Northern European art often gets just a fleeting mention in history of art. This occurs as history of art tends to enjoy a chronology to art. However, Northern art often does not fit into the Italian chronology traditionally used.
Renaissance art had a geometry, a love of perspective and solidity, as typified by Masaccio‘s ‘The Virgin and Child‘ and Piero della Francesca‘s ‘The Baptism of Christ‘. It emerged as a rebirth of classical art after the ‘dark’ Gothic ages. Renaissance however is very much based in Italian Art.
However, how does Northern Europe fit in if it is not inspired and to be measured against the yardstick of Classical Art?
Although painted in the 15th century, here we don’t see the effects of perspective as we would see in Renaissance Italian Art. You can observe the egg-shaped heads which seem quite primitive, the high foreheads, the unbalanced sizes of the figured amongst other things.
Here as well have the same features of a high forehead. There is also the ‘brocade of honour’ on the back, together with the view from the window with very minute details. These minute details in Northern Art are a typical characteristic, thought to be the result of the skills of the manuscript artists who painted in small size and applied the required details due to the notion that God did not create only that which can be easily seen. Thus, arising from this tradition, in the North there is an attention to detail before this arrived in Italy. This is also the result of the fact that when using tempera, as was done in Italy, this was often not possible. Oil was introduced into Italy in around 1475, but was used in the North much earlier.
This is a very detailed altarpiece made by two brothers: Hubert and Jan van Eyck. Returning to the theme of the attention to detail typical of Northern Art, there is even a reflection of a stained glass window on a small jewel! Hubert died during the making of this altarpiece and Jan continued the work. However, before this, Jan was not known.
There is also what is though to be a self-portrait of Jan van Eyck: Portrait of a Man in a Turban. Again one sees here an incredible eye for detail e.g. veins and reflection points in the eye, and stubble. It is thought that Jan van Eyck started out as a manuscript illuminator, hence the high attention to detail in his paintings. Also at the top he wrote an inscription which is a pun on words: As I/Eyck can. This is thought to emerge from the illuminator’s ‘motto’ (though in a much less humbling manner); the play on words seems to say ‘As Only I Can’.
Thus, in the North we see a fascination with materials and textiles much earlier than in the South, where we barely ever see it.
Giovanni Arnolfini was an Italian merchant. This shows that there was some cross-fertilisation as he was living in Bruge, hence this painting in a Northern style. It is a portrait of him and his wife which for a long time was known as the Arnolfini marriage. Reasons for this idea arose from various aspects of the painting, including that they had taken off their shoes presumably as they were standing on consecrated ground, the candle is lit indicating a religious tradition, and there is even the signature of a legal document. However, as they looked closer at the picture and compared to other contemporary pieces, this has now been revises. Reasons for this include that the shoes were removed as they were outdoor shoes. Also, the hand gestures do not really fit in with other Northern marriage paintings. The attention to shoes and similar material objects reinforce the Northern attention to material culture.
Furthermore, the wife appear pregnant. However, in the North the perfect woman was not the Venetian woman but a more rounded, pregnant-like woman; this maybe suggested fertility, the possibility of child-bearing. There is in fact a painting of a painter looking at a lot of beautiful women to try and take the most beautiful characteristics to paint the perfect woman…and they all look pregnant. Even Catherine of Alexandria, Christ’s virgin bride, appears pregnant.
Also, the inscription which was thought to be representative of a legal signature actually says ‘Johannes Eyck was here’. Thus, it was probably not representative of a legal marriage signature, but another instant where van Eyck wanted to make sure that it was known to be him. Also, there is a reflection in the mirror which shows the couple and two other people, possibly the artist and a priest.
Furthermore, the dates do not fit in with the dates of Arnolfini’s wedding. A recent scholarship has said that it possibly a posthumous painting of his first wife. In fact, in the chandelier the two candles on the wife’s side are both out…one just recently, with smoke and dripping wax still there. She is known to have died as a result of childbirth. She is very much idealised as a figure, possibly as she was dead.
The painting shows other notions of the very realistic Northern paintings. The couple, however, look too big for the room, as is typical in northern art due to the lack of perspective; if the husband moves back he would probably have hit himself on the chandelier! However, we are so captured by the details that we are not really irritated by the distortions occurring.
Other iconography present in the painting include oranges as a symbol of wealth (they do no grow in the North); the dog shows fidelity (Fido).
The ability to depict objects so clearly is due to the use of oil paints. Some of the Italian painters must have thus been learning from the North, rather than knowledge just occurring in the opposite direction.
Thus, objects beautifully defined with oil paints, together with a fascination for detail can be two checkpoints on a checklist detailing Northern art. Detail of a faraway place outside the window is also something borrowed by the Italians from the North. Northern artists are also quite interested to show the realities of life, e.g. one picture also shows a pile of nappies! Most of this is due to the early arrival of oil use in the North.
As was also observed in previous paintings, also here people appear bigger than the surroundings. Thus, they were traditionally known as Flemish primitives, as they hadn’t ‘got’ Renaissance traditions of perspective. However, for the north, the Romans were occupiers, so maybe they didn’t want to follow the traditions of previous occupiers but wanted to go back to their own traditions.
Looking at this painting one notices that Christ’s arms are elongated, while Mary fainted, and Mary Magdalene is writhing in grief; Mary Magdalene has also given her identifying ointment to others as she is overcome with grief! This allows us to also feel the grief, not just to think about it.
This painting is not as strong as van der Weyden’s own Deposition. However, it still has some aspects. In contrast to Raphael’s crucifixion – though an early painting of his it still shows a muscular Christ etc. – this is different, showing an awkward depiction of Christ with elongated arms etc, which is more typical of Northern art.
As can be seen here, Mary is wearing red; blue became the standard colour for Mary at the end of the 15th century. However, for the North red showed expensive and importance, hence the red colour here.
Another checkpoint on the list describing Northern art is angular drapery. This shows that Northern artists may have been more affected by wood sculptures which are more angular as opposed to te flowing classical marble figures typical of Italian and classical art.
Those mocking Christ here are almost caricatures. We see a lot more of this in Northern painters where evil=ugly for depictive purposes.
This painting shows earthly paradise vs torments of who stands outside. It is very expressive, widely impressive, totally unclassical. It also emerges with medieval traditions such as dances of the dead hence showing different artistic ideas to the classical traditions.
If we look at tastes of collection in the early 19th century when the National Gallery collection was being built, taste was more towards Italian rather than Northern art.
This altarpiece painting is also very un-Raphael-like. However, it is very depictive of horror and the pain of death. See for example the dead body slumped on the floor when taken off the cross. One can see an almost visionary expression.
In German art you see an interest in expressive qualities. Germany, like Italy, was not on country however. There were 1197 states in what is now Germany! Thus, Grunewald is very different to what was going on in Cologne, such as with Stefan Lochner.
Also, often, names of painters in Germany are lost. Thus, often, painters are identified by location, such as Master of Liesborn, or named after one of their works, such as Master of St. Bartholomew altarpiece (see below). This is due to the ‘shipwreck of German paintings’, as has been said. Being in the centre of Europe, it was often at war due to its position, even up to the 20th century, so many German paintings have been separated from their location and paperwork. Also, often, contracts in Germany were verbal and not written, as was normally the case in Italy. Thus, there often was no paperwork either to keep. Also, art history often did not rate German art so much, thus it ended up being destroyed. If you don’t know the name and you cannot give it’s context, you often leave it alone!
St Peter and St Dorothy, Wing of Altarpiece, Master of St. Bartholomew’s altarpiece
This painting has many Northern characteristics, such as detailed textiles, a brocade, and realism. Though very little is known about the painter, he writes in a Southern Netherlandish dialect. This indicates the tradition of learning in a workshop and then going travelling. He went to Cologne as it was very much an important city. To set up your own workshop however has a lot of requirements, including having some money behind you, and a wife!
Another point to note is a lot of fires and heavy drapery in Northern art. This could be the result of bad weather as compared to the south, where lighter drapery was often depicted possibly as it was what was used in those areas.
This painting was commissioned for an Italian family by a northern artist. This shows that collectors of the time were aware of differences between the two sides rather than dismissive of Northern art.
This painting shows Donne’s family in the presence of the Virgin and Child, with the two Johns (just in case you didn’t know his name ;)) in the wings.
As we are entering the 16th century, Northern painters are now starting to include classical features to their paintings. However, attention to detail is still not lost. e.g. in Albrecht Durer self-portrait and his St Jerome, plants are perfectly identifiable by botanists! Now we are starting to talk of the Renaissance man as a more rounded individual.
Durer travelled to Italy (Venice) in the beginning of the 16th century. He in fact borrows angels from another painting (by Bellini). He also commented that in Italy the artists had status, while in the North they were still the journeyman/craftsmen.
Bellini embraced oil paint early (mid 1470s) and was very prolific in it. He is often said to be the first Italian to use oil, though this is not really true. Here we have a more Italianate aspect.
Now we start having more of a measured perspective of space, though we still have attention to detail, e.g. collar on donor’s dog allowed art historians to identify the donor (Richard de Visch van der Capelle). Also, if one looks closely at the windows, there is a woman in one of the tiny windows, and a cat licking its paw in another! This notion of painting the almost the unseeable has persisted from the manuscript illuminator traditions.
By the 17th century all roads will lead to Rom. Italy does take over in terms of importance. However, it is still important to see the traditions before.
What does Mannerism really mean? Vasari starts with Giotto and goes to perfection – Michelangelo. For Vasari it was very much a passage of perfection that ended with Michelangelo. However it actually kept going😉.