Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello, and Michelangelo. No, we’re not talking about those green-shelled martial arts masters, but rather about the most famous Renaissance paintings produced in Europe.
From High Renaissance artists who frolicked about Florence during the 16th century to the corresponding Northern Renaissance of Germany and the Netherlands, keep scrolling for the ultimate list of famous Renaissance artists and their artwork across Europe.
1. Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci
📍 The Louvre in Paris, France (Denon Wing, 1st floor, room 711)
🏆 10 million visitors per year
Her wandering gaze. Her knowing smile. Her mysterious identity. Without question, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is the most visited, most written about, and most parodied piece of artwork on the planet – no list of famous Renaissance paintings would be complete without her.
Known to locals as La Joconde (“the happy one”), this jovial pun comes from the surname of Mona Lisa’s commissioner, Francesco del Giocondo. Until recently, the identity of the woman in the painting was a mystery, but has since been confirmed as a portrait of Italian noblewoman Lisa Gherardini, wife of Giocondo.
She’s traveled the world and made headlines on trips to the US, Moscow, and Tokyo, but her permanent home has been the Louvre in Paris since 1797. She receives at least 10 million visitors annually, 80% of whom only set foot in the Louvre to see her.
💡 Top Tip: Room 711 is organized with a snaking rope system to keep chaos at bay. You’ll get your turn to get close to the painting, but don’t expect to linger for hours – as you can imagine, she’s a very busy lady. While you’re there, browse the rest of the Louvre’s extensive collection.
2. Last Judgement by Michelangelo
📍 Vatican Museums in Vatican City, Italy (Sistine Chapel)
🏆 5 million visitors per year
Painted in just over 4 years, the Last Judgement fresco adorns the walls of the famed Sistine Chapel (part of the world-renowned Vatican Museum collection) and is one of Michelangelo’s most famous Renaissance paintings.
Featuring over 300 individual figures, the Last Judgement at the Vatican depicts the sometimes-gruesome selection process as souls lie in the balance between heaven and hell on their Judgement Day.
Jesus Christ appears in the middle of the fresco – joined by the Virgin Mary, St. Peter, and St. John – while the souls in question can be seen in a chaotic jumble below.
Although very few – if any – authentic portraits of Michelangelo exist, modern scholars believe the artist depicts a distorted image of his face on a flayed skin held by St. Bartholomew, found in the center of the painting.
🔍 Fun Fact: The figures you see have been altered since Michelangelo put paintbrush to plaster. The figures were originally completely nude – leaves and loincloths were added later by order of a more modest pope. Since 1994, most of the figures have been restored to their most “natural” state.
3. Creation of Adam by Michelangelo
📍 Vatican Museums in Vatican City, Italy (Sistine Chapel)
🏆 5 million visitors per year
Once you have finished admiring the Last Judgement fresco above the altar in the Sistine Chapel, look up to find another one of Michelangelo’s most famous Renaissance paintings in the ceiling, 68 feet (20 meters) above the viewer – Creation of Adam.
You know the one – God and Adam seem to be floating in infinite time and space with outstretched index fingers that almost touch. The minuscule amount of space in between symbolizes the spark of life – and the rest is history.
Another testament to the artistic genius of Renaissance artist Michelangelo is that it only took about four years to complete – all while lying on his back, suspended from the ceiling. Even more impressive? He sculpted Rebellious Slave and Dying Slave (both intended for the papal tomb at the Vatican and currently on display at the Louvre) during the same time frame.
💡 Top Tip: It’s easy to get distracted by one of the most iconic artworks in the world, so don’t forget to look around to see Michelangelo’s most famous paintings, as well as masterpieces by Boticelli; even the realistic rendering of red velvet curtains draped throughout the Sistine Chapel will feel surreal.
4.The School of Athens by Raphael
📍 Vatican Museums in Vatican City, Italy (Apolistic Palace)
🏆 5 million visitors per year
Not to be outdone by his famous Renaissance artist counterparts, Raphael needs only a first-name introduction. Raphael was a studious apprentice of Leonardo da Vinci and was later invited by Pope Julius II to work in the Vatican.
If you are visiting the Vatican Museums, don’t forget to tour the Apolistic Palace where you’ll find Raphael’s fresco, The School of Athens. One of the most quintessential artworks to embody the spirit of the Renaissance movement depicts an idealized meeting between Plato and his student, Aristotle.
However, Raphael’s genius doesn’t stop there – he’s included cameos of other influential contemporaries cosplaying as ancient Greek philosophers, including Bramante and Michelangelo.
🔍 Fun Fact: Look closely at the far right of the painting and you’ll find a sneaky self-portrait of Raphael himself. Out of place in this ancient Greek scene, he’s wearing a red shirt, a black beret, and stares directly at the viewer.
5. The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli
📍 Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy (Room 10-14)
🏆 2 million visitors per year
Now one of the most recognizable figures in art history, Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus featured a groundbreaking – and controversial – technique at the time. To portray nudity to this extent was simply poor taste, but for Botticelli, the perfectly poised Venus secured his place in history.
The Birth of Venus depicts an ancient Greek myth as old as time itself. The alabaster skin of the goddess and her placement on the symbolic seashell is reminiscent of a pearl, which represents purity. The breezy breath of Zephyr blows Venus onto the shores of Cypress as other classical figures look on.
If you are looking for another of Botticelli’s famous Renaissance paintings, look no further than the painting adjacent to The Birth of Venus at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence – Primavera. Italian for “spring”, Primavera mirrors the techniques and posture of her neighbor, Venus.
🔍 Fun Fact: Botticelli’s work was inspired by the Greek statue “Medici Venus”, which is also on display with other art and objects to explore at the Uffizi Gallery, including more famous Renaissance artists and their artwork.
6. Pope Julius II by Raphael
📍 National Gallery in London, United Kingdom
🏆 2.1 million visitors per year
This one may come as a bit of a surprise on a list of most famous Renaissance paintings, but there’s more to papal portraiture than meets the modern viewer’s eye.
The same artistic genius behind The School of Athens also painted a series of portraits – La Fornarina, Baldassare Castiglione, and even a self-portrait of the artist himself – to make Raphael’s repertoire quite robust.
None are more important than the hyperrealistic portrait of Pope Julius II due to its incredible technical detail and unusual vulnerability of the holiest man in the Catholic world. On display at the National Gallery in London, Pope Julius II appears to be lost in thought, his gaze landing just beyond the viewer in the distance.
Forever commemorated on canvas, the bearded Pope Julius II is responsible for organizing the Swiss Guard, introducing Catholicism to the New World, and commissioning up-and-coming artist Raphael to paint the Apolistic Palace and Sistine Chapel.
🔍 Fun Fact: The authenticity of the painting has been debated for centuries, and multiple copies and versions claim to be the original. Since 1970, the papal portrait of Pope Julius II at the National Gallery in London has been attributed to the Italian Renaissance artist, Raphael, and is considered to be the real deal.
7. The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci
📍 Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy (dining hall)
Tucked away in Milan, you’ll find one of Leonardo Da Vinci’s most famous Renaissance paintings on display in an unlikely place – plastered on the wall of a dining hall in Santa Maria delle Grazie.
Separated from his other masterpieces found in Paris, Rome, and Florence, The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci is one of the most protected paintings in the world – its peeling plaster, exposure to the elements, and controversial appearances in conspiracy theories make it a very valuable fresco.
On the night before his infamous betrayal, Jesus Christ is pictured with the Twelve Apostles as they gather for their last meal. Because of its sheer size (his largest work) and Da Vinci’s mastery of perspective, the background seems to fade into the distant recesses of the wall through an optical illusion.
💡 Top Tip: In an attempt to preserve this deteriorating fresco for future generations, only 25 visitors are allowed to see The Last Supper at one time, and visits are limited to 60 minutes. Tickets are also booked out for months at a time, so plan your visit well in advance.
8. Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (Ghent altarpiece) by Hubert and Jan van Eyck
📍 Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium
🏆 1 million visitors per year
While the Italian Renaissance may get all the hype, let’s not forget about the artistic shift simultaneously occurring in northern Europe.
Long considered a key player in the pivotal shift from the subject matter and artistic technique of the Middle Ages, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb is a must-see at the Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium.
Also known as the Ghent altarpiece, Adoration of the Mystic Lamb was painted by two Flemish brothers – Hubert and Jan van Eyck – between 1420 and 1432 and consists of 20 oil-painted panels, an artistic medium unheard of in its time.
While beautiful and significant on its own as one of many famous Renaissance paintings, the Ghent altarpiece holds another superlative unique to itself – most stolen artwork in history.
Napoleon Bonaparte was the first to steal it for his personal collection, followed by German soldiers in WWI. Hitler also took a swipe during WWII, and it was later found buried underground in an Austrian salt mine.
Although Adoration of the Mystic Lamb has since been returned to its rightful place at Bavo Cathedral, one of its 20 panels still remains missing; a replica stands in its place with the rest of the panels, safely secured under glass.
💡 Top Tip: Opt for the virtual reality experience with your entrance ticket. Using the latest VR technology, the story of the altarpiece and its fascinating history literally comes to life before your eyes.
9. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer
📍 Mauritshuis in The Hague, Netherlands (room 15)
🏆 400,000 visitors per year
The mystique of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa meets her match in the Dutch version of an unknown maiden – Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer.
Currently displayed at the luxurious Mauritshuis in The Hague, this little lady is the pearl of the museum’s collection; Vermeer’s technical rendering of a realistic pearl to adorn his model has astounded viewers and scholars for centuries.
Part of the draw to the girl in the painting is the mystery of her identity. Although several romanticized stories of her persona and her relationship with Vermeer exist, none have been confirmed by historians.
Vermeer rose to fame only after his death, and is now considered one of the greatest Dutch artists of the 17th century. Today, you can find many of Vermeer’s famous Renaissance paintings all over the world, including the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the MET in New York City.
🔍 Fun Fact: Vermeer’s masterpiece inspired a historical fiction novel in 1999 that depicts a fabricated version of Vermeer, the model, and the painting. In 2003, the novel was adapted into a fictional film by the same name, starring American actress Scarlett Johansson.
10. Self-Portrait at the age of 28 by Albrecht Durer
📍 Alte Pinakothek in Munich, Germany (1st floor, room 4)
🏆 193,500 visitors per year
A true Renaissance man, Albrecht Durer mastered his craft in many mediums – wood prints, sketches, watercolors, portraits, and books.
Durer is arguably the most famous artist of the German Renaissance and his work reflects the historical context of his time – a focus on humanism alongside the Protestant Reformation.
None of his paintings are more representative of these 16th-century focal points than his Self-Portrait at the Age of 28, on display at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. Completed just shy of his 29th birthday, Durer depicts himself in a Christ-like posture – his eyes gaze directly at the viewer, his face shrouded in shadow, and his hands raised as if to provide a blessing.
Durer studied – and perfected – his craft after observing well-known Renaissance artists at work in both Italy and the Netherlands. Inspired by Michelangelo’s Madonna Of Bruges and the Ghent altarpiece, Durer’s masterpieces in turn influenced artists like Raphael and Titian.
🔍 Fun Fact: Albrecht Durer painted a total of three self-portraits (and one sketch) in his lifetime. You can find Self-Portrait at the Age of 13 at the Albertina Museum in Vienna, Self-Portrait at the age of 26 at the Museo de Prado in Madrid, and Self-Portrait of the Artist Holding a Thistle at the Louvre in Paris.