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Northern European Renaissance

Northern European Renaissance Collage

Started: 1430

Ended: 1580

"I hold that the perfection of form and beauty is contained in the sum of all men."

Albrecht Dürer

Summary of Northern European Renaissance

The Northern European Renaissance began around 1430 when artist Jan van Eyck began to borrow the Italian Renaissance techniques of linear perspective, naturalistic observation, and a realistic figurative approach for his paintings. As other artists from Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and the Low Countries began to incorporate these influences into their own work, the Protestant Reformation stepped in with its backlash against Italy's lofty idealizations of beauty surrounding the Roman Catholic Church. The extreme iconoclasm changed the face of Northern Renaissance art, leading to works that were decidedly humble, presenting a more toned down view of everyday reality. Art was taken off its glorified pedestal that had previously been occupied by only the rich and powerful and made accessible to the new burgeoning merchant classes.

Key Ideas

The Protestant Reformation extolled the virtues of man's ability to maintain a direct connection with God without the medium of church bureaucracy or figurehead, but rather an independent relationship through prayer, divine literature, and artwork. Art that portrayed religious figures or scenes followed Protestant theology by depicting people and stories absent of idolization, so in a more realistic vein.
Rather than draw upon Classical Greek and Roman aesthetics like their Italian counterparts, Northern European Renaissance artists retained a Gothic sensibility carried over from woodblock printing and illuminated manuscripts, noted for somber moods and darker psychological undertones.
The popularity of printmaking in Northern Europe at the time allowed images to be mass produced and widely available to the public. Thus, the Protestant church was able to bring their theology to the people through artist-created books, prints, engravings, and pamphlets on a large scale. This spurred a vast market for the creation and distribution of works by artists, who were considered in their own way, to be divine creators.
With the times' departure from idealized artworks, Northern European artists ingeniously spurred a slew of new genre paintings that emphasized common scenes and subjects with a more moralistic glance at modern existence. This included landscape, portrait, animal, still life, biblical narrative, and rural labor and everyday life paintings.
Northern European Renaissance Image


The Mannerist Italian artist Giorgio Vasari first used the term rinascita, meaning rebirth, to define the Italian Renaissance in his The Lives of the Artists (1550). He saw the era as a rebirth of classical Greek and Roman aesthetics and ideals following the more staid Gothic era. However, the term "Renaissance" from the French came into widespread usage only following its first appearance in the historian Jules Michelet's Histoire de France (1855).

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