When we talk about the Northern Renaissance, we mean the technical and artistic innovations that were taking place North of the Alps from the mid-fourteenth century to the beginning of the sixteenth. Nevertheless, the perceived dichotomy between Northern and Italian Renaissance painters is largely a modern invention. Until the sixteenth century, the Burgundian Netherlands could have easily been considered the cultural nucleus of Europe.
Art lovers today may be enamored by the assumed supremacy of Italian Renaissance painters such as Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo. But, in the 1400s, Northern Renaissance painters were “in vogue” and enjoyed numerous commissions from Italian patrons. Particularly coveted was Northern painters’ ability to mimic reality with extraordinary naturalism – a talent that was well-documented across Europe.
The Original Northern Renaissance Painters: The Limbourg Brothers
Herman, Paul and Jean de Limbourg – more commonly known as the Limbourg Brothers – were born in Nijmegen sometime between 1385 and 1390. While the other Renaissance painters on this list specialized in oil on wooden panels, the Limbourg Brothers were masters of manuscript illumination. They were extremely talented illuminators and were even commissioned to illustrate a Bible for the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Bold. However, the brothers’ most famous commissions were for Philip’s brother, Jean de France, Duc de Berry (also brother to King Charles V of France). These were the Belles Heures and Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry – undoubtedly, two of the most lavish manuscripts that survive from the middle ages.
The above image is taken from the calendar section of the Très Riches Heures, specifically the month of February. This fantastically detailed page illustrates the Limbourg Brothers’ keen observation of the natural world. Before the fifteenth century, manuscript illuminations paid little heed to the laws of nature, with religious symbolism taking precedence over naturalism. Consequently, the naturalistic oil painting that flourished in the Northern Renaissance throughout the fifteenth century owes a great debt to the innovations of the Limbourg Brothers. Unfortunately, the Tres Riches Heures was never finished – the brothers may have died from an outbreak of the plague in 1416. Nevertheless, artists that followed were greatly influenced by the Limbourg Brothers, with famed Renaissance painters such as Robert Campin and Jan van Eyck drawing from manuscript traditions in their panel paintings.
Robert Campin Or The “Master of Flémalle”
Robert Campin (1378/9 – 1444) was active as an artist in Tournai from 1406 onwards. Campin and the Master of Flémalle once thought to be distinct individuals, are now generally assumed to be one and the same. Along with Jan van Eyck, Robert Campin is often dubbed the founder of the naturalistic style of panel painting that thrived during the Northern Renaissance, particularly within the Burgundian Netherlands.
The Merode Triptych, associated with the Workshop of Robert Campin, is one of the most significant paintings of the Northern Renaissance. It was one of the earliest panel paintings to depict a biblical scene (in this case, the Annunciation) in a naturalistic interior that was not obviously an ecclesiastical space. This would go on to become a staple motif of the Northern Renaissance. Indeed, the triptych was extremely prolific throughout the fifteenth century, with elements of the painting copied multiple times in panel paintings and manuscripts alike. The extent to which Campin worked on the Merode Triptych himself is unknown. As was the convention for Northern Renaissance painters, Robert Campin did not work alone: he was in charge of a workshop that employed apprentices and journeymen to assist with the work. An esteemed Renaissance painter that started his artistic career as an apprentice to Robert Campin was none other than Rogier van der Weyden.
Rogier Van Der Weyden
Rogier van der Weyden (c.1399-1464) served as an apprentice to Robert Campin in Tournai between 1427 and 1432. After, he arguably succeeded his master to become one of the greatest painters of the Northern Renaissance and, in 1435, Rogier van der Weyden was made official painter to the city of Brussels. Alongside his contemporary, Jan van Eyck, Rogier was greatly praised by Giorgio Vasari in his momentous book, Lives of the Artists. Most documented throughout the centuries was Rogier’s ability to convey human emotion in his paintings and he was renowned for his sorrowful depictions of Christ’s Passion. Even in the engraved portrait of Rogier, designed long after his death, the artist is depicted in front of an emotional portrait of the Virgin cradling a deceased Christ.
Rogier’s Descent from the Cross, created for the Archer’s Guild at Leuven, was a monumental and impactful artwork. Currently held at the Museo del Prado in Madrid, it was bought by Philip II of Spain in 1555 for a monumental sum– obviously a prized collector’s item even in the sixteenth century! The painting depicts Christ being carried from the cross after the Crucifixion and is a sublime example of Rogier’s emotive capacities. The Virgin Mary (to Christ’s left) swoons as she is overwhelmed with grief over the loss of her son. Her emotional suffering is equal to Christ’s physical suffering through their physical forms: see how mother and son’s bodily positions mimic each other and the characters that populate the painting shed sorrowful tears. So-dubbed the “Master of Passions” in recent years, Rogier van der Weyden’s naturalistic capabilities were surpassed only by Jan van Eyck.
Jan Van Eyck
Jan van Eyck (ca.1390 – 1441): one of the most exalted of Northern Renaissance painters in his own time and certainly the most celebrated today. The above image is assumed to be Jan van Eyck’s self-portrait and its frame is inscribed with the phrase “Als Ich Can”. Translated, “As (best as) I can” or “As Eyck Can”, it is both a humble motto on the nature of art and a clever play on the artist’s surname. An official court painter to the Duke of Burgundy, Van Eyck produced many commissions for well-to-do individuals. Many of Van Eyck’s paintings were extremely influential and prompted a wealth of copies and homages. Among masterpieces such as The Ghent Altarpiece, one of Van Eyck’s most influential artworks was his Arnolfini Portrait.
The painting of Giovanni Arnolfini, a rich merchant from Lucca living in Bruges, and his wife, has garnered much attention over the years. Famed art historian Erwin Panofsky thought it depicted a marriage and the image is often mistitled the “Arnolfini Wedding”. However, the wedding theory is generally discredited, and the work is thought to be a visual statement on the figures’ considerable wealth. The woman is not pregnant, as is often thought, but holds up an excessive amount of luxurious and expensive fabric as a status symbol. The double portrait is thought to be the first secular portrait – in that it depicts no biblical subject in the foreground. Moreover, above the mirror, Jan van Eyck has signed his name. Van Eyck and his contemporaries were among the first artists to sign their work, thus pioneering a tradition that continues today.
Dieric Bouts (c.1400– 1475) is probably the most underrated of the Early Netherlandish masters. Nevertheless, he was extremely influential to the future of Dutch Golden Age painting and was equally an inspiration for his Italian contemporaries. Near the end of his life, Bouts was made the official painter to the City of Leuven – mirroring his contemporary, Rogier van der Weyden, who had a workshop less than twenty miles away in Brussels.
One of Dieric Bouts’s many innovations was the employment of single-point perspective in his Last Supper altarpiece in Leuven. Single-point perspective had already been a staple of Italian Renaissance painters, but Bouts was the first to really experiment with it North of the Alps. However, Bouts is perhaps most noteworthy for his advancements in the genre of portraiture and landscape painting. His attention to detail in his natural backgrounds paved the way for landscape painters of the Dutch Golden Age. Furthermore, his 1462 Portrait of a Man, thought to be Jan van Winckele, is the earliest dated portrait to show a landscape view out of a window. This soon became a prolific composition throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and was popularised by Netherlandish and Italian Renaissance painters alike.
Hieronymus Bosch was born in the mid-fifteenth century in a town a little outside Antwerp in modern-day Belgium. Out of all the Netherlandish masters, Bosch has arguably had the most far-reaching and unexpected influence. His works were noted as major influences for the Surrealist movement over 400 years after their creation. Bosch invented fantastical panoramas populated by crowds of figures, including peculiar, often grotesque creatures. One such example is his Garden of Earthly Delights.
The Garden of Earthly Delights is Bosch’s most extensive and complicated artwork: so much is happening in the painting, it’s difficult to decide where to look first! The left panel depicts an Eden paradise, with Adam and Eve with God the Father in the foreground. The right panel depicts a hellscape, with a multitude of punishments happening simultaneously. The central panel depicts what, at first, also appears to be a paradise. However, the panel is steeped in visions of lust, the sinful act. In all three panels, Bosch has created bizarre non-humanoid figures and strange architecture that could fool the eye into thinking we were viewing a work by Surrealist painter, Salvador Dali.
Jan Gossaert: Last Of The “Northern” Renaissance Painters?
Jan Gossaert (1478- 1532), a French-speaking painter from the Low Countries, is often credited with bringing the Italian Renaissance to Northern Europe. In 1508, Gossart began working as a court painter for Philip of Burgundy. In October of that year, Philip embarked on a diplomatic visit to the Vatican, so Gossart traveled with his patron to Rome. Once in Italy, Jean Gossart was undoubtedly inspired by the Italianate penchant for antiquity.
Jan Gossaert’s Adam and Eve are closer in form to Italian Renaissance painters’ figures than, say, Jan van Eyck’s figures in the Ghent Altarpiece. Indeed, Gossaert’s nudes exhibit the statuesque, muscular forms associated more heavily with antiquity, and Eve’s lengthy flowing locks are far more reminiscent of Botticelli’s Venus than any Northern portrait.
Similarly, in his Saint Luke Painting the Madonna, Gossaert’s architecture adheres to a strict compositional perspective that was popular in Italian circles (the likes of which Northern Renaissance artists had, for the most part, ignored). Moreover, the heavily ornamented and rounded arches of the interior room recall the columns and temples of antiquity more than the elaborate Gothic architecture still flourishing in Northern Europe at the time.
So, after Jan Gossaert, the “medieval” sentiments that had dominated Northern Renaissance expression arguably dwindled, overturned in favor of a reinvigorated interest in the classical forms of antiquity. Nevertheless, the legacy of the Northern Renaissance painters would live on for centuries to come.