The Northern Renaissance

1500 – 1615

The Northern Renaissance refers to the Renaissance after 1497 outside of Italy and north of the Alps. There are many subdivisions of the movement that were inspired by artists commissioned to come to these areas from Italy and through learning centers and printed books.

Origins and Historical Importance:

The Northern Renaissance art began when Venetian artists were commissioned by the King of France to send art to the great palaces he was building. From France, Renaissance ideas spread to other countries and cities, France itself, and through the lands of the Holy Roman Empire. As writers and professors began to educate people about new ideas and discoveries of old, the movement spread again into Scandinavia and Great Britain.

Prior to the Renaissance, much of Northern Europe was under the yoke of feudalism and also the strain of the Church and its values, dictates, and taxes. As these countries became independent of these burdens, people were free to pursue individual interests. Money had become a stable economic exchange and as serfdom had mostly ended, people were being paid wages and were able to advance in life.

With the Roman Catholic Church losing power to the Protestant Reformation and the whims of kings and other points of contention, secular thought and freedom of mind were becoming more prevalent. Exchanges of ideas such as Humanism and the enjoyment and investigation of science, music, art, and literature helped foster the foundation for creating philosophy based on new discovery and more open minds. Secular literature and art broke away from the forbidding nature of the Church and works were created that would have never seen the light in the centuries before.

Books were easily distributed with the help of the printing press and non-noble households now had access to ancient classical texts as well as new scientific theories and historical discoveries. The Bible was available in living languages for the first time, letting hitherto unknowledgeable people access to what was only understood by clergy.

Artists in the visual arts learned of Renaissance styles partly through travel to Rome. Some who did so frequently were nicknamed Romanists. Other artists, such as the German and Dutch, held onto religious subjects even though they had fallen out of vogue elsewhere in favor of history, landscape, mythology, and genre painting. Portrait painting still mainly focused on nobles and royals and those that were able to afford it, with the exception of Johannes Vermeer who painted servants and everyday people such as in the case of The Girl With the Pearl Earring.

Painters worked mainly in rich oils to create luminous effects in their painting through glazing techniques and others. They rejected linear perspective and continued with empirical, which is perspective based on observation. This is in contrast to the Italians who wanted to create based on scientific, rational bases. The Northern painters wanted to explore the magical mystery of nature and objects and present it to the world in detail. This paved the way for modern understanding of how space, distance, and time affect color and how to manipulate that knowledge of canvas. To explain, this effect is seen in the differing colors of mountains in a photograph, with the foreground mountains in their true colors, but more distant mountains showing in purples and blues. Through these two areas of focus, color and perspective, they were able to devise aerial and color perspectives as well and these four things became standard artistic tools in later Realism movements.

Most of the visual art activity in the Northern Renaissance occurred in the “low countries” of Holland, Flanders, and Germany. However, the Renaissance was influential in the works of many of history’s greatest writers such as Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. It was also important to creating the zeal for free thought that prompted discovery and new eras in human advancement.

Key Highlights:

    • Germany’s main contribution to the period was in printmaking, most notable The Gutenberg Bible. They also excelled at wood block graphics and other book illustrations.
    • Previous styles of religious painting had mainly placed God in the Heavens or were singular figures. This period saw painters placing Biblical figures in earthly contexts.
    • Leonardo Da Vinci was one of the Venetian artists commissioned by King Francis I to create works for his lavish palace.
    • The movement in Poland was fond of intellectualism and as such its Cracow Academy (one of the oldest universities in the world) graduated over 3000 students in the first decade of the 1500s.
    • Among Poland’s most esteemed Renaissance intellectuals was Nicolaus Copernicus, the father of the heliocentric theory of the universe.

Top Works:

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