Northern Renaissance Art
History, Characteristics of Artworks in Holland, Flanders & Germany.

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Man in a Red Turban (1433) by
Jan Van Eyck, one of the
great Flemish painters and
a pioneer of the Renaissance
under Philip the Good, Duke
of Burgundy, in Bruges.

Northern Renaissance (c.1430-1580)


What is the Northern Renaissance?
Gothic Traditions
Netherlandish Renaissance: Characteristics
Detailed Realism
German Renaissance: Characteristics
Greatest Painters
Greatest Sculptors
Greatest Paintings of the Northern Renaissance

Netherlandish Proverbs by Pieter Bruegel
Netherlandish Proverbs (1559) (detail)
Gemaldegalerie SMPK, Berlin.
By Pieter Bruegel the Elder. One of
the greatest genre paintings of the
Northern Renaissance.

Northern Renaissance in the Netherlands and Germany

In fine art, the term "Northern Renaissance" refers to the rapid developments in fine art (c.1430-1580) which occurred in two main areas: (1) the Netherlandish Low Countries of Flanders and Holland; (2) Germany. Up to the mid-16th century, the Netherlandish areas were ruled by the Dukes of Burgundy: thereafter by the Hapsburgs, who also ruled much of Germany. The Northern Renaissance was famous for its advanced oil painting techniques, realistic, expressive altarpiece art, portraiture on wooden panel paintings, as well as woodcuts and other forms of printmaking. Stone sculpture was not popular, but wood-carving was a German specialty.

Prior to 1500, Renaissance art in Italy had almost no effect on development of painting and sculpture in Northern Europe. (If anything Italy was influenced by the North.) Even after 1500, as the High Renaissance blossomed, issues like religion, politics, climate and differing artistic traditions, tended to minimize the uptake of cultural ideas from Florence and Rome.

Self Portrait with Fur Collar
(1500) Alte Pinakothek, Munich.
By Albrecht Durer. Arguably
the greatest of all known
Northern Renaissance Artists.

For an introduction to Flemish
and Dutch oil painting, see:
Netherlandish Renaissance Art.
For painting and wood carving
in Germany (1430-1580), see:
German Renaissance Art.

For details of 3-D plastic artists
in marble, bronze and wood, see:
Renaissance Sculptors (1400-1600).

For the chronology and dates
of key events in the evolution
of visual arts around the world
see: History of Art Timeline.

Gothic Traditions

Where the forms of art were concerned, the North knew as little about the true Renaissance as Italy did of the genuine Gothic art style: but the intellectual movement by which Western Europe emerged from the Middle Ages was as strong in the North as in the South. If we date the beginning of the new age from about 1492, the year in which the New World was discovered - this is only the turning point of the revolution. The movement that led to it had begun at the beginning of the century, since which time Europe had experienced a complete reconstruction of its culture.

The Low Countries, particularly Flanders (with its prosperous centres like Antwerp, Ghent and Bruges) - at that time part of the large duchy of Burgundy - were, along with Florence, the richest and most economically advanced region in Europe. As in Italy, an urban culture was developing here, in which the influence of the bourgeoisie was on the increase. Despite this general social similarity, the north had not enjoyed any comparable revolution in the arts. Painting remained attached to Medieval traditions for considerably longer. Only slowly did the real world incorporate sacred themes. In their religious paintings, painters attempted to reproduce space, colour, volume and light as naturalistically as possible.


Unlike Italian artists, northern painters were not interested in rediscovering the spirit of ancient Greece. Instead, they sought to exploit the full potential of oil paint, and capture nature exactly as they found it. (Note: For details of pigments used in Renaissance oil painting, see: Renaissance Colour Palette.)

As in Italy, religion dominated the painting and sculpture of the period, but in more subtle ways and always with an earthy edge. If the art of the Italian Renaissance is dreamy and idealized, Northern art is practical, down-to-earth and dispassionate. This affected the popularity of the painting genres, and we see history painting giving way to portrait art, and genre-painting, especially after the Reformation (c.1520) when the Church in Rome ceased to be a major patron of the arts in Northern Europe. For a list of the most important works, from Italy and Northern Europe, see: Greatest Renaissance Paintings.

Renaissance in the Netherlands - Characteristics

Flemish painting and Dutch painting, both of which covered secular as well as religious themes, were conspicuous for their progressive oil painting and luminous colours. Fresco was rare. The Ghent Altarpiece exemplified Netherlandish Christian art of the early 15th century, although Bosch and Bruegel the Elder produced their own innovative religious works.

Detailed Realism

While the Italian art of the 15th century was based on mathematically calculated linear perspective, Dutch art was determined by empirical perspective. Unlike the Italian Renaissance artists, who aimed for a scientific and rational understanding of the world, and constructed a picture from within, so to speak, the Dutch tried to get to the bottom of the mysteries of the world with a precise observation of all things, capturing every single detail. The painters learned from direct observation and their knowledge of the consistency of things. They painted what they saw - and thus, as in the drawing of the tiled floor in the work of Roger van der Weyden, they came very close to the effect of central perspective. This approach, attached to observation and experience, showed the artists that shapes lose their contours the further away they are, and that the intensity of the colour decreases and assumes a bluish hue. For the landscape views which lent depth to their interiors, they invented - long before Leonardo - aerial and colour perspective. During the Dutch Baroque era of the 17th century, the Netherlandish focus on detailed everyday themes formed the basis for the Golden Age of Dutch Realism (c.1600-80).

Netherlandish Painters

Leading Flemish and Dutch Old Masters include: Robert Campin (c.1378-1444), noted for works like the Seilern Triptych (1410) and the Merode Altarpiece (1425); Jan van Eyck (1390-1441) noted for the Ghent Altarpiece (1432) and The Arnolfini Marriage (1434); Jan Eyck's pupil Petrus Christus (c.1410-75), best known for his Portrait of a Young Girl (1470, Gemaldegalerie, Berlin); Roger Van der Weyden (1400-64) noted for his extraordinary realism as in his masterpiece Descent From the Cross (Deposition) (1435), for the Church of Notre Dame du Dehors (now in the Museo del Prado, Madrid); Dieric Bouts (1420-75) for his devotional pictures; Hugo Van Der Goes (1440-82) famous for The Portinari Altarpiece (1475) which influenced the Early Renaissance in Florence; Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516) noted for The Garden of Earthly Delights (1510-15) and other moralizing works; Joachim Patenier (1485-1524) the pioneer landscape painter; and Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525-1569) best known for complex landscape-based narrative works such as The Tower of Babel (1563).

Renaissance in Germany - Characteristics

The German Renaissance was noted for its graphic arts and printmaking, both connected to German expertise in the printing process, as in the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the 1450s. Another early German pioneer of drawing and engraving was Martin Schongauer (1448-91) from Colmar.

Graphic Art

In fact, long before Gutenberg had begun to print books from founts of moveable type, small skiffs, printed from wood blocks, had a wide circulation. Rather later, block-books made their appearance in the form of bound series of woodcuts with a few lines of text. In the woodcut the white portions of the drawings are cut down in the wood block until the drawing stands out in relief, when it can be inked. In etching and engraving, on the other hand, the artist engraves or etches ('bites' with acid) the lines on a metal plate. The ink, retained only by the incised lines, is absorbed under pressure by a sheet of paper. Thus the copperplate-engraving can work with fine, intersecting lines and much more freely, than the wood-engraver, who at first carefully avoided all cross-hatching. It was some time before they reached a degree of perfection which made it possible to obtain half-tones. Rather later than the woodcut, the copper engraving attained an even wider distribution. Copper engravings were the work of goldsmiths, who were experienced draughtsmen. The new technique of metal-engraving was not merely for reproducing ephemeral drawings; a more flexible art, and one more capable of development, it took over the task of book illustration from the miniature painters. In the free idiom of line, many things could be expressed which the more elaborate use of colour would have inhibited. For this reason even the great masters of the sixteenth century resorted to line-drawings to express their deepest feelings.

Portraiture was another area in which German artists shone, as too was wood carving. The expressionist side of the German character made itself felt in a number of intense religious works, including outstanding altarpieces and panel paintings.

Greatest Painters of the Northern Renaissance

The best known German painters included Stephan Lochner (1400-51) painter of The Last Judgement (1440s); the printmaker Martin Schongauer (post 1455-91) known for his Madonna in the Rose Garden (1473) and over 100 signed engravings; Matthias Grunewald (1470-1528) creator of The Isenheim Altarpiece (1510-15); the great draughtsman Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) noted for his mastery of drawing, printmaking and woodcuts such as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1497-8), as well as his altarpieces, portraits and nature studies; Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) known for his Portrait of Luther and Wife (Diptych) (1529); Albrecht Altdorfer (1480-1538) famous for his altarpieces, early landscapes and occasional masterpieces like Battle of Issus (1529); Hans Baldung Grien (1484-1545), noted for the Freiburg altarpiece; and the great Hans Holbein The Younger (1497-1543), famous for his portraits like The Merchant Georg Gisze (1532), The Ambassadors (1533), Portrait of Henry VIII (1540).

Greatest Sculptors of the Northern Renaissance

Leading German sculptors included Hans Multscher (1400-67) noted for the Wurzacher (1437) and Sterzing (1457) altarpieces; Michael Pacher (1430-98) best known for The St Wolfgang Altarpiece (1471-81); Veit Stoss (c.1447-1533) creator of The Death of the Virgin/St Mary Altarpiece, Krakow (1477-89); Tilman Riemenschneider (c.1460-1531) who sculpted the Holy Blood Altar (1499-1504); Gregor Erhart (c.1460-1540) who carved the noted Mary Magdalene ("La Belle Allemande") (c.1500).

Greatest Paintings of the Northern Renaissance (c.1430-1580)

Albrecht Altdorfer (1480-1538)
Battle of Alexander at Issus (1529) Alte Pinakothek Munich.

Hans Baldung Grien (1484-1545)
Coronation of the Virgin Altarpiece (1512-16) Frieburg im Breisgau.
The Three Ages of Man with Death (c.1540) Prado, Madrid.

Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516)
Garden of Earthly Delights (1504) Prado Museum, Madrid.
The Last Judgement (Triptych) (1505-10) Bildendenkunste, Vienna.
Ecce Homo (1515-6) Fine Art Museum, Ghent.
Haywain Triptych (1516) Prado, Madrid.

Dierec Bouts (1415-75)
Last Supper Altarpiece (1464-7) Church of Saint Peter, Louvain, Belgium.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525-1569)
Netherlandish Proverbs (1559) Staatliche Museen, Berlin
The Fight Between Carnival and Lent
(1559) K.M., Vienna
Mad Meg (Dulle Griet) (1562) Mayer van den Bergh Museum, Antwerp
Tower of Babel (1563) K.M., Vienna
Massacre of the Innocents (c.1565-7) K.M., Vienna
Hunters in the Snow (1565) K.M., Vienna
The Census of Bethlehem (1566) Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels
Parable of the Blind (1568) Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples
Peasant Wedding (1568) K.M., Vienna.

Robert Campin (1375-1444)
Seilern (Entombment) Triptych (1410) Courtauld Institute, London.
Merode Altarpiece (c.1427) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Werl Altarpiece (Diptych) (1438) Prado Museum, Spain.

Petrus Christus (c.1410-75)
Portrait of a Young Girl (1470) Gemaldegalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin.

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553)
Portrait of Luther and Wife (Diptych) (1529) Uffizi, Florence.

Albrecht Durer (1471-1528)
A Young Hare (1502) Albertina, Vienna.
Great Piece of Turf (1503) Albertina, Vienna.
Adam and Eve (1507) Prado Museum, Madrid.
The Four Apostles (1526) Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

Adam Elsheimer (1578-1610)
Flight into Egypt (1609) Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

Jan van Eyck (1390-1441)
Ghent Altarpiece (1432) Saint Bavo Catherdal, Ghent.
Man in a Red Turban (1433) National Gallery, London.
Arnolfini Portrait (1434) National Gallery, London.
The Rolin Madonna (1435) Louvre, Paris.

Hugo Van Der Goes (1440–1482)
Portinari Altarpiece (Triptych) (1475) Uffizi, Florence.

Matthias Grunewald (1475-1528)
Isenheim Alterpiece (1512-15) Musee d'Unterlinden, Colmar.

Hans Holbein The Younger (1497-1543)
The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1521) Kunstmuseum Basel.
The Ambassadors
(1533) National Gallery, London.
Portrait of Henry VIII (1536) Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid.
Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam (1523) National Gallery, London.
Portrait of Sir Thomas More (1527) Frick Collection, New York City.
Portrait of a Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling (1527–28) London.
Portrait of the Merchant Georg Gisze (1532) SMPK, Berlin.
Portrait of Thomas Cromwell (1532-4) National Portrait Gallery, London.

Stephan Lochner (1400-51)
The Last Judgement (c.1440) Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne.

Hans Memling (1433-94)
Last Judgment Triptych (1471) Muzeum Narodowe, Gdansk.
The Donne Triptych (1480) National Gallery, London.

Michael Pacher (1434-98)
Wolfgang Altarpiece (1471-81) Salzkammergut.
Altarpiece of the Church Fathers (1484) Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

Joachim Patenier (Patinier or Patinir) (1485-1524)
Journey Into the Underworld (1522) Prado, Madrid.
The Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1515) Koninklijk Museum; and Prado.

Roger van der Weyden (1400-1464)
Descent From the Cross (Deposition of Christ) (1435-40) Prado Museum.
Seven Sacraments Altarpiece (1445) Koninklijk Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp.
The Lamentation Before the Tomb (1450) Uffizi Gallery.

• For other art movements and periods, see: History of Art.
• For styles of painting and sculpture, see: Homepage.

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