of the Magi”. Like the name suggests, the work portrays the Biblical story of the “Three Magi” (i.e. the Three Wise Men) who visited the baby Jesus and the Virgin Mary. The work was commissioned to placed at the altar in Gaspare di Zanobi del Lama’s chapel in Santa Maria Novella. Completed between 1475 and 1476, this famous masterpiece of Botticelli measures around 111 cm × 134 cm.

Botticelli’s “Adoration of the Magi” portrays the Biblical story of the Three Wise Men worshiping and offering gifts to the newborn Jesus. It depicts the Virgin Mary carrying Jesus, while her husband, Saint Joseph, stands behind them. In the background are also a number of people who came to see the baby described as the son of God. Painting: Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli

Other interesting facts about Botticelli and his works

  • At birth, he was named Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi.
  • The Medici family adopted him because his original family was against his works.
  • His work titled “The Man of Sorrows” was sold for $45.4 million in 2022.

Caravaggio (1571-1610)

Renaissance artists

Born in Milan, Caravaggio’s works are praised for having incredible influence on Baroque painting. Painting: Chalk portrait of Caravaggio by Italian painter Ottavio Leoni, c. 1621.

Caravaggio’s ability to combine both light and darkness to create a masterpiece made him one of the most prominent artists during the latter part of the Renaissance age. The Italian painter has been credited for introducing the Tenebrism style which is also known as the “dramatic illumination”.

It has been argued that his works ushered in the Baroque style which became famous during the 17th Century. Most of his arts centered around violence, mysteries, and risqué. His works had both emotional and physical attributes.

How he rose to prominence

Born Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the Milan-born artist apprenticed under Simone Peterzano during the 1590s. After his training, he studied the works of some of the early painters, including Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.

When he migrated to Rome in 1592, the young Caravaggio started working for Pope Clement VIII’s beloved painter, Giuseppe Cesari. It was during this period that he started his own works.

What are some of Caravaggio’s most popular works?

Known for his effective use of light, the influential painter changed the phase of art during the 16th Century. One of his earliest works was the “Young Sick Bacchus”. The art was completed in 1594 and measured about 67 cm by 53 cm. According to Giovanni Baglione, the artist used a mirror to complete this work. It has since been kept at the Galleria Borghese which is located in Rome. A parody version was featured in Cindy Sherman’s series dubbed “History Portrait”.

Caravaggio’s work titled “Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy” has become popular over the years. The painting depicts how Saint Francis of Assisi received the Stigmata signs. It was completed around 1595 and has been exhibited at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford in Connecticut, USA. Its dimension is 36.4 in by 50.3 in.

The Italian artist was also known for his work named “Calling of Saint Matthew”. It was a 1600 artwork which gave an illustration about how Jesus inspired Matthew to become his disciple. He was tasked by Cardinal Francesco Del Monte to design the 322 cm by 340 cm painting for San Luigi dei Francesi’s Contarelli Chapel.

His other popular works were titled “Narcissus at the Source”, “Saint Matthew and the Angel”, “Portrait of Pope Paul V” and “Medusa”. The latter, which is now located in Uffizi Museum in Florence, Italy, was painted in 1596. It shows the decapitated head of Greek mythical character Medusa. In the painting, which reinforces Caravaggio’s somewhat obsession with scenes of violence, torture and struggle, Caravaggio replaces Medusa’s head with his own.

Caravaggio's Narcissus

Narcissus is a painting by the Italian Baroque master Caravaggio, painted circa 1597–1599. It is housed in the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in Rome. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Greek mythical character Narcissus is described as a very handsome young man who becomes obsessed with his own reflection, leading to his death at the River Styx.

Other interesting facts

Slightly similar to the themes he employed in his works, Caravaggio’s life was one dotted with a number of fights and crimes, including fighting a waiter, and troubling his landlady.

His followers are referred to as “Caravaggisti”.

Jan van Eyck (c. 1390-1441)

Renaissance painters

Jan van Eyck was an Early Northern Renaissance artist. Image: Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?) by Jan van Eyck, 1433. National Gallery, London

Coming in at number 9 on our list of most influential Renaissance artists is Jan van Eyck. Many historians including Giorgio Vasari have credited Jan van Eyck as the inventor of oil painting. He was also known as the face of the Flemish Primitives, also referred to as “Early Netherlandish painting”. Though the majority of his works were centered around religion, some of his oeuvres were also termed secular. His technique and style were later adopted by some well-known Early Netherlandish artists.

Why was Jan van Eyck popular?

The Maaseik-born painter was known for his altarpiece dubbed “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”. The work could be seen at the St Bavo’s Cathedral which is located in the Belgian city of Ghent. The 5.2 x 3.75 m art contained 12 interior panels. He completed this project in 1432 alongside his brother, Hubert van Eyck. Many critics have argued that this piece of art marked the transitioning of Renaissance painting from the Middle Age.

Jan van Eyck's works

Jan van Eyck’s Madonna in the Church, c. 1438–1440. Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

van Eyck gained lots of respect for his 1434 painting named “the Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife”, otherwise known as “The Arnolfini Portrait”. It is believed that the full-length art portrays Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, an Italian merchant, and his lovely wife. It measures around 82.2 cm by 60 cm and has been exhibited at the National Gallery in London.

He was also popular for his oil panel named “The Virgin in the Church” or “Madonna in the Church”. In this art, van Eyck showed a picture of the Virgin Mary with her baby, Jesus. It was completed around 1440 and has since been kept at the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin.

Some interesting facts

  • He served in the court of Philip the Good, who in 1419 was named as the Duke of Burgundy.
  • Most of his works featured his motto “As I can”.

Albrecht Dürer

Dürer

Dürer is famed for making a number of spectacular self-portraits. Image: Albrecht Dürer’s Self-portrait at 26 at Prado Museum.

Last but not the least is Albrecht Dürer. He was arguably the greatest artist during the German Renaissance period. His wide range of oeuvres included altarpieces, water colors, books and engraving. His high-level woodcut prints set him apart from his peers during the Renaissance age.

Influenced by Italian arts, Dürer has been credited for introducing Roman mythology into the Northern art. Many critics have described him as one of the most influential figures in printmaking. His works were studied by later artists.

His 1514 work titled “Melencolia I” is seen as his most popular piece. The 9.4 inches by 7.4 inches engraving depicts a winged woman seated in a gloomy state. She is surrounded by a number of objects including claw hammer, hourglass, hand plane, and weighing scale. The painting influenced other prominent artists such as Jost Amman, and Caspar David Friedrich.

His self-portrait in 1500 also gave him widespread recognition. This painting showed a picture of him at the age of 28 years. It measures around 67 cm by 48 cm, and has been kept at the Alte Pinakothek center in Munich.

The German painter was also famous for his “Praying Hands” drawing. This work shows two hands of a person, believed to be a male, clasp together. It has been exhibited at Vienna’s Albertina. Over the years, this image has been one of the most used drawings to depict a prayer.

In 2015, Canadian rapper Drake used a version of “Praying Hands” on the cover of his popular mixtape entitled “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late”.

Praying Hands by Albrecht Dürer

Painted around 1508, Praying Hands (German: Betende Hände), also known as Study of the Hands of an Apostle (Studie zu den Händen eines Apostels), is a pen-and-ink drawing by the German printmaker and painter Albrecht Dürer. The work is housed at the Albertina museum in Vienna, Austria.

Did you know…?

  • Albrecht Dürer worked for Maximilian I, King of the Romans, from 1512.
  • During his active times, he contacted many well-known artists including Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael.
  • He was married to a lady named Agnes Frey who featured in a number of his paintings.

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