Northern Renaissance

15th Century in Northern Europe


5374f4b373447756a0db9ac0655c5c2832304e58The late Gothic world in the North of Europe experienced turmoil due to plague, rebellion, declining feudalism and a separation religiously from Rome and the Vatican due to the Great Schism. Wars also raged between the kings and lords of Europe, the greatest of which was The Hundred Years War (1337-1453) between England and France.

Flanders (Low Countries), which is today Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxemberg and Northern France, showed movement towards centralized governments that began in the 12th century. There was also an emerging capitalist system in the north similar to that of Italy and families like the Medici managed trade between North and South Europe. As a result, many people moved from rural areas to city centers. The first international commercial stock exchange was also established in Antwerp in 1460.

This era in art demonstrated an increased use of oil paints as a media, especially in the North where the climate and spaces forced artists to work on a smaller, more portable scale. There was also a growing relationship between art and historical context focusing on life at the time as artists were working to please a growing middle class with a desire to surround themselves with art that they could relate to.

French Manuscript Illumination

French manuscript illumination represents a new conception and presentation of space, as the book allowed for more of a connection between the viewer and the image. Monasteries had previously had a monopoly on manuscript illumination through their scriptorium, but as more people were gaining literacy following the invention of moveable type and mass printing by Gutenberg, books were in demand. Artists began illustrating as a trade skill, and several stood out for their craft.

Limbourg Brothers

Limbourg Brothers, Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, 1412-16

The Limbourg Brothers followed in the footsteps of earlier illustrators. Their Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, 1412-1416, was a Book of Hours for the Duke of Berry. A "Book of Hours" is a manuscript that contains calendar pages and often notes when specific religious rites are to be held. The Duke of Berry had an extensive library with more than 300 manuscripts. This particular manuscript was used for reciting prayers and perhaps contains the most famous manuscript illuminations in all history.

The book depicts alternating scenes of nobility and peasantry, some showing the Duke. It contains a twenty-four page illustrated calendar where each month is given a two-page spread. The illustration is depicted on the left page, the calendar on the right. It also included astronomical charts with phases of the moon and constellations.

What is groundbreaking with this manuscript is its depictions of illusionistic space. The genre imagery contains a sense of naturalism obtained through observation. The book further demonstrates a stark contrast between peasant life and nobility, but played towards the Duke’s idea of a compassionate master and a devout man. The subject expanded the range of subject matter and the prominence of genre subjects in a religious book, demonstrating the increasing interaction between religious and secular culture in Northern Europe. All three of the brothers died in 1416 before completing the book and it was finished by another illustrator some 70 years later.

Flemish Art

The Duke of Berry’s grand nephew, Philip the Good, ruled a region known as Burgundy with the center at Bruges, which is now in modern-day Belgium. The Flemish gained much of their wealth from wool trade and banking. This wealth and expanded territory led the Dukes of Burgundy to be the most powerful rulers in Northern Europe during the first three quarters of the 15th century.

The Great Schism between the popes in Avignon and Rome was a political struggle that allowed for advancement. This political motivation led also to appointments by the Dukes for upper-level clergy, further leading to neglect of function in the Church in pursuit of material gain. Commissions for both public and personal devotion accompanied political moves and were assumed to lead to the donor’s salvation. These commissions also allowed for increased public involvement in religion and outwardly displayed the apparent sophistication of the duke toward his people.

Claus Sluter

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Claus Slutter, Well of Moses, 1395-1406

Claus Sluter was a sculptor in charge of Philip the Bold’s sculpture workshop. His Well of Moses is a fountain located in a well which served as a water source for the monastery of Chartreuse de Champmol. The well probably didn’t spout water like a fountain, but rather acted as a cap as Carthusians were committed to silence and prayer and such noise would have been a distraction.

The base contains Old Testament prophets while the top held a crucifixion group. It is meant to be a symbolic fountain of life as the "Blood of Christ" flows down over the Old Testament prophets, washing away their sins and falling into the well below.

The well recalls statues on Gothic portals but is a more realistic depiction. The differentiating textures from drapery to flesh to hair, the use of matrials which cast subtl tonses of light contribute to this realism. It is of note that the work was originally painted. These qualities make it seem naturalistic, without demonstrating classical anatomy.


Altarpieces are visible manifestations of piety by wealthy donors. They also serve as backdrops for mass when placed within the church setting. Altarpieces mostly depict scenes dealing directly with Christ’s sacrifice and were made of multiple panels forcing narratives through a sequence of images. Altarpieces remained closed except for Sundays and feast days when the Mass was held, and this allowed for decoration on both sides as the altars would have been viewed closed most of the time.

Jan Van Eyck (1390-1441)

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Jan Van Eyck Ghent Altarpiece, 1432

Jan Van Eyck was the court painter to Philip the Good. In 1432, Van Eyck painted the Ghent Altarpiece for the Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent. It is to this day one of the largest and most admired of the 15th century. The altarpiece was commissioned by Vyd (diplomat of Philip the Good) for the chapel he donated to the church.

The external panels depict the donor and his wife. The stone sculptures are of Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist. In the middle, there is an annunciation scene. The exterior of altars often contains Old Testament prophets and sibyls (classical mythological prophetesses who’s writings were interpreted as prophecies of Christ).

The inside of the altarpiece in contrast displays amazing color. The narrative is humanity’s redemption. God, the father figure, resides in the center wearing the pope’s triple tiara with a worldly crown at his feet. This demonstrates the direct connection between religion and politics. The Virgin sits beside with a twelve-star crown. Saint John the Baptist, the saint to which the church was dedicated, resides beside her, another common custom for Catholic altars and commissions due to the dogmatic order. Flanking them are a choir of angels. Flanking the altar are Adam and Eve, the symbols of original sin and redemption. Above God’s head is the following quote translated, “This is God, all-powerful in his divine majesty; of all the best, by the gentleness of his goodness; the most liberal giver, because of his infinite generosity. ” At God’s feet, the quote translated states, “On his head, life without death. On his brow, youth without age. On his right, joy without sadness. On his left, security without fear.”

The lower panels extend the symbolism. In these panels reside a community of saints coming from the four corners of the earth to the altar of the Lamb and the fountain of life. The Lamb represents Christ’s sacrifice. Meanwhile the entire composition demonstrates brilliant color and emphasis on detail as well as depth of space.

Much of this brilliance extends from the predominant use of oil paints as a medium. Oil paint was developed in the north and usually credited to van Eyck, but evidence states that it was used before him. The process of oil is that paintings are built up by thin layers of translucent glazes on a layer of underpainting. The translucent glazes allowed for more vibrant colors, deep tonality and an illusion of glowing light. In order to instruct new masters in the process, an apprentice training system ensured the transmission of information about technique from generation to generation.

Rogier van der Weyden (1400-1464)

Rogier van der Weyden had a great impact on Northern painting. his fluid dynamic compositions stress human action and drama. He mainly concentrated on themes such as the Crucifixion and Pieta.

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Rogier van der Weyden Deposition, 1435

Van der Weyden's painting, Deposition, 1435, is the center panel of a triptych. It was commissioned by the Archer’s Guild who is represented as a crossbow in the upper corners. The painting stands in contrast to van Eyck’s deep landscapes. It imitated large sculptured shrines that were popular. The composition of shared anguish has immediate emotional effect.

Rogier van der Weyden Last Judgement Altarpiece, 1444-48

The Last Judgement Altarpiece, 1444-48, is another emotionally charged image. It was created for a hospital which served an important function in treating hospital patients. At the time, maladies were often attributed to God’s displeasure. The altarpiece warns of the potential fate of people’s souls should they turn from the Christian Church. Because of the horizontal composition, vertical hierarchy was difficult, thus it used scale and vertical placement to show the level of importance of figures.

Dirk Bouts (1415-1475)

Dirk Bouts, Last Supper, 1464-1468

Dirk Bouts is one of the first Northern painters to show a sharp vanishing point. The Last Supper, 1464-68, is the central panel for an altarpiece. The vanishing point for the linear perspective is in the center of the mantle above Christ’s head. Meanwhile the small side room has its own vanishing point not related to the horizon or the main vanishing point, leading one to believe that the artists of this time were still experimenting with the concepts of linear perspective.

This is considered the first Flemish panel painting depicting the Last Supper. The scene is focused on Christ performing a ritual of consecration of the Eucharist wafer, instead of on Judas’s betrayal or Christ’s confronting of John, as is commonly depicted in later Last Supper scenes. The painting also included servants who might have been the confraternity’s members who commissioned the work.

Hugo van der Goes (1440-1482)

Hugo van der Goes, Portinari Altarpiece, 1476

Hugo van der Goes's Portinari Altarpiece, 1476, made its way from Flanders and was installed in Florence. Portinari appears on the wings with his family and their patron saints. The center panel depicts the Adoration of the Shepherds following the birth of Christ. The composition unifies landscape and architecture to pull the panels together.

Paintings during this time incorporate a lot of symbols that are read much like reading a book. Each object carries more significance than simply being an object. In this painting the wheat symbolizes Bethlehem (“house of bread”). The fifteen angels are representative of the fifteen joys of Mary. The iris and columbine flowers represent the sorrows of the Virgin. The Harp of David over the building’s portal in the distance demonstrates the ancestry of Christ.

Van der Goes revived medieval pictorial devices. He incorporates small scenes in the distance to present the flight into Egypt, Annunciation to the Shepherds, and the arrival of the Magi. The scale also shows the hierarchical importance of each figure. The painting raised a stir based on its unrealistic space and scales, but was admired in Italy for its skill at representing form and detail of emotion.

Hans Memling (1430-1494)

Hans Memling Saint John Altarpiece, 1479

Hans Memling specialized in images of the Virgin as a young princess holding a doll-like Christ. In his Saint John Altarpiece, 1479, the patrons on side panels are not shown. It was another altar for a hospital. The image contains Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist on the side panels, while Saints Catherine and Barbara are in the foreground of the central panel.

The story relates to Saint Catherine and a group of following virgins who claimed a mystic marriage with Christ. The purpose was to make for strong connection with women viewers (nuns). Memling carefully depicted fabrics with sparkling color. Following his death, Memling was known as: “Johannes Memling was the most accomplished and excellent painter in the entire Christian world.” This led to them being some of the best preserved from the 15th century.

Private Devotional imagery

Individuals commissioned artworks for private devotional use as well. There were so many private commissions that they probably outnumbered public ones by 2 to 1. There was an Integration of religious and secular as biblical scenes were typically shown in Flemish interiors. These private commissions strengthened the direct bond of patron with subject.

Robert Campin (1378-1444)

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Robert Campin Merode Altarpiece, 1425-28

Robert Campin's work is similar in format to large-scale altarpieces, but at a smaller scale (2’ square central panel). The panels could be closed for easy transport. This work depicts an Annunciation scene in a middle-class Flemish home with the architectural scene in the background as representative of Flemish architecture.

The objects are decorative, but charged with religious symbolism. The book, extinguished candle, lilies, copper basin, towels, fire screen and bench all symbolize the Virgin’s purity and divine mission in different ways. Joseph is on the right altar in his carpenter’s workshop building a mousetrap symbolic of Christ’s being bait set on the world to catch the Devil. The left panel has the donor and his wife looking through the open door. The two scenes refer in a way to the Donor’s names: Inghlebrecht: "angel bringer" and Schrinmechers: "Shrine Maker."

Jan Van Eyck

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Jan Van Eyck Giovanni Arnolfini and his Bride, 1434

Van Eyck's Giovanni Arnolfini and his Bride depicts a mundane interior charged with spiritual symbolism relating to the holiness of matrimony. The couple stands hand-in-hand, clogs cast aside representing the event taking place on holy ground. The dog represents fidelity, while many of the symbols on the right refer to the woman's place in the relationship. The curtains of the marriage bed open, a tiny statue of Saint Margaret (saint of childbirth) on the bedpost, oranges, a symbol of fertility and the Medici are present, and a whisk broom is hanging symbolic of domestic care. A single candle is lit representing God’s presence. Finally, in the mirror there are scenes from the passion and the promise of salvation for the figures reflected on the surface.

All the symbols are customary in Flemish marriage practices. They represent the position of man vs. woman. The man is closer to the window and the outside world. The woman is farther back and closer to the bed and home. The mirror shows two other people present, one being Van Eyck who has written “Van Eyck was here” above the mirror. The other is either a priest or an official for witness. Though the official meaning of the painting is somewhat a mystery, it seems almost to be a marriage contract. (SmartHistory video)

Petrus Christus (1410-1472)

Petrus Christus A Goldsmith in His Shop (Possibly Saint Eligius), 1449

It is difficult to state the purpose of such paintings as Petrus Christus's A Goldsmith in his Shop, 1449, due to their combination of religious and secular symbolism. It could demonstrate the sacredness of the sacrament of marriage as the goldsmith weighs the rings with scales referring to judgement. There used to be a halo around Saint Eligius’s head but it was added after Christus had painted it so it was removed. The painting was also possibly used in association of a guild chapel, though the couple’s presence suggests that it is more of a Marriage portrait like the Arnolfini portrait. The painting does have extended meaning as one would assume that the meticulous painting technique in referring to objects of the profession is symbolic of something greater.


Capitalism and prosperity caused many patrons to commission private portraits which helped to show their status. Portraits also were commissioned by the wealthy before arranged marriages when the patron wanted to know of the looks of his would-be bride candidates.

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Jan Van Eyck Man in a Red Turban, 1433

Jan van Eyck's Man in a Red Turban, 1433, is a completely secular portrait and a possible self-portrait of the artist. Portraits such as this objectified people. There was a move as well toward three-quarter views, providing more depth to the image. The eyes always return the gaze of the viewer and there is an extreme care to detail like most of van Eyck's work. The dark setting is unlike Italian paintings from this same time.

Rogier van der Weyden Portrait of a Lady, 1460

Van der Weyden's Portrait of a Lady, 1460, shows similar details in portraiture. The details for the commission are uncertain, but it is assumed to be a noble lady due to the clothing. There is an established likeness as well as inward character. This portait too contrasts with the Italian approach which was typically profile and didn’t reveal much of the sitter’s personality. Though detailed oriented, van der Weyden's skill is not as keen to the detail as Van Eyck’s portrait.

Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516)

Hieronymus Bosch is one of the oddest artists of the time and interpretations vary widely as to his beliefs and meanings. It is said that he might be tortured with the guilt of sin and death. He could either be seen as a heritic or an orthodox fanatic. He created images of Satire, and had a wild imagination.

Hieronymus Bosch The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1505-1510

Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights, 1505-1510, takes the form of a triptych altarpiece. Its location, in a private home, means it was a secular commission for private use. It was possibly a wedding commission because of the connection with sex. The painting contains imaginative settings and animals as well as the horrors of hell.

The central panel depicts countless scenes of fertility and has been interpreted as scenes of sin, the possibility of the result of Eve and original sin or Earth before the flood. The left panel demonstrates the creation of Eve, while the right panel demonstrates hell with many comments on specific sins.

15th century French Art

Artists were able to produce art even through the turmoil of the Hundred Years War

Jean Fouquet (1420-1481)

Jean Fouquet Melun Diptych, 1450

Jean Fouquet worked for King Charles VII. In his Melun Diptych, 1450, Chevalier (the patron) stands with his patron saint, Saint Stephen. Chevalier is pictured as devout and kneeling, and Saint Stephen has his hand on the donor’s shoulder as he holds the symbols of his martyrdom in his other hand and looks toward the other panel. The right panel depicts the Virgin with child. The depiction is modeled after Agnes Sorel, the mistress of King Charles VII who was a respected and pious individual. The painting was a commission to fulfil a vow he made after Sorel’s death which leads to a personal narrative as well as religious. It has signs, however, of a modern, even secular representation of the Virgin (as mother) and child.

15th-Century German Art

The Holy Roman Empire was without strong centralized government. In central Europe, the guild structure prevailed, and the economy was sturdy because they were not engaged in war as England and France were. Large scale altarpieces and religious commissions were typical.

Konrad Witz (1400-1446)


Konrad Witz Altarpiece of Saint Peter, 1444

Konrad Witz was a Swiss painter. His Altarpiece of Saint Peter, 1444, displays the Miraculous Draught of Fish. The image is from the exterior wing of the triptych, but is significant due to its landscape’s prominence. The detail has led historians to figure out exactly where he painted the image. There is also demonstrated skill in the study of the effects of water and the transparency of shallow water in the foreground and reflections of the figures in the boat.

Graphic Art

The German invention of the letterpress and printing with moveable type led to a revolution in printmaking and graphic arts. Earlier printing was done with woodblocks, but with the increase of literacy, books could not be produced on a large scale. Woodcut images were soon added to same page as letterpress type. Woodcuts had hardly found their true vision and technique before the technique of engraving was developed, which allowed for greater fidelity of mark by the artists. Engravings consisted of an intaglio surface for printing where the hollows of the design, rather than the ridges, take the ink and produce an image.

Martin Schongauer Saint Anthony Tormented by Demons, 1480-90

Martin Schongauer's (1430-1491) Saint Anthony Tormented by Demons, 1480-90, Demonstrates the versatility of engraving as he creates tonal value, textures and line. There is a use of hatching to describe form which became standard for German graphic artists. Italians preferred parallel hatching lines as opposed to his cross hatching technique.

The Protestant Reformation

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The Burgundian Netherlands dissolves in 1477 and at this time Spain becomes a power in Europe. The stress in politics as well as growing dissatisfaction with the Catholic church leads to the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation called for a complete revamping of Church practices.

The Protestant Reformation directly attacked the Church leadership and practice. Popes were perceived to be more about power and wealth than salvation of church members as they came from predominantely wealthy families. The upper level clergy took on more offices which increased revenue but made it more difficult to fulfill responsibilities. There was a growing practice of the sale of indulgences for remittances or reductions of time spent in Purgatory. As a result of these issues, people began seeking new ways to seek salvation through pilgrimages, joining confraternities and orders, or commissioning artworks such as Books of Hours, rosaries, prints, and paintings for visual aids for private devotion.

Martin Luther (1483-1546)

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Martin Luther was a German theologian. In 1517, in Wittenberg, he posted his 95 theses which laid out his objections to Church practices and had it printed and copied for distribution. They specifically attacked practices such as the sale of indulgences, the extensive ecclesiastical structure and the centrality of the Bible as the foundation for the Church.

Ideological splits emerged between the two religious sects, most often related to Catholicism's sacraments. Luther believed Catholic theological ideas acted as pagan obstacles to salvation. Luther accepted Baptism and Communion, but devoid from the transfiguration believed by the Catholic faith. The goal was simply to develop sufficient reform and clarification of major spiritual issues, but instead his statement led to the split of Christianity into Catholicism and Protestantism.

Luther proposed that salvation would be granted for faithful individuals not through earning salvation through good deeds done under the watchful God. Faith alone with the guidance of scripture was the key to Christianity and salvation. Thus the Bible is the foundation as it is the "word of God" and not the Church’s councils, laws, and rituals. Luther thus stressed the translation of the Bible into vernacular languages for private devotion. With Guttenberg's invention, this became a real possibility.

Lucas Cranach the Elder

Lucas Cranach, The Law and the Gospel, c. 1529, oil on wood, 82.2 × 118 cm / 32.4 × 46.5 in (Schlossmuseum, Gotha, Germany)
Lucas Cranach the Elder Allegory of Law and Grace, 1530

Lucas Cranach became a friend and follower of Luther. His paintings and reproductions influenced society to the degree that he has been termed “painter of the Refomation.” His images employ allegory, or the practice of imbuing narratives, images, or figures with symbolic meaning. His Allegory of Law and Grace is a woodcut print based on an earlier painting of his and was restructured as a print for mass production and educating the masses. It had a wide circulation and sale due to it being the least expensive of all art forms.

Cranach's image displays the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism. The left shows Judgment Day as the skeleton drives the man off earthly grounds and into Hell after man failed in his efforts to live a good and honorable life. Moses stands with the tablets of law on which Catholics place emphasis. The right, on the other hand, displays how Protestants emphasized God’s grace as the source of redemption. On the left, God showers the sinner with grace while Christ emerges from a tomb and promises salvation to all who believe in him.

The work thus reinforces many Reformation ideas. It demonstrates the imperative that Christians read and interpret the Scripture for themselves. In reading, different interpretations led to different Protestant sects. Class, Territory and state politics influenced religious choice as well. Often, violence erupted between differing sects as one or more were declared illegal by the ruling class.

Christian Humanism was born as the time led to the exchange of intellectual and artistic ideas. Commerce continued unheeded and this Humanism ideal filtered from Italy into Northern regions cultivating a knowledge of classical culture. The turmoils of the 16th century and the seeking of answers led to new political systems and economic systems as well.

Two other well known Christian humanists of this time were Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), whose interest in both Italian humanism and religion led him to become an ordained priest and a scholar and Thomas More (1478 – 1535), who served King Henry VIII and was ordered to be executed because of his opposition to England’s break from the Catholic Church. Erasmus' The Praise of Folly, 1509 is an essay which satirized the Church and various social classes playing an important role in the development of the Reformation.

Visual imagery played an important role in these events as demonstrated by Cranach's piece. Patronage and types of art differed from previous generations. The Catholics embraced church decoration as an aid to communicating with God. They thus commissioned many altarpieces. The Protestants, on the other hand, believed that imagery could lead to idolatry and distracted viewers from the real reason for their presence in church to communicate with God. Churches were relatively bare, prints were more often created as teaching tools, there was an increase in private commissions, and genre images were widely produced rather than religious images.

Holy Roman Empire

The views on Religious imagery were apparent in the Holy Roman Empire, which was located in central Europe at the time. Because of Luther’s presence, the greatest impact was in this area. There can be a marked difference seen in the artworks of Grunewald (pre-Reformation) and Durer (post-Reformation) with regard to the views of symbols within images of this time.

Matthias Grunewald (1480-1528)

Matthias Grunewald worked for the archbishops as a court painter and decorator among other things. He moved to Northern Germany and began work around 1510 on the Isenheim Altarpiece.

Matthias Grunewald Isenheim Altarpiece, 1510-1515

The altarpiece was created for the monastic hospital order Saint Anthony of Isenheim. The inner panel includes a wooden shrine by Nikolaus Hagenauer produced in 1490. The altar contains two pairs of moveable wings that open at the center. The imagery is directed by location next to a hospital with saints associated with diseases and miraculous cures.

The altarpiece deals directly with illness and suffering as warning as well as hope for those afflicted. It intensifies the contrast of horror and hope with color schemes, balancing scenes of disease with peaceful images. One of the main diseases treated at the hospital was a disease nicknamed “Saint Anthony’s Fire,” today known as ergotism, which is obtained from ergot, a fungus that often grows on rye. Many times, the gangrene from the disease compelled amputation. The concept of amputation is thus represented throughout the altarpiece in the way that doors are opened, severing limbs.

The outer panels display the Crucifixion in the center. Christ is afflicted with disease. The doors open in such a way that it indicates amputation. This emphasizes Christ’s pain but also the knowledge of the act of redemption led to an idea of hope. The lamb represents the symbol of the Son of God. Saint Sebastian stands to the left while Saint Anthony is depicted to the right. Both endured great suffering for their faith in Christ. The altar depicts the Lamentation across the bottom or the predella. Again it is an image which symbolizes amputation.

On the inner panels images of salvation are displayed. There is an Annunciation, Angelic Concert, Madonna and Child and the Resurrection. Meanwhile, the innermost panels depict the shrine flanked by a meeting of Saints Anthony and Paul and on the right the Temptation of Saint Anthony. The Temptation includes the 5 temptations as ghoulish creatures attacking the saint. An afflicted man is pictured in the foreground as representative once again of ergotism and the hallucinations that develop from the malady.

Albrecht Durer (1471-1528)

Albrect Durer was the first artist outside Italy to become an international art celebrity. He traveled extensively and committed to advancing his career and employed an agent to help sell his prints. He is also noted for having brought a lawsuit against an Italian artist who was copying his prints (first in history over artistic copyright).

Durer became a master in woodcut, engraving and watercolor. He wrote theoretical treatises on many subjects such as perspective, fortification and proportions. Unlike earlier humanists such as Leonardo, he finished and published his writings and exerted his influence through the printed media. He also kept a detailed diary of his life and encounters aiding historians in their understanding of his life and times.

Albrecht Durer Last Supper, 1523

Durer's Last Supper woodcut was done six years after Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses. It is a traditional subject with allusion to Luther’s doctrine about Communion. Luther insisted that Communion was commemorative and not a reenactment as priests did not have the miraculous power to change the bread and wine to the body and blood. The empty plate alludes to the commemorative nature along with the bread and wine off to the side. Traditionally there would be a slaughtered lamb on the plate. The image is a cohesive and direct image with the way in which Durer handles his line quality and composition. Prints such as these allowed him to become well known for his book illustrations as he was very adept with the tools used for woodcut and engraving.

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Albrecht Durer Four Apostles, 1526

Four Apostles was produced without commission and presented to the city fathers of Nuremberg to be hung in the city hall. On the left is John and Peter. Peter is the representative of the pope in Rome and placed behind as a secondary role to John the Evangelist. Both read from the Bible, the source of truth. The Bible is opened to the passage, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).

On the right Durer depicts Mark and Paul. At the bottom of the panels, Durer included passages from each of the Apostle’s books using Luther’s German translation of the New Testament warning against the coming of perilous times and the preaching of false prophets who will distort God’s Word.

Albrecht Durer The Fall of Man (Adam and Eve), 1504 (Heilbrunn Timeline Link)

Durer was one of the first northern artists to travel to Italy for the sole purpose of studying Italian art. This engraving shows the effect of his studies of the Vitruvian theory of human proportions. The figures are classical in pose with a mixture of idealism and naturalism. Durer demonstrates his observational skills shown in the rendering of the surroundings.

The animals depicted are also symbolic of the four humors of the humanities temperaments: the choleric cat, melancholic elk, sanguine rabbit, and phlegmatic ox. There is also the depicted relationship between the cat and the mouse in the foreground that also symbolizes the moment.

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Albrecht Durer The Great Piece of Turf, 1503

The Great Piece of Turf by Durer further shows how he believed observation yielded truth. Beauty lies even in humble, or even ugly things. The image is scientifically accurate and poetic.

Albrecht Durer Knight, Death, and the Devil, 1513

Durer also worked in etching and engraving. Knight, Death, and the Devil is part of a series he considered his Master Engravings including Melancholia I and Saint Jerome in His Study. These works showed his mastery of describing texture and tone. In this piece, a Christian Knight rides fearlessly through the composition. Armed with faith, the warrior can repel threats of Death and is impervious to the Devil. The pose is much like Donatello’s Gattamelata and Verrocchio’s Bartolommeo Colleoni. Durer used line to describe but also to evoke.

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Albrecht Altdorfer (1480-1538)

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Albrecht Altdorfer The Battle of Issus, 1529

This painting by Albrecht Altdorfer, The Battle of Issus, depicts the defeat of Darius in 333 by Alexander the Great. It was commissioned by the Duke of Bavaia, Wilhelm IV while he was about to begin a military campaign against invading Turks. The painting made the connection between the Persians and the Turks in their contemporary outfits. The painting demonstrates the love of landscape as he depicts the scene from a bird’s eye view, which was derived from maps of the area. Alexander is the “sun god” as the sun sets over the victorious Greeks on the Right while the crescent moon of the near east hovers over the retreating Persians.

Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543)

Trained by his father, Holbein the Younger produced many portraits of Nothern tradition, painted realistically. Italian ideas of monumental compositions were not present in these smaller, Northern works. Holbein the Younger moved to England under the direction of Erassmus to work in the court with More.

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Hans Holbein the Younger The French Ambassadors, 1533

In his painting The French Ambassadors, 1533, Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve were depicted in their position as French ambassadors to England. This is the only painting that Holbein signed using his whole name, an indication of the newfound individualism artists began to experience. The collection of objects reflect their worldliness and possibly meant to be an example of his skill as a painter. The painting also displays his understanding of perspective, the mass of objects, textures, and other formal techniques. Furthermore, there is an anamorphic image of a skull in the foreground. The meaning of this is uncertain, but alludes to death and mortality. In combination with the half hidden crucifix, it could be a contemplation on death and resurrection or it may allude to the religious strife at the time.


France continued to secure recognition as a political power. Francis I (r.1515-1547) ruled at this time. He claimed a firm foothold in Milan and waged a campaign against Charles V (Spain and Holy Roman Emperor). There were many disputed territories in Southern France, Netherlands, the Rhinelands, Northern Spain and Italy. He endeavored to elevate his country’s cultural profile by inviting Italian artists such as Leonardo and del Sarto to his court. He pushed for art that elevated himself as king rather than religion.

Jean Clouet Francis I, 1525-1530

Legend has it that the “merry monarch” was a great lover and hero of hundreds of “gallant” deeds. He appears suave and confident. The painting is formalized and flattened to a great extent as there is a lack of modelling.

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The personal tastes of Francis and his court seemed to be elegant, erotic and unorthodox. The style of the architecture is more toward Mannerism, emphasizing drama over order. Rosso Fiorentino and Francesco Primaticcio (Florentines) were placed in charge of decorating the new royal palace at Fontainebleau. There is a combination of painting, fresco, imitation mosaic, and stucco sculpture. There are also interesting scale relationships between the sculptures and the paintings representing popular decoration techniques throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.

Chateau de Chambord, 1519

Chateau de Chambord represents one of the several chateau’s commissioned by Francis I. Chateaus served as country houses for royalty and created in a castle-like style. A moat surrounds the structure while a balance of horizontal and vertical elements is evident. The structure incorporates Gothic-esque towers and chimneys demonstrating a mixture of styles at the time.

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The Louvre

The Lovure was revisited during the reign of Henry II, Francis I’s successor. It contains a strong Italian influence at the time as Italian artists and architects began moving to France for work. The Louvre was a fortress palace that had fallen into disrepair and was in need of renovation. The style that mixes heavy Gothic feel with a lighter Italian balance and ideas. The result is termed the Classical style of French Architecture due to its balance of horizontal and vertical elements with an emphasis on the base by recessing the windows to create archways.

The windows much larger than typical renaissance buildings and the steep roof and pavilions jutting from the structure with double colonnades was typical of the style. There are also many relief sculptures with styles influenced by Northern architecture for most of the 16th century but was soon removed of Italian accents.

Jean Goujon Nymphs (From the Fountain of Innocents)

Goujon had a great deal to do with the sculptures adorning the Louvre. The vases depict flowing with water and recall Italian Mannerist works. The clinging, wet drapery is in a classical tradition but there is still a lightness, ease, grace, and sense of motion.


The Netherlands broke apart of the Duchy of Burgundy in 1477. At the time it was divided between France and the Holy Roman Empire. The Netherlands was one of the most commercially advanced and prosperous of countries due to its shipping and overseas trade, ship building and trading colonies from all the powers at the time.

The Netherlands were under political control by Philip II of Spain until 1579 when a revolt led to a split. The split resulted in the Union of Arras, which was Southern and Spanish (Catholic) and the Union of Utrecht which became the Dutch Republic and North (Protestant). The break from Catholicism led rise to interesting genre images and a glimpse into the daily functions of all classes.

Jan Gossaert (1478-1535)

Jam Gossaert was fascinated with classical antiquity. Vasari wrote, "Jean Gossart of Mabuse was almost the first who took from Italy into Flanders the true method of making scenes full of nude figures and poetical inventions." He also had a strong influence by Durer demonstrated in his work.


Jan Gossaert Neptune and Amphitrite, 1516

This painting is inspired by Durer’s Fall of Man. The painting demonstrates careful modelling and skillful drawing mixing classical elements in the architecture. The setting is possibly based on architectural studies done in Rome.

Quinten Massys (1466-1530)

Quinten Massys Became Antwerp’s leading master after 1510. He was a son of a blacksmith and explored many different styles from Van Eyck, Bosch, Durer, van der Weyden and Leonardo. His inventiveness leads him to stand out from his contemporaries.

Quinten Massys The Money Changer and his Wife, 1514

The image is of an observeable fact. The painting demonstrates the Netherlandish values in spirituality and commerce. It is a traditional marriage portrait showing the two sides: male and female, through symbols of their obligations and actions. It contained an inscription that used to read, “Let the balance be just and the weights equal.”

Pieter Aertsen (1507-1575)

Pieter Aertsen Meat Still-Life, 1551

Pieter Aertsen's Meat Still-Life, 1551, seems to be a typical still-life scene of food products, though the strategically placed religious images tells a different story. Joseph leads a donkey carrying Mary and the Christ Child who stop to offer alms to a beggar and his son. A crowd moves toward a church. Crossed fishes on the platter and the pretzels (served as bread during Lent) and wine refer to “spiritual food.”

The right and foreground are a contrast to the earlier symbols and narrative. These areas symbolize a life of gluttony, lust, and sloth. Oysters were thought to hold aphrodisiac properties and their shells scatter the ground.

Caterina Van Hemessen (1528-1587)

Commerce led to a rise in portraits

Caterina Van Hemessen Self Portrait, 1548

Caterina Van Hemessen's Self Portrait is possibly the first known self portrait by a woman. She was trained by her father who was a well known painter of the time. The painting displays herself as an artist with all the artist’s tools. Several other female artists were able to gain some prominence despite the difficulties in finding artistic training.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1528-1569)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder expressed interest in human relationships and activities was the predominant theme in his work. He travelled to Italy and was influenced by the landscape.

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder Hunters in the Snow, 1565

Hunters in the Snow is one of five surviving paintings from a series of 6 illustrating seasonal changes in the year. The painting refers back to images seen in Books of Hours. There was a cruel winter that year and Bruegel expresses that through his color scheme. His paintings are typically gestural with a thematic emphasis. They incorporate fantasy with an optically accurate depiction of landscape.

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder Netherlandish Proverbs, 1559

The Netherlands had an obsession with proverbs throughout the 16th century. Bruegel's painting depicts a village populated by a wide range of people in an array of activities which are much like the works of Bosch. In this particular village he illustrates more than 100 proverbs (listed well in Wikipedia). The painting becomes a sort of study of human nature. His proverbs towards the end of life became increasingly bitter as Spain attempted to quell the reformation.


This module was produced by Professor Josh Yavelberg utilizing a mixture of open educational resources and notes from:
Kleiner, Fred. Gardner's Art through the Ages: The Western Perspective,|. Vol. 2. Cengage Learning, 2013.

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