We often think of the Renaissance as an entirely Italian phenomenon, but in northern Europe, in an area known as Flanders (which is the northern portion of Belgium today) there was also a Renaissance. Though profoundly different, the Italian and Northern Renaissances shared a similar interest in the natural world, and recreating the illusion of reality in their paintings and sculptures.
Figure 1 shows a map of Europe in the fifteenth century. The area in Northern Europe that is dark red is Flanders, which was controlled by the Dukes of Burgundy (in France) during this time period, and we call the art and culture of this area Flemish.
Like Florence, Flanders encompassed an area with rich industrial and banking cities that allowed a large middle class population to flourish. The court of the Dukes of Burgundy were the most important patrons during this time, but newly wealthy private citizens also commissioned art as part of a growing interest in private meditation and prayer. They also commissioned portraits in growing numbers.
The fact that we are far from Italy tells us something about the character of the Northern Renaissance. The Renaissance in Italy was, in part, a rebirth of the art and culture of Ancient Greece and Rome. In Northern Europe we’re far from the important centers of Ancient Greek and Roman culture, and so the Renaissance in the North is not a rebirth of Ancient Greek and Roman culture the way it was in Florence.
Though the medium of oil paint had been in use since the late middle ages, the artists of the North were the first to exploit what this medium had to offer. Using thin layers of paint, called glazes, they creating a depth of color that was entirely new, and because oil paint can imitate textures far better than fresco or tempera, it was perfectly suited to creating that illusion of reality that was so important to Renaissance artists and patrons . In contrast to oil paint, tempera dries quickly and to create an illusion of three dimensional form, the paint has to be applied in short thin brushstrokes, like cross-hatching. In the Northern Renaissance, we see artists making the most of oil paint—creating the illusion of light reflecting on metal surfaces or jewels, and textures that appear like real fur, hair, wool or wood.