German Renaissance Art
History, Characteristics of Painting, Wood-Carving, Architecture, Engraving.

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Detail From The Isenheim Alterpiece
(1512-15) Musee d'Unterlingen, Colmar.
By Matthias Grunewald, one of the
great Northern Renaissance artists.

German Renaissance Art (1430-1580)


What is the German Renaissance?
Greatest Artists of the German Renaissance
Albrecht Durer
Matthias Grunewald
Hans Holbein the Younger
Danube School of Painting
Lucas Cranach the Elder
German Renaissance Sculpture
The Story of Renaissance Art in Germany
- Architecture
- Sculpture
- Painting
- Themes in German Renaissance Art
- Printmaking

To see how Renaissance painting and sculpture in Germany fits into the chronology of European culture as a whole, see: History of Art Timeline.

Self-Portrait with Fur Collar (1500)
Alte Pinakothek, Munich.
By Albrecht Durer. The greatest
draughtsman, watercolourist and
graphic artist of the Renaissance
movement in Germany.

What is the German Renaissance? - Characteristics

In Germany, beyond the Alps, which acted as a kind of barrier to any incoming information, and far removed from the culture of Classical Antiquity that had been fertile soil for modern ideas in Italy, the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern age was delayed by almost 100 years. By 1500, Italy had already experienced its Early Renaissance (1400-90) and was well into its High Renaissance (1490-1530). In contrast, German art was still attached to the stylistic forms of Gothic art and International Gothic. Thus representations of Mary always stood out against a gold background, a technique long since abandoned in the other European countries.

It was not until the beginning of the 16th century that German art began to free itself from Medieval consciousness: even then, it would evolve in its own distinctive way.

Artistic contacts between cities in Italy, like Florence, Siena and Venice, and those of Germany were ongoing during much of the 15th century. The humanist attitudes and novel visions of Italian Renaissance art were taken northwards both by wandering Italian artists, and by the engravings that had been discovered in the mid-15th century, which enabled people to make cheap editions of the most important Renaissance works. Gradually, this brought German artists in touch with the 'new' art and encouraged them to set off on study tours to the 'cradle of art', to study the Italian masters on the spot, in the original.

Important as the influences of Early Renaissance painting were on the development of German art, of equal relevance were the events in their homeland, where the Reformation was continuing to make its presence felt. In the country that had seen the success of the Protestant Reformation movement which had declared itself hostile to painting, there was no longer any demand for religious art. This was a great blow to artists, because it meant that they lost their most important source of commissions and income, and helps to explain why court patronage and painting increased in importance. To compensate for the collapse of their main patron, the Church, German artists were obliged to turn to other subjects, notably portrait art and landscape painting, which they sold to the nobility and bourgeoisie.



Greatest Artists of the German Renaissance

The two greatest Old Masters of the Northern Renaissance era in Germany were the prolific, ambitious draughtsman Albrecht Durer, of Nuremberg (1471-1528), and the Mainz-based religious fanatic Matthias Grunewald (1470-1528). Other artists who played a role in the development of German painting at this time, included Stefan Lochner (c.1400-51), the star of the Cologne School, the printmaker Martin Schongauer (after 1455-91) best known for his Madonna in the Rose Garden (1473); Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1533), noted for his court portraiture and female nudes, the visionary Hans Baldung Grien (1484-1545) and Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) the eminent portraitist. For the most important pictures, see: Greatest Renaissance Paintings. Important German sculptors, predominantly wood-carvers, included Hans Multscher (1400-67), Michael Pacher (1430-98), Veit Stoss (c.1447-1533), Tilman Riemenschneider (c.1460-1531), and Gregor Erhart (c.1460-1540).

German Renaissance Art

Art forms that predominated during the Renaissance period in Germany and Austria included: graphic arts like printmaking (woodcuts, engraving and etching), altarpiece art and smaller devotional works, as well as secular panel paintings - mostly portraiture - and religious wood carving.

Albrecht Durer

Nuremberg-born Albrecht Durer, the son of a goldsmith, visited Italy twice, in 1494 and 1501, and was greatly influenced by High Renaissance painting - especially from Venice. He encountered, and learned to value, mathematics and geometry as aids to art, and became familiar with the study of nature and human anatomy. Perspective, relations of proportion, moderation and harmony were new, fascinating compositional elements for him, all of which made him an important intermediary between the southern and northern Renaissance styles. However, this Italian influence was only on the surface. Thus while a certain magnificence of colour, together with something of the Venetian treatment of light, are apparent in his work of this time, he was unable to absorb the real significance of Italian classicism, and remained essentially a Northern artist, a draughtsman, thinking always in terms of line. Even in his paintings he remains a linear artist, and the larger part of his oeuvre consists of drawings and engravings, both on wood (such as The Apocalypse series 1498, the two sets of The Passion, and the Life of the Virgin), and on metal (such as the famous single plates, The Knight, Death and the Detail 1513, St Jerome in His Study 1514, and Melancholia 1514). His paintings include religious subjects and portraits, modified to some extent by Italian conceptions of form, but always quintessentially German in feeling. Durer is among the great draughtsmen of the world. The minute intensity of his observation and - his power of setting down exactly what he saw, as in the famous drawings of animals, and grass, and hands, at Vienna, has never been surpassed. The same objectivity, almost impersonality of vision, is apparent in his landscape drawings; the watercolour painting he created on his various journeys have an amazing freshness and exactitude of observation altogether unlike the romantic fairy-tale landscapes of Altdorfer. See, for instance, his Young Hare (1502) and Great Piece of Turf (1503), both in the Albertina, Vienna. In addition, Durer was a pioneer of modern book illustration. His illustrations included woodcuts for his Four Books on Human Proportions (1528, Nuremberg), and his Instructions on Measuring with Compass and Rule (1525, Nuremberg).

Durer had many disciples: among them were Hans Springinklee and Albrecht's brother Hans Durer, who was afterwards influenced by Altdorfer. Other artists of Durer's circle were Wolf Traut, Leonhard Schaufelin, and the Beham brothers.


Matthias Grunewald

At the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th centuries the visual arts in Germany were still closely bound up with the Church and its iconographic categories. The only signs of any weakening in this dependency lay in the fact that art was freed from architecture, and concentrated on the most important place in the church, the altar.

One of the greatest exponents of Christian art in Germany was the obscure Matthias Grunewald, who only this century emerged from anonymity and obscurity. His religious paintings did not have the same influence on his contemporaries as the easily reproduced woodcuts and engravings of Durer. His colouring, a hundred years in advance of his time, was hardly understood, and there is no evidence to show whether, or how, he influenced other German Renaissance painters. In the monastery of Isenheim, near Strasbourg in the Vosges, he produced the greatest work of his career, the high altar in the choir of St Anthony's chapel, which in a later age was admired as the most wonderful pictorial expression of German Gothic. The Isenheim Altarpiece (1510-15) is what is known as a 'polyptych', with several pairs of wings painted on both sides, which could be opened like the pages of a book according to the requirements of the liturgy. When closed, it showed Christ's crucifixion. What is special about the painting is Grunewald's mercilessly vivid depiction of reality, and his passionate intensification of the expressive tools of colour and form. With the twisted hands, and the pale flesh tone, contrasting violently with the black night sky and the blood-red garments of the figures at the foot of the cross, the torments of the dying saviour are visualised in two ways, realistic and 'abstract'. Not only are they depicted, but the depiction encourages the viewer to relate to them.

While much in Grunewald's depiction corresponds to medieval iconography, the self contained construction of the picture and the corporeality of his figures, the differentiated treatment of colour and the minutely meticulous painting suggest that the painter might have been familiar both with Italian art and the works of the Dutch masters. The pictorial language that developed out of this combination was clearly so unusual for the time that the painter did not have any direct descendants. It was left to the artists of the 20th century, namely the German Expressionists, to rediscover this painter, who stands between the Middle Ages and the modern age. Grunewald's expressive treatment of colour and form explodes the prevailing canon of formal laws to intensify the effect of the painting. On this point Grunewald clearly differs from Albrecht Durer, for whom moderation in all things was the best thing.

Hans Holbein the Younger

Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) belonged to a family of artists living in Augsburg. At the age of 19 he went to Basel, on the frontier between the German and French cultures, a city filled with the spirit of humanism, where he found a more enlightened atmosphere. Here, he made the final break with the Middle Ages. Durer and Grunewald belonged above all to Germany; but Holbein belonged to the world.

Holbein's Basel portraits of Erasmus of Rotterdam (1523), the Burgomaster Meyer (1526), the Astronomer Nikolaus Kratzer (1528), Sir Thomas More (1527) and others, are the confident achievements of a youth of 20 who was about to become one of the world's greatest portrait-painters. He was also a prolific draughtsman, producing between 1516 and 1532 over 1200 drawings for woodcuts. The 'Dance of Death', printed from wood blocks after Holbein's designs, bears witness to the technical perfection of the Northern art of wood-engraving. Holbein finally left Basel in 1532, to become court painter to King Henry VIII in England. Here, he produced a wealth of magnificent portraiture including Portrait of Henry VIII (1536), The Ambassadors (1533), Thomas Cromwell (1532-4) and Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling (1527–28) as well as The Merchant Georg Gisze (1532). In these outstanding pictures, Holbein combines the northern European love of sumptuous detail with the grandeur and dignity of the Italian Renaissance: details are reproduced to great effect, yet at the same time remain subordinate to the larger whole. (Note: For details of pigments used in German Renaissance painting, see: Renaissance Colour Palette.)

Danube School of Landscape Painting

The Danube school developed in the wealthy imperial city of Regensburg, borrowing elements from late Gothic German traditions. The school consisted of a loose group of German and Austrian painters who were among the earliest exponents of independent landscape painting. In his cruder, and often very romantic idiom, Albrecht Altdorfer (1480-1538) stands out as the Danube School's greatest master. As an original creative painter and engraver he is, in his landscape drawings and woodcuts, one of the most attractive of the lesser artists of the period. The poetic landscape artist Wolfgang Huber (1490-1553), active mostly in Passau where he was court painter to the prince-bishop, is another member of the school, as was Cranach the Elder - at least in his early work.

Lucas Cranach the Elder

Lucas Cranach the Elder was another outstanding portrait artist, probably best-remembered for his portrait of Martin Luther (1543). Cranach, who was a close friend of the Reformist pastor, was himself close to the Reformation movement and is seen as its representative painter, providing the illustrations for the Luther Bible, which was published in 1522. However his sympathy with the Reformation did not prevent him from producing altarpieces and devotional paintings according to both Protestant and Catholic iconographies, as well as a series of paintings of female nudes. Traces of the influence of humanism are apparent in his extensive body of work, but the formal qualities of the Italians, with their understanding of proportions, and the search for the ideal figure of humanity, elude him. His paintings breathe a traditional naturalness, which is also characteristic of the painters of the 'Danube School', who treated both nature and figures in an extremely painterly way, as phenomena of colour and light, and thus brought man and landscape into a hitherto unfamiliar unity. An example is Cranach's Saint Jerome. The hermit is shown nestling within an opulent landscape - plant animal and man, everything is shown with the same intensity.

German Renaissance Sculpture

Given the low cost and widespread availability of numerous types of wood, versus the high cost and short supply of marble and other stone, it's not surprising that most German Renaissance sculptors of the 15th and 16th centuries were master wood-carvers. Working mainly for religious patrons - and after 1520, for the Roman Catholic Church - these master craftsmen set standards in wood sculpture which have rarely been surpassed. They include the International Gothic artist Hans Multscher (1400-67) who carved the Wurzacher (1437) and Sterzing (1457) altarpieces; Michael Pacher (1430-98) best remembered for The St Wolfgang Altarpiece (1471-81); the Late Gothic sculptor Veit Stoss (c.1447-1533) whose works included The Death of the Virgin/St Mary Altarpiece, Krakow (1477-89); Tilman Riemenschneider (c.1460-1531), arguably the greatest of all German carvers, who created the Holy Blood Altar (1499-1504); and Gregor Erhart (c.1460-1540) whose statues included the famous figurine Mary Magdalene ("La Belle Allemande") (c.1500).

Most if not all of the above German artists, including Durer and Grunewald, still show traces of medieval pictorial traditions. So it is difficult to speak of a 'renewal' or 'rebirth' of art in the Italian sense. Instead, the Renaissance in Germany appears more like an invigorating south wind, which took hold of the artists and sped them onwards, before the storm of the Thirty Years War at the beginning of the 17th century blew away any further hope of cultural development for a generation.


The Story of Renaissance Art in Germany

A renaissance in its true sense never existed in Germany. The main reason for the fact that artistic developments in Germany did not parallel those in Italy during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries is that the German and Italian artists drew their inspiration from entirely different sources. In Germany, one important prerequisite for a renascitur, a revival of Classical forms, was missing: that of a Classical past to which such a movement could relate. If there ever was a renaissance north of the Alps then it belonged not to the quattrocento or cinquecento but to the upsurge of early German Medieval art, at the court of King Charlemagne, when great artists and scholars were invited to revitalize the spirit of Late Classical times. But Carolingian art was in no way a new beginning, it was a fading out of Early Christian and thereby Late Classical forms and ideals. From there, German art took a different course and by turning away from Classical ideals, by creating its own, non-Classical forms, achieved true greatness. Italy never severed her link with the past and consequently her contribution to Western European art during the Middle Ages was modest. When at the beginning of the fifteenth century the medieval world crumbled, the Italians had their Classical past to fall back on and as a result they were able to take the lead in that artistic and intellectual movement which much later became known as the Renaissance.

German artists had no Classical past to which to relate - the greater part of Germany had never even come into direct contact with ancient Roman culture - and at the end of the Middle Ages efforts in Germany were directed towards the preservation of a heritage from the most recent past.This was expressed by the continued development of proven forms. The quattrocento, that glorious century of Masaccio, Mantegna, Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci, produced a last flowering of German Gothic art, known as the Late Gothic, during which period the new reality remained unrecognized. There was no radicalism in German art in this century and no bitter conflict between tradition and progress; there was a gentle merging of old and new.

As the history of art records, in Italy the Renaissance broke through with revolutionary force and met with no resistance. Popes and princes, citizens and artists competed with each other to glorify the new era and to enjoy worldly pleasures. Inspired by the artistic, moral and social freedom they unhesitatingly discarded the outworn forms of the Middle Ages and, through the revival of Classical ideals, developed a new feeling for life which found its most perfect expression in their art.

No parallel development took place in Germany. The Humanism of pre-Reformation days was erudite and serious, but lacked the youthful freshness and beautiful spontaneity that was needed to create a vision of a better future from the ruins of the past. This lack of vitality is demonstrated by the nearly complete decline of German Renaissance architecture. The few sacred structures which date from the fifteenth century (the Stiftskirche in Stuttgart, and the Heiligkreuzkirche in Gmund, for example) are products of a tired imagination. Although based on concepts of Gothic architecture, they lack the essential upward drive. The structures are squat, their vaults and arches broad, their pillars and ribs stocky and lifeless. The serene harmony of contemporary Italian architecture, with its balance of horizontal and vertical lines, was neither intended nor desired. These buildings express a narrow-minded piety that bears no relation to the medieval longing for the hereafter.

After the Reformation the building of churches suffered a complete decline in Germany. The Protestant part of the country was content with existing structures which, after they had been stripped of their ornaments and pictures, conformed in their spareness to the declared Protestant aim of austerity. In the Catholic south the widespread conservative attitude of the clergy may have been responsible for the fact that the adoption of Italian Renaissance concepts was not encouraged and nobody drew the architectural consequences of the changed intellectual climate.

German Renaissance Architecture

As far as civil architecture was concerned the picture was somewhat more positive. Towards the end of the Middle Ages the growing influence of the middle classes began to assert itself against the authority of the clergy, and a number of town houses, merchants' offices and town halls were constructed. But although the secular character of these buildings was very obvious, they nevertheless failed to develop an independent style of their own. The extent to which civil architecture was dependent on sacred architecture is illustrated by the refectory of Marienburg Castle. This large hall is reminiscent of Gothic hall-churches in design and structure: a row of slender pillars divides the room into two aisles, the vault is supported by fan-shaped ribs, and pointed window arches are set into the heavy walls. The Town Hall at Frankfurt, the famous Romer, provides another example of this interdependence; its graduated facade is similar to that of many fourteenth-century Franconian churches.

In Italy the development of Renaissance architecture brought with it the emergence of a clear distinction between sacred and civil structures. As the individual became more aware of his importance he wanted to assert his personality in all spheres. The manner of dressing grew more decorative and sumptuous, the living habits more opulent and luxurious, and an increased intellectual independence brought with it an interest in all branches of decorative art as well as fine art. It follows that this new attitude to life demanded a more representative setting; the modest town house with its utilitarian dimensions and furnishings proved too constricting for the rich merchant or banker, and monumental civil structures began to make their appearance next to sacred structures. During the Middle Ages the former had been modelled on the latter. With the Renaissance the Italians developed an independent secular style in order to demonstrate the rejection of the omnipotence of the Church. The artless houses were replaced by magnificent palazzi which rich patricians now had built as a matter of course, just as the princes in the old days had constructed their castles and fortifications.

For a long time Germany and neighbouring countries north of the Alps refused to accept the intellectual, rational ideals of the Renaissance. Only Renaissance ornamentation was adopted to begin with and used for the decoration of Gothic structures. Traditional facades, terminated by pointed gables, were enriched by pilasters ending in turret-like needle-sharp obelisks that projected beyond the edge of the gable. Following Italian examples, the big rectangular windows were surmounted by segmental or triangular pediments and occasionally a balustrade decorated with figures was placed along the edge of the roof. Irregular medieval ground-plans continued to be used, as is evident in the castle at Heidelberg, which consists of several loosely grouped structures. The old fortified castle, built around 1200, was enlarged in Italian Renaissance style by the Elector Palatine Otto Heinrich in 1556-1559. The architect, whose name is not known, used a whole range of Greek and Roman designs in an attempt to give the structure a Classical character. Ionian and Corinthian pilasters carry a Doric frieze; pediments over the windows are supported by three variously decorated pillars and carry medallions portraying Classical heroes; sculptures of figures from ancient myths are placed in niches between the windows; and on the lower storey pilasters of rough-hewn, square stone are reminiscent of the Rustica of Florentine palazzi. This confusing ornamentation has nothing in common with the clear pattern of Italian Renaissance facades. In Italy ornamentation and articulation form part of an overall architectural concept, whereas in Germany the ornamentation is in no way related to the structure, which merely supports a wide-ranging and fantastic decor.

The Town Hall at Augsburg, which was completed in 1620 by Elias Holl, is the only one among a great many Northern European civil structures that could claim to belong to Renaissance architecture in the Italian sense. The clearly conceived regularity of the square ground-plan is subdivided into rectangular state rooms on the one axis and two facing staircases on the other. In the corners of this cross, which is formed by the state rooms and the staircases, square offices are provided for the administration. The square pattern reappears on the Facade: height and width are of equal dimension and the central section which houses the council chamber also forms a square that is framed by mouldings and pilasters. Apart from a sparing use of cartouches on the uppermost storey, no ornamentation decorates the facade, which is given its rhythm by the meaningful alternation of differently sized windows. Only the gable surmounting the central section represents a concession to German taste. The overall impression conveyed by the structure is one of great elegance achieved through the balanced proportions and the harmonious interplay of horizontal and vertical lines. Immediately after the completion of the Town Hall at Augsburg the Thirty Years War broke out, which brought architectural activities to a complete standstill.

German Renaissance Sculpture

A characteristic example of German Renaissance sculpture is the Shrine of St. Sebald by Peter Vischer. The work of other eminent "Renaissance sculptors", such as Riemenschneider and Stoss, was not actually influenced by the Renaissance revival of Classical forms and ideals and is, therefore, considered a last flowering of the Gothic style. Peter Vischer and his sons, on the other hand, were more receptive to new developments. From the mid-fifteenth century the Vischer family ran a flourishing bronze sculpture foundry in Bamberg, which gained such fame that it was visited by princes and potentates from all over Europe, although important works by Peter Vischer the Elder could be found in Poland, Bohemia, Hungary, in the Palatinate and at the courts of princes everywhere in the empire. The Shrine of St. Sebald, destined for the church of the same name at Nuremberg, was originally designed in 1488 in purely Gothic style with a top of three crowning spires. When the monument was finally commissioned in 1507, Vischer decided to give it a more Classical aspect. The result is a strangely confusing system of round arches surmounting a dome-like baldachin, suggesting that Vischer was not familiar with current Italian forms of sculptural ornamentation. His son, Peter Vischer the Younger, created the figures of the twelve apostles; their well-balanced proportions and the solemnity of their bearing demonstrate his endeavour to overcome the concepts of Romanesque sculpture. On the reliefs along the base of the shrine scenes from the life of St. Sebald alternate with half-naked figures portraying representations of Classical mythology; these are considered the work of Hermann Vischer the Younger, who is documented to have been in Rome and Toscana in 1515. Thus the Shrine of St. Sebald shows the gradual infiltration of Italian sculptural concepts and at the same time illustrates the incapacity of German artists to fuse these new ideas into a unified sculptural composition. Through its elongated shape and its confusing wealth of figural and ornamental details, the general impression conveyed by the Shrine of St. Sebald remains Gothic.

German Renaissance Painting

Albrecht Altdorfer

The paintings created during the period of transition from medieval to modern frequently expressed that conflict between tradition and progress which predominated at the turn of the century. Albrecht Altdorfer's Battle of Alexander - one of the most famous landscape paintings - incorporates the most important aspects of this transitional style. A huge panorama of depth and width is presented from a high viewpoint, which demonstrates conclusively that the third dimension has been opened up to painting and that flat medieval scenes, 'sealed' by a gold sky, have become a thing of the past. A cosmic background of dramatic clouds, bizarre mountain ranges, glittering surfaces of water and scattered islands, is irradiated by the setting sun. The figurative scene stretches in an unlimited variety of gradations from the foreground to the coastline in the middle distance: a fortified town, steep rocks surmounted by castles, meadows, fields, paths and trees encircle the teaming throng of two armies, that of the Macedonian king, Alexander, and that of the Persian king, Darius. The soldiers are painted with a miniature precision that conveys their human insignificance in relation to the surrounding cosmic magnitude; this indicates an underlying metaphysical intention but it also illustrates the current artistic endeavour to combine medieval descriptive details with the three-dimensional ideas of space developed by the Italians.

Landscapes had been portrayed in Northern European painting long before Altdorfer. They dominate the figures in a number of enchanting illuminated manuscripts from Burgundy, and the Netherlandish painters Hubert and Jan van Eyck introduced the landscape into panel painting. However, the Netherlandish school merely used nature as a background to give their pictures an impression of spacial depth and made no attempt to fuse it with the scene in the foreground. A further step in the development of landscape painting was taken by the Swiss artist Konrad Witz, who replaced the fantastic landscape by a topographically identifiable interpretation. But even his very realistic portrayals of nature such as that of Lake Geneva in The Miraculous Draught of Fishes are only used as a background and the theme of the painting is conveyed by the figures in the foreground.

This no longer applies in the case of The Battle of Alexander. Altdorfer communicates the dramatic mood through the landscape, against which the battle itself seems more an assembly of tin soldiers. Worldly events, the struggle between two big armies, are but a pale reflection of what is happening in the sky; it is here that Altdorfer conveys the conflict between light and darkness, between day and night, between sun and moon.

Altdorfer's origins explain his close communion with nature. He was probably born at Regensburg and virtually never left his home in the wooded valley of the Danube. His best paintings are those in which he freely expresses his feelings, isolated from the art activity of his time and unhampered by the formal problems which concerned his contemporaries. He has been credited with founding the tradition of European landscape painting. By creating landscapes without figures he established an artform which has survived to this day, despite the many changes which painting underwent during the intervening centuries.

Although Altdorfer had no direct successor, his style nevertheless had a wide influence. He was the principal representative of the Danube style, a type of painting characterized by the importance of the landscape over the figures and objects. This intimate feeling for nature displayed by the Danube artists was largely responsible for their rediscovery by nineteenth-century Romantics, who regarded the Danube school as a romantic movement. Quite convincing similarities can indeed be found between the paintings of the nineteenth-century Romantics and those of the early sixteenth century, particularly in the way landscape is used to express the meaning and convey the mood of the picture.


Lucas Cranach the Elder

Lucas Cranach the Elder can to some extent be considered the immediate forerunner of the Danube style. Little is known of his early development but it is assumed that, during his years of travel, he visited the important artistic centres of southern Germany. He was extremely receptive and was able to absorb a variety of influences which he then transformed into his own, very individual style. While his early pictures clearly show the influence of Durer and Grunewald, he later tended more towards the style of the Netherlandish Renaissance and that of Holbein. His work covers a wide variety of subjects: the female nude appears as frequently as the portrait, and mythological painting is as common as religious imagery. Ideologically he did not limit himself either: although he was considered one of the most ardent supporters of the Reformation he nevertheless continued to paint altarpieces for Catholic churches and portraits of Catholic princes. His refusal to commit himself has often been interpreted as fickleness, his phenomenal productivity as a purely commercial compulsion, and the variety of his themes as intellectual superficiality. But this assessment does not do justice to the personality of Cranach as a man or as a painter. He represented a new type of artist, not previously known, who was no longer the upright artisan committed to the predominant ideology of his time, but an independent individual with an alert and critical mind, able to absorb many different and contradictory ideas and incorporate them in his work without prejudice and without personal involvement.

These attitudes made Cranach a true representative of the Renaissance, a man who had taken the decisive step into modern times, although his work remained in many ways firmly rooted in tradition. Thus the angels in his painting Rest on the Flight to Egypt are reminiscent of those by masters of the 'soft' Gothic style for whom an assembly of angels was an indispensable accompaniment to every portrayal of the Virgin. But Cranach interprets them quite differently. The heavenly bodies of medieval traditions have become friendly playfellows, little rogues who want to attract the attention of the Infant Jesus: one is bringing flowers, another has caught a bird which he attempts to hold in a very rough way, yet another is fetching water in a shell, and a little one has fallen asleep behind a rock. Three somewhat older angels are trying to please the Infant Jesus with a song and the apparent differences of opinion among these heavenly figures bring them down to the level of human bickering. This is an irreverent variation of a theme which at that time was still taken very seriously. Mary, obviously exhausted from the hardships of the flight, trustingly enjoys the shelter which the peaceful clearing offers her at the moment. Joseph, on the other hand, remains mistrustful; his fearful questioning eyes seem to ask for help and information regarding possible dangers, and the fact that he has kept his hat and staff shows he is ready to continue the flight at any time. But his caution seems unnecessary, for a deep magical peace pervades the scene: the tall weatherbeaten fir-tree conveys a feeling of security, the extensive view is felicitously reassuring, and the carefree bustle of the angels promises the Holy Family every protection.

Themes in German Renaissance Art

The subject of fear is one of those characteristically German themes which can be found in German paintings and sculptures from early Ottonian art to the present. The fear of demons, of the unpredictable forces of nature, had taken such deep root in primitive countries, frequently overwhelmed by natural disasters of all kinds, that at least during the Middle Ages even Christianity could not eradicate this constant dread. On the contrary, the church skilfully re-interpreted the fear of demons and other mythical ideas in a Christian way and thereby fused pagan superstitions with the Christian faith. The celebration of Christmas at the time of the pagan festival of solstice is only one of many examples.

This pagan fear of demons frequently manifested itself in medieval sculpture from Germany. The stone-carved animals, the frightening, fantastic figures on Romanesque structures, were not inspired by the Gospels, but taken from pagan myths, and their purpose was to exorcize the demons, literally locking them in stone. German Gothic sculpture shows less preoccupation with pagan themes; as a result of the simultaneous advance of religion and civilization north of the Alps people felt more secure. But although the sensitive and poetic late medieval representations of the Virgin and saints ignored the existence of demons, they continued to exist in people's subconscious. At the beginning of modern times a confrontation with the realities of this world woke people from the dream of a higher existence that their faith and civilization had promised them. This search for the new realities produced an increased awareness of man's impotence in the face of supernatural forces at a time when the chains of the collective bondage of religion and serfdom were being rejected. While in Renaissance Italy this striving towards freedom led to a greater self-confidence and a new awareness, the Germans feared the chaos that might lurk behind this glittering facade.

The subject of fear is only hinted at in Cranach's Rest on the Flight to Egypt, but it becomes a terrifying reality in Hans Baldung Grien's Death and the Maiden. A young girl of sensual beauty and grace is grabbed by a horrible skeleton to be pulled into the abyss. The movement of the bodies and the pointing hand direct the eye towards the grave and express in graphic terms what the inscription reads 'here must thou enter'. The greenish shadow covering the blooming body and the tears disfiguring the girl's face indicate the inevitability of her fate. The new interest in anatomy, which stimulated Italian painters to portray beautiful nudes, led German artists to a pessimistic memento mori. Certainly for many who dealt with such sombre themes, this was merely a pretext to paint the human body in all its sensual beauty, without running the risk of being accused of impropriety. Hans Baldung Grien was anything but a morose moralist. Self-confident and flexible, interested in all formal problems and yet not creating them himself, gifted and full of ideas, he absorbed the new developments of his time without completely divorcing himself from tradition. His choice of subjects was as unlimited as that of Lucas Cranach, and with the latter he shared an interest in the female nude. But Baldung Grien was a diligent pupil of Albrecht Durer and therefore, unlike Cranach, aimed at an anatomically correct portrayal of the human body, without adopting Durer's slightly pedantic realism. Baldung Grien also achieved greatness in the field of engraving and other forms of printmaking. His works include many interpretations of The Dance of Death and The Witches' Sabbath; this preference for demonic themes was again inspired by an interest in portraying the human body in all its movements and contortions.

Matthias Grunewald

Visions of a tortured and torn world, which are so contrary to the image created by the Renaissance, frequently appear in the works of Grunewald, who for that reason has been called 'the last medieval mystic'. A preoccupation with suffering is characteristic of his work: among twenty-two authenticated paintings there are no less than six Crucifixions, two Lamentations of Christ, and one Mocking of Christ. Fear, darkness, destruction and desolation were the main themes of his pictures, even if the subject matter required a more positive interpretation, as for instance the portrayals of the Annunciation, Nativity and Resurrection on the inside panels of the Isenheim Altar; these are painted in violent colours permeated by a visionary light which is more frightening than pleasing. The Isenheim Altar, Grunewald's major work, was created between 1512 and 1515 for the Monastery of St. Anthony at Isenheim, which was directed at that time by Guido Guersi, a highly cultivated Italian. The monastery attracted many famous artists; Martin Schongauer, for example, had painted a picture for the high altar in 1470.

Grunewald created a folding altarpiece, consisting of a pair of fixed wings and a double pair of folding wings, thus enabling the showing of appropriate scenes on different liturgical occasions. When both pairs of folding wings are closed the centre panel represents the Crucifixion, and the fixed wings to either side portray St. Sebastian and St. Anthony. Opening the first pair of folding wings reveals the Nativity on the centre panel, flanked by representations of the Annunciation and the Resurrection on the outer panels. When the altarpiece is opened for the last transformation the carved shrine becomes visible in the centre and to either side the now exposed inner surfaces of the second pair of folding wings show St. Anthony's Temptation and St. Anthony's Discourse with St. Paul. St. Anthony's Temptation is depicted by Grunewald as an infernal procession of demonic figures who beset the saint, a fantastic bestiary of murderous, gruesome fiends and spawns of hell, personifications of forces of nature taken over from pagan times.

Albrecht Durer

The medieval legacy and the pioneer spirit of modern times reached their most perfect synthesis in the works of Albrecht Durer, The characteristic features of medieval German painters - their gift for idyllic description, their religious fervour combined with keen observations of everyday life, and their ability to permeate worldly themes with subtle moral undertones - are all present in Durer's work, but he transcends their provincial limitations and achieves new greatness. His constant, diligent search for new experiences and his complete impartiality in confronting them, make the Nuremberg master unique in his time. At the age of nineteen Durer left the workshop of his teacher, Michael Wolgemut, and went to Basle, the centre of the Humanist movement, where he made a name for himself as a woodcutter. Four years later he travelled to Venice. The colourfulness of the Venetians and the linear composition of Florentine paintings greatly impressed the young artist, but after returning to Nuremberg he subjected his Italian experiences to close scrutiny before accepting them and incorporating them into his own paintings. His studies of nudes, although inspired by the Italians, were carried out in a much more scientific way and his famous Treatise on Human Proportions excels Italian works of artistic theory in clarity and logic. By taking countless measurements of the naked body he hoped to find a mathematical formula for it, and his absolute certainty in the interpretation of the human figure and its movements is the result of these endeavours.


Durer's drawing and watercolour painting demonstrate the extent to which his artistic progress was furthered by constant, detailed examinations of his surroundings and by close observations of nature in particular. At the age of eighteen he painted The Wire Drawing Mill, a scene just outside the gates of his home town, a picturesque setting on the river amidst green meadows and gentle hills. The mill does not exist any more, but due to Durer's precision it has been possible to determine its exact location. In the upper left-hand corner stands the Spitteler Tor, the western gate of Nuremberg; the church in the centre is St. Leonhard and from there the meadows, known as Hallerwiesen, descend to the river as they do to this day. The dull overcast sky produces a solemn light, which subdues the colours and avoids exaggerated effects of light and shade while at the same time providing good visibility. Despite certain inaccuracies of linear perspective as far as the framework house, the footbridge and the little wall to the left are concerned, the picture conveys a vivid impression of a personal experience, a description of nature based on precise observation without idealistic intentions.

The directness of Durer's observations, so effective in the realistic portrayal of landscape, led to further, more detailed discoveries and to the ultimate perfection of Renaissance realism with his Great Piece of Turf. A tiny part of nature, detached from the earth as if by accident, becomes a work of art. The thicket-like impenetrability of the natural wilderness in the lower half is slowly transformed until every blade and leaf stands out in harmonious order from the luminous background. Insignificant details become enlarged and the wonder of nature in its primitive variety is experienced intellectually as well as emotionally.

Durer displayed a much closer relationship to nature in his watercolours and Renaissance drawings than in his paintings, not only because he considered silverpoint or brush and watercolours as better media for the reproduction of spontaneous impressions than oil paint, but because at that time paintings were expected to convey something beyond mere description. Therefore the Self-Portrait painted in 1498 must not be regarded as a faithful likeness but as an attempt to present himself in as favourable a light as possible. The carefully rendered modish details of the distinguished costume indicate his taste and style of life, his critical, slightly arrogant expression denotes self-confidence and inner nobility, and the very conspicuously placed signature, the well-known Durer monogram, confirms that he no longer thought of himself as an anonymous artisan; an explanatory note above the signature reads "I made this after my likeness, I was six and twenty years old". He adopted the use of landscape to create an impression of width from the Italians; the South Tyrolean landscape itself is an allusion to his first journey to Italy.

At the age of forty, when Durer stood at the height of his fame, he returned to the conventional theme of Madonna and Child. This could be interpreted as a sign of conservatism in the mature artist, but in fact his Madonnas - there are altogether seven paintings which were created at quite different times - were a way of testing new artistic experiences on a well-known subject. His portrayal of the Madonna for The Feast of the Rose Garlands, created in Venice in 1506, shows a regal figure surrounded by saints and angels, whereas in the painting Madonna with the Pear she is presented simply as a mother, without mystical symbols, but with a supernatural glow achieved by artistic means alone. A limited use of colour preserves the intimacy of the narrow picture; the luminous blue effectively accentuates the subdued warm skintones and the golden yellow of the headdress. An enlivening effect is achieved by the contrast between the Madonna's reserved expression and posture and the Child's robust, unrestrained vitality. This vitality is further accentuated by the strong modelling of the Child's body, which is thereby brought to the forefront of the picture. The Son of God has become man.

Hans Holbein the Younger

One of the great achievements of the Renaissance was the discovery of man as an individual, which was given expression in contemporary portrait paintings. Like most Renaissance ideas the art of portrait painting had its origins in Italy but was later brilliantly mastered by Hans Holbein the Younger. Although born and raised in Germany, Holbein the artist belonged to Europe, the Europe of the Renaissance and of Humanism, the Europe that produced Erasmus of Rotterdam, Francis I of France, Sir Thomas More, Henry VIII and Melanchthon. Holbein was a German by origin, but his development needed more scope and greater freedom of movement than were offered by the provincial narrowness of his native country. He therefore undertook frequent long journeys to northern Italy and France and sought the friendship of the great Humanists in Basle, Rotterdam and London. Even after entering the services of Henry VIII he insisted on maintaining personal contact with other European cultural centres.

One of Holbein's most salient characteristics was his open attitude toward the world around him, which during his lifetime often brought him the reproach that he was unstable. He certainly was less settled than other German artists, such as Durer, but was not prepared to tie himself down. It was held very much against him, for instance, that despite the promise of an important commission, he returned to England and refused to grant the Basle councillors their urgent request that he should settle in his home town. But a man who had come into close contact with so many intellectual and political influences in Europe necessarily outgrew any form of middle-class thinking, and Holbein's artistic achievements are proof of this. What fascinated him the most were the men and women of his time, whom he portrayed with great diligence: self-confident princes, scholars und philosophers, men of the world and wealthy merchants, fashionable ladies, and women in the intimate circle of their families. He always painted them from the safe distance of a keen observer, completely concentrating on his subject and denying himself any personal involvement. As a result of this modest attitude towards his models Holbein was able to create pictures of immense documentary value; his paintings speak for themselves. He painted three portraits of a scholar whose advice and judgement were sought by eminent statesmen and church dignitaries: Erasmus of Rotterdam. Although Holbein usually preferred to present his subjects full face, he shows Erasmus in profile which, no doubt, was intended to demonstrate his intellectual independence. One who is to be portrayed full face necessarily reveals himself, he must pose in some way or other in order to show himself in a favourable light, whereas presentation in profile permits the model to ignore the artist. In Holbein's portrait of Erasmus this turning away does not seem arrogant but is explained by the scholar's intense intellectual concentration, which is conveyed by the taut facial expression and the writing hand. His sharp features denote a critical mind, his hands sensitivity and indecision, the characteristics of a carefully deliberating scholar. His attire of simple style and costly cloth indicates a feeling for the beauty of simplicity and good taste, while the three rings on his finger reveal that even the great Erasmus was not free from vanity. Holbein's splendid characterization is borne out by historical accounts, which tell of Erasmus openly opposing the papacy and yet refusing to give Luther his requested support, because the reformer's religious radicalism and intolerance were too much in conflict with Erasmus's own Humanist ideals of moderation and compromise.

The growing fanaticism of the Protestants was to be one of the main reasons for the sudden decline of German painting. When Erasmus wrote to Holbein in 1526 that the reformed Basle was no longer favourable to the arts, he was referring to the Protestant aversion to pictures in general. The Protestants barred religious themes from painting. Therefore the Church to a large extent ceased to commission works of art, and even rich princes and merchants withdrew their patronage after the Peasant Wars and tightened their purse-strings so as not to arouse the fury of the impecunious. The visual arts were largely deprived not only of their ideological but also of their economic basis. Holbein's decision to settle in England must be seen in the light of these developments.

Thus two trends became apparent in the second half of the sixteenth century which occasionally were followed by one and the same artist, sometimes even simultaneously if the need arose: a strongly moralizing, somewhat morose style of painting, which was intended as a concession to the Protestant aims of spiritual reformation, and a court art which was orientated towards the Italian Renaissance and expressed the rulers' ever increasing desire for pleasure. Both trends are characterized by a superficiality which stands in complete contrast to the seriousness of painting in Durer's time.

Lucas Cranach the Younger, son of the Elder Cranach, was one of the principal representatives of this period, which to some extent constitutes a parallel development to Italian Mannerist painting. Apart from his moralizing, allegorical works, such as Caritas and Allegory on the Creed, and some excellent portraits, he created several humorously examples of genre-painting, of which The Fountain of Youth is one of the most entertaining. Old sick women are brought on wagons, in wheelbarrows and on stretchers to a rejuvenating bath from which they emerge with new beauty on the other side. The old peasants, tired of their loathsome wives, obviously expect no other reward for their troubles than to be rid of the old women at last. After their metamorphosis the young ladies are received by cavaliers who hurry them away to be clad in beautiful gowns and join in a gay life of dancing, drinking and merry-making.

German Renaissance Printmaking

A specialized field in which the German masters of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries excelled was graphic art. Many painters of that time achieved greatness in this field and frequently the importance of their drawings and engravings surpassed that of their paintings. Thus Durer's watercolours should not be regarded as mere studies for paintings in oil; they are works of art in their own right. The same applies to Altdorfer's representation of St. Christopher. Purely graphic means, the clear stroke of the pen and white highlighting, are employed to elucidate the legend. The titanic nature of the saint rises in a dramatic movement of the interplay of lines against a miniature-like landscape which takes no part in the figurative scene. The white highlighting is accentuated by the green tinted coating of the paper and gives the group a ghost-like plasticity which is emphasized by the flat, static background of vertical and horizontal lines. The legend of St. Christopher, who is nearly brought to his knees by the burden of his vocation as the bearer of Christ, is transformed into a visual experience.

The importance of engravings increased during Durer's time. The oldest graphic technique, the woodcut, was at first merely intended for the reproduction of pictorial ideas. After the invention of the printing press the woodcut took the place of the painted miniature and consequently gained in artistic importance. Engravings also required less time and material than paintings, so that the artist could afford to carry out formal experiments without having to consider the taste of a patron. Because it was able to be reproduced so easily, the new artform spread rapidly.

Thus the influence of the graphic arts increased and began to set the style for other artistic developments. This explains its tremendous importance in Germany and its complete independence from painting. The young Durer started his artistic career as a woodcutter in Basle, where he was entrusted with book illustrations. He considered this a completely valid medium for expression and frequently returned to it later. His woodcut series (Apocalypse, Great Passion, Life of the Virgin, and Little Passion) belong to his major graphic works, which contributed as much to his fame as did his painted pictures. Other masters of this time, Cranach, Altdorfer, Griinewald, Baldung Grien and Holbein , also left extensive collections of engravings. Prints were much sought after, even by art collectors outside Germany, and the high reputation of German artists in France, Italy and the Netherlands was to a considerable extent due to the artistic quality and excellent craftsmanship of German engravings.

Medieval German art underwent a revival during the 19th century, promoted by groups like the Nazarenes, led by Friedrich Overbeck.

Works reflecting the German Renaissance art movement can be seen in some of the best art museums in the world, such as the Kunstmuseum Basel and the Gemaldegalerie SMPK, Berlin. For details of European collections containing German Renaissance paintings/wood carvings, see: Art Museums in Europe.

For the next cultural phase in Germany, see German Baroque Art, which includes a review of architecture, painting, sculpture and some decorative elements from the period 1550-1750.

We gratefully acknowledge the use of material from the seminal work entitled Deutsche Kunst (German Art) - published by Georg Westermann Verlag, Brunswick, Germany, and translated by Pall Mall Press Ltd - a publication we strongly recommend for any serious students of Renaissance art north of the Alps.


• For information about Northern Renaissance painting and sculpture, see: Homepage.

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