Northern renaissance art honors humanities

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Updated 3-18-13 Bates

Reminder of the Italian Renaissance works for which you are responsible:


School of Athens

Leonardo da Vinci

Self Portrait

Last Supper

Mona Lisa


Primavera or Allegory of Spring

Birth of Venus







Sistine Chapel Ceiling

Last Judgment


Some Northern Renaissance Art dates:

Robert Campin, a.k.a. Master of Flemalle -- Merode Altarpiece 1425-28

Jan and Hubert van Eyck -- Ghent Altarpiece 1432

Jan Van Eyck – Giovanni Arnolfini and his Bride (nickname Arnolfini’s Marriage) 1434
Compare to Mona Lisa 1503-1506, School of Athens 1509-1510.

Northern Renaissance art arose simultaneously with Italian Renaissance, and influenced Italian masters as much as vice versa.

All are from Flanders (a.k.a. Flemish), which is modern Belgium.
When did the Renaissance begin?

One answer:

“Perhaps the only essential point on which experts agree is that the Renaissance began when people no longer recognized they were living in the Middle Ages.” -- Jansen
Make columns to compare / contrast (SKIP THIRD COLUMN FOR NOW):



Classical themes

Elegant, light themes

Humanism filtered through religious themes


Used mostly fresco on walls or tempera (egg) on wood, and sometimes used oil on wood


Realistic but more idealized human representation


Developed linear perspective, shading and light, study of human anatomy


(e.g. Merode and Ghent altarpieces)

Gothic style and religious themes persist from middle ages through to late 1500s; lack of contact with Classical art:




unreal calm


Developed oil painting (rich colors) on wood and new use of canvas; continued medieval miniatures, Gothic structures (e.g. triptych)


Naturalistic human representation, precise observation, not idealized


Advances in illusionism (paint to appear as wood or stone)



Only heavily influenced by Italy after 1500

Elements of Humanism:

Narrative style (stories), daily life (people), nature, earthly themes, fantasy & myth, symbolism, naivete

Christian influences of music and printing press influenced themes: suffering of Christ, return to ancient Christian values, revolt against church (know Luther’s 95 Theses), etc.
less obvious humanism than Italy, but power of individual human interpretation and contribution increases in religion
Literary; sometimes obscure (people are reading and interpreting obscure passages of Bible such as the Four Horsemen)
Didactic (morally instructive)



MERODE ALTARPIECE (a master work in the CI book)
Robert Campin (Master of Flemalle, Flanders; modern Belgium) may have been the painter rather than Merode. He was a student of Merode, and therefore of the Merode School.


Triptych means “three parts.”
3 main qualities:
A) Superrealism, even in the details

1) “The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help me God.”

-- H.W. Janson describing this style

2) God can see every detail, so artist should attempt to do so in order to reflect the divine.

B) All objects are symbolic

1) All in physical world is considered symbolic.

2) Like Abbé Suger and John Scotum said, God can be found in everything

3) We analyze the symbols because they are there on purpose and meant to be a gateway to God.

C) Everything is sanctified (sacred, godly, divine). Opens door to secularization of art, since all topics can be considered sacred topics.


This scene is the “divine annunciation” when the Angel Gabriel tells Mary she will bear the savior, Jesus Christ.
a) Left Side: What do you see?

Garden: going back to Eden

Steps, door, lock, but key in door and door open: way to divine space is open and welcoming.

Garden is still profane space (not inside with Mary).

What see behind? City streets behind are even more profane / secular.
b) Left Side: What would happen if the kneeling people stood up?

Taller than door.

Who are these people?

These are the two donors. She has rosary beads in her hand. Both are kneeling in humility.

c) Left Side: Who is that man in the back?

Art historians think is artist.

Crept in; not invited; did not pay.

Like a signature; boasting.

[Note details: cracks in stone, grain of wood, strands of hair.]
d) Center Piece: Whole Image

The Anunciation (when Angel Gabriel tells Mary she is to bear Christ)

What’s wrong?

In left panel, looked like donors were looking in to a center room, but they were not.

There is no door on left in center piece! (on second floor? can’t tell from window, but Joseph is on 2nd floor in third panel)

What else is different from first panel?

Sky, clouds behind. City behind on left = Mary is on a different level, inaccessible, spiritual plane

Some orthogonals, but table is skewed. Not the normal world.

e) Center Piece Close-Up of Mary with Book: What is Mary holding?

book = Angel Gabriel is patron saint of wisdom

Where did book come from? Bag on table (appears womb-like)

What else was in bag? A book and a scroll (rosary beads still in bag).

What do they represent? scroll = Old Testament and book = NT (came from bag / womb)

What’s odd about NT? Pages rifled. Something has come in to move pages.

What has come in? Angel Gabriel to tell Mary she will be mother of God.


Is God in the room? How is Holy Spirit depicted? light, air, wind (moves pages)

f) Center Piece Close-up of Mary with Book: Take a look at the candles. What do you see?

One on table blown out = Holy Spirit

One on left of fireplace is lit = God

Candle holder on right of fireplace empty = Jesus (not yet born)
g) Center Piece Close-up of Table: What is on table?

Jar (womb)

Opening (vaginal)

Blue and white = Hebrew colors (used now in modern Israel)

Hebrew writing on side

3 lily blossoms = trinity and lilies symbolize Mary’s virginity

one not yet open = Christ (not yet born)

jar is like an altar in a church

h) Center Piece Close-up of Shawl (same slide) and Hanging Pitcher / Angel Gabriel’s Head (next slide)

What is there?

H20 and Shawl = for birth (physical birth and spiritual birth through baptism)


Priest’s ritual washing of hands during Mass

What type of arch?

Romanesque arch = old law

Gothic arch = new law

i) Center Piece Close-up of Hanging Pitcher / Angel Gabriel’s Head

What else is odd?

Homunculus (little man in upper left flying from the window): medieval and Renaissance concept of birth; man creates fully formed being in his body and womb is just a holding place. Emphasizes female goddess is gone; not important any more. Gives men complete control of biological reproduction.

Homunculus holds? a cross

Jesus is light of world (as described in Gospel of John)

How does this explain the Virgin birth? Where will the homunculus end up if he follows this trajectory? How did homunculus get in? Is window broken?

Light through window, but doesn’t break it = Holy Spirit enters her but hymen is not broken
j) Center Piece Detail of Gabriel

Gender? Male.

Long hair = natural

Red hair typical for angels in medieval and Ren art = glowing, unusual

Jewels on hair = everyone in heaven is honored with jewels


All men and women wore robes in Rome (some barbarians wore trousers). Catholics continued.

He is wearing the vestments of a deacon.

Youthfulness of angel = innocence. [Connect to ancient Greece / Donatello’s David. What age male is often valued or considered beautiful?]
k) Center Piece: Whole Image

What kind of perspective used?

Orthogonals (rectangle / 90 degree elements imply lines that come closer together at a vanishing point in the distance); give perspective (like in Ital. Ren.)

But, what’s not quite right?

Table skewed / perspective is skewed = sacred space; not normal world
l) Center Piece: Whole Image

What’s interesting about the fireplace?

Bench blocks the opening.

Irons on either side look like bishop’s closures, which are modeled on shepherd’s crook.

holes in the screen = looks ominous; devils and evil can come in; trying to block them out

On sides of fireplace small image of woman = patron saint of childbirth, St. Margaret

m) Right Side: Who is this?

Joseph in workshop = father, protector of family

What’s he doing?

Drilling holes; looks like fireplace screen

n) Right Side: Close-up of Table Top

What tools do you see?

What is he making? Mousetrap on table, etc. OR could be making wine-making equipment (symbolizing the Eucharist).
o) Right Side: Close-up of Window

What is that protrusion out the window?

Window shutter? Table? Shadow?

What’s on the table?

Looks like another little mousetrap.

Look closer…

It is … a teeny tiny gallows. (St. Augustine said the Cross of Christ is the devil’s mousetrap)

Shadow of mousetrap?

Looks like cross.

What does city look like in background?

Is at same level as left side; lower than central panel = not in clouds; profane space, not holy

When you see the altarpiece in person, can count roof tiles on roofs.

Commentary from

“Joseph, with his own wing, occupies yet another realm. Only he has an open window on the town, and he turns his back. Campin fills the right panel with earthly temptations, and Joseph is set to fight them. The mousetrap in his hands will trap the devil.

Through that window, one sees clearly a narrow street leading into depth, the natural flow of space and human time. There one can see a tiny child, led by the hand. It offers yet one more reminder of a world in which people grow old and die. Campin delineates each realm between that world, my world, and a world outside time. Each one—a guard, the donors, the Virgin, the gleaming reality before her, and a miracle—offers the viewer a subtly distinct but vital intermediary between earth and heaven. Doctrine demanded constant recourse to intermediaries for salvation, and this painting served as one, for that small size reminds one of its function in an individual observance.”
p) On display in Frankfurt, Germany (on a tour to other museums): SURPRISE! It’s super tiny.

q) On display at The Cloisters, a department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, it’s permanent

home. Notice how curators put objects around the artwork to echo/reflect its themes.


This is a polyptych (more than three panels).
a) What do you see?

Wooden frame; looks like black squares = real frame

White arches, carvings and sculptures = painted (illusion)

Details = God sees all; all of God’s creation is perfect

Angel Gabriel and Mary in center right and left
b) How big are donors at bottom left and right? If stood up?

Larger than Mary

Next slide: close-up of donors.

Explain patronage system. Give example of Medici family of Florence.

Their names: Joost Vijdt (husband) and Lysbette Borluut (wife)
c) Next slide (close-up: statues) Who are bottom center two men?

John the Evangelist at bottom center right; John the Baptist at bottom center left (can read text on the bases; J the Baptist wore animal skins)

d) Next slide: whole work. We’re going to look at center panel now. Next slide: center left.

Left to right in center: point out symbols you see

branch with 3 lilies (trinity)

Gabriel (annunciation = announcement of Mary’s role as mother of Jesus)

Above city (detailed background)
e) Next slide: center right. Like Merode, birth is focus

vessel, towel

trefoil clover-like design in and on pointed arch (3 in 1)

Romanesque (curved; old law) is inside pointed Gothic arch (new law) = OT provides structure for NT

f) Look at Mary. What do you see?

Writing in gold

Text is upside down (so God and Mary can read from heaven) and in Latin (Ecce = Hail; Maria = Mary)

detail – roof of buildings, light and shadow, etc.

Light on wall resembles a candle (Jesus is light of world)
g) Dove (students think peace, but in Christianity dove is also the Holy Spirit)

halo and rays of light around dove’s head

Mary’s red wavy hair is unusual and glowing (full of light); typical hair for angels and Mary in Middle Ages and Renaissance

look at realism in cloth folds: chiarascuro, sfumato-like effect

book = wisdom; pages wafted by breeze (Holy Spirit)
h) Next slide: close-up of Mary’s face

What’s wrong with her? Looks constipated or about to faint.

Transported. Physical symptoms of visitation of God.

Hands are like wings of angel / wings of dove above head.

i) Next slide: closed. Prepare yourselves. Next slide: SHOW THE ALTARPIECE OPEN – What’s this?

Students are often amazed that what they saw up until now was the outside. The inside is extraordinary.

Looks like top and bottom don’t match up. Perhaps were not originally made to be together.
j) Left to Right

Adam…..Choir…Mary…Jesus with triple crown of Pope (could also signify God/Jesus/Holy Spirit in one) (see Faustus)…John the Baptist (usually shown with skins; John the Evangelist usually shown with book, so it’s hard to follow)…musicians…Eve

k) Next slide: Adam and Eve

Adam and Eve in sepia tones, not full color. Why?

Not privy to this event.

Were replaced with clothed versions for a while in 19th c.!

l) Next slide: Close-up of Choir of Angels (remind students they look like women, but are not; all angels are male)

Ask vocal students: Which are singing higher and lower notes?

-- In the Middle Ages/Renaissance, the music instruction included precise faces you were supposed to make when singing the different notes.

-- O mouths are singing low (not supposed to do this today, but people sometimes still do; like brass players blowing out their cheeks even though it’s not correct technique)

-- are straining to reach high notes
m) Next two slides: Instruments and Angels

Organ player is playing what chord? Can you tell?

-- Look at details and realism. Silk is shiny. Dull threads. Sensuous (Renaissance).

-- Organ is so precise, modern musicologists were able to reproduce a working copy.

n) Next slide: Man in red

Detail of foot, fabric, crown, hard and soft, shiny and dull, light and dark.

Who is this? God, Christ, Pope (triple crown; remember this from Faustus)

Jewels on Christ’s gold band across abdomen say Sabaut (Sawbaw-ōte) = “Lord”

o) Jewel (large dark one in center) shows teeny tiny crucifixion in center. I read this somewhere, but can’t see it. What do you think?
p) Next slide: woman and man

Who are they? Mary with crown, lilies, book with fluttering pages, wavy red hair, halo effect.

Which man wore furs, bare feet? John the Baptist.


Now we’ll look at BOTTOM PANELS.

Four groups of virtuous people, 2 right, 2 left

a) Next slide: people on horses are in first two panels on left

Who are these groups of people?

1st: the Just Judges

2nd: the Knights of Christ (Crusades)

b) Next slide: men in robes on right

Who are they?

1st: the Hermits

2nd: the Pilgrims (travel a long way to medieval churches / go to touch relics and have a religious experience) and Saint Christopher, patron saint of travel (notice his size)

c) Next few slides

Look at center panel

front right: male saints, Popes at front

notice detail in faces; these are individuals you would recognize at Meijer or in the halls at Salem

12 apostles front center

pagan writers (connect to Dante’s virtuous pagans) and Jewish prophets

male and female martyrs in back (represented by palm leaves; male clergy most visible in front)

Notice detail: lots of specific plant species and architecture

d) Next slide: close-up of central altar

What is it?

Often called “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” (focal point of whole piece)
e) octagonal font = fountain of youth; baptismal font

# 8 = spiritual birth (4 seasons and 4 corners of earth; time and space)

f) What’s disgusting about this picture?

blood of lamb (Jesus is lamb of God) is dripping into chalice

halo of light around head



Holy Spirit above in form of dove

altar is in shape of a coffin (death / life in one)
g) Next slide: quarter circles

Small upper quarter circles look like sculptures. Are they? No; painting illusion.

Depicts sacrifice made by Cain and Abel (left) and Cain killing Abel (right), stories from the Old Testament.
h) How big is this whole altarpiece? Show next few slides.

Students will assume small like Merode, but…is very large (bottom half is size of a piano).

i) Show black and white sketch with hypothesized frame type and style. See bench at bottom for perspective.
j) Was in danger during WWII. Church was bombed and it survived. American servicemen dismantled it and helped transport it for safekeeping.


Jan Van Eyck -- Arnolfini’s Marriage (nickname); real name is Giovanni Arnolfini and His Bride 1434
CI has great image of this, p. 254.

Tell students to read the master work section in CI book.

Van Eyck and brother are painters of Ghent altarpiece

invented oils (or perhaps first to use in major works)

oils – substitute oil for egg yolk in tempera paint

thick, creamy, heavy-bodied paint

orthogonals / perspective (Renaissance, not MA)

peeping into a domestic scene (Renaissance, not MA)

signed by the painter (Ren, not MA)
There are three functions for the painting (don’t tell students; have them guess).


a) human marriage portrait showing personal commitment and faithfulness (personal)

b) marriage certificate / legal document (legal)

c) evidence of sacramental marriage (religious; allegory)
What’s wrong with this picture?

Let them guess:


a time when people married in their homes

when a woman had a baby, the bedroom would function as a reception room for visitors

2 people

looks pregnant, but isn’t (represents fertility)

fruit on sill = fertility three fruit on table = trinity

in a bedroom holding hands = marital relations but also blessing, sacrament

green dress = fertility

dog = loyalty (Fido = fidelis), children, pet

on bed = St. Margaret’s image (patron saint of childbirth)

brush = ?

shoes off = on sacred space

one candle lit = God or unity candle

3 empty = Don’t know. What do you think?

He looks like he’s going to cross himself.

crosses on chandeliers

cross in rondelle on mirror
Mirror = 10 of the 14 stations of the cross

Top = Passion of Jesus (different aspects of Jesus’ life)

convex mirror, like fish eye = see backs, window, etc.

in National Gallery in London


In mirror: Latin = says Jan Van Eyck was here (witness) and date

Blue-coated figure = artist (also functioning as sacrament riest)

Signatures = marriage certificate

Size = 22 x 33 inches


Hieronymous Bosch – Garden of Earthly Delights 1500

Pieter Bruegel the Elder – Wedding Dance 1566

Durer – Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse 1498
Review from chart on earlier page:

Northern Renaissance Art only heavily influenced by Italy after 1500

High Renaissance Art in the North c. 1500-1550:

intellectual, religious, and political ferment of Reformation

imported High Renaissance Art from Italy
Elements of Humanism:

Narrative style (stories), daily life (people), nature, earthly themes, fantasy & myth, symbolism, naivete

Christian influences of music and printing press influenced themes: suffering of Christ, return to ancient Christian values, revolt against church (know Luther’s 95 Theses), etc. (less humanism than Italy, but power of individual human interpretation and contribution increases in religion)
Literary; symbolic; sometimes obscure (people are reading and interpreting obscure passages of Bible such as the Four Horsemen)
Didactic (morally instructive)
Hieronymous Bosch

“wizard of the weird and wonderful”


Eden (animals, nature) – Earth (garden of earthly delights; symbols like owl = wisdom; painter in little glass tube) – Hell (punishments for a variety of sins; look closely!)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Flemish (Belgium) 1566

at DIA
DIA Curator's Comments:

“This famous painting shows a lively outdoor party celebrating a peasant wedding. Most of the guests are enjoying themselves, with the exception of a mysterious figure in the shadows at the right edge of the painting. The artist disregarded the more realistic style of painting popular in his time: his peasants appear flat and caricatured. Contributing to the effect, for modern viewers, is the actual thinness of the paint, partly a result of chemical changes in the paint over time. In many areas, the see-through quality of the paint makes visible the artist’s initial drawing on the panel, called an underdrawing.”

considered one of 100 master works

Where is the bride?

From DIA web site: “Bruegel's peasant bride isn't wearing white. She's dancing at left center in a dark gown with flowing red hair—the only woman with her head uncovered. Bruegel's lively painting is certainly a celebratory scene, but it may also carry moralizing overtones warning against drinking, dancing, and lust. Some scholars have suggested that the man standing quietly on the right, hands behind his back, is Bruegel himself.”
Look at it upside down to see distribution of color.
Themes: ordinary people, nature, the land, daily life, narrative.


Pieter Bruegel the Elder (although now they think it’s someone else’s copy of his original work)

Flemish (Belgium) 1554-55

From Wikipedia: “In Ancient Greek mythology, Icarus succeeded in flying, with wings made of feathers secured with wax, but he flew too close to the sun, melting the wax, and fell into the sea and drowned. His legs can be seen in the water, just below the ship.”
Notice first: landscape.
Notice second: ordinary people.
Notice last: Icarus floundering in the water at the bottom right. Also the city in the distance (man’s creation and ambition).
Also notice: sun is setting and far away (Icarus’ goal).
Themes: nature, ordinary life, narrative, folly of hubris and ego (Icarus). This is his only work with Classical characters.
Notice the ship. Its sails are trimmed. It is not going full speed ahead to the open sea. Nor is it docked. It represents? course of moderation (see below if time)
From “Peasant Imagery and Bruegel's “Fall of Icarus”” by ROBERT BALDWIN [published Konsthistorisk Tidskrift, LV, 3, 1986, 101-114]:
It seems likely Bruegel's prominently placed ship, heading for the harbor with its sails being prudently trimmed, drew either directly or indirectly on Seneca:

Seneca: Let my frail craft keep close to shore-

...misfortune passes by quiet ports and seeks for ships sailing the open seas.
In Oedipus, similar nautical metaphors for moderation introduce the Icarian example:

Were it mine to shape fate at my will, I would trim my sails to gentle winds... May soft breezes, gently blowing, unvarying, carry my untroubled barque along; my life bear me on safely, running in middle course.  

     While, in fear of the Cretan king, madly the lad sought the stars, in strange

devices trusting, and strove to vanquish true birds in flight ...



in CI book


From WebMuseum:

“Dürer, Albrecht, German painter, printmaker, draughtsman and art theorist, generally regarded as the greatest German Renaissance artist. His vast body of work includes altarpieces and religious works, numerous portraits and self-portraits, and copper engravings. His woodcuts, such as the Apocalypse series (1498), retain a more Gothic flavour than the rest of his work.
The Apocalypse, properly Apocalypse with Pictures (Apocalypsis cum Figuris)[1] is a famous series of fifteen woodcuts by Albrecht Dürer of scenes from the Book of Revelation, published in 1498, which rapidly brought him fame across Europe. The series was probably cut on pear-wood blocks and drew on theological advice, particularly from Johannes Pirckheimer, the father of Dürer's friend Willibald Pirckheimer. Work on the series started during Dürer's first trip to Italy (1494-95), and the set was published simultaneously in Latin and German at Nuremberg in 1498, with much of Europe anticipating a possible Last Judgment at 1500. The most famous print is The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (ca. 1497–98)[2], referring to Revelation 6:1–8.[3] The lay-out of the cycle with the illustrations on the recto and the text on the verso suggests the privileging of the illustrations over the text. The series brought Dürer fame and wealth as well as some freedom from the patronage system, which, in turn, allowed him to choose his own subjects and to devote more time to engraving. In 1511 Dürer published the second edition of Apocalypse.”
Have students attempt to interpret painting while reading the biblical text. What do the colors and objects symbolize? (answers below)
Revelation 6:1-8 (New International Version)

The Seals

 1I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, "Come!" 2I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.

 3When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, "Come!" 4Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay each other. To him was given a large sword.

 5When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, "Come!" I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. 6Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, "A quart[a] of wheat for a day's wages,[b] and three quarts of barley for a day's wages,[c] and do not damage the oil and the wine!"

 7When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, "Come!" 8I looked, and there before me was a pale [or green, depending on translation of the Greek] horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.

First seal is opened : a white horse appears, its rider held a bow (conquest) and wore a crown. Could be Satan or Jesus (white horse and crown appears elsewhere for Jesus).

Second seal is opened : a red (blood) horse appears, its rider holds a sword (war)

Third seal is opened: a black (death) horse appears, its rider holds a pair of scales (famine)

Fourth seal is opened : a pale/green or pale green (sick) horse appears, its rider is called Death

Notice the phrase 'he was given a crown', 'was given power', 'do not damage the oil and the wine', 'were given power over', all of this indicates that the four riders are under the sovereignty of God. Even if we do not understand earthly events, the message of Revelation is that God is sovereign from the start to the finish. Then his enemies will be defeated and punished and his saints vindicated and rewarded. Followed by a new earth with no more death or mourning or crying or pain.

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