Dürer has received credit for inventing the first visual northern Renaissance aesthetic. As we will see in chapter 3, it initially appeared quite suddenly in some drawings after Italian engravings of mythological themes, executed in 1494, perhaps just before he set off on his first journey to Italy. Naturally, this visual experience was crucial for his development, but we should also realize that he had read a humanist style well before he ever saw one.
Jan van Eyck was important not only to the northern Renaissance, but to the entire Renaissance. He is credited with the invention of the oil-glazing technique, which replaced the earlier egg-tempera method. In the early years of the Renaissance, the artist generally began with a monochromatic drawing using egg tempera on a wood panel, and then layers of oil-glazes were painted on top of it. This allowed for rich details and luminous colors (later artists would work directly in oils on canvas, allowing the paintings to become larger and lighter, without warping or insect infestation). Whether or not Van Eyck was actually the first person to use this new medium may be of secondary importance to the achievements of his work, for he was truly a master of meticulous detail and well-planned compositions.
This exhibition celebrates the Renaissance in northern Europe, the counterpart to the revolution in art and scholarship that took place in Italy during the 15th and 16th centuries. The period was dominated by the intense rivalry between the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor, the kings of France and Henry VIII of England. Political ambitions were mirrored by fierce competition between rulers to attract the best artists to their courts – among them Lucas Cranach the Elder, François Clouet, Leonardo da Vinci and Hans Holbein the Younger.
The Virgin Mary in Northern Renaissance art was the model for good motherhood, nurturing Christ, and, by extension, nurturing all of his followers. The Virgin's image in Flemish painting of the fifteenth to early sixteenth century increasingly emphasized her role in raising and nourishing the Son of God. During the early Northern Renaissance, artists depicted the Virgin Mary as the wholesome ideal of motherhood in more domestic settings and occupations than previously, influenced by changing popular attitudes towards women, changing devotional practice, and Church doctrine espousing matrimony as well as virginity as a righteous way of life.
In general, Northern Renaissance painting has the following characteristics:
Highly Realistic - There is almost no abstraction or distortion of either human forms or objects in Northern Renaissance art.
Extremely Detailed - Every detail, no matter how small, is painstakingly painted.
Symbolism - Objects are often used as symbols that carry hidden meanings.
Unidealized Figures - Human figures are totally unidealized. They often look thin and pale. There is almost no Classical influence here at all.
At the heart of the new thinking was the challenge to the teachings of the Catholic Church initiated by Martin Luther. This was to have a lasting effect on the art of northern Europe, which moved away from emotive devotional scenes to non-religious subjects such as portraiture and mythology.
The most important characteristic of northern Renaissance humanism was its reform program. Convinced of the ability of human beings to reason and improve themselves, the northern humanists thought that through education in the sources of Classical and especially Christian antiquity, they could instill a true inner piety or an inward religious feeling that would bring about a reform of the church and society.
One of the major difference between Italian Renaissance and Northern Renaissance is that Northern painters rejected decadent Greek and Roman influences, focusing more on domestic scenes, satire, and philosophical themes . Humanism was emerging, and religious devotion, though still an important part of people's lives, was being restructured to accommodate the belief that man can be master his own fate.
The greatest painter of the Swabian School was Hans Holbein the Younger, son of Hans Holbein the Older, who was a famous painter in Augsburg. Among the Northern Renaissance artists, Holbein is famous for portraits, allegorical and historical subjects. However, he also executed paintings with religious subjects since his early years in Basel, where he painted two series of scenes from the Passion.
Normally “Renaissance” means rebirth of interest in classical Greek and Roman culture, and does not readily apply to much that was taking place north of the Alps. Still, the term “Late Gothic” is not a very useful substitute for “Renaissance” in the North. There was enough new birth or sense of discovery to justify using the term Renaissance.