Northern European Renaissance - History and Concepts
Beginnings of Northern European Renaissance
The Italian 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).
The artworks of the Italian Renaissance and the Northern European Renaissance were very different in style, subject matter, and visual sensibility. The Italian artists emphasized ultimate beauty in frescoes like Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling (1508-1512), paintings like Leonardo's Mona Lisa (1503-05/07) and Raphael's La Fornarina (1520), sculptures like Michelangelo's David (1501-1504), and architecture such as Bramante's Tempietto (1502). The overall effect was one of classical harmony and idealized form.
In contrast, Northern European artists emphasized realism. Developing the medium of oil paint, they created altarpieces and panel paintings for churches and chapels that reflected the more somber sensibility of the Protestant Reformation. Portraits focused not on beauty, but an authentic portrayal of the subject, with precise detail, objectively observed, that included its darker psychological elements. Instead of Greek and Roman art, Northern European artists drew upon the tradition of woodblock printing and manuscript illumination.
Illuminated Manuscripts and The Limbourgh Brothers
The International Gothic style of manuscript illumination represented the pinnacle of a long tradition. During the medieval period most books had been rare manuscripts, made by hand with vellum pages that contained brightly inked illustrations accentuated with gold and silver, which appeared "illuminated." Made by monks in scriptoriums, these manuscripts were primarily religious, including Bibles like the noted The Book of Durrow (650-700) or The Book of Kells (c. 800). Later volumes included bestiaries like The Westminster Abbey Bestiary (c. 1275-1290), drawing upon classical Greek and Biblical accounts of fantastic beasts, or books of prayer like The Book of Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux (c. 1324-1328).
The International Gothic style was exemplified by the Dutch miniaturist brothers Herman, Paul, and Johan Limbourg who became renowned for their Très riches heures du Duc de Berry (c. 1412-1416), an illuminated book of prayers to be said during the canonical hours. It was one of the earliest illuminated manuscripts made by known artists rather than monks. Scenes of contemporary life dominated the work of 130 illustrations, half of which were miniatures depicting scenes of court life, agricultural labor, and military expeditions, rendered in jewel-like colors.
Influenced by the Limbourg brothers, Robert Campin became the first noted master of Flemish painting. He pioneered the use of oil painting that characterized the North European Renaissance. Only a handful of works can be certainly attributed to him, as he seldom signed his work, a common practice in the Middle Ages. As subsequent scholarship has identified him as the Master of Flémalle, his masterwork is considered to be the Mérode Altarpiece (1427). Like most International Gothic artists, he primarily painted religious subjects but his contemporary settings depicting ordinary activities, simultaneously accurate in observation and symbolic in meaning, initiated the Renaissance approach. Rogier van der Weyden, an important artist, was first trained in his workshop.
Jan van Eyck
Jan van Eyck so mastered the virtuosity of oil painting that Giorgio Vasari was to erroneously credit him with the invention of the medium. Little is known of van Eyck's training or artistic background, as he first appears in records in 1422 as a painter for John III the Pitiless, ruler of Holland. We do know that Van Eyck was versed in Greek and Latin, the mark of the educated class. Subsequently, he became the court painter for Philip Duke of Burgundy until 1429. His pioneering masterpiece The Ghent Altarpiece (1431) launched the Renaissance in Northern Europe with its oil painting and realism. Subsequently he pioneered both self-portraiture with Portrait of a Man (1433) and portraiture with his The Arnolfini Portrait (1434). His technique and style influenced his contemporaries Petrus Christus, Hans Memling, and van der Weyden.
Van Eyck was the only 15th century Northern European artist to sign his works. He sometimes used the phrase "I Jan van Eyck was here," but more often used his motto "ALS IK KAN," meaning "As I can," a pun upon his name and the Dutch word for art. His motto, like that of the Italian Renaissance architect Leon Battista Alberti's, "A man can do all things if he will," reflected a distinctly Renaissance view of the artist as a divinely inspired genius.
The Printing Press and The Development of Print Making
With the advent of the printing press, invented by Johann Gutenberg in 1450, the idea of artists as inspired geniuses was proliferated. For the first time, sacred texts were accessible to any literate individual, and thinkers and artists could publish their own writing and artwork. Printing had a revolutionary impact on the era but particularly in Northern Europe. Gutenberg's Bible (1455), the first German version, made the sacred text widely available, and, though printed in Latin, translations into English and German followed in the 1520's. The new accessibility of the text corresponded with rising Protestant belief that an individual could have a personal relationship with God, without need of a mediating Pope or priest. Many of the first books were religious texts, and many of them were illustrated, leading a number of Northern artists to focus on print making for a more public audience. Artists began to make individual prints, and series of prints for the mass market, leading to an aesthetic independence of subject matter and style.
Around 1500 knowledge of the Italian Renaissance began to have an impact on Northern European art, at first primarily through Albrecht Dürer, a master printmaker, engraver, draughtsman, and painter. Following a trip to Italy from 1494-1495, then 1505-1507, his work began to reflect a profound engagement with the philosophical and artistic currents of Renaissance Italy and Venice, as seen in his altarpiece Feast of the Rose Garlands (1506). He was heavily influenced by Venetian color and profoundly interested in Humanist philosophy, leading to a lifelong friendship with the German Humanist Conrad Celtis. He also corresponded with leading Italian painters such as Raphael.
Dürer's Four Books of Human Proportion (1532) and his work of geometric theory, Underweysung der Messung (1525), were the first such works by an artist from Northern Europe and included a scientific discussion of perspective.
Patronage of the Merchant Class
Unlike the Italian Renaissance where a few wealthy patrons, like the ruling Medici family in Florence or the Pope in Rome, commissioned most of the era's masterworks, the Northern Renaissance primarily produced art for a prosperous merchant class. As cities like Antwerp became commercial hub, prints, portraits, panel paintings, and even smaller altarpieces, all of which could be displayed in private homes, were much in demand. While some artists worked for a time for royal patrons, as seen in van Eyck's relationship with Philip the Duke of Burgundy, or Dürer's work for Frederick III of Saxony, they also derived much of their income from private patrons and a much broader public audience than the Italian artists.
The Protestant Reformation 1517
The tenor of Northern European art, emphasizing humble life as Pieter Bruegel the Elder did, or showing the torment of Christ as Matthias Grünewald did, reflected the social and cultural currents of the time. In 1517, Martin Luther wrote his Ninety-five Theses, attacking the excesses and corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, which sparked the Protestant Reformation in Germany. The Low Countries, now known as Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, were ruled by the Catholic Hapsburg monarchy of Spain and roiled by religious conflict, waves of persecution, and iconoclasm's destruction of many noted, idealistic religious artworks, Artists negotiated the risks of the chaotic era with various strategies. Early ones like van Eyck and Dürer used complex iconography and ambiguous symbolism that could be variously interpreted while fitting within the prevailing religious atmosphere. Later artists of the era, like Hans Holbein the Younger, fled. In his case, he moved to England where he became the portraitist of Henry VIII's court. Cranach the Elder worked closely with the forces of the Reformation and turned away from his mythological subjects to religious topics and moral satires of contemporary life. His art, which pointed out the failings and flaws of human behavior, met with a favorable reception from both the Protestant public and the movement's leading thinkers.
Northern European Renaissance: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
Valuing classical Greek and Roman texts and emphasizing individual man's importance in the world on his own accord, Humanism was a dominant trend in Northern Europe. The new printing technology made possible the wide dissemination of works by leading thinkers such as the Dutch Desiderius Erasmus and the German Conrad Celtis.
A classical scholar and Catholic priest, Erasmus was known as the "Prince of the Humanists." His work was wide-ranging, including new translations from Greek and Latin of The New Testament (1516), a satirical look at religion in his In Praise of Folly (1511), and Adagia (1508), a compendium of Latin and Greek proverbs. His thinking on religious matters informed the Reformation, while at the same time, he essentially saw no conflict between being a Christian and a Humanist and followed an approach he called "the middle way" between faith and knowledge.
Conrad Celtis was a noted poet, scholar, and historian who widely promoted Humanist ideals for their own sake, without attempting to connect them to Christian ideals. His first major work was Germania Illustrata (1500), a poetic description of Germany that extolled the culture of his native land. His work was wide ranging, as he studied the natural sciences, lectured on poetry and rhetoric, founded a number of literary societies, and launched a college for mathematics and poetry. And he had a profound influence on Albrecht Dürer, a lifelong friend and working colleague.
Prints and Engravings
The genius of the Northern European Renaissance was most notably expressed in print-making. Drawing upon a Northern tradition of woodblock prints, and exploiting the new technology of the printing press, artists like Bruegel, Hans Holbein the Elder, Lucas Cranach the Elder, and Albrecht Dürer, created masterworks in the medium (each of these artists succeeded in masterly paintings as well).
Dürer revolutionized the potential of print making as an independent medium for art, developing its dramatic and tonal capabilities, and exploring new imagery. His various series like The Apocalypse (1498) and the Large Woodcut Passion (c. 1497-1500), based on religious narratives, launched his fame throughout Europe. Subsequently, he made individual prints like Adam and Eve (1504) and series of images called his Meisterstiche (master engravings) that included prints such as Knight, Death, and the Devil (1513). As art historian Jacob Wisse noted of his prints, "Their technical virtuosity, intellectual scope, and psychological depth were unmatched by earlier printed work."
Bruegel came from a family of four generations of print makers and artists, and from 1555 to 1562, worked primarily with At the Four Winds, an Antwerp publishing house. He designed engravings that often translated proverbs, morals, and parables into contemporary scenes, as seen in his Big Fish Eat Little Fish (1557). Visual treatments of proverbs had been popular, dating back to early 15th century books of the hours. Often the interest in proverbs combined an appreciation of the common sense of the people of Northern Europe with moralistic purpose.
Hans Holbein the Younger's work often served a moralistic purpose as well, as seen in his famous series of woodcuts, The Dance of Death (1526), depicting Death's arrival in various scenes where ordinary people are engaged in everyday activities. Such works were reminders of mortality, urging people to live a virtuous life.
Cranach the Elder, closely associated with the Protestant Reformation due to his close friendship with Martin Luther, created prints portraying Luther and his family, as well as other Protestant leaders. His other artwork often illustrated Protestant themes printed in pamphlets and distributed to proselytize the faith.
Portraiture was an economic mainstay for many Northern European artists, and the mastery of oil painting allowed for artistic virtuosity, precise realism, and psychological portrayals (there is a reason why Willem de Kooning in the 20th century famously said "Flesh is the reason oil painting was invented"). Rogier van der Weyden, Petrus Christus, Hans Holbein the Younger, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Hans Memling, Jan van Eyck, and Albrecht Dürer were all noted portraitists. The masterworks of Van Eyck and Dürer included self-portraits that became foundational to the form, in technique and sensibility. While Holbein the Younger and Cranach the Elder made iconic portraits of the notable leaders of the day, Holbein portrayed the English court, and Cranach the leaders of the Reformation. Christus created portraits like his Portrait of a Carthusian (1446), showing an anonymous monk, and his Isabel of Portugal with St. Elizabeth (1457-60), as well as Portrait of a Young Girl (c. 1470). Rogier van den Weyden's portraits like his Portrait of a Woman (1460) were noted for their sculpted facial features and realistic expression.
The religious masterpieces of the Northern European Renaissance were altarpieces, created in a multiple-panel format of which the side panels could be folded inward for preservation and portability. Artists including Hans Baldung Grien, Dierec Bouts, Hugo van der Goes, Hans Memling, Rogier van der Weyden, Jan van Eyck, and Matthias Grunewald did their most noted works in the format. Most of these works were commissioned for or by monasteries or churches. But many members of the prosperous merchant class and private individuals also commissioned the works such as Jan van Eyck's Dresden Triptych (1437). In some altarpieces, portraits of the donors were also included, as seen in Hugo van der Goes's Portinari Altarpiece (c. 1475), Portrait of Tommaso Portinari c 1470), and Portrait of Maria Portinari, (c. 1470-72). The Early Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch would draw inspiration from these early altarpieces in his triptychs.
The Invention of New Genres
The Northern European Renaissance was responsible for introducing various new genres that would become long lasting motifs in Western art. Joachim Patinir pioneered the celebration of landscape in works like Flight into Egypt (1516-1517), a genre that Bruegel further developed in works like Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap (1565). Bruegel also developed the genre of depicting rural life as seen in The Peasant Dance (1568), a signature subject that led him to be dubbed "peasant Bruegel" for his accurate portrayals of village existence. Albrecht Dürer's The Large Piece of Turf (1503) informed the development of still life painting. He also pioneered the genre of depicting animals as seen in his watercolor Hare (1502), or his woodcut The Rhinoceros (1515).
Later Developments - After Northern European Renaissance
The Northern European Renaissance ended around 1580, primarily due to the outbreak of the Eighty Years War in 1568 as the Lowland countries fought for independence and religious freedom from the Spanish Hapsburg government. It might also be said that the heart of the movement stopped when Pieter Bruegel the Elder died in 1569. The war lasted until 1648, ending with the recognition of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg as independent countries.
In the subsequent Dutch Golden Age Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Jacob van Ruisdael, and Johannes Vermeer drew upon the inspiration, techniques, and genres of the Northern European Renaissance in both oil painting and printmaking.
Additionally, each Northern European Renaissance artist went on to have a long-lasting influence. Matthias Grünewald's work influenced the Expressionists and Neo-Objectivists like Otto Dix and George Grosz, as well as Pablo Picasso, and the Surrealist Max Ernst. Jan van Eyck was foundational to the works of the Pre-Raphaelism, as Hieronymous Bosch's work was to the Surrealists like Salvador Dalí and Joan Miró. Hans Holbein the Younger's portraiture influenced Anthony van Dyck, Peter Paul Rubens, and British portraiture beginning in the 1700s. Bruegel's peasant genre launched the painting of everyday life as a trend in Western art, found in the subsequent movements of Realism (and the many strands of it to this day), Naturalism, Impressionism, and Post-Impressionism, to name a few.
The innovations of the Northern European Renaissance so informed Western art, that art historian Joseph Leo Koerner, referencing the realism and self-staging of Dürer and van Eyck and the idiosyncratic vision of Bruegel and Bosch, has argued (rather boldly) that they, rather than the Italian Renaissance artists, laid the groundwork for modern art.