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)
Northern Renaissance art under Burgundian rule
We often think of the Renaissance as an entirely Italian phenomenon, but in northern Europe there was also a Renaissance. Though profoundly different, the Italian and Northern Renaissances shared a similar interest in the natural world and re-creating the illusion of reality in their paintings and sculptures.
The Burgundian Netherlands (map: National Gallery of Art)
The Dukes of Burgundy
In the 15th century, the northern European countries we know today as Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg were controlled by the enormously wealthy Dukes of Burgundy (Burgundy is a region in France). This region during the 15th century is often referred to, today, as the Burgundian Netherlands. The court of the Dukes of Burgundy were the most important patrons of the early Northern Renaissance, but newly wealthy private citizens also commissioned art as part of a growing interest in private meditation and prayer. Portraits were also commissioned in growing numbers.
Like Florence, cities in Northern Europe (Bruges, Ghent and then later Antwerp and Brussels), were rich industrial and banking centers during this period and this allowed a large merchant-class to flourish creating an ideal environment for artistic production.
In Italy, the renaissance was deeply influenced by the art and culture of Ancient Greece and Rome—in part because the art and architecture of antiquity was more immediately available (ruins were plentiful in many cities). Northern Europe however did not have such ready access to ancient monuments and so tended to draw instead more directly from medieval traditions such as manuscript illuminations.
Oil Paint: glazes
Though the medium of oil paint had been in use since the late middle ages, the artists of the North more fully exploited this medium’s unique characteristics. Using thin layers of paint, called glazes, northern artists created 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 representing the material reality that was so important to Renaissance artists and their patrons. 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.
The great artists of this period created work that reflected their increasingly mercantile world, even when they worked for the court of the Dukes. The spiritual world reigned supreme but the representation of wealth and power were also a hugely important motive for patrons whether a pope, a duke, or a banker.
Essay by Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker
Want to join the conversation?
- Who wrote this article? It would be great to know for citing it.(4 votes)
- From the author:All unsigned articles in the art history section were co-authored by Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker.(9 votes)
- Can anyone recommend some art books that focus on the Northern Renaissance?(4 votes)
- You might want to look at Susie Nash's book, "Northern Renaissance Art" from Oxford University Press.(4 votes)
- What are some examples of Netherlands painters?(3 votes)
- Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, etc.(1 vote)
- Who wrote this article(1 vote)
- Will we go over a more specific article on the Medici Family?(1 vote)
- The Medici are central to dozens of our videos though we have not yet devoted an essay or video to the family as a whole.(1 vote)
- Since when were the low countries part of Northern Europe? Different sources define Northern Europe differently, but even the broadest definition I could find only includes Scandinavia, Finland, Iceland, the British Isles and the Baltic countries.(1 vote)
- "Northern Europe" is a convenient category with a movable boundary. Try a linguistic line: Europe where the languages are primarily Latinate (French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Romainan) are NOT Northern Europe. Places where the languages are more Saxon, Teutonic or Nordic might qualify as northern. Of course, that leaves Finland and Hungary somewhere else!(1 vote)
- Oil glazes were first used in the 1500's. One doesn't truly understand the significance of it until we realize how far it goes back. Artists then used a thin layer for texture and light reflecting. Isn't it fascinating that we still use it for the same purpose proving that maybe this was the rebirth of something for our future and future artists?(1 vote)
- I agree that's incredible the fact that we still use the same mediums, however I think we use for different purproses.(1 vote)