The Mirror of the Artist
Northern Renaissance Art in its Historical Context
By Craig Harbison
Abstract by Willem van Osnabrugge
Normally Renaissance means rebirth of interest in classical Greek and Roman
culture, and does not readily apply to much that was taking place north of the Alps.
Still, the term Late Gothic is not a very useful substitute for
Renaissance in the North. There was enough new birth or sense of discovery to
justify using the term Renaissance.
The low countries were part of the Duchy of Burgundy until 1482, then part of it went
to Austria by marriage.
Throughout the Middle Ages, the Church was the single most powerful institution of
Europe. By the year 1400 Christian art had a long and venerable history, and its role in
support of faith and the institution- was accepted most of the devout. During most
of the 14th Century (1309-77) the pope resided in Avignon, under the control of the King
of France and from 1378-1417 rival popes, sometimes as many as 3 at the same time claimed
the throne of St. Peter. This period was called the Great Schism. Often
political alliances were formed e.g. kings of France and Spain, who claimed the right to
name their own candidates for high ecclesiastical positions in their land, thus bringing
the church under monarchial control. At the beginning of the 15th Century, the courts of
Europes rulers were still the main artistic centers. Then after the 1st quarter,
non-court production became increasingly important. The domination of the tiny noble
minority (only 1% of the population) was on the wane. Monarchs were encouraging the
nobilitys demise, by creating a middle-class bureaucracy that centralized power,
taking it from the overlords. These functionaries and merchants and traders now became
important patrons for the art.
Local pride was often reflected in 15th century paintings that featured actual city
views. Quality and prices were set by the Guilds officers. In the beginning art was
made on demand, but then made in bulk and sold at fairs.
Martin Luthers 95 theses (or complaints) were issued in 1517.In Germany and
Netherlands the Roman hierarchy and its faithful agents, the Habsburg monarch still
exercised control from afar. The Reformation was welcome. In 1576 Antwerp had the
Spanish Fury. After this time there was a big demand for cheap mass produced
prints with a variety of popular topics.
Renaissance goals: an interest in individual consciousness (portraiture) and a desire
to make images of the visible world, often portraying a religious scene, more believable
and accessible (naturalism). The humanization of art and culture.
In Northern Europe, during the Middle Ages, architecture was the dominant art form.
Romanesque and Gothic. Paintings were made for church panels. The painting styles under
went a dramatic transformation in the 14th and 15th century, based on a closer observation
of the physical world. A study in philosophy, botany, geography and earthly existence.
Therefore, the 15th century Northern art feature is visual realism. This
became the hallmark for Netherlandish art.
Book of Hours. Jean Pucelle in ~1325 had one of the first realistic representations in
Northern Europe. Three dimensional modeling and relative placement in space. Atmospheric
perspective the lightening and graying of the sky toward the horizon- was in Book of
Hours of 1410.
Northern pictures versus Italian were smaller. They had to be viewed in a home. The
oil-glaze technique contributed to the smaller size, because of the amount of work for the
great detail. The translucence of the tiny pigment particles in suspended oil allows one
to look through the layers of a Van Eyck painting; whereas the opaque egg tempera method
favored in Italy- produces a different result.
From 1420 on the Italians did 3 dimensional paintings. From 1440 some
Northerners started using this technique. However no theory of perspective was written
down in Northern Europe as it was in Italy in the 15th century. The Northerners did not
care if it was not perfect, they concentrated on revealing light effects and intriguing
nooks and crannies and love for detail.
Robert Campin (1375-1444) was one of the great founders of Netherlandish painting for
middle and upper class traders and merchants. Artists and patrons placed the holy figures
in their own world (15th century Netherlands). Small religious paintings from this time
were not commissioned by the church because they would be too small for public display in
large-scale chapels or churches. The rising middle class had great interest in this.
Altar pieces had grisaille exteriors in the 15th century (paintings, which
looks like sculpture). Three carnations (3 nail flowers in Dutch?) represent the 3 nails
in the cross. Wine meant blood and bread the body of Christ.
Even in the 16th century the Italian unifying realist ideal was not imposed in the
Netherlands. Space was treated in a fragmentary, puzzle-like fashion. Additionally we see
more portraits, landscapes and still lifes. Also in the 16th century we see painters
specializing in a style.
Wall paintings were important in the 15th century, but then paintings on wooden panels
were durable and flexible in the dark and moist climate in the Netherlands. Paintings on
linen were less expensive. The Guilds said that linen painters were not allowed to work on
panel, but panel painters could work on linen. The final price of a linen painting was
1/20th to 1/30th of the price of a panel painting. It was not until the 17th century in
the North when a more painterly, heavier textured style was favored that canvasses became
the preferred support.
Towards the end of the 15th century, works of art were produced speculatively for the
market and exported all over Europe. Also sculpted wooden altar pieces.
The 15th century model books did not have complex compositional sketches, but had
examples of heads, hands, animals, plants and nudes.
For one large work Jan Van Eyck took 2 years to complete it. Applying one thin layer of
oil glaze on top of another took a long time. Drying times were long and sometimes they
used drying agents.
Movable type was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1450, which led to the printing
Jeroen Boschs (1450-1516) family came from Aachen, but he lived all his life in
Den Bosch. He was a respected orthodox citizen, a long-time member of the important lay
religious Confraternity of Our Lady and repeatedly patronized by nobility of Holland and
In the 16th century physical illness was a sign of sin or reflecting an internal
The selling of salvation through indulgencies led to the Protestant Reformation.
My observation: already in 1440 Roger van der Weyden had some very good 1 point
perspective in his paintings.
In the 15th century 2:1 town people to clergy bought religious paintings or altar
pieces (we know this from the Guild records), because of the turmoil in the church. They
had private prayer sessions at home. Increasingly private prayer books were produced (book
of hours, containing the prayers and Bible readings for the canonial monastic 9 hours of
the day, plus stories of the saints lives and panel paintings of religious subjects.
Virgin and child are often painted in rose arbor. This symbolizes the Virgins
purity and holiness. A rose amoung thorns. A gold background means the timeless and
eternal message of the divine pair. Therefore gold means holiness.
The Byzantine icons of Virgin and Child were supposed to be based on St. Lukes
original creation. In the 15th century there were new attempts to reunite the Eastern and
Western churches and Byzantine icons were imported from the East and were faithfully
copied. Copies had be as close as possible, because you could not digress from St.
Lukes original creation. That would be a sin (in 1440 one icon came to the North,
but Italy had them earlier). However, some artists modified the paintings to their own
style. The virgin had the blue robe, but (my observation) blue robes had been used in the
Netherlands earlier than this.
For Rubens paintings: The power of theatrical performance in religious imagery in the
15th and 16th century was an influence in many works. A living drama, momentarily halted
for the viewers attention.
Reformation: Many of the early 16th century reformers in the Catholic Church wwwere
obsessed with sin. Their own and that of the Church. Martin Luther went to Rome in 1510 to
see the worldliness of the Church leaders. He believed that salvation could be achieved by
faith alone. Luther said that the 7 sacraments were not needed. Only 2 would suffice:
baptism and the Eucharist, but the latter only as remembrance. In 1520 Luther announced a
new Babylonian captivity of the Church by the Pope. He translated the new
testament in 1521/22 and the old in 1537, for all to read. Erasmus criticized the Catholic
Church, but remained in it.
Art was used by all parties as propaganda for their beliefs. During and after the
Reformation there was criticism that art was too ostentatious and rich. Art
should be simplistic and emotional honesty.
The cardinals hat was the symbol of his office.
Starting in the 1520s and especially in the 1560s there was iconoclasm in
Lucas Cranach (1472-1553) was called the official artist of the Lutheran Reformation.
He executed many engravings and woodcuts, portraying Luther. They were close friends, each
serving as godparent to each others children.
Now, after the Reformation there was less demand for religious paintings and more for
portraits, landscapes and still lifes. Portraits often came in boxes, to move them from
house to house and painted with the coat of arms on the back.
Sometimes a window was painted in the sitters eye. This was the eye as a window to
Landscapes in Northern Europe in the 15th century were often seen through a window or
an arch. Italian art had paintings in the landscape. Because of the nice weather in Italy,
the outside was just like another room for Italians.
In 1525 there was the widespread German peasants revolt against excessive taxation and
Michelangelo (1475-1564) said that the Flemish art will please the devout better than
any painting in Italy and will make him shed a tear. They deceive the sensual vision. The
landscapes are done without reason, art, without symmetry or proportion, without skill or
vigor. They attempt to do so many things well, that none is well.
Unlike Italians, who had a classical culture close at hand, Northern Europeans found
little justification within an exclusively Christian tradition for the portraying of the
nude human figure. Most often it was an object of pity or shame (Christ, Adam & Eve)
or isolation and loneliness. However, some patrons asked for it e.g. Philip of Burgundy,
who was a bishop.
Martin Luther married and said that intercourse within marriage was an unchaste
necessity and could be enjoyed. Lucas Cranach, who was Luthers best friend started
In approx. 1505 Albrecht Durer went to Northern Italy to learn about the secrets of
Parrot symbolism: it is a talking bird, the symbol of the world of Christ and eternal