Spanning two centuries—from around 1380 to 1580—the Northern Renaissance was the period in which the artistic practices and humanist ideals of Renaissance Italy migrated north across the Alps, and flourished in Germany, the Netherlands, and France. The movement is epitomized by the Dutch humanist scholar Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, whose critical satires of the Catholic Church opened the door for the Protestant Reformation.
The Northern Renaissance is marked by several overarching features: the blossoming of artistic centers in the Burgundian Netherlands, Southern Germany, and Paris; the proliferation of art for use in both the church and the home; and technical advancements in the realms of oil paint, printmaking, and sculpture that led to new modes of representation. The arc of these developments emerges in the work of the Limbourg brothers, three Dutch manuscript illuminators active in France at the beginning of the 15th century. Their collective masterpiece, the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (1411-16), a book of hours created for Jean, Duke of Berry, is considered the pinnacle of the International Gothic style, and its naturalism and attention to detail inspired numerous subsequent artists.
Naturalism was certainly the concern of Robert Campin, who is now identified as the Master of Flémalle. Based in the Flemish town of Tournai, the artist maintained a highly productive atelier that employed other important artists, like Rogier van der Weyden, and created work for local civic and religious institutions. The greatest artwork attributed to this group is the Merode Altarpiece (ca. 1427–32), a triptych believed to depict the Annunciation—the moment when the angel Gabriel informs Mary that she will be the mother of Jesus. The work is now housed at The Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s medieval European collection. In the central panel, the meeting between Mary and the angel Gabriel occurs in an intimate, domestic setting. Both figures have a weighty, worldly presence that grounds them in the space, their physicality underscored by heavy folds of brightly colored drapery. Joseph is pictured in his workshop on the right, while the donors are depicted on the left.
As for the period’s heightened attention to detail, one need look no further than Jan van Eyck (ca.1380–1441). The Dutch artist was the official painter to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, and had a meticulous style that has been described as “microscopic-telescopic vision.” The intricate rendering of fabric, jewels, gold, and even the hair of God the Father’s beard in the central panel of the multi-paneled Ghent Altarpiece (ca. 1432) are all celebrated examples of this precision. This masterwork, van Eyck’s magnum opus, was begun by Jan’s brother Hubert van Eyck. The two worked together on the altarpiece, which Jan finished after Hubert’s death. Jan achieved such fine details through his early adoption of and developments in oil paint. Suspending pigments in oil allowed them to be applied in layers, wet-on-wet, which created translucent glazes as well as an unprecedented intensity of color.
Jan Van Eyck was also innovative in his use of subject matter, as demonstrated in his Arnolfini Wedding Portrait (ca. 1434). At a time when private portraits were still rare, van Eyck depicts an Italian merchant and his wife standing in a bedchamber. The source of much interest and research, the painting is thought to be a visual document attesting to the marriage it represents, and is thus full of symbolic objects with distinct iconographies: the dog connotes faithfulness, the removed shoes imply the space is hallowed ground, and the mirror on the back wall signifies the immaculate nature of the young bride. The artist’s own reflection in that mirror, like his signature on the wall above it, indicates that van Eyck served as a kind of witness to the ceremony.
As double portraits go, the one Hans Holbein the Younger produced in the summer of 1533 has achieved even greater notoriety. The Ambassadors affirms the meeting of Jean de Dinteville, then French Ambassador to England, and Georges de Selve, the Bishop of Lavaur. Like van Eyck, Holbein reproduces the attending objects in the finest detail to transform the image into a document of sorts. Europe is visible on the globe, while recent mathematical treatises and musical scores from the period are clearly discernible.
So precise are these replications that viewers might initially overlook the strange, slanting form in the center foreground. When viewed obliquely, from the side or from above, the object becomes legible as a gray skull, revealing the complex significance of the painting as a memento mori (a reminder of death). As in perspectival experiments during the Italian Renaissance, Holbein uses scientific approaches to painting to challenge subjective positions, compelling viewers to question their place in the world.
Though Holbein was the best-known painter in England during the Reformation, Albrecht Dürer was the artist most responsible for transmitting Italian Renaissance principles to the North and spurring the development of a distinctly Northern style. Considered by many scholars to be the greatest German artist, Dürer was a polymath on the order of southern counterparts like Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci, producing paintings of the highest order. His self-portraits, including the last he completed in 1500, at age 29, reveal new Renaissance conceptions of the artist: aristocratic, business-minded, and with God-given talents.
But Dürer also revolutionized printmaking, elevating it to the level of fine art. While many may be familiar with his whimsical The Rhinoceros (1515), the woodcuts from his “Apocalypse” series (1497–98) portray the late-Gothic narrative and emotional intensity with the virtuosic handling of line and shading for which Dürer became internationally revered. Continued advancements in linear perspective and anatomical study come to bear in Melancholia I (1514), one of his later master engravings, showing off some of the earlier intersections of art and science.
Detail views of Hieronyumus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, ca. 1505-15. Collection of Museo del Prado, Madrid; image via Wikimedia Commons.
While Dürer transformed Biblical scenes with Renaissance style, Hieronymus Bosch infused them with fantasy. His most famous work, The Garden of Earthly Delights (1505–15), combines alternately comic and demonic vignettes into grotesque landscapes. A triptych, it depicts a progression of human sin across three panels, with the Garden of Eden at left, the imperfect human world at center, and the horrors of Hell at right. Each group plays out its own scene of gluttony, debauchery, and other fleshly transgressions.
One scene (right panel, left side, bottom third) imagines sonic retribution for those who, in life, used music as a means of seduction and temptation. Instruments here —harp, lute, hurdy-gurdy—have been transformed into huge instruments of torture. Two sinners are crucified on a hybrid lute-lyre, while, below, a choir of sinners and slithering things scream a score inscribed on buttocks, a song to the organ of lust it surrounds. Across many other alarming and alluring episodes, Bosch weaves realism, allegory, and fantasy together.
Although several allegorical landscapes by Pieter Bruegel the Elder may have led to his reputation as a “second Bosch,” the artist’s works are worlds apart, rooted deeply in everyday human behavior. In Dutch Proverbs (1559) and Children’s Games (1560), for instance, Bruegel playfully translates common sayings and axioms into visual vignettes. But he is perhaps better known for quieter, more contemplative works like Hunters in the Snow (1565), part of a calendar-like series of landscape scenes created for a wealthy patron. With seasonally keyed colors, diagonal lines leading to distance points, and aerial perspective in the far-off snowy mountains, Bruegel unites techniques from both Flemish and Italian traditions.
Indeed, these works paved the way for further developments in Dutch art as the turn of the 17th century approached, leading to what is known as that republic’s Golden Age.