Europe 1300 - 1800
- An introduction to the Northern Renaissance in the fifteenth century
- Introduction to Fifteenth-century Flanders
- Introduction to Burgundy in the Fifteenth Century
- Northern Renaissance art under Burgundian rule
- The role of the workshop in late medieval and early modern northern Europe
- The Norfolk Triptych and how it was made
- Northern Renaissance in the fifteenth century (part 1)
- Northern Renaissance in the fifteenth century (part 2)
An introduction to the Northern Renaissance in the fifteenth century
By Dr. Bonnie Noble
Albrecht Dürer, Self-Portrait, 1500, 67.1 x 48.9 cm (Alte Pinakothek, Munich; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
What was the Renaissance and where did it happen?
The word Renaissance is generally defined as the rebirth of classical antiquity in Italy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Seems simple enough, but the word “Renaissance” is actually fraught with complexity.
Scholars argue about exactly when the Renaissance happened, where it took place, how long it lasted, or if it even happened at all. Scholars also disagree about whether the Renaissance is a “rebirth” of classical antiquity (ancient Greece and Rome) or simply a continuation of classical traditions but with different emphases.
Traditional accounts of the Renaissance favor a narrative that places the birth of the Renaissance in Florence, Italy. In this narrative, Italian art and ideas migrate North from Italy (largely because of the travels of the great German artist Albrecht Dϋrer who studied, admired, and was inspired by Italy, and he carried his Italian experiences back to Germany).
The Renaissance in Northern Europe
However, so much changed in northern Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that the era deserves to be evaluated on its own terms. So we use the term "Northern Renaissance" to refer to the Renaissance that occurred in Europe north of the Alps.
Some of the most important changes in northern Europe include the:
- invention of the printing press, c. 1450
- advent of mechanically reproducible media such as woodcuts and engravings
- formation of a merchant class of art patrons that purchased works in oil on panel
- Protestant Reformation and the translation of the Bible from the original languages into the vernacular or common languages such as German and French
- international trade in urban centers
Jan (and Hubert?) van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece (also known as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb), interior, 1432, tempera and oil on panel, 11-5/8 x 15-1/8 inches (open) (Cathedral of Saint Bavo, Ghent, Belgium; photo: Zen3500)
The fifteenth century: van Eyck
In the fifteenth century, northern artists such as Jan van Eyck introduced powerful and influential changes, such as the perfection of oil paint and almost impossible representation of minute detail, practices that clearly distinguish Northern art from Italian art as well as art from the preceding centuries. Jan and Hubert van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, 1432 (Church of Saint Bavo, Ghent) exemplifies the grand scale and minute detail of Northern painting.
Jan (and Hubert?) van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece (also known as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb), exterior, 1432, tempera and oil on panel, 147-5/8 x 102 -3/8 inches (closed, after restoration) (Cathedral of Saint Bavo, Ghent, Belgium; photo: Madatoille)
This public, religious picture has an open and closed position. On the interior, we see such holy figures as the Virgin, Christ, saints, and angels. It also showcases the largesse of the donors, depicted kneeling on the lowest corners of the exterior, who employed the van Eyck brothers to immortalize them in this very public work of art.
Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434, tempera and oil on oak panel, 82.2 x 60 cm (The National Gallery, London; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait shows a well-to-do couple in a tasteful, bourgeois interior. The text in the back of the image identifies the date and Jan van Eyck as the artist. Art historians disagree about what is actually happening in the image, whether this is a betrothal or a marriage, or perhaps something else entirely. One of the most important aspects of this painting is the symbolic meanings of the objects, for instance that the dog may symbolize fidelity (“Fido”) or that the fruit on the windowsill may signify either wealth or temptation. This painting is a touchstone for the study of iconography, a method of interpreting works of art by deciphering symbolic meaning.
Though Jan van Eyck did not invent oil paint, he used the medium to greater effect than any other artist to date. Oil would become a predominant medium for painting for centuries, favored in art academies into the nineteenth century and beyond. The Arnolfinis counted as middle class because their wealth came from trade rather than inherited titles and land. The power of the merchant-class patrons of northern Europe cultivated a taste for art made for domestic display. Decorating one’s home is still a powerful motivation for art patrons. Museum visitors repeatedly comment, “well, I wouldn’t want it in my living room.”
Read two chapters about Northern Renaissance art in Reframing Art History, our free textbook: Late medieval multimedia and devotion and Printing and painting in Northern Renaissance art.
Essay by Dr. Bonnie Noble
Want to join the conversation?
- Are there any differences in the Northern Renaissance and the Italian Renaissance. For example, which one was more focused on humanism? Where does religion tie into this one?(6 votes)
- "Humanism" is a tricky word with many different meanings -- it is more of an umbrella term than a specific, self-conscious movement. Personally, I like to define it as "the study of the history and literature of classical antiquity," which is likely the closest to the original intent. After all, the word comes from the Italian umanista, meaning a teacher who lectured on the Humanities. Humanists were scholars who promoted the study of the literature and history of classical Greece and Rome. This set them apart from the Scholastics, who were more intent on dialectic, disputation, Aristotelian logic, etc.
So, was the North or South more interested in humanism? Because Italy was culturally closer to ancient Rome (many notable humanists were almost embarrassingly nostalgic for the ancient ruins of Italy) this is where the study of the classics was strongest. Italian humanism was generally more secular and more focused on reviving Roman culture.
On the other hand, the North was more focused on Reformation and the reinterpretation of Christianity. For example, Erasmus, the so-called "Prince of Humanists", learned ancient Greek and Latin so that he could better translate the new and old Testaments. He was an important figure in the Reformation. There was less interest in pagan antiquity when compared to the Italian Renaissance.(16 votes)
- "Scholars argue about exactly when the Renaissance happened, where it took place, how long it lasted, or if it even happened at all."
What is meant by "even if it happened at all"? Aren't the changes in the arts (sculpture, painting, etc.) pretty obvious, plus the rise of humanism, plus the renewed interest in the natural world that eventually lead to the scientific method? How can one deny the existence of the Renaissance?(4 votes)
- I don't think denying the Renaissance period or it's changes is even an option. In my opinion, God like challenges, so he created these scholars to bring about these type of agreements and disagreement's to challenge the mind and broaden their and the viewer imaginations. All the evidence are in the art and the art books.(0 votes)
- In the 15th and 16th centuries if the word Renaissance is defined as rebirth, why would scholars disagree about whether these time frames were a rebirth or continuation? In my opinion, with all these changes in Northern Europe I believe it is a time of rebirth. For example, what about the printing press or trade in urban centers?(3 votes)
- Well, Europe had been undergoing innovation and development for hundreds of years by that point, so the printing press was just another invention - continuous with what had happened previously. Also, the word "rebirth" assumes the new technology had existed before, which it did not - the Romans were nowhere near as advanced as Northern Europe by that point!
This is how I see it, and I hope it helps. If you have any further questions, please do ask :)(6 votes)
- Why isn't there a video ?(0 votes)
- Essays are also a good way to communicate information.(10 votes)
- Who are all the images in the mirror?(3 votes)
- the small medallions Inside the frame of the Mirror show the passion of christ. Inside the Mirror, the couple and the painter himself and maybe a visitor or a priest.(3 votes)
- Are islam was borned at italy when 1450(1 vote)
- was there any other religious faith prevalent at that time?(2 votes)
- If van Eyck didn't invent oil paints, then who did?(3 votes)
- Usually Jan van Eyck or Roger van der Weyden are credited for inventing oil painting, and probably came up with the idea independently -- but this medium was used long before those two painters. For example, Japanese artists used perilla oil mixed with lead from the 8th century onward. In 12th century Germany, a monk named Theophilus discusses using oils in painting and warns against olive oil. I'm sure previous civilizations also used oils in painting, but that records from that time do not survive.
But for more modern uses of oils in painting, I think the 15th century painters from the Low Countries are the true pioneers [although what is "modern" is all relative].(1 vote)
- In which museum (if any) is the Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Double Portrait displayed?(1 vote)
- Did the Renaissance occur anywhere besides Italy and Northern Europe? Like Spain or England?(1 vote)
- "In the 15th century, the Renaissance spread rapidly from its birthplace in Florence to the rest of Italy and soon to the rest of Europe." Read all about it here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renaissance#Spread(1 vote)
- Hey I have heard about a concept known as oppressed and oppression. -Who had the most influence on art production and consumption? Who was advantaged and oppressed by their access and control of art? Were there any non-christian population present there?(1 vote)
- This is a good question, but I don't think in the northern renaissance it will prove particularly fruitful for you to pursue it from the oppressed and oppression angle. You'll likely find that it boils down to money then, and who could afford to pay for artists.(1 vote)