The Northern Renaissance of European Art

What and when was Europe's Northern Renaissance?

Martin Luther. Portrait of Martin Luther 1483-1546. Chromolithography after Hombres y Mujeres celebres 1877, Barcelona Spain
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When we talk about the Northern Renaissance, what we actually mean is "Renaissance happenings that occurred within Europe, but outside of Italy." Because the most innovative art was created in France, the Netherlands and Germany during this time, and because all of these places are north of Italy, the "Northern" tag has stuck.

Geography aside, there were some significant differences between the Italian Renaissance and the Northern Renaissance.

For one thing, the north held on to Gothic (or "Middle Ages") art and architecture with a tighter, longer grip than did Italy. (Architecture, in particular, remained Gothic until well into the 16th century.) This isn't to say that art wasn't changing in the north - in many instances it kept apace with Italian doings. The Northern Renaissance artists, however, were scattered about and few in number initially (very unlike their Italian counterparts).

The north had fewer centers of free commerce than did Italy. Italy, as we saw, had numerous Duchies and Republics which gave rise to a wealthy merchant class that often spent considerable funds on art. This wasn't the case in the north. In fact, the only notable similarity between northern Europe and, say, a place like Florence, lay in the Duchy of Burgundy.

Burgundy's Role in the Renaissance

Burgundy, until 1477, encompassed a territory from present-day middle France northward (in an arc) to the sea, and included Flanders (in modern Belgium) and parts of the current Netherlands.

It was the only individual entity standing between France and the enormous Holy Roman Empire. Its Dukes, during the last 100 years it existed, were given monikers of "the Good," "the Fearless" and "the Bold" (although apparently the last "Bold" Duke wasn't quite bold enough, as Burgundy was absorbed by both France and the Holy Roman Empire at the end of his reign...but, I digress...)

The Burgundian Dukes were excellent patrons of the arts, but the art they sponsored was different from that of their Italian counterparts. Their interests were along the lines of illuminated manuscripts, tapestries and furnishings (they owned quite a few castles, these Dukes). Things were different in Italy, where patrons were more keen on paintings, sculpture and architecture.

In the broader scheme of things, the social changes in Italy were inspired, as we've seen, by Humanism. Italian artists, writers and philosophers were driven to study Classical antiquity and explore man's supposed capacity for rational choice. They believed that Humanism led to more dignified and worthy humans.

In the north (possibly in part because the north did not have works of antiquity from which to learn), change was brought about by a different rationale. Thinking minds in the north were more concerned with religious reform, feeling that Rome (from whom they were physically distanced) had strayed too far from Christian values. In fact, as northern Europe became more openly rebellious over the authority of the Church, art took a decidedly secular turn.

Additionally, Renaissance artists in the north took a different approach to composition than did Italian artists.

Where an Italian artist was apt to consider scientific principles behind composition (i.e., proportion, anatomy, perspective) during the Renaissance, northern artists were more concerned with what their art looked like. Color was of key importance, above and beyond form. And the more detail a northern artist could cram into a piece, the happier he was.

Close inspection of Northern Renaissance paintings will show the viewer numerous instances where individual hairs have been carefully rendered, along with every single object in the room including the artist himself, distantly inverted in a background mirror.

Different Materials Used by Different Arists

Finally, it's important to note that northern Europe enjoys different geophysical conditions than does (most of) Italy. For example, there are lots of stained glass windows in northern Europe partly for the practical reason that people living there have more need of barriers against the elements.

Italy, during the Renaissance (and, of course, beyond) produced some fabulous egg tempera paintings and frescoes, along with glorious marble statuary. There's an excellent reason the north isn't known for its frescoes: The climate isn't conducive to curing them.

Italy produced marble sculptures because it has marble quarries. You'll note that Northern Renaissance sculpture is, by and large, worked in wood. 

    Similarities between the Northern and Italian Renaissances

    Until 1517, when Martin Luther lit the wildfire of Reformation, both places shared a common faith. In fact, it's interesting to note that what we now think of as Europe didn't think of itself as Europe, back during Renaissance days. If you had had the opportunity, at the time, to ask a European traveler in the Middle East or Africa where he hailed from, he likely would have answered "Christendom" -- regardless of whether he was from Florence or Flanders.

    Beyond providing a unifying presence, the Church supplied all artists of the period with a common subject matter. The earliest beginnings of northern Renaissance art are eerily similar to the Italian Proto-Renaissance, in that each chose Christian religious stories and figures as the predominant artistic theme.

    The Importance of Guilds

    Another common factor that Italy and the rest of Europe shared during the Renaissance was the Guild system. Arising during the Middle Ages, Guilds were the best paths a man could take to learning a craft, be it painting, sculpture or making saddles. Training in any specialty was long, rigorous and comprised of sequential steps. Even after one completed a "masterpiece," and gained acceptance into a Guild, the Guild continued to keep tabs on standards and practices amongst its members.

    Thanks to this self-policing policy, most of the money exchanging hands - when works of art were commissioned and paid for - went to Guild members. (As you might imagine, it was to an artist's financial benefit to belong to a Guild.) If possible, the Guild system was even more entrenched in northern Europe than it was in Italy.

    After 1450, both Italy and northern Europe had access to printed materials. Though subject matter might vary from region to region, often it was the same - or similar enough to establish commonality of thought.

    Finally, one significant similarity that Italy and the North shared was that each had a definite artistic "center" during the 15th century. In Italy, as previously mentioned, artists looked to the Republic of Florence for innovation and inspiration.

    In the North, the artistic hub was Flanders. Flanders was a part, back then, of the Duchy of Burgundy. It had a thriving commercial city, Bruges, which (like Florence) made its money in banking and wool. Bruges had cash aplenty to spend on luxuries like art. And (again like Florence) Burgundy, on the whole, was governed by patronage-minded rulers. Where Florence had the Medici, Burgundy had Dukes. At least until the last quarter of the 15th century, that is.

      Chronology of the Northern Renaissance

      In Burgundy, the Northern Renaissance got its start primarily in the graphic arts. Beginning in the 14th-century, an artist could make a good living if he was proficient in producing illuminated manuscripts. 

      The late 14th and early 15th centuries saw illumination take off and, in some cases, take over entire pages. Instead of relatively sedate red capital letters, we now saw whole paintings (albeit small in scale) crowding manuscript pages right out to the borders. The French Royals, in particular, were avid collectors of these manuscripts, which became so popular that text was rendered largely unimportant.

      The Northern Renaissance artist who is largely credited with developing oil techniques was Jan van Eyck, court painter to the Duke of Burgundy. It's not that he discovered oil paints, but he did figure out how to layer them, in "glazes," to create light and depth of color in his paintings. The Flemish van Eyck, his brother Hubert, and their Netherlandish predecessor Robert Campin (also known as the Master of Flémalle) were all painters who created altarpieces in the first half of the fifteenth century.

      Three other key Netherlandish artists were the painters Rogier van der Weyden and Hans Memling, and the sculptor Claus Sluter. Van der Weyden, who was the town painter of Brussels, was best known for introducing accurate human emotions and gestures into his work, which was primarily of a religious nature.

      One other early Northern Renaissance artist that created a lasting stir was the enigmatic Hieronymus Bosch. No one can say what his motivation was, but he certainly created some darkly imaginative and highly unique paintings.

      Something that all of these painters had in common was their use of naturalistic objects within compositions. Sometimes these objects had symbolic meanings, while at other times they were just there to illustrate aspects of daily life.

      In taking in the 15th century, it's important to note that Flanders was the center of the Northern Renaissance. Just as with Florence - at this same time - Flanders was the place that northern artists looked to for "cutting edge" artistic techniques and technology. This situation persisted until 1477, when the last Burgundian Duke was defeated in battle and Burgundy ceased to exist.