Northern Renaissance


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As in Italy, the revival of trade, towns, money (sopohisticated banking and financial institutions,) and a rising middle class provided a prosperous underpinning that fostered the Northern Renaissance. The loose league of cities, the Hanse or the Hanseatic League, dominated the Baltic and North Seas and facilitated a trade in fish, fur, and naval stores that wound their way South for exchange with products from Italy and, by extension, the Levant and Asia. Northern city-states and elites decorated their churches, their homes, and their civic centers (as did the Italians,) resulting in the artistic Renaissance of the North.

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Northern Europe experienced a similar but not identical explosion of artistic creativity. Like Renaissance Florence, its flourescence resulted from commercial revivalries and prosperity. "Bruges was a teeming port accustomed to receiving one hundred and fifty ships a day, even in the fourteenth century. Flanders' wealth never failed to leave visitors goggle-eyed...." (Batterberry 163) The area known as the "Low Countries" produced visual arts to rival those of the South. Lacking in the North, however, was the fascination with and absorption in the classics that characterized Florentine humanists in the Quattrocento. Furthermore, in the dank North, frolicking nudes seemed somehow inappropriate. Rather, the "sturdy, God-fearing burghers" retained a deep devotion to their faith and a fondness for "cozy interiors, miniature gardens, warm sensible clothes" along with the "amassing" of great personal fortunes. (Batterberry 162) To Philip the Good's court at Bruges, center of Burgundy, artists gathered as they did at Florence. It is generally thought that the use of oil as a medium of artistic expression first developed in the Northern Renaissance, possibly pioneered by the Van Eyck brothers, Hubert and Jan.

JAN VAN EYCK ( 1390 - 1442 [?])

The prosperous Italian merchant, Giovanni Arnolfini commisioned Jan Van Eyck to "record" his engagement to Giovanna Cenami, leaving to posterity Van Eyck's famous "The Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami." Van Eyck reveals his "superb, if cooly unemotional, creation of a breathtakingly realistic miniature if it were embedded in a glass paperweight." (Batterberry 165) Examining the double portrait carefully, it can be "read" as a document: the dog represents fidelity; the bare feet represent humility in the presence of the burning candle in the chandalier representing God; the fruit on the large chest represents future fertility (with the bed in the background to reinforce the image) for the couple; and so on and so on. Examining the painting even more closely, one can see the face of the artist in the mirror, above which he wrote "Johannes de Eyck fuit hic." (Batterberry 165)

Marriage/Arnolfini (and larger view)

Art historians consider Van Eyck's "The Virgin and Chancellor Rolin" (1434-1436) revolutionary in its depiction of the Chancellor--a cynical and worldly individual--of equal size to the Virgin. Traditionally, spiritual subjects were made larger than secular ones, illustrating their unequal status in the Christian hierarchy. "Rolin and the Madonna are placed in an open arcade overlooking one of Van Eyck's wondrous landscapes where each detail appears in sharp relief, giving the painting an effect both microscopic and vast at the same time...." (Batterberry 165) One of Van Eyck's attributes included his attention to precise accuracy, or as later put, to include the subject "warts and all."


Rolin (and larger)

Van Eyck's "The Ghent Altarpiece" is among his greatest achievements, here showing only the central panel, upper level. Follow the link below to view the Altarpiece in its entirety. Van Eyck's "Glent Altarpiece" is thought by some to be "the greatest monument of early Flemish painting." (Janson 165) Begun by his brother Hubert and completed by Jan Van Eyck, the latter spent seventeen years working on it. Christ in his resplendent robes sits at the center (and comprises the background to this page)

On either side of Jesus Christ as Lord are the Virgin Mary (left) and John the Baptist (right,) forming the classic three portraits of a tryptich. The Van Eycks went beyond the classic form including additional panels in the upper wings (angels playing instruments and Adam and Eve, among the first nudes of the Northern Renaissance); in addition, this whole panorama sits atop another five part painting. When the wings of the altarpiece fold in, another complicated set of scenes can be seen. Follow link below to view the different components of the Ghent Altarpiece.



The Ghent Altarpiece has had a checkered career since the brothers finished it in 1432. During the Reformation and Wars of Religion it had to be hidden from iconoclastic Calvinists. 20th century thieves stole two of its panels, and during World War II, Nazis hid it in a salt mine for safekeeping. It is presently undergoing a thorough cleaning and restoration, thanks to financial support from the Getty Foundation.

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If you saw the 2014 film, The Monuments Men, you'll remember
that the George Clooney character and his friends discover
The Ghent Alterpiece at the very last second and spirit it away
before the Soviets get there.
You'll remember that Nazi art lovers,
like Hermann Goering, seized, confiscated, "aryanized" Europe's art treasures;
it was the task of the "Monuments Men" to find them and restore them,
if not to their original Jewish owners, to the nations from which they were stolen.


HIERONYMUS BOSCH (1450 - 1516)

Hieronymus Bosch's paintings were described by his Dutch contemporaries as "wondrous and strange fantasies." Later art historians note the influence of Bosch on such modern painters as Salvator Dali. Others see in his 'wondrous and strange fantasies' the lingering influence of medieval myticism. Bosch grew up in Brabant in present day Holland, thus a part of the Northern Renaissance, though later than the Van Eycks. In the atmosphere of lay piety and Christian mysticism of the North, he participated in the Brotherhood of Our Lady, one of a number of lay associations dedicated to the Virgin.

Bosch was fascinated with the themes of sin and damnation; though his dates place him firmly in the 15th century, his concerns with sin, death, and dying were a legacy of the Middle Ages. He based "The Haywain," a tryptich, on the Flemish proverb, "The world resembles a haycart, each man seizes what he can." (Batterberry 180) Greed and corruption, almost grotesquely portrayed, can be seen throughout. Follow link below for larger, clearer rendering of the central section of "The Haywain."

In another tryptich, "The Garden of Delights," Bosch shows the Fall "amid fantastic animal and plant life inspired by stories of the recent discovery of America." (Batterberry 180) His paintings, great favorites of gloomily devout King Philip II of Spain, reflect the deep religious tensions of the day and Bosch's own pessimism. Batterberry comments on Bosch's "moral outrage" at man's viciousness, cruelty, avarice, stupidity, ignorance, hypocrisy. (182) Follow link below.

Go to above link for a better view of the tryptich and consider the interpretations: The left hand panel is the last day of Creation; in its center sits the Fountain of Life, mounted on rocks, surrounded by water; it represents temptation, even in Paradise. Bosch includes unicorns, a giraffe, an elephant, and other fantastic creatures. The three figures at the bottom represent God creating woman (right) from Adam (left); to Adam's left is the "forbidden fruit" of the Tree of Knowledge. Look carefully for the snake/serpent at its base. The central panel is a complicated, busy picture of greed and lust. Acts of lewdness and sexual depravity abound; the luscious strawberry stands for the "pleasures of the flesh." Weird birds, animals, and plant life can be seen throughout. In the right hand panel, Bosch painted a vision of hell: fires blaze at the top; look throughout the panel for his depictions of torments and tortures. A strange bird-like creature, wearing a cooking kettle on its head, at the bottom right, devours a sinner. (Cumming 24-25)



ALBRECHT DURER (1471 - 1528)


Albrecht Durer's earliest efforts lay in perfecting his skill in the popular northern medium of woodcutting, but his trip to Venice and his encounter with the Italian Renaissance profoundly influenced the direction of his art. Imbued with the northern traditions of accurate, precise attention to detail, he was "blown away" by the works of Mantegna, Pollaiuolo, Bellini, and others. He studied anatomy and perspective to give realism, bulk, volume, identity to the human figure.


His were the first heroic nudes to come from a northern artist. He " fusing the Renaissance learning of the south with the Gothic spirit..." of the north. (Ruskin 128-129) His "Adam and Eve" do not match Michelangelo, but testify to the impact of his southern "education."

"Durer's sensitive observation and line made him a master at portraying faces...and he was the finest portraitist of his day outside of Italy." (Ruskin 131) At the age of twenty-seven, he painted his self-portrait. "...[E]very wisp of hair and every detail of his handsomely smocked shirt is painted with the fine linear details Durer lavished on his engravings and woodcuts." (Ruskin 131) The crisp clarity of this painting suggests that he had not yet encountered the chiaroscuro of Leonardo.


Perhaps more familiar is Durer's exquisitely detailed and realistic "The Hare."

His later engravings, such as the allegory entitled "The Knight, Death and the Devil" illustrate his mastery of its techniques; it represents his ability to create scenes "that powerfully combined the technical perfection of the south with the unworldly spirit of the Gothic north." (Ruskin 129)

HANS HOLBEIN (1497 - 1543)

As can be discerned in the works of Van Eyck, Bosch, and Durer, northern artists excelled in portraiture and meticulous attention to detail. However, if anyone excelled in portraiture, it was Hans Holbein, the Younger. Holbein could be termed the chronicler of the early 16th century as his realistic paintings captured many of the leading figures of Northern Europe, and especially those in the court of England's Henry VIII. Two examples are his paintings of Erasmus (left below) and Sir Thomas More (right below.) Notwithstanding Inspector Grant's cynical remarks about "The Sainted More" in his popular and very readable novel, The Daughter of Time, the great Chancellor and martyr was a major figure at the Court and in the controversies surrounding Henry's marriages to Katharine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. Recent historical revisionism has portrayed More as somewhat less than saintly.

Holbein also painted Henry VIII (left) and his favorite wife (after all, she alone gave him a son,) Jane Seymour (right.)

A few years after the death of Jane, Henry and the German princess, Anne of Cleves, exchanged portraits. On the basis of Holbein's flattering (and allegedly inaccurate) portrait of Anne, Henry proposed and married her by proxy. Here is Holbein's portrait of the plain and middle-aged princess that caught Henry's eye.

One of Holbein's more interesting paintings is "The Ambassadors," depicting two French diplomats, Jean de Dinteville on the left, and Georges de Selve, soon to be the Bishop of of Lavau, on the right. assigned to the court of Henry VIII. Like "The Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini," it is possible to "read" this painting. Be sure to go to the larger version by following the link to see what Holbein intended in the deeper meanings of his double portrait. In the upper left of the painting, partially hidden by the curtain is a crucifix, symbolizing mortality. Dinteville's dagger is inscribed "AET.SVAI 29," indicating his age. The distorted and elongated skull on the floor suggests the shadow of death as does the tiny silver skull in Dinteville's cap. The open arithmetic book on the table acknowledges the intellectual interests of the two ambassadors. The mosaic on the floor is an exact replica of the design in Westminster Abbey. The lute on the table with a broken string hints of the religious controversy between Protestants and Catholics that so wracked Europe in the 16th century. The sundial on the table gives the exact date, April 11, 1533. Finally the celestial globe alludes to the "new astronomy" of Copernicus and others that signalled the beginnings of the Scientific Awakening. (Cumming 38-39)
or, better yet,


When he addressed himself to uncompromising realism, no one surpassed Holbein as seen in "The Body of the Dead Christ in His Tomb" and the tender portrait of his own family, the latter thought by some to echo renderings of the Madonna and Child.

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Background/Ghent Altarpiece "God Almighty"

Batterberry, Michael. Art of the Early Renaissance. New York, et al.: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1968.

Cumming, Robert. Annotated Guides: Art. London: Dorling Kindersley, Ltd., 1995.

Hanson, Marilee. "Anne of Cleves." Tudor History Web Ring. Chesapeake Engineering Consultants, Inc., 1997-2001.

Kenney, Randy. "Ghent Altarpiece to Undergo Restoration." The New York Times,
May 5, 2010.

Kren, Emil and Daniel Marx. Web Gallery of Art. Oneline Available.
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Mataev, Olga and Helen Mataev. Olga's Gallery. 2001.

Pioch, Nichola. "Albrecht Durer." Web Museum. Paris, 1996-2001.

Portalink Web Sites, Portals, Gateways. "Albrecht Durer's 'Knight, Death and the Devil.'" 2001.

Ruskin, Ariane. Art of the High Renaissance. New York et al.: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1968.