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Northern Renaissance

Randy H. Sooknanan , Elvira Valentina Resta & Denise K. McTighe

ASAG Journal

January 6, 2021

The Northern Renaissance art movement emerged around the 15th century in regions such as Germany, Flanders, and the Netherlands. Unlike the Italian Renaissance, this movement primarily focused on the realistic representation of everyday life, with an emphasis on landscapes, portraits, and still life. This was reflective of the dominant culture in the region, which favored environmentalism and humility over wealth and power. They also frequently expressed religious life through scenes of naturalistic piety depicting Christ, Virgin Mary, and other biblical figures.

One of the main characteristics of Northern Renaissance art is the use of oil paint, which allowed artists to achieve greater depth and detail in their works. This technique was highly prized, and many artists developed unique styles to capture a wide range of emotions, from sternness to warmth and humor in their paintings. Additionally, Northern Renaissance art featured elaborate, highly detailed clothing, often featuring richly embroidered fabrics, furs, and lace. The artists would pay great attention to detail, making sure that every aspect of their work was perfect.

In all, the Northern Renaissance produced art that differed from the grand, large-scale works of the Italian Renaissance. Northern artists were more concerned with the portrayal of reality through careful observation than with the idealization of forms. They also placed a great deal of emphasis on the natural world, exploring the beauty of light, color, and texture in their paintings. While the Northern and Italian Renaissance movements shared common themes, such as a renewed interest in classical art, the Northern Renaissance art reflected the unique cultural context in which it was produced.

Let's survey some artworks from the region and wider-period...

Portrait in the Northern style: The Arnolfini Portrait

'The Arnolfini Portrait' (1434) is a wonderful example of the Northern Renaissance movement by Flemish painter Jan van Eyck (1390-1441). It is housed in the National Gallery, London, England. The painting on oak panel by the Early Netherlandish painter forms a full-length double portrait, believed to depict the Italian merchant Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife, presumably in their residence at the Flemish city of Bruges. Notice intricate details with the northern technique. For example, perhaps the most famous element here is the reflection of the subjects in the mirror hanging on the wall in the background of the composition. The Arnolfini Portrait is regarded by art historians as one of the most important paintings in history but also a constant source of controversy. For starters, the painting is done in oil — something conventional nowadays but pretty rare in Western European art of the early 15th century. This allowed Van Eyck to fully explore his talent for detail in ways that have seldom been seen in other paintings. If you look closely, you can see that the mirror on the back wall actually reflects the entire room, including two additional figures standing in the doorway. (The dog is conspicuously absent.) The artist even (somewhat) takes into account the distortion of the convex mirror. Incredibly, the even smaller medallions inside the frame of the mirror depict scenes from the Passion of Christ. However, the controversial part of the painting isn’t the mirror but rather the couple itself. It was unusual for that time to paint contemporary people just standing around the house, so historians have argued that there might be a deeper meaning to the painting. Specifically, some have argued that the artwork depicts a newly married bride and groom with the mysterious figures in the doorway acting as witnesses. Not everyone agrees with this assertion, and experts have analyzed every minute detail in the painting from the way the couple is holding hands to how the woman is wearing her hair to try and establish the relationship between the two people.


Portrait in the Northern style: The Arnolfini Portrait

"Madonna at the Fountain", 1439 by Jan van Eyck

"Madonna at the Fountain", 1439
by Jan van Eyck

(Housed in Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp)
The Madonna at the Fountain is a 1439 oil on panel painting by the early Netherlandish artist Jan van Eyck. It belongs to van Eyck's late work, and is his last signed and dated painting. Notice the details in this 19 cm x 12 cm painting, which is only a little larger than a postcard. It is set in a hortus conclusus (Latin term, meaning literally "enclosed garden") with the fountain representing the fountain of life. The Madonna is depicted dressed in blue, her figure framed by a richly embroidered cloth of honor supported by two angels. The Christ Child holds prayer beads in his left hand, suggesting, along with the rose bush behind the figures, the rosary. In the mid to late 15th century the rosary was becoming increasingly popular in northern Europe.

This depiction is unusual in that the Madonna wears a blue robe; in the Dresden Triptych, Lucca Madonna, and the Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, van Eyck had depicted her dressed in red. The use of red for the clothes of sacred figures was characteristic of 15th-century Netherlandish painting, as cochineal was among the most expensive pigments available for dying textiles. In contrast to this, Italian painters used ultramarine for the robes of Madonna's. Thus van Eyck's choice of blue can be seen as evidence of Italian influence.


"Madonna at the Fountain", 1439
by Jan van Eyck

Catharina van Hemessen

Caterina or Catharina van Hemessen (1528 – after 1565) 🇧🇪was a Flemish Renaissance painter. She is the earliest female Flemish painter for whom there is verifiable extant work. She is mainly known for a series of small scale female portraits completed between the late 1540s and early 1550s and a few religious compositions.

Van Hemessen is often given the distinction of creating the first self-portrait of an artist (of either gender) depicted seated at an easel. This portrait, created in 1548, shows the artist in the early stages of painting a portrait and is now part of the collection of the Kunstmuseum Basel. Other paintings by van Hemessen are in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and in the National Gallery, London.

A number of obstacles stood in the way of women of her time who wished to become painters. Their training would involve both the dissection of cadavers and the study of the nude male figure while the system of apprenticeship meant that the aspiring artist would need to live with an older artist for 4–5 years, often beginning from the age of 9–15. For these reasons, female artists were extremely rare, and those that did make it through were typically trained by a close relative, in van Hemessen's case, by her father, Jan Sanders van Hemessen.


Self-Portrait (van Hemessen), 1548 byCatharina van Hemessen 
lCatharina van Hemessen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The goldsmith’s workshop by Petrus Christus, 1449

Artist: Petrus Christus
Title: The goldsmith’s workshop 
Date: 1449
Artwork Location: Metropolitan Museum, New York
Medium: Oil on panel

Like the Tuscan painters of the fifteenth century, the Flemings of the same period carried out extensive research on the representation of reality through their interest in volume, spatiality, light. The light in Flemish painting, due to their use of oils, does not have the selectivity of that used by the Tuscan painters, but illuminates in the same way both the protagonists in the foreground and all the other objects, even those apparently insignificant. The goldsmith’s workshop is one of the best examples where reality is described in detail.

The city of Bruges was the commercial capital of the Duchy of Burgundy, it was a rich, multicultural city where they lived by trading in the rarest and most valuable goods.

A rich couple are inside a goldsmith’s shop to buy wedding rings, the goldsmiths were a great corporation and at the court of Burgundy gold represents the symbol of power. Wealth was not shameful, on the contrary, it was to be displayed.

The woman wears a gold brocade dress with pomegranate decoration, a two horned hat with silk veil, which was the height of fashion. With her left hand, she points at the ring.

He wears a blue silk velvet fur-lined jacket with a red silk collar and a hat decorated with a brooch. A heavy necklace stands out on his white shirt. In a gesture of protection his right hand is on her shoulder and, at the same time, his left hand is on the hilt of his sword like any gentleman.
On the back wall, just behind the shoulders of the goldsmith, there are samples of his wares: earrings, rings, precious stones, silver jugs, liturgical gold-ware, a branch of red coral.

On the wooden table, next to the scales there are foreign coins, while the belt in the foreground, is the one that, according to tradition, is worn for the wedding ceremony.

On the right, a convex mirror, the so-called "eye of the witch", shows us the houses of Bruges and two passers-by carrying with them a trained bird of prey. A painting inside a painting by which Petrus Christus displays all his skill.
The artist, far from the mathematically rigorous definition space of Italian painting, manages to recreate the real world thanks to the inclusion of small details and the use of oil. Creating things as they appear, creates an illusion and erases any limit between time and space.

Image: 'The goldsmith's workshop' (1449) by Petrus Christus


A Goldsmith in his Shop, 1449 by Petrus Christus 
Petrus Christus, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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