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.
Artworks 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).
Grisaille, oil on wood - Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium
The Arnolfini Portrait
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.
Oil on oak panel - The National Gallery, London
The Descent from the Cross
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."
Oil on oak panel - Museo del Prado, Madrid
The Garden of Earthly Delights
Bosch's most famous triptych is The Garden of Earthly Delights, noted for its complex imaginative and startling imagery. The outer panels are intended to bracket the main central panel - between the Garden of Eden depicted on the left, and the Last Judgment depicted on the right. On the left, an unusually youthful God presents Eve to Adam. The central plane is a vast panorama, containing nude figures, exotic animals, and fantastic architectural structures, to portray Eden. The right panel depicts Hell, a world of humans who have succumbed to evil temptations and are now reaping eternal damnation. The outer face of the panel also contains images, done in grisaille, depicting God creating the world on the third day, its image echoing a 1493 print by Michael Wolgemut, and, perhaps, used to posit the entire work within its religious context.
Bosch was one of the most influential Early Netherlandish painters and although his work often interpreted a Late Gothic religious sensibility, he is most noted for a radically individualized style. In this piece, his version of hell is very different from previous treatments of the subject and could be interpreted as the "hellish" world of an individual man's own making. As art historian Joseph Leo Koerner writes, "the painting of everyday life was bound inextricably to what seems its polar opposite: an art of the bizarre, the monstrous, the uncanny."
Engelbert II commissioned the work for the Coudenberg Palace in Brussels, so while the work resembles a religious altarpiece in its structure, it was meant for a more secular and private audience. Little is know of Bosch, and this iconic work has been variously interpreted from being viewed as a visual warning on sin and particularly lust to a depiction of a kind of paradise lost of polymorphous sexuality, as art historian Peter S. Beagle wrote, expressing an "erotic derangement that turns us all into voyeurs, a place filled with the intoxicating air of perfect liberty."
In his own era, Pieter Bruegel the Elder acknowledged Bosch as a significant influence, and a number of his works like The Triumph of Death (c. 1562) reference Bosch's landscape of hell. Giuseppe Arcimboldo's portraits, portraying people as a composition of various roots and plants, were influenced by Bosch's willingness to re-imagine another world. Bosch's work was rediscovered by the 20th century Surrealists, as The Garden of Earthly Delights influenced Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, and René Magritte. Joan Miró's The Tilled Field (1923-1924) also contains several visual references to the painting.
Grisaille, oil on oak panels - Museo del Prado, Madrid
This iconic self-portrait depicts the artist, confronting the viewer with a somber and intense gaze. The unconventionally dark background, where inscriptions float on either side of him, creates a sense of charged symbolism and presents him as occupying a space that is undefined by locale and time. This results in a feeling of monumentality. And although the overall effect is of classical restraint, as art historian Marcel Brion noted, the work has "a classicism like that of Ingres. The face has the inflexibility and impersonal dignity of a mask, hiding the restless turmoil of anguish and passion within."
Dürer painted three self-portraits, of which this one, the last, is the most complex. The artist's innovations included using a frontal pose for an ordinary portrait for the first time, and, as a self-portrait it was unprecedented. The work is so vertically symmetrical that the head being subtly off center and the eyes looking to the left create a sense of kinetic movement. The color palette creates a somber mood, as the rich dark browns of the artist's coat, the light kissed long curls of his hair, and the soft fur collar, contrast with his pale skin and the inky background. For the audience of his time, this self-portrait would have primarily evoked traditional portraits of Christ. Some critics have felt that in this treatment, Dürer meant to convey the concept of the artist as divine creator.
The artist was a close friend of the Humanist scholar Conrad Celtis. Celtis's secretary wrote the Latin for the inscription visible in the upper right, which reads, "I, Albrecht Dürer of Nuremberg portrayed myself in everlasting colors aged twenty-eight years." In the upper left, the golden monograms of "A" and "D" reflect the artist's signature, but also allude to the abbreviations for "Anno Domini" and are incised under the year 1500. The work, in its emphasis upon the artist's persona, is a remarkably modern self-staging, and influenced artists in the 19th and 20th centuries. He is celebrated in the calendar of both the Lutheran and Episcopal churches, and his work led to the Dürer Renaissance (c. 1570 to 1630.)
Oil on wood panel - Alta Pinakothek, Munich, Germany
The Large Piece of Turf
This painting depicts a piece of turf containing smooth meadow-grass, dandelion, greater plantain, hound's-tongue, yarrow, germander speedwell, creeping bent, and cock's foot. The various plants, differing in shapes of leaves, flowers, and stems, and painted in varying tones of green, create a sense of the chaotic growth of nature, and contribute to the work's realistic effect. The broken ground, showing darker fissures, and the exposed roots of some of the plants, creates a sense of the earth's solidity as well as emphasizing the diagonal flow of the plants from the right where a bit of bare earth shows between the plants and the edge of the frame and extending to the left as the plants seemed to continue indefinitely. The empty background creates a kind of singular focus on the plants themselves, as if they were clearly seen outside of any particular setting or time. Each plant is depicted with scientific precision, showing why the Humanist Conrad Celtis compared Dürer's painterly observation to the work of the great medieval scientist and philosopher Albertus Magnus.
Dürer's use of watercolor was innovative, as was this large-scale focus on a bit of grass - pioneering a kind of still life. Acknowledged as one of the artist's masterworks of realistic representation, the artist undertook this work as a study, and the results informed his very detailed engravings, like Adam and Eve (1504) or Knight, Death, and the Devil (1513). This work influenced later artists like Vincent Van Gogh's Grasgrond, (Patch of Grass) (1887).
Watercolor, pen and ink - Albertina Vienna, Austria
The Isenheim Altarpiece
This iconic cross-shaped altarpiece depicts the very common narrative portrayed in paintings of the time. The focus is on Christ in the central panel, as the cross vertically divides the frame, and as his agonized body with flesh turning green, dominates the scene. Many of the figures are created with the realistic observation and proportion of Renaissance art, and even the cross, crudely made as if hammered together out of scrap wood, has a three dimensional effect. On the right John the Baptist is seen holding an open Bible and pointing toward Christ, while a lamb bearing a wooden cross stands beside him. On the left the Virgin Mary in white, is leaning back as if to fall, her hands clasped toward her son, while John, the beloved disciple, catches her in his arms. Mary Magdalene kneels at the base of the cross, her clasped hands outstretched toward Jesus, while a pot carrying spikenard for anointing him rests beside her. In the left wing St. Sebastian is depicted in martyrdom, pierced with arrows, and in the right wing, St. Anthony is depicted, resolutely gazing out at the viewer. In the upper right corner a demonic monster comes in through a broken window. In the prededella, or bottom panel, Christ is lying beside his open tomb, his upper torso held upright by John and the two mourning women beside him.
This work was commissioned by the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim, Germany, which ran a hospital for treating those suffering from "St. Anthony's Fire," an often fatal illness that has since been identified as ergotism, caused by eating fungus-infected rye. As art critic Jonathan Jones noted, "The horrific appearance of Christ's flesh on the altarpiece is not pure fantasy, but portrays symptoms the monks were trying to alleviate."
Grünewald's innovation was to combine a realistic treatment of death and decay in depicting Christ, while exaggerating his scale and proportions for profound emotional effect. Christ is larger than the other figures, his splayed out elongated arms extending upward, and his clawing fingers reaching upward into the blackened sky. As art critic Jonathan Jones wrote, the "Isenheim altarpiece is death. It is death without disguise, grotesque and terrifying."
As Jones also wrote, the work reveals "the German Renaissance culture that produced it...the Isenheim altarpiece is a German painting to its marrow - German art's Sistine Chapel, even. Grünewald's amazing sense of color allows him to transform the miserable darkness of his Crucifixion to the magical, illuminated night of his Resurrection."
This work was seen as so powerful in the religious community that the Lutheran Church acknowledged the artist as a kind of saintly figure, still celebrating him on April 6th. This work's powerful and sensational expression had a profound influence on later German artists, influencing Otto Dix and George Grosz. The altarpiece's depictions of a bird-demon beating St. Anthony with a stick was referenced in works by the Surrealist Max Ernst and Picasso did a series of drawings of the Crucifixion in 1932.
Oil on panel - Musée Unterlinden, Colmar
Adam and Eve
This painting depicts the Garden of Eden focusing on the moment that Eve hands Adam the apple she has just plucked from the Tree of Knowledge. The tree's trunk rises vertically between them, and the serpent coils down, its head turned toward Eve. A great number of birds and animals gather around - a stag, a hind, a sheep, a lion, a horse, a wild boar, partridges, a heron, and a stork. The tree trunk is carved with the painting's 1526 date and a serpent with bat wings from Cranach's own coat of arms. The overall effect is of a light, almost playful sensuality. Rather than conveying any sense of sin, Eve looks self-confident and beguiling while Adam is hesitant and bewildered, his state perhaps humorously reflected by the artist's pairing him with the sheep, though such to a Christian audience would have also been seen as symbolic of Christ.
Developing a distinctive style based on linear rhythm, the artist was known for his nudes and mythological subjects, as seen in his Apollo and Diana (1530). As the art historian Kenneth Clark noted, his nudes evinced a "skill in combining sinuous line with shallow internal modeling" that was "unprecedented in the North." He innovatively introduced a kind of courtly style, as art critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote, "he siphoned his era's chaotic energies into wonderments of style. His re-visioning of humanity are philosophically resonant and lots of fun."
This image was influenced by Dürer's engraving Adam and Eve (1504), though, notably, Cranach has freed his work of complex symbolism and idealized imagery eschewed by the Protestant times, in essence humanizing the scene. As a friend of Martin Luther, leader of the Protestant Reformation, Cranach here depicts a subject to which the Lutherans could not object, yet, the painting, while made acceptable by its religious narrative, doesn't instruct the viewer so much as give pleasure. As Schjeldahl said, he "had a penchant for joy, undimmed in an age that turned the world upside down."
Oil on panel - The Courtauld Gallery, London
Portrait of Henry VIII of England
This three-quarters portrait depicts King Henry VIII of England, as he looks toward the viewer without making eye contact. His massive round face, the muscles in his right jaw and cheek somewhat tense, creates a sense of power, while his small tight mouth and his gaze suggest a hint of disdain and a capacity for cruelty. His role is conveyed in the regal symbols embroidered in gold on the brim of his hat, in the beautiful patterned pewter fabric, framed in rich dark fur, and ornamented with large symmetrical patterns of jewels, and the seal hung around his neck. In the foreground, his hands, wearing a large ring on each index finger, convey a sense of kinetic energy at rest. His royal bearing is distinctly evident.
Hans Holbein the Younger revolutionized portraiture, emphasizing a monumental treatment with a linear approach, while depicting precise detail, in order to convey the subject's royal bearing and a kind of psychological depth. He was trained by his father, the noted artist Holbein the Elder, and influenced by the works of the Italian Renaissance painters Andrea Mantegna and Leonardo da Vinci that he encountered in his travels to Italy at age 20. As a result, his work was an innovative synthesis, combining Renaissance techniques of perspective and sfumato with elements of late Gothic art, most notably in portraiture. He first visited England in 1526, and quickly became much sought after as a portraitist of English nobility. His portraits of King Henry VIII, Sir Thomas More, and Thomas Cromwell have become iconic portrayals, cementing their images in the public imagination. As art historian Ellis Waterhouse wrote, his portraiture "remains unsurpassed for sureness and economy of statement, penetration into character, and a combined richness and purity of style."
Holbein's works influenced Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck and many British artists from the 18th century on. As art historian, Erika Michael noted "the breadth of his artistic legacy has been a significant factor in the sustained reception of his oeuvre."
Oil on panel - Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain
The Hunters in the Snow
This painting depicts three hunters, followed by a pack of hunting dogs, as they come home from a long day of the kill. Their dark, strongly outlined figures create a diagonal, further emphasized by the black tree trunks that surround them, that draws the viewer's attention to the village below, its roofs covered with snow. On the frozen river and large ponds, the villagers skate. Another diagonal running from middle left to lower right divides the painting between the hill and the broad expanse that fills the right half of the painting with the frozen ponds, a church spire, roads, and farmlands, rising to snow covered mountains, while overhead a black raven soars. A feeling of village life and a strong sense of community are conveyed, the harsh environment, but also its rigorous beauty, and the sense of human life, at work and at play.
Bruegel employs strong outlines, linear perspective, and repeating triangular shapes as seen in the buildings' roofs and eaves, echoed by the pinnacled mountains, to create a simple and powerful graphic design. The details and figures are realistically rendered; one can almost feel the fatigue expressed in the shoulder of the man hunched over as he takes a wide step in the snow. A single spindly vine blooming with bright yellow flowers in the foreground center is both naturalistically depicted and adds an element of brightness and a reminder of spring.
The work was created as part of a series depicting the seasons for Niclaes Jongelinck, an Antwerp merchant. Bruegel drew upon the Netherlands' calendar tradition of depicting rural labor set in a landscape, but pioneered landscape as a genre in itself, as art historian Jacob Wisse notes, "Though rooted in the legacy of calendar scenes, Bruegel's emphasis is not on the labors that mark each season but on the atmosphere and transformation of the landscape itself. These panoramic compositions suggest an insightful and universal vision of the world."
Bruegel's peasant scenes helped solidify the burgeoning genre of artists presenting moments of common everyday life. As contemporary art critic Jonathan Jones wrote, "Scenes such as The Hunters in the Snow seem to sum up the very nature of life on earth in their geographical sweep and anthropological scope. Like Shakespeare, he can capture the theatre of life." This genre informed not only the Northern European Renaissance but also influenced the artists of the Dutch Golden Age. It became a continuing trend in Western art, as seen in the 19th century works of the naturalist Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Impressionist Camille Pissarro, and the Post-Impressionist Vincent van Gogh to name just a few.
Oil on wood - The Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria
The Blind Leading the Blind
This painting shows a single procession of six blind men, gripping each other's shoulders or linked by their staffs, as they wander down a narrow path. In the background sits the realistically depicted church of Sint-Anna and the small village of Sint-Anna-Pede. The color palette, employing grey, black, brown, and green creates a sense of austerity, while the matte and opaque effect, created by the use of distemper, brings the viewer into the same hazy experience as of the sight-challenged men. The group moves in a diagonal that tumbles forward, as the leader, rendered with remarkable foreshortening, has fallen over backwards into a ditch on the lower right, pulling the men off balance. The still upright man in the lower right twists his head toward the viewer with an unseeing gaze, as he lurches forward. The third man, bending forward on his toes, his face pointed up to the sky, tries to maintain his precarious balance. A feeling of tension, as if waiting for a row of dominos to tumble, befalls the viewer though the combined fate of the six men seems certain.
Bitter though bemused in tone, this late work, painted in the year before the artist's death, reflected the oppressive and despairing mood of the period. The Spanish government that ruled the Netherlands had established the Council of Troubles in 1567, employing the Inquisition to stamp out Protestantism. While Bruegel avoided direct political commentary, his reference to the biblical parable, in which Christ described the Pharisees as the blind leading the blind, is unmistakably reflective of the time. The men are well dressed for their era, indicating that they are not peasants, and suggesting the lack of vision prevalent among the dominant middle class.
This work evinces, as contemporary art historian Jacob Wisse noted, "The novel and ingenious way in which Bruegel translated moralizing subjects into vernacular language." Bruegel widely influenced subsequent generations of artists and also inspired writers like the poets Charles Baudelaire, William Carlos Williams, and W.H.Auden.
Distemper on linen canvas - Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy
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.
Useful Resources on Northern European Renaissance
- 277k viewsBBC Northern Renaissance The Birth of the ArtistOur PickWith Joseph Leo Koerner / BBC
- 12k viewsThe Road to van EyckOur PickMuseum Boijmans Van Beuningen / Friso Lammertse and Stephan Kermperdick
- 46k viewsBruegel: Unseen Masterpieces at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium
- 189k viewsRenaissance Revolution: The Garden of Earthly DelightsOur PickBBC
- 446k viewsHieronymus Bosch Art Documentary with Brian Sewell
- 18k viewsReflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-RaphaelitesTalk by Susan Foister / National Gallery London
- 37k 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
- 110k viewsBruegel The HarvestersThe Met
- 22k viewsAlbrecht Dürer: The Hare, 1502Albertina Museum
- 86k viewsThe Dürer Rhinoceros: Masterpieces of the British MuseumOur PickArt Documentaries
- 19k viewsDiscovering the Dürer CypherOur PickTalk by Elizabeth Maxwell-Garner / Rebecca Bryan Art Gallery