Painting in the Northern Renaissance

Flemish Painting in the Northern Renaissance

The Flemish School refers to artists who were active in Flanders during the 15th and 16th centuries.

Learning Objectives

Compare the artistic advances seen in the works of Robern Campin, Jan van Eyck, and Rogier van der Weyden

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The three most prominent painters during this period, Jan van Eyck, Robert Campin, and Rogier van der Weyden, were known for making significant advances in illusionism , or the realistic and precise representation of people, space , and objects.
  • The preferred subject matter of the Flemish School was typically religious in nature, and the majority of the work was presented as panels, usually in the form of diptychs or polyptychs.
  • While the Italian Renaissance was based on rediscoveries of classical Greece and Rome , the Flemish school drew influence from the region’s Gothic past.
  • Van Eyck is known for signing and dating his work “ALS IK KAN” (“AS I CAN”).
  • Robert Campin has been identified with the signature “Master of Flemalle.”
  • Because the Flemish masters used a workshop system, they were able to mass produce high-end panels for sale and export throughout Europe.

Key Terms

  • illusionism: The realistic and precise representation of people, space, and objects.
  • tempera: A type of painting where color pigments are mixed with a binder, usually egg. Tempera can also refers to the finished work of art itself.
  • triptych: A picture or series of pictures painted on three tablets connected by hinges.
  • polyptych: A work consisting of multiple painted or carved panels joined together, often with hinges.

The Flemish School

The Flemish School, which has also been called the Northern Renaissance , the Flemish Primitive School, and Early Netherlandish, refers to artists who were active in Flanders during the 15th and 16th centuries, especially in the cities of Bruges and Ghent. The three most prominent painters during this period—Jan van Eyck, Robert Campin, and Rogier van der Weyden—were known for making significant advances in illusionism, or the realistic and precise representation of people, space, and objects. The preferred subject matter of the Flemish School was typically religious in nature, but small portraits were common as well. The majority of this work was presented as either panels, single altarpieces , or more complex altarpieces, which were usually in the form of diptychs or polyptychs.

During the 15th and 16th centuries, the Low Countries became a political and artistic center focused around the cities of Bruges and Ghent. Because Flemish masters employed a workshop system, wherein craftsmen helped to complete their art, they were able to mass produce high-end panels for sale throughout Europe. The Flemish School emerged almost concurrently with the Italian Renaissance. However, while the Italian Renaissance was based on the rediscoveries of classical Greek and Roman culture , the Flemish school drew influence from the area’s Gothic past. These artists also experimented with oil paint earlier than their Italian Renaissance peers.

Robert Campin

Robert Campin, considered the first master of the Flemish School, has been identified with the signature “Master of Flemalle,” which appears on numerous works of art. Campin is known for producing highly realistic works, for making great use of perspective and shading, and for being one of the first artists to work with oil paint instead of tempera . One of his best known works, the Merode Altarpiece, is a triptych that depicts an Annunciation Scene. The Archangel Gabriel approaches Mary as she is reading in a room that is recognized as a typical middle class Flanders home. The work is highly realistic, and the objects throughout the painting conveyed recognizable, religious meaning to viewers at the time.

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The Merode Altarpiece attributed to Robert Campin: The Merode Altarpiece is a triptych that features the Archangel Gabriel approaching Mary, who is reading in a well-decorated, typical middle class Flanders home.

Jan Van Eyck

Jan van Eyck, a contemporary of Campin, is widely considered to be one of the most significant Northern European painters of the 15th century. He is known for signing and dating his work “ALS IK KAN” (“AS I CAN”). Signatures were not particularly customary during this time, but helped to secure his lasting reputation. Active in Bruges, and very popular within his own lifetime, van Eyck’s work was highly innovative and technical. It exhibited a masterful manipulation of oil paint and a high degree of realism . While van Eyck completed many famous paintings, perhaps his most famous is the Ghent Altarpiece, a commissioned polyptych from around 1432.

This altarpiece is divided into 12 panels in an upper and lower register with various scenes and figures, including a God-like figure, the Virgin Mary, Christ the King, and Adam and Eve.

The Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck: The Ghent Altarpiece, a commissioned polyptych from around 1432, is perhaps van Eyck’s most famous work.

Rogier van der Weyden

Rogier van der Weyden is the last of the three most renowned Early Flemish painters. An apprentice under Robert Campin, van der Weyden exhibited many stylistic similarities, including the use of realism. Highly successful in his lifetime, his surviving works are mainly religious triptychs, altarpieces, and commissioned portraits. By the end of the 15th century, van der Weyden surpassed even van Eyck in popularity. Van der Weyden’s most well-known painting is The Descent From the Cross, circa 1435.

The crucified Christ is lowered from the cross, his lifeless body held by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. Other figures also surround the body.

The Descent from the Cross by Rogier van der Weyden: Van der Weyden’s most well-known painting is The Descent From the Cross, circa 1435.

Panel Painting in the Northern Renaissance

The court of the Holy Roman Emperor played an important role in panel paintings during the Northern Renaissance.

Learning Objectives

Describe panel painting in the Holy Roman Empire

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • A panel painting is a painting made on a flat panel made of wood, either a single piece or a number of pieces joined together. Until canvas became the more popular support medium in the 16th century, panels were the normal form of support for a painting not painted directly onto a wall (known as a fresco) or vellum , which was used for miniatures in illuminated manuscripts and paintings for the framing.

Key Terms

  • Holy Roman Emperor: A term used by historians to denote a medieval ruler who had also received the title “Emperor of the Romans” from the Pope.

The court of the Holy Roman Emperor , originally based in Prague, played an important role in supporting artists as patrons during the Northern Renaissance . During this time period, works of art were often painted on wooden panels and are referred to as “tempera on panel” or “oil on panel.” A panel painting is a painting made on a flat panel made of wood, either a single piece or a number of pieces joined together. Until canvas became the more popular support medium in the 16th century, panels were the normal form of support for a painting not painted directly onto a wall (known as a fresco) or vellum, which was used for miniatures in illuminated manuscripts and paintings for the framing.

Albrech Durer is a well known artist of the Northern Italian Renaissance who found a patron in Emperor Maximillian I. Durer. Like most painters during this time period, Durer painted on wood panels.

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Albrecht Durer, Self Portrait, 1500.: This self portrait of Albrecht Durer was painted on a wood panel, as the canvas had yet to become the prevalent medium of choice.

German Painting in the Northern Renaissance

The German Renaissance is reflective of Italian and German influence in its paintings, and one is not present without the other.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the work of Dürer, Grünewald, Holbein, Altdorfer, and other artists of the Danube school during the Holy Roman Empire in Germany

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Albrecht Dürer ‘s work shows strong classical influence due, in part, to his travels to the Italian peninsula.
  • Matthias Grünewald combined Gothic and Renaissance attributes in his painted work on the Isenheim Altarpiece .
  • The Danube School is known for the first productions of painted landscapes (independent of foreground figures) in nearly 1,000 years.
  • Hans Holbein the Elder and his brother Sigismund Holbein painted religious works in the late Gothic style . The former was a pioneer and leader in the transformation of German art from the Gothic to the Renaissance style.
  • The outstanding achievements of the first half of the 16th century were followed by a remarkable absence of noteworthy German art.

Key Terms

  • perspective: The illusion of distance or depth on a two-dimensional surface.
  • en plein air: In an outdoor setting, as opposed to in a studio or other interior location.
  • polyptych: An artwork, usually a painting, consisting of four or more panels.
  • Classical ornament: Influenced by the Roman motif in style.

Albrecht Dürer

One of a small number of Germans with the means to travel internationally, Nuremberg born Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) helped bring the artistic styles of the Renaissance north of the Italian Alps after his visits to the Italian peninsula in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Like the Italian artists Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarotti, Dürer was a Renaissance Man, adept in multiple disciplines such as painting, printmaking , and mathematical theorizing. Dürer’s introduction of classical motifs into Northern art has secured his reputation as one of the most important figures of the Northern Renaissance . This is reinforced by his theoretical treatises, which involve principles of mathematics, perspective , and ideal proportions.

One of Dürer’s paintings that display a clearly classical rendering of the body is Adam and Eve (1507), the first full-scale nude subjects in German painting. A clear departure from flat and stylized representations of the Romanesque and Gothic periods, the bodies appear naturalistic and dynamic, with each figure posed in an engaging contrapposto pose. Although they stand against a black background, the ground on which both figures stand and the tree that flanks Eve comprise naturalistic landscape elements. Likely the first landscape painter in Early Modern Europe, Dürer honed his landscape painting skills working en plein air at home and during his travels.

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Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve: Oil on panel. 1507. Two panels, each 209 cm × 81 cm (82 in × 32 in) Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Matthias Grünewald

Lying somewhat outside these developments is Matthias Grünewald, whose birthplace is located in eastern France and who left very few works. However, his Isenheim Altarpiece (1512–1516), produced in collaboration with Niclaus of Haguenau, has been widely regarded as the greatest German Renaissance painting since it was restored to critical attention in the 19th century. It is an intensely emotional work that continues the German Gothic tradition of unrestrained gesture and expression, using Renaissance compositional principles while maintaining the Gothic format of the multi-winged polyptych .

The altarpiece has two sets of wings, displaying three configurations with Jesus on the Cross at the center.

Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece (closed): Oil on panel (exterior). Wooden relief sculptures (interior). 1512–16. Unterlinden Museum, Colmar, Alsace.

In its closed form , the Isenheim Altarpiece depicts an emaciated Christ whose skin bears many dark spots. Its lower panel, which houses relief sculptures displayed on certain feast days, opens in a manner that makes the legs of Christ, being entombed, appear amputated. Not surprisingly, Grünewald produced the altarpiece for a chapel in an infirmary that treated patients with a variety of diseases, including ergotism and isolated remaining strains of the plague. A primary symptom of both diseases was painful sores on the skin. In some cases of ergotism, limbs developed gangrene and had to be amputated. Through the skin sores and seemingly amputated legs, Grünewald informs the viewer that Christ understands and feels the suffering of the sick. Such “humanization” of Biblical figures became common throughout Europe during the Renaissance in an effort to make them more relatable to worshippers.

The Danube School

Albrecht Altdorfer’s (c.1480–1538) Danube Landscape near Regensburg (c. 1528) is one of the earliest Western pure landscapes. The Danube School is the name of a circle of artists from the southern German-speaking states active during the first third of the 16th century in Bavaria and Austria, including Albrecht Altdorfer, Wolf Huber, and Augustin Hirschvogel. With Altdorfer in the lead, the school produced the first examples of independent landscape art in the West (nearly 1,000 years after China), in both paintings and prints. Their religious paintings had an expressionist style somewhat similar to Grünewald’s. Dürer’s pupils Hans Burgkmair and Hans Baldung Grien worked largely in prints, with Baldung developing the topical subject matter of witches in a number of enigmatic prints.

Landscape depicts a road winding through the countryside. There is a building in the background and mountains in the distance.

Albrecht Altdorfer (c.1480–1538), Danube landscape near Regensburg (c. 1528): One of the earliest Western pure landscapes, from the Danube School in southern Germany.

Hans Holbein the Elder

Hans Holbein the Elder and his brother Sigismund Holbein painted richly colored religious works. His later paintings show how he pioneered and led the transformation of German art from the (Late) International Gothic to the Renaissance style. Holbein the Elder was a pioneer and leader in the transformation of German art from the Gothic to the Renaissance style. His son, Hans Holbein the Younger, was an important painter of portraits and a few religious works, working mainly in England and Switzerland.

The Virgin Mary sits in bed, preparing for death. She is surrounded by apostles.

Hans Holbein the Elder, Dormition of the Virgin: Oil on panel. c. 1491. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.

The outstanding achievements of the first half of the 16th century were followed by a remarkable absence of noteworthy German art. The next significant German artists worked in the rather artificial style of Northern Mannerism , which they had to learn in Italy or Flanders . Hans von Aachen and the Netherlandish Bartholomeus Spranger were the leading painters at the Imperial courts in Vienna and Prague, and the productive Netherlandish Sadeler family of engravers spread out across Germany, among other counties.

Spanish Painting in the Northern Renaissance

Spanish art of the Northern Renaissance was influenced by Netherlandish painting, due to shared economic and political connections.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the Golden Age of Spain as manifested through painting

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Spain was an extremely devout country and Spanish painting in the 16th century exhibited a sense of religious intensity .
  • El Greco was one of the most important and distinctive artists to emerge during the Spanish Golden Age.
  • Mannerism was the dominant style of painting for most of the 16th century.

Key Terms

  • intensity: The degree of depth, strength, or brilliance of a color or light.
  • sfumato: In painting, the application of subtle layers of translucent paint so that there is no visible transition between colors, tones, and often objects.
  • Mannerism: A style of art developed at the end of the High Renaissance, characterized by the deliberate distortion and exaggeration of perspective, especially the elongation of figures.

Influence of the Netherlands

Due to important economic and political links between Spain and the Netherlands (which included present-day Holland and Belgium) from the mid-15th century onwards, the early Renaissance in Spain was heavily influenced by Netherlandish painting, leading to the identification of a Hispano-Netherlandish school of painters. Overall the Renaissance and subsequent Mannerist styles are difficult to categorize in Spain, due to the mix of Netherlandish and Italian influences, and regional variations.

Apart from technical aspects, the themes and spirit of the Renaissance were modified to the Spanish culture and religious environment. Consequently, very few classical subjects or female nudes were depicted. Rather, the works frequently exhibited a sense of pious devotion and religious intensity—attributes that would remain dominant in much art of Counter Reformation Spain throughout the 17th century and beyond.

Spanish Golden Age

The Spanish Golden Age, a period of Spanish political ascendancy and subsequent decline, saw a great development of art in Spain. The period is generally considered to have begun at some point after 1492 and ended by or with the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659; in art the start is delayed until the reign of Philip III (1598–1621) or just before, and the end is also delayed until the 1660s or later.

Luis de Morales

The most popular Spanish painter of the early 16th century was Luis de Morales (c. 1510–1586), called “The Divine” by his contemporaries, because of the religious intensity of his paintings. From the Renaissance style, he also frequently used sfumato modeling, and simple compositions but combined them with Netherlandish style precision of details. His subjects included many devotional images, including the Madonna and Child.

Madonna is looking down at the Child, who is cradled in her arms, and he is looking up at her.

Luis de Morales, Madonna and Child: Oil on canvas. 1586. Museo del Prado, Madrid.

El Greco

Doménikos Theotokópoulos, better known as El Greco (1541–1614) “the Greek,” was one of the most individualistic of the painters of the period, developing a strongly Mannerist style based on his origins in the post-Byzantine Cretan school, in contrast to the naturalistic approaches then predominant in Seville, Madrid, and elsewhere in Spain.

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Portrait of a Man by El Greco, 1604: This is presumably a self-portrait by the great Spanish Mannerist.

Universally known for his great impact in bringing the Italian Renaissance to Spain, El Greco studied the great Italian masters of his time—Titian, Tintoretto, and Michelangelo—when he lived in Italy from 1568 to 1577. Many of his works reflect the silvery grays and strong colors of Venetian painters such as Titian, while adding strange elongations of figures, unusual lighting, disposing of perspective space , and filling the surface with very visible and expressive brushwork. Although his signature style would eventually become renowned and influence later artists, during his lifetime, El Greco received harsh criticism in his native Crete and his adopted country of Spain for not conforming to stylistic norms.

In 1577, El Greco relocated to Spain, where he produced his mature works. His mature style is characterized by a tendency to dramatize rather than to describe. The strong spiritual emotion transfers from painting directly to the audience. El Greco’s preference for exceptionally tall and slender figures and elongated compositions, which served both his expressive purposes and aesthetic principles, led him to disregard the laws of nature and elongate his compositions to ever greater extents, particularly when they were destined for altarpieces .

The painting shows Christ looking up to Heaven with an expression of serenity. Christ is clad in a bright red robe. He is surrounded by many figures.

The Disrobing of Christ (El Espolio) by El Greco, 1577–79: Oil on canvas. Sacristy of the Cathedral, Toledo. This is one of the most famous altarpieces by El Greco. His altarpieces are renowned for their dynamic compositions and startling innovations.

A significant innovation of El Greco’s mature works is the interweaving between form and space. A reciprocal relationship is developed between the two that completely unifies the painting surface. This interweaving would re-emerge three centuries later in the works of Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso .

El Greco’s most famous painting, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (1586–88) blends his signature style with the classical revival of the Renaissance and medieval renderings of the body. The lower register represents the earthly plane in which mourners gather for the count’s burial. The count, the mourners, and most of the clergy are rendered in a manner that acknowledge the body beneath the clothing. However, the two high-ranking clergy members burying the body, as well as the one reading the sermon on the right, wear bulky garments that do not acknowledge the body, as figures were often depicted in the Middle Ages . On the upper register, Christ, the Virgin Mary, and a host of members of the heavenly court gather to welcome the count’s soul (the kneeling semi-naked man in a loincloth) to heaven. In this other worldy depiction, El Greco has elongated the bodies and filled negative spaces with sweeping, expressive lines and forms to create a sense of drama.

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The Burial of the Count of Orgaz by El Greco: Now El Greco’s best known work, this painting illustrates a popular local legend. It is clearly divided into two zones: the heavenly above and the terrestrial below, brought together compositionally.

English Painting in the Northern Renaissance

The Tudor period was, for England, one of isolation from European trends.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the paintings produced under the Tudor dynasty in England

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In the Tudor period, foreign artists were recruited and often welcomed lavishly by the English court.
  • The Netherlandish painters remained predominant, though French influence was also important for Lucas Horenbout and Nicholas Hilliard. Despite a growing influence of classicism on the continent, Horenbout’s early miniatures of the royal family show a strong influence of illuminated manuscript styles .
  • The German artist Hans Holbein the Younger was probably the best known painter of the court of Henry VIII. His double portrait The Ambassadors foreshadows the increasingly secular subject matter of English painting.
  • With the virtual extinction of religious painting during the Reformation , and little interest in classical mythology until the very end of the period, the portrait was the most important form of painting for all the artists of the Tudor court, and the only one to have survived in any numbers.
  • A portrait of Elizabeth I as a princess is largely absent of religious symbolism despite its sitter’s future role as Defender of the Faith. Although the style of the portrait bears striking similarities to contemporary royal portraits produced in France, the sitter’s status as a female future sovereign was unique for its time.

Key Terms

  • limner: A painter who specializes in the production of portrait miniatures.
  • Tudors: A European royal house of Welsh origin that ruled the Kingdom of England and its realms, including the Lordship of Ireland (later the Kingdom of Ireland) from 1485 until 1603.

Art of the Tudor Court

The artists of the Tudor court were the painters and limners engaged by the English monarchs’ Tudor dynasty and their courtiers between 1485 and 1603 (from the reign of Henry VII to the death of Elizabeth I). Typically managing a group of assistants and apprentices in a workshop or studio, many of these artists produced works across several disciplines, including portrait miniatures, large-scale panel portraits on wood, and illuminated manuscripts.

The Tudor period was, for England, one of unusual isolation from European trends. At the start, the Wars of the Roses had greatly disrupted artistic activity, which apart from architecture had reached a very low ebb by 1485. In the Tudor period, foreign artists were recruited and often welcomed lavishly by the English court, as they were in other artistically marginal parts of Europe like Spain or Naples. The Netherlandish painters remained predominant, though French influence was also important for both Lucas Horenbout, trained in illuminated manuscripts, and Nicholas Hilliard, the founder and greatest exponent of the distinctively English tradition of the portrait miniature. Horenbout’s portrait miniature of Katharine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII, with its relatively flat subject matter and gold outlines , bears a closer resemblance to illuminated manuscripts than to the realistically modeled classical style appearing elsewhere in Europe at the time.

Katharine is wearing black, her gaze slightly to the right, with a monkey sitting on her left arm.

Katharine of Aragon with a Monkey by Lucas Horenbout, 1525–26. Miniature.

The Court of Henry VIII

Possibly the best known painter employed in the court of Henry VIII was the German artist Hans Holbein the Younger (1497–1543), who worked in the style of the Northern Renaissance . His portraits of the royal family and nobles are a record of the court in the years when the king was asserting his supremacy over the English church. By 1533, when Holbein painted his famous double portrait The Ambassadors, Henry VIII had severed the Church of England from Rome when the Pope refused to allow the king to divorce Katharine of Aragon and marry Anne Boelyn.

Two men stand on either side of a table that has many objects on it.

The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533: Oil on panel. National Gallery, London.

Although Holbein’s sitters Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve were ordained Catholic priests from France, religious symbolism in the painting is significantly subordinated. Almost hidden behind the green curtain in the upper left-hand corner is a crucifix. On the second level of the table between the ambassadors is a lute (typically a symbol of harmony) with a broken string, symbolizing the separation of the English church from Roman Catholicism. The book in front of it provides an explanation for the discord, as it is opened to a hymn to Martin Luther, who began the Protestant Reformation . Unlike Holbein’s native land, in which Lutheranism permitted a certain degree of religious imagery , the subject matter in The Ambassadors foreshadows the new direction in religious austerity in English art as Catholicism became less tolerated.

The Court of Elizabeth I

With the virtual extinction of religious painting during the Reformation and little interest in classical mythology until the very end of the period, the portrait was the most important form of painting for all the artists of the Tudor court, and the only form to have survived in any numbers. How many of these have also been lost can be seen from Holbein’s book (nearly all pages in the Royal Collection), containing preparatory drawings for portraits. Of 85 drawings, only a handful have surviving Holbein paintings, though often copies have survived. Portraiture ranged from the informal miniature—almost invariably painted from life in the course of a few days and intended for private contemplation—to the later large-scale portraits of Elizabeth I, such as the Rainbow Portrait, filled with symbolic iconography in dress, jewels, background, and inscription.

In this painting an ageless Elizabeth appears dressed as if for a masque, in a linen bodice embroidered with spring flowers and a mantle draped over one shoulder, her hair loose beneath a fantastical headdress.

The Rainbow Portrait by Isaac Oliver c. 1600.: This portrait of Elizabeth I as the “Queen of Love and Beauty” epitomizes the elaborate iconography associated with later Tudor court portraiture.

Elizabeth I took a personal interest in painting, keeping her own collection of miniatures locked away, wrapped in paper on which she wrote the names of the sitter. She is reputed to have had paintings of her burnt that did not match the iconic image she wished to be shown. One portrait that she did retain was painted before she ascended the throne. Elizabeth I as Princess (c. 1546), once attributed to William Scrots but now believed to have been painted by Levinia Teerlinc, depicts a young literate woman standing erect and exchanging her gaze with the viewer in the confident manner in which Jean Clouet painted François I of France. Whereas Holbein subordinates the crucifix in The Ambassadors, the only hint at religious symbolism in this portrait of the future Defender of the Faith are the abstract cruciform designs on her brooch and her belt. The book in her hand and on the easel behind her bear no title or writing, allowing them to be interpreted as secular literature, as opposed to Biblical scripture.

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Elizabeth I as Princess by Levinia Teerlinc [?], c. 1546: Oil on panel. Royal Collection, Windsor Castle.

While the portrait style of the classically rendered confident sitter against a decorative background shows French influence, the gender of the sitter was unique to England at the time. Because Henry VIII’s only surviving son had died during his adolescence, the English law of succession had to be amended to allow Elizabeth and her elder sister Mary access to the throne. Later portraits of Elizabeth would often depict her holding a globe in her hand to symbolize her growing international power in an age of exploration and conquest. In France, on the other hand, women were barred from serving as sovereign rulers and would never be pictured as possessing such power.