At the beginning of C. S. Lewis's novel The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the Pevensie children are astonished by how real a painting of a ship on the bedroom wall looks. It has depth and movement and is so lifelike they can almost feel the ocean spray. As they step forward to take a closer look, they are drawn straight through the frame of the painting into the world of Narnia. No longer spectators, they have become participants in the story.     

The painting in this chapter of Lewis's novel is not just a pretty picture on a wall to be admired but a window—even a doorway—into something beyond itself, a new kind of reality, a story that can draw viewers in and transform them. Many 21st-century Protestants may find this concept foreign, but in the 14th through the 16th centuries, this is precisely what artists were after. In an age whirling with changes, art—reaching a magnificent level of naturalism not seen since the days of the ancient Greeks and Romans—had a vital role to play.

A shift in outlook was sweeping through Western Europe, starting in Italy and spreading north into Germany, France, England, and the Netherlands. Those living in that time spoke of rinnovato—renewal—to describe their sense of entering a new age very different from the early Middle Ages. Nineteenth-century historians later called it the "Renaissance" (rebirth). For the church, it was a hinge between medieval faith, piety, and church order on the one hand and the Protestant and Catholic Reformations on the other. Some of the same impulses that drove the reformers to clear away the obstructions to pure, biblical Christianity motivated Renaissance artists to dive back into the past, recover the styles and techniques of classical sculpture, and make the ...

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