5 Massive Pop Culture Moments From 2023 That Remind Us of Renaissance Paintings

From the Super Bowl to a Schiaparelli fashion show, pop culture yielded all the visual richness of artworks from past eras.

Rihanna performs during Apple Music Super Bowl LVII Halftime Show at State Farm Stadium on February 12, 2023 in Glendale, Arizona. Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Roc Nation.

Some of the greatest pop culture moments of 2023 also happen to fit right into one of our cultural moment’s favored memes: “That looks like a Renaissance painting!”

We can compare today’s visual images to artworks from that past period for any number of reasons: visual density; sense of mystery; a complex grouping of figures. Composition, drama, or striking facial expressions all come into play.

It’s a fun exercise, as people settle into relax for the holidays, we indulged. Here are 5 images of big media moments from 2023 that brought art history to mind. 


1) A Pregnant Rihanna at the Super Bowl

Is she? Isn’t she? That was momentarily the question when pop star Rihanna headlined at the Super Bowl in Arizona in February—but her daring outfit made the baby bump fairly evident before the end of the event’s record 121 million viewers.

Rihanna performs during the halftime show of Super Bowl LVII

Rihanna performs during the halftime show of Super Bowl LVII. (Photo by Angela Weiss / AFP)

The performance was actually striking in its relative austerity. Yet surrounded by performers in white and literally floating in the air on a platform, the red-clad, resplendently pregnant Rihanna evokes for us the central figure of Mary in the Master of the Saint Lucy Legend’s wild Mary, Queen of Heaven (1485/1500), from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Master of the Saint Lucy Legend, Mary, Queen of Heaven (1485/1500). Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.



2) The Kens Go to War

With an array of Barbies and Kens filling out multifigure compositions in numerous meticulously composed scenes, the summer’s blockbuster movie Barbie, directed by Greta Gerwig, provided many moments of comparison with artworks of the past. But the Malibu Beach Ken Battle is the one that fired our imaginations.

Ryan Gosling leads the Kens into battle on Malibu Beach. Courtesy Warner Brothers.

For one, this fun spectacle brought to mind this engraving of A Battle of the Sea Gods by Andrea Mantegna, that resides at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Even if the all-male Barbie battle is missing the allegorical figure of Envy in the back.)

Andrea Mantegna, Battle of the Sea Gods (before 1481). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

3) A House in Chaos

The whole year, the U.S. Congress has been in much chaos and gridlock—and though this has been pretty much a continuous calamity, it did produce some dramatic photos like this one, which you can compare (and some people did compare) to art.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez looks on as Republican House members-elects speak to one another during the second day of elections for Speaker of the House at the U.S. Capitol Building on January 0, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

The comparison of representative Matt Gaetz’s dramatic gesture to the main figure in George Caleb Bingham’s Stump Speaking, in the Saint Louis Museum Art Museum, is clear-cut. The present-day House is more chaotic than that image of small-town politics—though representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez finds her parallel in any number of bemused onlookers in Bingham’s scene.

George Caleb Bingham, Stump Speaking

George Caleb Bingham, Stump Speaking (1853–54). Saint Louis Art Museum.

4) Beyoncé’s (ahem) Renaissance World Tour

What cultural event would be more likely to recall a Renaissance painting than Queen Bey’s Renaissance World Tour? Beyoncé and her husband, musician Jay Z, are known art enthusiasts. The super-duper-star’s highest-grossing tour to date featured sculptures, robotic technology, and ultraviolet lights, plus costumes by designers from Alexander McQueen to Courrèges, Balmain to Thierry Mugler, with accessories by Tiffany.

Beyoncé performs with mirrored horse

Beyoncé performs with mirrored horse during the “RENAISSANCE WORLD TOUR.” (Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage for Parkwood )

A big moment, though, featured Bey on a mirror-ball horse—inspired by the cover of Renaissance itself. And that in particular.had art critics everywhere talking about whether her inspiration could have been John Collier’s famous Lady Godiva. Judge for yourself.

John Collier, Lady Godiva (ca. 1897)

John Collier, Lady Godiva (ca. 1897), from the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry.


4) Kylie Jenner Channels Hercules?

“Nothing says fierce like using an apex predator as a brooch,” wrote CNN’s Leah Dolan when Kylie Jenner stepped out at Schiaparelli’s couture runway show at Paris Fashion Week wearing a life-size faux lion head as an adornment. It was a pre-release from the label’s Spring-Summer collection that was about to show up on the runway. 

Kylie Jenner is seen outside Schiaparelli during the Paris Fashion Week – Haute Couture Sring Summer 2023 on January 23, 2023 in Paris, France. Photo by Edward Berthelot/Getty Images.

The collection was inspired by Dante’s “Inferno” and the nine circles of hell—but to our eye, Jenner’s look recalls images of Hercules fighting the Nemean Lion, as in this example by Francisco de Zurbarán.

Francisco de Zurbarán, Hercules Fighting the Nemean Lion, 1634.

If the look outraged animal rights supporters, none other than People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals came out in its defense, suggesting that the outfit “may be a statement against trophy hunting.”

Is it a stretch? Maybe! But trust us, once you start doing this exercise, you will see art everywhere yourself.

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