The tem “Northern Renaissance” refers to the development of Renaissance traditions in the art of Europe outside Italy in the middle of 15th – 16th cent. It’s connected with the permeation of humanistic ideas in France, Germany, Netherlands and Flanders and the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation. In the narrow sense Northern Renaissance defines cultural changes in Germany and Low Countries, but it’s also used for describing processes on a wider territories, including France, England, Poland, Switzerland and others.
It’s obvious, that antique tradition wasn’t anywhere as vivid and inherent, as it was in Italy. The rest of the countries were capable mostly for its secondary interpretation, as the notion of classical heritage was received in many cases through books. That was the condition for originality and esthetic identity of this period in European art.
The specificity of Northern Renaissance lies in its strong connection with folklore, “low culture” that formed a ground for display of secular thematic (compare this with elite statues of Italian art). Religious topic was also strongly influenced by iconoclastic tendencies, observed during reformation of the Church.
Renaissance style was merely Italian achievement until the middle of 15th cent., as northern countries for a while remained under the impact of Gothic. Even after its slow infusion on the north, during the first stage it was very often mixed with medieval architectural elements, without innovations in the structure of a building itself.
The country that gave a comparatively outright response to the appearance of Italian classical style, was France. King Charles VIII was an enthusiastic patron of arts. He invited many Italian masters (among them painter Rosso Fiorentino and architect Domenico da Cortona), who introduced Renaissance. The evidences of a new period became first visible in Loire valley chateau at Amboise, commissioned by the monarch. They were even more substantial in the Fontainebleau palace, where typically renaissance features (ornamentation, porticos, Corinthian pillars) were supplemented with local peculiarities, like mansard roof and “French order” (columns on the pedestal with decorative bands across the shafts). Gable frontons, adopted from Italian Mannerism, gained popularity spread to the north.
It wasn’t earlier then 16th cent., when Renaissance reached British isles, and shaped Tudor style (named after Tudor dynasty), that still had a strong Gothic flavor. It was marked by disappearance of the pointed arch, accent on the decorative function of the orders (embellishing doors, windows, chimneys etc.) and all-round applying low relief for trimming.
Sculpture got detached from its architectural setting in northern Europe roughly in the 15th cent. The Gothic visual language was so strong that even after it was replaced by Renaissance, the latter absorbed the medieval emphasis on the emotional side of the images, rather than on physical. From that point of view, they were contrary to the noble calmness and heroic character of Italian monuments. This contrast was even more obvious as most of the sculpture wasn’t marble or bronze, but wood-carved, often painted or gilded. Truly florid and detailed samples of monochrome woodcuts were created by German Tilman Riemenschneider. Using the Zackenstil (zig-zag style) of drapery, emerged from Gothic art, he created expressionistic and full of inner spiritual power, but at the same time, life-like personages.
Northern Renaissance sculpture lack in monumental forms. The only master, who restored it, was a court artist in Burgundy Claus Sluter – the pioneer of “northern realism”. His stone images of Christ, Moses, Jeremiah are full of dignity. Specialists believe Sluter was inspired by Donatello, who worked twenty years earlier.
Painting gives the brightest examples of new aesthetical ideas in the art of the 15th – 16th cent. As well, as in Italy, its framebase was humanistic philosophy. Another significant factor was the rise of merchant class that largely formatted the artistic demand. They wanted their values to be expressed in commissioned pieces, so the shift in the manner and thematic accents became inevitable. Artists now combined realism (though not so accurate, as in Italy), depiction of linear perspective, religious didacticism and images that personified protestant conceptions of a proper Christian lifestyle. Interest to individuality was high as never before – that’s why such subtle portraitists as German Hans Holbein and Flemish Yan van Eyck were highly praised. Desire to make the picture of the world as tangible, as it possible, revealed itself in ultimate attention towards details and their naturalism. Scenes of various kinds (even evangelistic) were frequently placed in domestic interiors, full of every-day-life objects that uncover the atmosphere of the epoch. Dutch, Flemish and German painters preferred working in small-scale. Their art is more intimate and private, especially in comparison monumentality and grandiosity, Italian Renaissance strived for.
One of the Dutch inventions was oil painting (ascribed to van Eyk brothers) and it quickly ousted tempera from the toolset of artists both on the North and on the South.
If manuscript illumination was more or less connected with painting, printmaking allowed shaping the self-sufficient language of graphical art. Two main printmaking techniques were used in the 15th cent.: wood-cut and steel engraving. The latter emerged from gilding workshops. Very often, the engraver and a draughtsman was the same person. That, in some cases, negatively affected on the quality of the work.
Temporal subjects existed in the prints together with the religious ones. The expert in emotionally charged and dramatic Biblical compositions was Dutch Luca van Leyden. As well, as in painting, artists very soon were carried away with the problems of representing space, light and air. That’s why landscape took a remarkable place on the images of such prominent German master as Albrecht Durer and his student Albrecht Altdorfer.
Northern Renaissance was shaped by mentality, different from Italian. Here painters didn’t try to deify human being. They preferred to see as the main character a personality, aware of its mortality, god-fearing and hard-working. Protestant morality also hardly accepted nudity. Artists captured not a Titanic personalities, but faithful bourgeois. This traits were preserved and developed later, in Baroque epoch, by the circle of so-called Dutch minor masters.
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