The Most Iconic Artists of the Northern Renaissance, From Dürer to Bosch
Spanning two centuries—from around 1380 to 1580—the 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
Naturalism was certainly the concern of 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 (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
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,
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,
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
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.
George Philip LeBourdais