Northern European Renaissance
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 & Accomplishments
- 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.
Overview of Northern European Renaissance
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).
Important Art and Artists of Northern European Renaissance
This renowned polyptych painted on both sides, creates a naturalistic divine world illustrating an epic swath of biblical narratives. The work's symbolic iconography is complex and mysterious. For instance, it is questioned whether the central figure in the upper panel who is raising two fingers in blessing is Christ as Divine King or God the Father. For Christ has already been alluded to as the lamb in the lower central panel, referencing the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, with a dove, representing the Holy Spirit, visible above him.
In the upper left panel, the Virgin Mary, her gaze upon the sacred book she holds, evokes both traditional depictions of the Annunciation and the era's Protestant emphasis that an individual can connect directly to God through the reading of sacred texts. This concept is again depicted in the upper panel where St. John the Evangelist looks toward Christ, raising his right hand, while holding an open book resting on his knee. At the far end of both wings, Adam and Eve are depicted nude, Adam's arms covering his body, while Eve partially shields herself while holding an apple in her right hand. They are almost sculptural, and their precisely rendered expressions and body language, inhabiting an empty and narrow black space, convey a sense of penitence. The two are separated from the central trio by panels that depict angels engaged in song on the left, and a group of angels gathered around one playing a harp on the right. The wing's lower left panels depict the Just Judges and the Knights of Christ. On the right, a group of pilgrims and hermits, led by St. Christopher, move toward the central image of the Christ lamb. In a wide green landscape, with mountains and city towers in the distance, the linear perspective draws all eyes toward the Lamb, as a multitude of people including notable religious figures, saints, angels, ancient philosophers, and scholars gather to worship. The image visually expresses "After this I beheld...a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindred, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb." The population and complexity of the painting is profound, and as art critic Noah Charney noted, "It's easy to argue that the artwork is the most influential painting ever made: it was the world's first major oil painting, and...It's almost an A to Z of Christianity - from the annunciation to the symbolic sacrifice of Christ, with the "mystic lamb" on an altar in a heavenly field, bleeding into the holy grail."
Both van Eyck brothers are credited with the work, as it's believed that Hubert initially designed the altarpiece, while Jan painted the panels and completed it. The mayor of Ghent Jodocus Vijd and Lysbette, his wife, commissioned the work for Saint Bavo Cathedral. The largest work in van Eyck's oeuvre, this is also the only work he created for a public audience.
Even though all of the religious imagery was widely drawn from tradition, it was profoundly innovative for its time due to van Eyck's masterly use of oil and realism, as seen in every detail right down to the pearls bedecking Mary's dress, each one a drop of grey with a single touch of white to create an iridescence. Van Eyck's precise observation is also evident in the singing angels, as musical scholars have been able to identify the note each angel is singing by the shape of the mouth. As Peter Schjeldahl, the contemporary art critic wrote, "His style is synthetic, a repertoire of finesses - some derived from manuscript illumination, which was then the most common mode of painting, and some from the advanced modeling of bodies and drapery found in the sculpture of the time...nothing beats the bristling inventiveness of the Ghent Altarpiece."
At the time the altarpiece was unveiled, it was hailed as not only a masterpiece, but also the singular work that epitomized the spirit and genius of Northern Europe. As a result of that status, the work has been stolen and recovered countless times. The panel on the lower left is a later copy, made to reproduce the stolen original, a theft still under investigation after decades.
Schjeldahl wrote, "Historically, it is a clutch of firsts: it represents the first really ambitious and consummate use of oil paint... and it marks the birth of realism as a guiding principle in European painting.... nothing that we know of anticipated the eloquence of van Eyck's glazes, which pool like liquid radiance across his pictures' smooth surfaces, trapping and releasing graded tones of light and shadow and effulgences of brilliant color."
Van Eyck's mastery of oil painting influenced Rogier van der Weyden and other Northern European artists of the era, as well as artists of the Italian Renaissance, and transformed subsequent Western art. The altarpiece has been referenced in movies and popular culture as seen in the book and movie The Monuments Men (2014).
This iconic portrait shows a domestic scene of Giovanni di Nicolao and his wife in what is presumably their home. The man holds the woman's hand with his left hand and raises his right as if in a gesture of blessing as he faces the viewer. The woman gazes downward while her left hand bunches up the green fabric of her dress at her waist in a way that was in contemporary fashion of the time. A little Brussels griffon stands in the foreground between the couple, the texture of his bushy coat delineated in the hairs that flare up around his alert expression. On the back wall, also visible between them, a convex mirror with arms depicting miniaturized and realistic scenes of Christ's passion reveals two people reflected in its depths. A strand of amber beads hangs beside the mirror on the left, and above the mirror, an inscription is written on the wall. The two figures reflected inside the mirror appear to be standing just inside the door, facing the couple. The inscription reads "Johannes de eyck fuit hic 1434" or "Jan van Eyck was here 1434" in Latin, and the figure in red, reflected in the mirror, has been taken as the artist himself. The light comes in from the open window on the left, where a single candlestick and an orange rest on the sill, creating a sense of interior spaciousness and reflecting a diffuse glow on the surfaces of the objects in the room. Between the couple a chandelier extends from the ceiling, lit up by the light, so that it resembles both an organic form and a heavenly crown.
The interior is depicted with precise observation, yet each item is also part of a complex and mysterious iconography. Scholars have interpreted the little dog both as a symbol of fidelity and of lust. The green that the woman wears may symbolize hope or the fecundity of spring. The cast-off shoes that are visible in the lower left have been taken as an allusion to standing on holy ground. The mirror's scenes of Christ's passion may suggest God's promise of salvation to the couple in the room or the couple reflected in the mirror. Even the oranges visible near the window may reflect wealth, as they were an expensive delicacy at the time. They may also suggest the Garden of Eden.
The artist's innovations include the use of a sophisticated orthogonal perspective to create the interior space. His notable vivid color palette is at play in the fine fabrics of the clothing, the bed with its red drapery, and the chair in the back, as various objects refract and reflect the direct and indirect lighting in the work. But the highest achievement of the painting is the fact, as written by art historian Craig Harbison, that it "is the only fifteenth-century Northern panel to survive in which the artist's contemporaries are shown engaged in some sort of action in a contemporary interior. It is indeed tempting to call this the first genre painting - a painting of everyday life - of modern times." As contemporary art critic Jonathan Jones also wrote, "This looks like a real world, with real people. The key to the picture is the mirror on the wall...a convex mirror, which just happens to look like a camera lens. It takes in the whole room...the mirror, so significantly placed between the couple, is an image of what this painting claims to be: a true reflection."
This painting has been widely influential as art critic Alison Cole noted, particularly "on two generations of British painters." The Pre-Raphaelites Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais particularly admired the work for its color palette, its precise oil technique, and its complex symbolism.
This dramatic religious painting depicts Jesus being taken down from the cross by three men. Anguish is visible in the scene as all the figures bow inward toward the central figure of Christ. On his left, his mother, the Virgin Mary, faints as St. John the Evangelist and Mary Salome strive to help her up. A young man in blue damask stands on a ladder behind the cross in the upper panel, his right hand gripping two extracted bloodied nails. Nicodemus, a Pharisee, his brow lined with introverted sorrow, stands behind Jesus, holding his torso in his arms. Joseph of Arimathea, dressed in a robe patterned with gold, cradles Christ's legs. On the far right, Mary Magdalene contorts her entire body as she wrings her hands, while Mary Cleophas at the upper left buries her face in her hands.
The remarkably condensed and compressed scene is full of movement, driven by the figures animated with emotion. Sorrow and grief mark every face.
The work also condenses layers of symbolic meaning, as the skull at St. John's feet alludes to the Hill of Golgotha, and the red clothing with its revealing neckline worn by Mary Magdalene alludes to a fallen woman. The blue damask and elevated position of the young man on the ladder suggest an angelic presence. At the upper left and right, two small crossbows symbolize the Great Crossbowmen's Guild that commissioned this work for the Chapel of Our Lady Outside the Walls at Leuven.
Innovatively, Van der Weyden ignored anatomical accuracy for both emotional effect and to create a convincing spatial illusion. He lengthened the Virgin's left leg, so her mantle cloaks the base of the ladder and the cross. He distorted some of the figures, as seen in Magdalene's arm wringing and the horizontal axis of Christ`s head, to convey the emotional contortions of a terrible event. His use of primary colors, his realistic facial expressions, and his fluid line, emphasizing the movement of the body falling to earth, were also highly original. The almost life-sized figures are sculptural and a three dimensional effect is created by the artist's employment of false perspectives to deal with the spatial incongruity between the shape of the panel and the space he wanted his figures to occupy. The shallow box of the panel, resembling a shrine, contains five, convincingly rendered, depths of space.
To achieve such visual choreography to convey feeling, the artist must have been sharply aware of the emotional response of the viewer in a way few artists had been before, as art critic Michael Glover wrote, "There is an almost brutal, if not harsh immediacy about the painting. This is religious drama felt on the pulses...their outrageous grief seems to burst out of the painting - there is space for nothing else."
This painting was often copied and widely influential in its own time, and Glover noted, "The way in which he distorts the figure undoubtedly had its impact upon Picasso and Matisse."
Useful Resources on Northern European Renaissance
- 236k viewsBBC Northern Renaissance The Birth of the ArtistOur PickWith Joseph Leo Koerner / BBC
- 11k viewsThe Road to van EyckOur PickMuseum Boijmans Van Beuningen / Friso Lammertse and Stephan Kermperdick
- 43k viewsBruegel: Unseen Masterpieces at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium
- 182k viewsRenaissance Revolution: The Garden of Earthly DelightsOur PickBBC
- 325k viewsHieronymus Bosch Art Documentary with Brian Sewell
- 12k viewsReflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-RaphaelitesTalk by Susan Foister / National Gallery London
- 32k viewsDürer and Beyond: European Drawings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art 1400-1700Talk by Stijn Alsteens and Freyda Spira, Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, and Maryan Ainsworth
- 105k viewsBruegel The HarvestersThe Met
- 19k viewsAlbrecht Dürer: The Hare, 1502Albertina Museum
- 65k viewsThe Dürer Rhinoceros: Masterpieces of the British MuseumOur PickArt Documentaries
- 18k viewsDiscovering the Dürer CypherOur PickTalk by Elizabeth Maxwell-Garner / Rebecca Bryan Art Gallery
- Northern Renaissance Art (Oxford History of Art)By Susie Nash
- The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to HolbeinOur PickBy Kate Heard and Lucy Whitaker
- Albrecht DürerBy Norbert Wolf
- Jan van Eyck: Renaissance RealistBy Till-Holgert Bochert
- Bosch and Bruegel: From Enemy Painting to Everyday Life (The A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts)Our PickBy Joseph Leo Koerner
- Hieronymus Bosch: Complete WorksBy Stefan Fischer
- Great Works: The Deposition (1436), Rogier Van der WeydenBy Michael Glover / Independent / August 27, 2009
- Pieter Bruegel the ElderBy Jonathan Jones on art / The Guardian / February 9, 2017
- Isenheim Altarpiece: A Portrait of Agony; a Message of HopeBy Joshua Barone / New York Times / July 6, 2016
- Hidden HorrorOur PickBy Jonathan Jones / The Guardian / December 12, 2007
- Bosch and Bruegel Revew - more gripping than a thrillerBy Alexandra Harris / The Guardian / February 1, 2017
- The Flip Side The secrets of conserving the wood behind an early masterpieceOur PickBy Peter Schjeldahl / The New Yorker / November 11, 2010
- Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites, The National Gallery, London, review: unmissableBy Alison Cole / The Independent / September 29
- Arnolfini Portrait, Jan Van Eyck (1434)Our PickBy Jonathan Jones / The Guardian / April 15, 2000
- The Ghent Altarpiece the Truth About the Most Stolen Artwork of all timeBy Noah Charney / December 20, 2013
- Reformers: The complex world of Lucas Cranach the Elder.Our PickBy Peter Schejeldahl / The New Yorker / December 17, 2007