Dictionary of Art and Artists



History of

Architecture and Sculpture






















As we narrow our focus from the Renaissance as a whole to the Renaissance in the fine arts, we are faced with some questions that are still under debate. When did it start? Did it, like Gothic art, originate in a specific center, or in several places at the same time? Should we think of it as one coherent style, or as an attitude that might be embodied in more than one style? "Renaissance-consciousness," we know, was an Italian idea, and there can be no doubt that Italy played the leading role in the development of Renaissance art, at least until the early sixteenth century. This fact does not necessarily mean, however, that the Renaissance was confined to the South.

So far as architecture and sculpture are concerned, modern scholarship agrees with the traditional view, first expressed more than 500 years ago, that the Renaissance began soon after 1400. For painting, however, an even older tradition claims that the new era began with Giotto, who, as Boccaccio wrote about 1350, "restored to light this art which had been buried for many centuries." We cannot disregard such testimony. Yet if we accept it at face value, we must assume that the Renaissance in painting dawned about 1300, a full generation before Petrarch. Giotto himself certainly did not reject the past as an age of darkness. After all, the two chief sources of his own style were the Byzantine tradition and the influence of Northern Gothic. The artistic revolution he created from these elements does not inherently place him in a new era, since revolutionary changes had occurred in medieval art before. Nor is it fair to credit this revolution to him alone, disregarding Duccio and the other great Sienese masters. Petrarch was well aware of the achievements of all these artists—he wrote admiringly of both Giotto and Simone Martini—but he never claimed that they had restored to light what had been buried during the centuries of darkness.

How, then, do we account for Boccaccio's statement about Giotto? We must understand that Boccaccio (1313-1375), an ardent disciple of Petrarch, was chiefly concerned with advancing humanism in literature. In his defense of the status of poetry, he found it useful to draw analogies with painting. Had not the ancients themselves proclaimed that the two arts were alike, in Horace's famous dictum that art must conform to the example of poetry (id pictura poesis)? Boccaccio thus cast Giotto in the role of "the Petrarch of painting," taking advantage of his already legendary fame. Boccaccio's view of Giotto as a Renaissance artist is, then, a bit of intellectual strategy, rather than a trustworthy reflection of Giotto's own attitude. Nevertheless, what he has to say interests us because he was the first to apply Petrarch's concept of "revival after the dark ages" to one of the visual arts, even though he did so somewhat prematurely. His way of describing Giotto's achievement is also noteworthy. It was he who claimed that Giotto depicted every aspect of nature so truthfully that people often mistook his paintings for reality itself. Here he implies that the revival of antiquity means for painters an uncompromising realism. This, as we shall see, was to become a persistent theme in Renaissance thought, justifying the imitation of nature as part of the great movement "back to the classics" and tending to minimize the possible conflict between these two aims. After all, Classical Greek art was itself based on a synthesis of naturalism and ideal proportions.

Netherlandish Painting

Boccaccio, of course, was not in a position to know how many aspects of reality Giotto and his contemporaries had failed to investigate. These, we recall, were further explored by the painters of the International Style, albeit in somewhat tentative

fashion. To advance beyond Gothic realism required a second revolution, which began simultaneously and independently in Italy and in the Netherlands about 1420. We must think, therefore, of two events linked by a common aim—the conquest of the visible world—yet sharply divided in almost every other respect. The Italian, or Southern, revolution was the more systematic and, in the long run, the more fundamental, since it included architecture and sculpture as well as painting. This movement, which originated in Florence, is called the Early Renaissance. The same term is not generally applied to the new style that emerged in Flanders. We have, in fact, no satisfactory name to designate the Northern focus of the revolution. Art historians are still of two minds about its scope and significance in relation to the Renaissance as a whole.


We shall use the customary label, "Late Gothic," tor the sake of convenience, with quotation marks to indicate its doubtful status. The term hardly does justice to the special character of Northern fifteenth-century painting, but it has some justification. It indicates, for instance, that the creators of the new style, unlike their Italian contemporaries, did not reject the International Style. Rather, they took it as their point of departure, so that the break with the past was less abrupt in the North than in the South. "Late Gothic" also reminds us that fifteenth-century architecture outside Italy remained firmly rooted in the Gothic tradition.

Whatevr we choose to call the style of Northern painters of this time, their artistic environment was clearly "Late Gothic". How, one wonders, could they create a genuinely post-medieval style in such a setting? Would it not be more reasonable to regard their work, despite its great importance, as the final phase of Gothic painting? Italian Renaissance art, after all, made very little impression north of the Alps during the fifteenth century. If we treat Northern painting as the counterpart of the Early Renaissance, it is because the great Flemish masters whose work we are about to examine had an impact that went far beyond their own region. In Italy they were admired as greatly as the leading Italian artists of the period. Their intense realism had a conspicuous influence on Early Renaissance painting, for the Italians, as we have already noted, associated the exact imitation of nature in painting with a "return to the classics."

To Italian eyes, then, "Late Gothic" painting appeared definitely post-medieval. Moreover, the situation of the Flemish painters had a close parallel in the field of music. After about 1420, the Netherlands produced a school of composers so revolutionary as to dominate the development of music throughout Europe for the next hundred years. How much the new style of these men was appreciated can be gathered from a contemporary source which states that "nothing worth listening to had been composed before their time." This remark, with its sweeping rejection of the "musical dark ages," links the attitude of the Flemish musicians with Italian "Renaissance-consciousness," except for the absence of any reference to the revival of antiquity. We have no similar testimony concerning the new style of the Flemish painters, but from what we know of the impact of their work, it seems likely that people felt "nothing worth looking at had been painted before their time."


The first, and perhaps most decisive, phase of the pictorial revolution in Flanders is represented by an artist whose name we do not know for certain. We call him the Master of Flemalle (after the fragments of a large altar from Flemalle), but he was probably identical with Robert Campin, the foremost painter of Tournai, whose career we can trace in documents from 1406 to his death in 1444. His finest work is the Merode Altarpiece (fig. 541), which he must have done soon after 1425. Comparing it with its nearest relatives, the Franco-Flemish pictures of the International Style (see figs. 535-38), we see that it falls within the same tradition. Yet we also recognize in it a new pictorial experience.

Here, for the first time, we have the sensation of actually looking through the surface of the panel into a spatial world that has all the essential qualities of everyday reality: unlimited depth, stability, continuity, and completeness. The painters of the International Style, even at their most adventurous, had never aimed at such consistency, and their commitment to reality was far from absolute. The pictures they created have the enchanting quality of fairy-tales where the scale and relationship of things can be shifted at will, where fact and fancy mingle without conflict. The Master of Flemalle, in contrast, has undertaken to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. To be sure, he does not yet do it with total ease. His objects, overly foreshortened, tend to jostle each other in space. But with almost obsessive determination, he defines every last detail of every object to give it maximum concreteness: its individual shape and size; its color, material, surface textures; its degree of rigidity; and its way of responding to illumination. The artist even distinguishes between the diffused light creating soft shadows and delicate gradations of brightness, and the direct light entering through the two round windows, which produces the twin shadows sharply outlined in the upper part of the center panel and the twin reflections on the brass vessel and candlestick.

541. MASTER OF FLEMALLE (Robert Campin?). Merode Altarpiece. . 1425-30.
Oil on wood panels, center 64.3 x 62.9 cm; each wing 64.5 x 27.4 cm.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Cloisters Collection,

The Merode Altarpiece transports us from the aristocratic world of the International Style to the household of a Flemish burgher. The Master of Flemalle was no court painter, but a townsman catering to the tastes of such well-to-do fellow citizens as the two donors piously kneeling outside the Virgin's chamber. This is the earliest Annunciation in panel painting that occurs in a fully equipped domestic interior, as well as the first to honor Joseph, the humble carpenter, by showing him at work next door.

This bold departure from tradition forced upon our artist a problem no one had faced before: how to transfer supernatural events from symbolic settings to an everyday environment, without making them look either trivial or incongruous. He has met this challenge by the method known as "disguised symbolism," which means that almost any detail within the picture, however casual, may carry a symbolic message. Thus the flowers are associated with the Virgin: in the left wing the roses denote her charity and the violets her humility, while in the center panel the lilies symbolize her chastity. The shiny water basin and the towel on its rack are not ordinary household equipment either but further tributes to Mary as the "vessel most clean" and the "well of living waters." Perhaps the most intriguing symbol of this sort is the candle next to the vase of lilies. It was extinguished only moments before, as we can tell from the glowing wick and the curl of smoke. But why had it been lit in broad daylight, and what made the flame go out? Has the divine radiance of the Lord's presence overcome the material light? Or did the flame of the candle itself represent the divine light, now extinguished to show that God has become man, that in Christ "the Word was made flesh"?

Clearly, the entire wealth of medieval symbolism survives in our picture, but it is so completely immersed in the world of everyday appearances that we are often left to doubt whether a given detail demands symbolic interpretation. Observers long wondered, for instance, about the boxlike object on Joseph's workbench (and a similar one on the ledge outside the open window), until one scholar identified them as mousetraps intended to convey a specific theological message. According to St. Augustine, God had to appear on earth in human form so as to fool Satan: "The Cross of the Lord was the devil's mousetrap."

Since iconographic explanations of this sort require much scholarly ingenuity, we tend to think of the Merode Altarpiece and similar pictures as embodying a special kind of puzzle. And so they often do to the modern beholder, although they can be enjoyed apart from knowing all their symbolic content. But what about the patrons for whom these works were painted? Did they immediately grasp the meaning of every detail? They would have had no difficulty with such well-established symbols in our picture as the flowers, and they probably understood the significance of the water basin. The message of the extinguished candle and the mousetrap could not have been common knowledge even among the well-educated, however. These two symbols—and from their incongruity we can hardly doubt that they are symbols—make their earliest appearance in the Merode Altarpiece. They must be unusual, too, for St. Joseph with the mousetrap has been found in only one other picture, and the freshly extinguished candle does not recur elsewhere, so far as we know. Apparently, the Master of Flemalle introduced them into the visual arts, yet hardly any artists adopted them despite his great influence. If the candle and the mousetrap were difficult to understand even in the fifteenth century, why are they in our picture at all? Was the artist told to put them in by the patron, who may have been exceptionally erudite? This would be possible if it were the only case of its kind, but since there are countless instances of equally subtle or obscure symbolism in "Late Gothic" painting, it seems more likely that the initiative came from the artists, rather than from their patrons.

We have reason to believe, therefore, that the Master of Flemalle was either a man of unusual learning himself, or had contact with the theologians and other scholars who could supply him with the references that suggested the symbolic meanings of things such as the extinguished candle and the mousetrap. In other words, the artist did not simply continue the symbolic tradition of medieval art within the framework of the new realistic style. He expanded and enriched it by his own efforts. But why, we wonder, did he simultaneously pursue what are customarily regarded as two opposite goals: realism and symbolism? To him, apparently, the two were interdependent, rather than in conflict. We might say that he needed a growing symbolic repertory because it encouraged him to explore features of the visible world never represented before, such as a candle immediately after it has been blown out or the interior of a carpenter's shop, which provided the setting for the mousetraps. For him to paint everyday reality, he had to "sanctify" it with a maximum of spiritual significance.

This deeply reverential attitude toward the physical universe as a mirror of divine truths helps us to understand why in the Merode panels the smallest and least conspicuous details are rendered with the same concentrated attention as the sacred figures. Potentially, at least, everything is a symbol and thus merits an equally exacting scrutiny. The disguised symbolism of the Master of Flemalle and his successors was not an external device grafted onto the new realistic style, but ingrained in the creative process. Their Italian contemporaries must have sensed this, for they praised both the miraculous realism and the "piety" of the Flemish masters.

If we compare our illustration of the Merode Annunciation with those of earlier panel paintings (figs. 524, 534, 535, and 539), we see vividly that, all other differences aside, its distinctive tonality makes the Master of Flemalle's picture stand out from the rest. The jewellike brightness of the older works, their patterns of brilliant hues and lavish use of gold, have given way to a color scheme far less decorative but much more flexible and differentiated. The subdued tints of muted greens, bluish- or brownish-grays show a new subtlety, and the scale of intermediate shades is smoother and has a wider range. All these effects are essential to the realistic style of the Master of Flemalle. They were made possible by the use of oil, the medium he was among the first to exploit.


The basic medium of medieval panel painting had been tempera, in which the finely ground pigments were mixed ("tempered") with diluted egg yolk. It produced a thin, tough, quick-drying coat admirably suited to the medieval taste for high-keyed, flat color surfaces. However, in tempera the different tones on the panel cannot be blended smoothly, and the continuous progression of values necessary for three-dimensional effects was difficult to achieve. Furthermore, the darks tended to look muddy and undifferentiated. For the Master of Flemalle these were serious drawbacks, which he overcame by substituting oil for the water-and-egg-yolk mixture. In a purely material sense, oil was not unfamiliar to medieval artists, but it had been used only for special purposes, such as the coating of stone surfaces or painting on metal. It was the Master of Flemalle and his contemporaries who discovered its artistic possibilities. Oil, a viscous, slow-drying medium, is capable of producing a wide variety of effects, from thin, translucent films (called "glazes") to the thickest impasto (that is, a thick layer of creamy, heavy-bodied paint). The hues can also yield a continuous scale of tones, including rich, velvety dark shades previously unknown. The medium offers a unique advantage over egg tempera, encaustic, and fresco: oils give the artist the unprecedented ability to change his mind almost at will. Without oil, the Flemish masters' conquest of visible reality would have been much more limited. Thus, from the technical point of view, too, they deserve to be called the "founders of modem painting," for oil has been the basic medium ever since.


542. HUBERT and/or JAN VAN EYCH.
The Crucifixion; The Last Judgment.
. 1420—25.
Tempera and oil on canvas, transferred from panel; each panel 56.5 x 19.4 cm.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York. Fletcher Fund,

Needless to say, the full range of effects made possible by oil was not discovered all at once, nor by any one individual. The Master of Flemalle contributed less than Jan van Eyck, a somewhat younger and much more famous artist who was long credited with the actual "invention" of oil painting. We know a good deal about Jan's life and career. Born about 1390, he worked in Holland from 1422 to 1424, in Lille from 1425 to 1429, and thereafter in Bruges, where he died in 1441. He was both a townsman and a court painter, highly esteemed by Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy, who occasionally sent him on confidential diplomatic errands. After 1432, we can follow Jan's career through a number of signed and dated pictures.

The inscription on the frame of the great Ghent Altarpiece (see figs. 543-45) tells us that Jan completed it in that year, after it had been begun by his older brother, Hubert, who had died in 1426. fan's earlier development, however, remains disputed. There are several "Eyckian" works, obviously older than the Ghent Altarpiece, that may have been painted by either of the two brothers. The most fascinating of these is a pair of panels showing the Crucifixion and the Last Judgment (fig. 542). Scholars agree that their date is between 1420 and 1425, whichever brother, Jan or Hubert, was the author.

The style of these paintings has many qualities in common with that of the Merode Altarpiece: the all-embracing devotion to the visible world, the unlimited depth of space, and the angular drapery folds, less graceful but far more realistic than the unbroken loops of the International Style. At the same time, the individual forms are not starkly tangible, like those characteristic of the Master of Flemalle, and seem less isolated, less "sculptural." The sweeping sense of space is the result not so much of violent foreshortening as of subtle changes of light and color. If we inspect the Crucifixion panel closely, we see a gradual decrease in the intensity of local colors and in the contrast of light and dark, from the foreground figures to the far-off city of Jerusalem and the snow-capped peaks beyond. Everything tends toward a uniform tint of light bluish-gray, so that the farthest mountain range merges imperceptibly with the color of the sky.

This optical phenomenon is known as "atmospheric perspective." The Van Eycks  were the first to utilize the effect fully and systematically, although the Limbourg brothers had already been aware of it (see fig. 536). The atmosphere is never wholly transparent. Even on the clearest day, the air between us and what we are looking at acts as a hazy screen that interferes with our ability to see distant shapes clearly. As we approach the limit of visibility, it swallows them altogether. Atmospheric perspective is more fundamental to our perception of deep space than linear perspective, which records the diminution in the apparent size of objects as their distance from the observer increases. It is effective not only in faraway vistas. In the Crucifixion panel, even the foreground seems enveloped in a delicate haze that softens contours, shadows, and colors. Thus the entire scene has a continuity and harmony quite beyond the pictorial range of the Master of Flemalle. How did the Van Eycks achieve this effect? Their exact technical procedure is difficult to reconstruct, but there can be no question that they used the oil medium with extraordinary refinement. By alternating opaque and translucent layers of paint, they were able to impart to their pictures a soft, glowing radiance of tone that has never been equaled, probably because it depends fully as much on their individual sensibilities as it does on their skillful craftsmanship.

Seen as a whole, the Crucifixion seems singularly devoid of drama, as if the scene had been gently becalmed by some magic spell. Only when we concentrate on the details do we become aware of the violent emotions in the faces of the crowd beneath the Cross, and the restrained but profoundly touching grief of the Virgin Mary and her companions in the foreground. In the Last judgment panel, this dual quality of the Eyckian style takes the form of two extremes. Above the horizon, all is order, symmetry, and calm; below it, on earth and in the subterranean realm of Satan, violent chaos prevails. The two states thus correspond to Heaven and Hell, contemplative bliss as against physical and emotional turbulence. The lower half, clearly, was the greater challenge to the artist's imaginative powers. The dead rising from their graves with frantic gestures of fear and hope, the damned being torn apart by devilish monsters more frightful than any we have seen before (compare fig. 426), all have the awesome reality of a nightmare, but a nightmare "observed" with the same infinite care as the natural world of the Crucifixion panel.

The Ghent Altarpiece (figs. 543-45), the greatest monument of early Flemish painting, presents problems so complex that our discussion must be limited to bare essentials. We have already mentioned the inscription informing us that the work, begun by Hubert, was completed by Jan in 1432. Since Hubert died in 1426, the altarpiece was presumably made in the seven-year span between 1425 and 1432. We may therefore expect it to introduce to us the next phase of the new style we have discussed so far. Its basic arrangement is a triptych—a central body with two hinged wings—the standard format of altarpieces. In addition, each of the three units consists of four separate panels. And since the wings are also painted on both sides, the altarpiece has a total of 20 components of assorted shapes and sizes. The ensemble makes what has rightly been called a "super-altar," overwhelming but far from harmonious, which could not have been planned this way from the start. Apparently Jan took over a number of panels left unfinished by Hubert, completed them, added some of his own, and assembled them at the behest of the wealthy donor whose portrait we see on one of the outer panels of the altar.

543. HUBERT and JAN VAN EYCH.  Ghent Altarpiece (open). Completed 1432. Oil on panel, 3.4 x 4.4 m.
Church of St. Bavo, Ghent

To reconstruct this train of events, and to determine each brother's share, is an interesting but difficult game. Suffice it to say that Hubert remains a somewhat shadowy figure. His style, overlaid with retouches by fan, can probably be found in the four central panels inside, although they did not belong together originally. The upper three, whose huge figures in the final arrangement crush the multitude of small ones below, were intended, it seems, to form a self-contained triptych: the Lord between the Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist. The lower panel and the four flanking it probably formed a separate altar-piece, the Adoration of the Lamb, symbolizing Christ's sacrificial death. The two panels with music-making angels may have been planned by Hubert as a pair of organ shutters.

If this hypothesis is correct, the two tall, narrow panels showing Adam and Eve (fig. 544) are the only ones on the interior added by Jan to Hubert's stock. They certainly are the most daring of all: these, the earliest monumental nudes of Northern panel painting (hardly less than lifesize), are magnificently observed and caressed by the most delicate play of light and shade. Their quiet dignity and prominent place in the altar suggest that they should remind us not so much of Original Sin as of our creation in God's own image. Actual evil, by contrast, is represented in the small, violently expressive scenes above, which show the story of Cain and Abel. Even more extraordinary is the fact that the Adam and Eve were designed specifically lor their present positions in the ensemble. Jan van Eyck has established a new, direct relationship between picture space and real space by depicting the two figures as they would really appear to the spectator, whose eye level is below the bottom of the panels.

The outer surfaces of the two wings (fig. 545) were evidently planned by Jan as one coherent unit. Here, as we would normally expect, the largest figures are not above, but in the lower tier. The two St. Johns (painted in grays to simulate sculpture, like the scenes of Cain and Abel), the donor, and his wife, each in a separate niche, are the immediate kin of the Adam and Eve panels. The upper tier has two pairs of panels of different width. The artist has made a virtue of this awkward necessity by combining all four into one interior. Such an effect, we recall, had first been created by Pietro Lorenzetti almost a century earlier (compare fig. 525). Not content with perspective devices alone, Jan heightens the illusion by painting the shadows cast by the frames of the panels on the floor of the Virgin's chamber. Interestingly enough, this Annunciation resembles, in its homely detail, the Merode Altarpiece, thus providing an important link between the two great pioneers of Flemish realism.

544. HUBERT and JAN VAN EYCH. Adam and Eve, details of Ghent Altarpiece, left and right wings
545. HUBERT and JAN VAN EYCH. Ghent Altarpiece (closed)

Donors' portraits of splendid individuality occupy conspicuous positions in both the Merode and the Ghent altar-pieces. A renewed interest in realistic portraiture had developed in the mid-fourteenth century, but until about 1420 its best achievements were in sculpture (see fig. 498). Painters usually confined themselves to silhouettelike profile views, such as the portrait of the duke of Berry in figure 538. Not until the Master of Flemalle, the first artist since antiquity to have real command of a close-up view of the human face from a three-quarter view, did the portrait play a major role in Northern painting.

In addition to donors' portraits, we now begin to encounter a growing number of small, independent likenesses whose intimacy suggests that they were treasured keepsakes, pictorial substitutes for the real presence of the sitter. One of the most compelling is Jan van Eyck's Man in a Red Turban of 1433 (fig. 546), which may well be a self-portrait. (The slight strain about the eyes seems to come from gazing into a mirror.) The sitter is bathed in the same gentle, clear light as Adam and Eve on the Ghent Altarpiece. Every detail of shape and texture has been recorded with almost microscopic precision. Jan does not suppress the sitter's personality, yet this face, like all of Jan's portraits, remains a psychological puzzle. It might be described as "even-tempered" in the most exact sense of the term: its character traits are balanced against each other so perfectly that none can assert itself at the expense of the rest. As Jan was fully capable of expressing emotion—we need only recall the faces of the crowd in the Crucifixion, or the scenes of Cain and Abel in the Ghent Altarpiece—the stoic calm of his portraits surely reflects his conscious ideal of human character rather than indifference or lack of insight.

The Flemish cities of Tournai, Ghent, and Bruges, where the new style of painting flourished, rivaled those of Italy as centers of international banking and trade. Their foreign residents included many Italian businessmen. Jan van Eyck probably painted his remarkable portrait in figure 547 to celebrate the alliance of two of these families that were active in Bruges and Paris. It represents the betrothal of Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami in the main room of the bride's house. The young couple touches hands in espousal as he raises his right hand in solemn oath. They seem to be quite alone, but in the mirror conspicuously placed behind them is the reflection of two other people who have entered the room (fig. 548). One of them is presumably the bride's father, who by tradition gives her to the groom. The other must be the artist, since the words above the mirror, in florid lettering, tell us that "Johannes de eyck fuit hie" (Jan van Eyck was here) in the year 1434.

JAN VAN EYCH. Man in a Red Turban (Self-Portrait?). 1433. Oil on panel, 26 x 19 cm. The National Gallery. London.
JAN VAN EYCH. The Arnolfini Portrait. 1434. Oil on panel, 83.7x57 cm. The National Gallery, London.
JAN VAN EYCH. The Arnolfini Portrait (detail)

Jan's role, then, is that of a witness to the event, which also entailed a legal and financial contract between the two families. The picture claims to show exactly what he saw. Given its secular nature, we may wonder whether the picture is filled with the same sort of disguised symbolism as the Me'rode Altarpiece, or whether the pervasive realism serves simply as an accurate record of the domestic setting. The elaborate bed was the main piece of furniture in the well-appointed living room of the day. May it not also contain a discreet allusion to the physical consummation that validated marriage? Has the couple taken off their shoes merely as a matter of custom, or to remind us that they are standing on "holy ground"? By the same token, is the little dog no more than a beloved pet or an emblem of fidelity? The other furnishings in the room pose similar problems of interpretation. What is the role of the single candle in the chandelier, burning in broad daylight? And is the convex mirror, whose frame is decorated with scenes from the Passion, not a Vanitas symbol? Clearly Jan was so intrigued by its unusual visual effects that he incorporated it into two other paintings as well.



In the work of Jan van Eyck, the exploration of the reality made visible by light and color reached a level that was not to be surpassed for another two centuries. Rogier van der Weyden (1399/1400-1464), the third great master of early Flemish painting, set himself a different though equally important task: to recapture the emotional drama and the pathos of the Gothic past within the framework of the new style created by his predecessors. We see this greater expressive immediacy in his early masterpiece, Descent from the Cross (fig. 549), which dates from about 1435 when the artist was in his mid-thirties. Here the modeling is sculpturally precise, with brittle, angular drapery folds recalling those of the Master of Flemalle. The soft half-shadows and rich, glowing colors show his knowledge of Jan van Eyck. Yet Rogier is far more than a follower of the two older artists. Whatever he owes to them (and it is obviously a great deal) he uses for ends that are not theirs but his. The external events (in this case, the lowering of Christ's body from the Cross) concern him less than the world of human feeling. This Descent, judged for its expressive content, could well be called a Lamentation.

The artistic ancestry of these grief-stricken gestures and faces is in sculpture rather than painting. It descends from the Strasbourg Death of the Virgin (fig. 488) and the Naumburg Crucifixion (fig. 494) to the Bonn Pieta (fig. 497) and Sluter's Moses Well (fig. 499). It therefore seems uniquely fitting that Rogier van der Weyden should have staged his scene in a shallow architectural niche or shrine, as if his figures were colored statues, and not against a landscape background. This bold device gave him a double advantage in heightening the effect of the tragic event. It focused the viewer's entire attention on the foreground, and allowed him to mold the figures into a coherent, formal group. No wonder that Rogier's art, which has been well described as "at once physically barer and spiritually richer than Jan van Eyck's," set an example for countless other artists. When he died in 1464, after 30 years as the foremost painter of Brussels, his influence was supreme in European painting north of the Alps. Its impact continued to be felt almost everywhere outside Italy until the end of the century, such was the authority of his style.

What is true of Rogier's religious works applies equally well to his portraits. The likeness of Francesco d'Este (fig. 550), an Italian nobleman resident at the Burgundian court, may strike us as less lifelike than Jan van Eyck's. Modeling is reduced to a minimum, and much descriptive detail has been simplified or omitted altogether. The gracefully elongated forms render an aristocratic ideal rather than the sitter's individual appearance. Yet this face, compared with that of the Man in a Red Turban (fig. 546), conveys a more vivid sense of character. Instead of striving for the psychologically "neutral" calm of Jan's portraits, Rogier van der Weyden interprets the human personality by suppressing some traits and emphasizing others through such features as the set of the eyes and mouth. As a result, he tells us more about the inner life of his sitters and less about their outward appearance.

549. ROGIER VAN DER WEYDEN. Descent from the Cross, ๑ 1435. Oil on panel, 2.2 x 2.6 m. Museo del Prado, Madrid
550. ROGIER VAN DER WEYDEN. Francesco J'Este. ๑ 1455. Tempera and oil on panel, 29.8 x 20.3 cm.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


Among the artists who followed Rogier van der Weyden, few succeeded in escaping from the great master's shadow. The most dynamic of these was Hugo van der Goes (c. 1440-1482), an unhappy genius whose tragic end suggests an unstable personality especially interesting to us today. After a spectacular rise to fame in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Bruges, he decided in 1475, when he was nearly 35 years of age, to enter a monastery as a lay brother. He continued to paint for some time, but increasing fits of depression drove him to the verge of suicide, and four years later he was dead.

Van der Goes' most ambitious work, the huge altarpiece commissioned by Tommaso Portinari in 1475, is an awesome achievement (fig. 551). While we need not search here for hints of Hugo's future mental illness, it nonetheless evokes a nervous and restless personality. There is a tension between the artist's devotion to the natural world and his concern with the supernatural. Hugo has rendered a wonderfully spacious and atmospheric landscape setting, with a wealth of precise detail. Yet the disparity in the size of the figures seems to contradict this realism. In the wings, the kneeling members of the Portinari family are dwarfed by their patron saints, whose gigantic size characterizes them as being of a higher order. The latter figures arc not meant to be "larger than life," however, for they share the same huge scale with Joseph, the Virgin Mary, and the shepherds of the Nativity in the center panel, whose height is normal in relation to the architecture and to the ox and ass. The angels are drawn to the same scale as the donors, and thus appear abnormally small.

551. HUGO VAN DER GOES. The Portinari Altarpiece (open), . 1476.
Tempera and oil on panel, center 2.5 x 3.1 m, wings each 2.5 x 1.4 m. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

This variation of scale, although its symbolic and expressive purpose is clear, stands outside the logic of everyday experience affirmed in the environment the artist has provided for his figures. There is another striking contrast between the frantic excitement of the shepherds and the ritual solemnity of all the other figures. These field hands, gazing in breathless wonder at the newborn Child, react to the dramatic miracle of the Nativity with a wide-eyed directness never attempted before. They aroused particular admiration in the Italian painters who saw the work after it arrived in Florence in 1483.


During the last quarter of the fifteenth century there were no painters in Flanders comparable to Hugo van der Goes, and the most original artists appeared farther north, in Holland. To one of these, Geertgen tot Sint Jans of Haarlem, who died about 1495, we owe the enchanting Nativity reproduced in figure 552, a picture as daring in its quiet way as the center panel of the Portinari Altarpiece.

The idea of a nocturnal Nativity, illuminated mainly by radiance from the Christ Child, goes back to the International Style (see fig.
540), but Geertgen, applying the pictorial discoveries of Jan van Eyck, gives new, intense reality to the theme. The magic effect of his little panel is greatly enhanced by the smooth, simplified shapes that record the play of light with striking clarity. The heads of the angels, the Infant, and the Virgin are all as round as objects turned on a lathe, while the manger is a rectangular trough.


๑ 1490.
Oil on panel, 34.3 x 25.7 cm.
The National Gallery, London.



If Geertgen's uncluttered, "abstract" forms are especially attractive to us today, another Dutch artist, Hieronymus Bosch, appeals to our interest in the world of dreams. Little is known about Bosch except that he spent his life in the provincial town of s Hertogenbosch and that he died, an old man, in 1516. His work, full of weird and seemingly irrational imagery, has proved difficult to interpret.

We can readily see why when we study the triptych known as The Garden of Delights (fig. 553), the richest and most puzzling of Bosch's pictures. Of the three panels, only the left one has a clearly recognizable subject: the Garden of Eden, where the Lord introduces Adam to the newly created Eve. The landscape, almost Eyckian in its airy vastness, is filled with animals, among them such exotic creatures as an elephant and a giraffe, as well as hybrid monsters of odd and sinister kinds. Behind them, the distant rock formations are equally strange. The right wing, a nightmarish scene of burning ruins and fantastic instruments of torture, surely represents Hell. But what of the center panel, a detail of which is seen in figure 554?

Here is a landscape much like that of the Garden of Eden, populated with countless nude men and women engaged in a variety of peculiar activities. In the center, they parade around a circular basin on the backs of all sorts of beasts. Many frolic in pools of water. Most of them are closely linked with enormous birds, fruit, flowers, or marine animals. Only a few are openly engaged in lovemaking, but there can be no doubt that the delights in this "garden" are those of carnal desire, however oddly disguised. The birds, fruit, and the like are symbols or metaphors which Bosch uses to depict life on earth as an unending repetition of the Original Sin of Adam and Eve, which dooms us to be prisoners of our appetites. Nowhere does he even hint at the possibility of salvation. Corruption, on the animal level at least, had already asserted itself in the Garden of Eden before the Fall, and we are all destined for Hell, the Garden of Satan, with its grisly and refined instruments of torture.

We now know that much of the imagery in The Garden of Delights derives from alchemy treatises, which Bosch uses to convey a profoundly pessimistic attitude about humanity. We nevertheless sense a fundamental ambiguity in the central panel. There is an innocence, even a haunting poetic beauty, in this panorama of human sinfulness. Consciously, Bosch was a stern moralist who intended his pictures to be visual sermons, every detail packed with didactic meaning. Unconsciously, however, he must have been so enraptured by the sensuous appeal of the world of the flesh that the images he coined in such abundance tend to celebrate what they are meant to condemn. That, surely, is the reason why The Garden of Delights still evokes so strong a response today, even though we no longer understand every word of the sermon.

553. BOSCH. The Garden of Delights. . 1510-15. Oil on panel, center 219.7 x 195 cm, wings, each 219.7 x 96.6 cm. Museo del Prado, Madrid
554. BOSCH. The Garden of Delights. Detail of center panel


Swiss, German, and French Painting

We must now glance briefly at fifteenth-century art in the rest of Northern Europe. After about 1430, the new realism of the Flemish masters began to spread into France and Germany until, by the middle of the century, its influence prevailed everywhere from Spain to the Baltic. Among the countless artists (many of them still anonymous) who turned out provincial adaptations of Netherlandish painting, only a few were gifted enough to impress us with a distinctive personality.


One of the earliest and most original of these masters was Konrad Witz of Basel
(1400/10-1445/6), whose altarpiece for Geneva Cathedral, painted in 1444, includes the remarkable panel shown in figure 555. To judge from the drapery, with its tubular folds and sharp, angular breaks, he must have had close contact with the Master of Flemalle. But the setting, rather than the figures, attracts our interest, and here the influence of the Van Eycks seems dominant. Witz, however, did not simply follow these great pioneers. An explorer himself, he knew more about the optical appearances of water than any other painter of his time, as we can see the bottom of the lake in the foreground. The landscape, too, is an original contribution. Representing a specific part of the shore of the Lake of Geneva, it is among the earliest landscape "portraits" that have come down to us.

WITZ. The Miraculous Draught of Fishes. 1444.
Oil on panel,
129.7 x 155
Musee d'Art et d'Histoire, Geneva


In France, the leading painter was Jean Fouquet (c. 1420-1481), some 20 years younger than Witz. He had the exceptional fortune of a lengthy visit to Italy around 1445, soon after he had completed his training, so that his work represents a unique blend of Flemish and Early Renaissance elements, although it remains basically Northern. Etienne Chevalier and St. Stephen, the left wing of the Melun Diptych (fig. 556), his most famous work, shows his mastery as a portraitist. Remarkably, the head of the saint seems no less individual than that of the donor. Italian influence can be seen in the style of the architecture and, less directly, in the statuesque solidity and weight of the two figures. According to an old tradition, the Madonna in the right wing (fig. 557) is also a portrait: that of Agnes Sorel, Charles VII's mistress, whose estate Chevalier represented as executor upon her death in 1450, when our diptych may have been painted. If so, it presents a highly idealized image of courtly beauty, as befits the Queen of Heaven, seen wearing a crown and robe amidst a choir of angels. Here we see the beginnings of that tendency toward intellectual lucidity and abstraction that were to become distinctive to French art. This emphasis extends to the treatment of the background, which is very different in the two panels, not out of disregard for visual perspective but in order to distinguish clearly between the temporal and spiritual realms. Thus each half of the diptych constitutes a separate, self-contained world. By the same token, pictorial space for Fouquet exists independently of the viewer's "real" space.

The artist's self-portrait from about the same time also reflects his sojourn in the South (fig. 558). It is a tiny picture executed in gold on black enamel, a technique which, though not unknown in France, was peculiar to Italy. It must have been inspired by a late Roman miniature, such as the one reproduced in figure 297. It revives a species of "portable" portrait that was to become immensely popular a century later, especially in England. It has the further distinction of being the earliest clearly identified self-portrait that is a separate painting, not an incidental part of a larger work. The style of the likeness is Flemish in origin, however, rather than ancient or Renaissance. In fact, the quality of the glance recalls Ian van Eyck's Man in a Red Turban (fig. 546) so strongly as to provide evidence that Jan's picture, too, must be a self-portrait.

556. FOUQUET. Etienne Chevalier and St. Stephen, left wing of the Melun Diptych, ๑ 1450. Oil on panel, 92.7 x 85 cm.
Gemaldegalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin
557. FOUQUET. Madonna and Child, right wing of the Melun Diptych, ๑ 1450. Oil on panel, 93 x 85 cm.
Musee Royal des Beaux-Arts, Antwerp
558. FOUQUET. Self-Portrait, 1450. Gold and enamel on copper, diameter 7.7 cm.
Musee du Louvre, Paris


A Flemish style influenced by Italian art also characterizes the most famous of all fifteenth-century French pictures, the Avignon Pieta (fig.
559). As its name indicates, the panel comes from the extreme south of France and is attributed to an artist of that region,
Enguerrand Charonton. He must have been thoroughly familiar with the art of Rogier van der Weyden, for the figure types and the expressive content of the Avignon Pieta could be derived from no other source. At the same time, the magnificently simple and stable design is Italian rather than Northern. These are qualities we first saw in the art of Giotto. Southern, too, is the bleak, featureless landscape emphasizing the monumental isolation of the figures. The distant buildings behind the donor on the left have an unmistakably Islamic flavor, suggesting that the artist meant to place the scene in an authentic Near Eastern setting. From these various features he has created an unforgettable image of heroic pathos.

Enguerrand Charonton. Avignon Pieta. ๑ 1470. Oil on panel, 161.9 x 217.9 cm.
Musee du Louvre, Paris



If we had to describe fifteenth-century art north of the Alps in a single phrase, we might label it "the first century of panel painting," which so dominated the art of the period between

1420 and 1500 that its standards apply to manuscript illumination, stained glass, and even, to a large extent, sculpture. After the later thirteenth century, we will recall, the emphasis had shifted from architectural sculpture to the more intimate scale of devotional images, tombs, pulpits, and the like. Claus Sluter, whose art is so impressive in weight and volume, had briefly recaptured the monumental spirit of the High Gothic. However, he had no real successors, although echoes of his style can be felt in French art for the next 50 years.

It was the influence of the Master of Flemalle and Rogier van der Weyden that ended the International Style in the sculpture of Northern Europe. The carvers, who quite often were also painters, began to reproduce in stone or wood the style of these artists, and continued to do so until about 1500.


The most characteristic works of the "Late Gothic" carvers are wooden altar shrines, often large in size and incredibly intricate in detail. Such shrines were especially popular in the Germanic countries. One of the richest examples is the St. Wolfgang Altarpiece (fig. 560) by the Tyrolean sculptor and painter Michael Pacher (c. 1435-1498). Its lavishly gilt and colored forms make a dazzling spectacle as they emerge from the shadowy depth of the shrine under Flamboyant canopies. We enjoy it, but in pictorial rather than plastic terms. We have no experience of volume, either positive or negative. The figures and setting seem to melt into a single pattern of agitated, twisting lines that permits only the heads to stand out as separate entities.

If we compare this altarpiece with Rogier's Descent from the Cross (fig. 549), we realize that the latter, paradoxically, is a far more "sculptural" scene. Did Pacher, the "Late Gothic" sculptor, feel unable to compete with the painter's rendering of three-dimensional bodies and therefore choose to meet him in the pictorial realm, by extracting the maximum of drama from contrasts of light and shade? Support for this view comes from Pacher's own work. Some years after completing the St. Wolfgang shrine he made another altarpiece, this time with a painted center (fig. 561). Again we see large figures under ornate canopies—the equivalent of a carved shrine—but now with far greater emphasis on space and volume. To say that Pacher is a painter when he sculpts, and a sculptor when he paints, is only a slight exaggeration. In this exchange, sculpture inevitably gets the short end of the bargain.

560. PACHER.  St.Wolfgang Altarpiece. 1471-81. Carved wood, figures about lifesize. Church of St. Wolfgang, Austria
561. PACHER. St. Augustine and St. Gregory,
center panel of Altarpiece of the Four Latin bathers, ๑ 1483.
Oil on panel,
205.7 x 195.7 cm. Alte Pinakothek, Munich



At this point we must take note of another important event north of the Alps: the development of printing, for pictures as well as books. The earliest printed books in the modern sense were produced in the Rhineland soon after 1450. (It is not certain whether Johann Gutenberg deserves the priority long claimed for him.) The new technique quickly spread all over Europe and developed into an industry that had a profound effect on Western civilization, ushering in the era of general literacy.

Printed pictures had hardly less importance, for without them the printed book could not have replaced the work of the medieval scribe and illuminator so quickly and completely. The pictorial and the literary aspects of printing were, indeed, closely linked from the start. But where is the start? When, and by whom, was printing invented? The beginnings of the story— which will be told here in barest outline—lie in the ancient Near East 5,000 years ago. Mechanically speaking, the Sumerians were the earliest "printers,' for their relief impressions on clay from stone seals were carved with both pictures and inscriptions. From Mesopotamia the use of seals spread to India and eventually to China. The Chinese applied ink to their seals in order to impress them on wood or silk, and, in the second century A.D., they invented paper. By the ninth century, they were printing pictures and books on paper from wooden blocks carved in relief, and 200 years later they developed movable type. Some of the products of Chinese printing surely reached the medieval West—through the Arabs, the Mongols, or travelers such as Marco Polo—although we lack direct evidence.

The technique of manufacturing paper, too, came to Europe from the East, and Chinese silk and porcelain were imported in small quantities from the fourteenth century on.

Paper and printing from wood blocks were both known in the West during the later Middle Ages. However, paper gained ground very slowly as a cheap alternative to parchment, while printing was used only for ornamental patterns on cloth. All the more astonishing is the development, beginning about 1400, of a printing technology that within the century surpassed that of the Far East and proved of far wider cultural importance. After 1500, in fact, no basic changes were made in this field until the Industrial Revolution.


The idea of printing pictorial designs from wood blocks onto paper seems to have originated in Northern Europe at the very end of the fourteenth century. Many of the oldest surviving examples of such prints, called woodcuts, are German, others are Flemish, and some may be French; but all show the familiar qualities of the International Style. The designs were probably furnished by painters or sculptors. The actual carving of the wood blocks, however, was done by specially trained artisans, who also produced wood blocks for textile prints. As a result, early woodcuts, such as the St. Dorothy in figure 562, have a flat, ornamental pattern. Forms are defined by simple, heavy lines, and there is little concern for three-dimensional effects, as indicated by the absence of hatching or shading. Since the outlined shapes were meant to be filled in with color, these prints often recall stained glass (compare fig. 510) more than the miniatures they replaced.

Despite their aesthetic appeal to modern eyes, we should remember that fifteenth-century woodcuts were popular art, on a level that did not attract artists of great ability until shortly before 1500. A single wood block yielded thousands of copies, to be sold for a few pennies apiece, bringing the individual ownership of pictures within everyone's reach for the first time in history. What people did with these prints is illustrated in figure 563, a detail from a Flemish Annunciation panel of about 1435, where a tattered woodcut of St. Christopher is pinned up above the mantel. Perhaps it is a hint at the Virgin's journey to Bethlehem (St. Christopher was the patron saint of travelers), but this charmingly incongruous feature must also be understood as a disguised symbol of her humility, for only the poor would have such an object on their walls.

562. St. Dorothy, ๑. 1420. Woodcut, 27 x 19 cm. Staadiche Graphische Sammlung, Munich
563. Woodcut of St. Christopher, detail from an Annunciation by JACQUES DARET (?). ๑ 1435.
Musecs Rovaux d'Art et d'Histoire, Brussels

The St. Christopher woodcut has two lines of lettering—a short prayer, presumably—at the bottom. Inscriptions of this kind are often found among early woodcuts, the letters having been either added by hand or printed from the same block as the picture. Such woodcuts combining image and text were sometimes assembled into popular picture books, called block books.

But to carve lines of text backward in relief on a wooden block was a wearisome and particularly risky task—a single slip could ruin an entire page. It is little wonder, then, that printers soon had the idea of putting each letter on its own small block. Wooden movable type carved by hand worked well for letters of large size but not for small ones. Moreover, it was too expensive to use for printing long texts such as the Bible. By 1450, this problem had been solved through the introduction of metal type cast from molds, and the stage was set for book production as we know it today.



Whoever first thought of metal type probably had the aid of goldsmiths to work out the technical production problems. This is all the more likely since many goldsmiths had already entered the field of printmaking as engravers. The technique of embellishing metal surfaces with engraved pictures was developed in classical antiquity (see fig. 237) and continued to be practiced throughout the Middle Ages (see fig. 441, where the engraved lines are filled in with enamel). Thus no new skill was required to engrave a plate that was to serve as the "matrix" for a paper print.

The idea of making an engraved print apparently came from the desire for an alternative, more refined and flexible, to woodcuts. In a woodcut, lines are ridges left by gouging out the block; hence, the thinner they are, the more difficult to carve. In an engraving, lines are V-shaped grooves incised with a tool (called a burin) into a metal plate, usually copper, which is relatively soft and easy to work, so that they are much more refined and flexible. The subsequent printing is done by rubbing ink into the grooves, wiping off the surface of the plate, covering it with a damp sheet of paper, and putting it through the press.

Engravings appealed from the first to a smaller and more sophisticated public. The oldest examples we know, dating from about 1430, already show the influence of the great Flemish painters. Their forms are systematically modeled with fine hatched lines and often convincingly foreshortened. Nor do engravings share the anonymity of early woodcuts. Individual hands can be distinguished almost from the beginning, dates and initials appear shortly, and most of the important engravers of the last third of the fifteenth century are known to us by name. Even though the early engravers were usually goldsmiths by training, their prints are so closely linked to local painting styles that we may determine their geographic origin far more easily than for woodcuts. Especially in the Upper Rhine region, we can trace a continuous tradition of fine engravers from the time of Conrad Witz to the end of the century.


The most accomplished of these is Martin Schongauer (c. 1430-1491), the first printmaker whom we also know as a painter, and the first to gain international fame. Schongauer might be called the Rogier van der Weyden of engraving. After learning the goldsmith's craft in his father's shop, he must have spent considerable time in Flanders, for he shows a thorough knowledge of Rogier's art. His prints are filled with Rogierian motifs and expressive devices and reveal a deep temperamental affinity to the great Fleming. Yet Schongauer had his own impressive powers of invention. His finest engravings have a complexity of design, spatial depth, and richness of texture that make them fully equivalent to panel paintings. In fact, lesser artists often found inspiration in them for large-scale pictures.

The Temptation of St. Anthony (fig. 564), one of Schongauer's most famous works, masterfully combines savage expressiveness and formal precision, violent movement and ornamental stability. The longer we look at it, the more we marvel at its range of tonal values, the rhythmic beauty of the engraved line, and the artist's ability to render every conceivable surface—spiky, scaly, leathery, furry—by varying the burin's attack upon the plate. He was not to be surpassed by any later engraver in this respect.

564. SCHONGAUER. The Temptation of St. Anthony.
. 1480-90. Engraving, 29.2 x 21.8 cm.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


For originality of conception and technique, Schongauer had only one rival among the printmakers of his time, the Master of the House-book (so called after a book of drawings attributed to him).

Although he was probably of Dutch origin, he seems to have spent most of his career, from about 1475 to 1490, in the Rhineland. The very individual style of this artist is the opposite of Schongauer's. His prints—such as the Holy Family by the Rosebush (fig. 565)—are small, intimate in mood, and spontaneous, almost sketchy, in execution.

Even his tools were different from the standard engraver's equipment. Instead of submitting to the somewhat impersonal discipline demanded by the burin, the Master of the House-book scratched his designs into the copperplate with a fine steel needle. This technique, known as drypoint, permitted him to draw almost as freely as if he were working with a pen on a sheet of paper. The needle, of course, did not cut grooves as deep as those made by the burin, so that a drypoint plate wore out after yielding a relative handful of impressions, whereas an engraved plate lasted through hundreds of printings. But the drypoint technique preserved the artist's personal "handwriting" and permitted soft, atmospheric effects— velvety shadows, delicate, luminous distances—unattainable with the burin. The Master of the Housebook knew how to take full advantage of these possibilities. He was a pioneer in the use of a tool that was to become the supreme instrument of Rembrandt's graphic art a century and a half later.

Holy Family by the Rosebush.
. 1480-90. Drypoint, 14.2 x 11.5 cm.

Rijksprentenkabinet, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


Discuss Art

Please note: site admin does not answer any questions. This is our readers discussion only.

| privacy