During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church’s emphasis on the spiritual realm discouraged realistic representation of the physical world in art. The Renaissance saw the reemergence, or rebirth, of realistic portrayals of nature and the human figure by artists inspired by ancient Greek and Roman art and culture. Early Renaissance works of the 14th and 15th centuries show lingering medieval features, while Renaissance masterpieces of the late 15th and early 16th century reveal the harmonious proportions and balanced compositions associated with the ideals of the Classical world.

Art of the Baroque period of the 17th century embodied a dynamic energy that mirrored the restless spirit of its age. In painting, dramatic images of faith driven by the Catholic Church’s Counter-Reformation contrast with lively presentations of the everyday, secular world commonly produced in the Protestant north. The Art Institute's collection of Renaissance and Baroque objects dates back to the earliest years of the museum's history. It has been enhanced by the contributions of major collectors such as the Deering family and continues to grow today.

Domenikos Theotokopoulos, called El Greco. The Assumption of the Virgin, 1577–79. Gift of Nancy Atwood Sprague in memory of Albert Arnold Sprague.