North of the Alps, most fifteenth-century artists remained
indifferent to Italian forms and ideas. Since the time of the Master of
Flemalle and the Van Eycks they had looked to Flanders, rather than to
Tuscany, for leadership. This relative isolation ended suddenly toward
the year 1500. As if a dam
had burst, Italian influence flowed northward in an ever wider stream,
and Northern Renaissance art began to replace the "Late Gothic." That
term, however, has a tar less well-defined meaning than "Late Gothic,"
which refers to a single, clearly recognizable stylistic tradition. The
diversity of trends north of the Alps is even greater than in Italy
during the sixteenth century. Nor does Italian influence provide a
common denominator, for this influence is itself diverse: Early
Renaissance, High Renaissance, and Mannerist, all are to be found in
regional variants from Lombardy, Venice, Florence, and Rome. Its
effects, too, vary greatly. They may be superficial or profound, direct
or indirect, specific or general.
The "Late Gothic" tradition remained very much alive, if no longer
dominant, and its encounter with Italian art resulted in a kind of
Hundred Years' War among styles that ended only when the Baroque emerged
as an international movement in the early seventeenth century. The full
history of this "war" is yet to be written. Its major issues are hard to
trace through all the battles, truces, and shifting alliances. Its
course, moreover, was decisively affected by the Reformation, which had
a far more immediate impact on art north of the Alps than in Italy. Our
account, then, must be oversimplified, emphasizing the heroic phases of
the struggle at the expense of the lesser, but in the long run equally
Let us begin with Germany, the home of the Reformation, where the
main battles of the "war of styles" took place during the first quarter
of the century. Between
it had produced such important masters as Michael Pacher and Martin
Schongauer (see figs. 560, 561,
but they hardly prepare us for the astonishing burst of creative energy
that was to follow. The range of achievements of this period, which was
comparable in its brevity and brilliance to the Italian High
Renaissance, is measured by the contrasting personalities of its
Matthias Grunewald and
Durer. Both died in
1528, probably at about
the same age, although we know only Durer's birth date
(1471). Durer quickly became
internationally famous, while
Grunewrald, who was born about 1470-80, remained so
obscure that his real name, Mathis Gothart Nithart, was discovered only
at the end of the nineteenth century.
Grunewald's fame, like that of El Greco, has developed
almost entirely within our own century. His main work, the
Altarpiece, is unique in the Northern art of his time in its ability
to overwhelm us with something like the power of the Sistine Ceiling.
Long believed to be by Durer, it was painted between
1515 for the monastery church of
the Order of St. Anthony at Isenheim, in Alsace, and is now in the
museum of the nearby town of Colmar.
This extraordinary altarpiece is a carved shrine with two sets ot
movable wings, which give it three stages, or "views." The first of
these views, formed when all the wings are closed, shows The
Crucifixion (fig. 709)—the
most impressive ever painted. In one respect it is very medieval.
Christ's terrible agony and the desperate grief of the Virgin, St. John,
and Mary Magdalen recall the older German Andachtsbild (see fig.
But the pitiful body
on the Cross with its twisted limbs, its countless lacerations, its
rivulets of blood, is on a heroic scale that raises it beyond the human
and thus reveals the two natures of Christ. The same message is conveyed
by the flanking figures. The three historic witnesses on the left mourn
Christ's death as a man, while John the Baptist, on the right, points
with calm emphasis to Him as the Saviour. Even the background suggests
this duality. Golgotha here is not a hill outside Jerusalem, but a
mountain towering above lesser peaks. The Crucifixion, lifted from its
familiar setting, thus becomes a lonely event silhouetted against a
deserted, ghostly landscape and a blue-black sky. Darkness is over the
land, in accordance with the Gospel, yet brilliant light bathes the
foreground with the force of sudden revelation. This union of time and
eternity, of reality and symholism, gives Grunewald's Crucifixion its awesome grandeur.
When the outer wings are opened, the mood of the Isenheim
Altarpiece changes dramatically (fig.
All three scenes in this second view—the
Annunciation, the Angel Concert for the Madonna and Child, and the Resurrection (fig.
celebrate events as jubilant in spirit as the Crucifixion is austere.
Most striking in comparison with "Late Gothic" painting is the sense of
the movement pervading these panels. Everything
twists and turns as though it had a life of its own. The angel of the
Annunciation enters the room like a gust of wind that blows the Virgin
backward, and the Risen Christ shoots from His grave with explosive
force, while the canopy over the Angel Concert seems to writhe in
response to the divine music. This vibrant energy is matched by the
ecstatic vision of heavenly glory in celebration of Christ's birth, seen
behind the Madonna and Child, who are surely the most tender and lyrical
in all of Northern art. In contrast to the brittle, spiky contours and
angular drapery patterns of "Late Gothic" art,
Grunewald's forms are
soft, elastic, fleshy. His light and color show a corresponding change.
Commanding all the resources of the great Flemish masters, he employs
them with extraordinary boldness and flexibility. His color scale is
richly iridescent, its range matched only by the Venetians. Indeed, his
exploitation of colored light is altogether without parallel at that
time. Griinewald's genius has achieved miracles through light that were
never to be surpassed in the luminescent angels of the Concert, the
apparition of God the Father and the Heavenly Host above the Madonna,
and, most spectacularly, the rain-bow-hued radiance of the Risen Christ.
How much did
Grunewald owe to Italian art? Nothing at all, we are
first tempted to say, yet he must have learned from the Renaissance in
more ways than one. His knowledge of perspective 'note the low horizons)
and the physical vigor of some of his figures cannot be explained by the
"Late Gothic" tradition alone, and occasionally his pictures show
architectural details of Southern origin. Perhaps the most important
effect of the Renaissance on him, however, was psychological. We know
little about his career, but he apparently did not lead the settled life
of a craftsman-painter controlled by guild rules. He was also an
architect, an engineer, something of a courtier, and an entrepreneur.
Moreover, he worked for many different patrons and stayed nowhere for
very long. He was in sympathy with Martin Luther even though as a
painter he depended on Catholic patronage.
In a word,
Grunewald seems to have shared the free, individualistic
spirit of Italian Renaissance artists. The daring of his pictorial
vision likewise suggests a reliance on his own resources. The
Renaissance, then, had a liberating influence on him but did not change
the basic cast of his imagination. Instead, it helped him to epitomize
the expressive aspects of the "Late Gothic" in a style of unique
intensity and individuality.
Matthias Grunewald. The Crucifixion,
from the Isenheim Altarpiece (closed), ñ.
1510-15. Oil on panel, 2.69
x 3.41 m.
Musee Unterlinden, Colmar, France
Matthias Grunewald. The Annunciation:
Virgin and Child with Angels; The Resurrection.
Second view of the Isenheim Altarpiece.
Oil on panel, each wing
2.69 x 1.42
m; center panel 2.69
x 3.41 m.
Musee Unterlinden, Colmar, France
Matthias Grunewald. The Resurrection,
from second view of the Isenheim Altarpiece
the Renaissance held a richer meaning. Attracted to
Italian art while still a young journeyman, he visited Venice in
1494/5 and returned to his native
Nuremberg with a new conception of the world and the artist's place in
it. The unbridled fantasy of Grunewald's art was to him "a wild,
unpruned tree" (a phrase he used for painters who worked by rules of
thumb, without theoretical foundations) that needed the discipline of
the objective, rational standards of the Renaissance. Taking the Italian
view that the fine arts belong among the liberal arts, he also adopted
the ideal of the artist as a gentleman and humanistic scholar. By steadily
cultivating his intellectual interests he came to encompass in his
lifetime an unprecedented variety of subjects and techniques. And since
he was the greatest printmaker of the time, he had a wide influence on sixteenth-century art through his woodcuts and engravings, which
circulated everywhere in Europe.
Durer made copies after Mantegna and other Early Renaissance
masters that display his eager and intuitive grasp of the essentials of
their alien style. Even more astonishing are his watercolors painted on
the way back from Venice, such as the one inscribed "Italian Mountains"
712). Significantly, Durer did
not record the name of the spot; the specific location had no interest
for him. The title he jotted down seems exactly right, for this is not a
"portrait," but a "study from the model" perceived in timeless
freshness. The calm rhythm of this panorama of softly rounded slopes
conveys a view of nature in its organic wholeness that was matched in
those years only by Leonardo's landscapes (compare the background in the
Durer. Italian Mountains,
c. 1495 or
Brush drawing in watercolor, 21 x
After the breadth and lyricism of the Italian Mountains, the
expressive violence is doubly shocking in the woodcuts illustrating the
Apocalypse, Durer's most ambitious graphic work of the years following
his return from Venice. The gruesome vision of The Four Horsemen
(fig. 713) seems at first
to return completely to the "Late Gothic" world of Martin Schongauer's
Temptation of St. Anthony (see fig.
Yet the physical energy and solid, full-bodied
volume of these figures would have been impossible without Durer's
earlier experience in copying the works of such artists as Mantegna
(compare fig. 628). At
Durer's style has much in common with Grunewald's. The
comparison with Schongauer, however, is instructive from another point
of view. It shows how thoroughly Durer has redefined his medium—the
woodcut—by enriching it
with the linear subtleties of engraving. In his hands, woodcuts lose
their former charm as popular art (see fig.
but gain the precise articulation of a fully
matured graphic style. He set a standard that soon transformed the
technique of woodcuts all over Europe.
The first artist to be fascinated by his own image, Durer was in this
respect more of a Renaissance personality than any Italian artist. His
earliest known work, a drawing made at 13,
is a self-portrait, and he continued to produce
self-portraits throughout his career. Most impressive, and uniquely
revealing, is the panel of 1500
(fig. 714). Pictorially,
it belongs to the Flemish tradition (compare Jan van Eyck's Man in a
Red Turban; fig. 546),
but the solemn, frontal pose and the Christlike
idealization of the features assert an authority quite beyond the range
of ordinary portraits. The picture looks, in fact, like a secularized
icon, reflecting not so much
Durer's vanity as the seriousness with
which he regarded his mission as an artistic reformer. (One thinks of
Martin Luther's "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise.")
Durer. The Four Horsemen of
39.3 x 28.3
cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
1500. Oil on panel, 66.3 x
Alte Pinakothek, Munich
The didactic aspect of
Durer's art is clearest perhaps in the
engraving Adam and Eve of 1504
where the biblical subject serves as a pretext for the
display of two ideal nudes: Apollo and Venus in a Northern forest
(compare figs. 207 and
209). No wonder they look
somewhat out of place. Unlike the picturesque setting and its animal
inhabitants, Adam and Eve are not observed from life, but constructed
according to what Durer believed to be perfect proportions. Here, for
the first time, both the form and the substance of the Italian
Renaissance enter Northern art, but adapted to the unique cultural
climate of Germany. That is why his ideal male and female figures,
though very different from their classical exemplars, were to become
models in their own right to countless Northern artists.
The same approach, now applied to the body of a horse, is evident in
Knight, Death, and Devil (fig.
one of the artist's finest prints. This time,
however, there is no incongruity. The knight on his beautiful mount,
poised and confident as an equestrian statue, embodies an ideal both
aesthetic and moral. He is the Christian Soldier steadfast on the road
of faith toward the Heavenly Jerusalem, undeterred by the hideous
horseman threatening to cut him off or the grotesque devil behind him.
The dog, another symbol of virtue, loyally follows his master despite
the lizards and skulls in his path. Italian Renaissance form, united
with the heritage of "Late Gothic" symbolism (whether open or
disguised), here takes on a new, characteristically Northern
Durer's convictions were essentially those of Christian humanism. He
seems to have derived the subject of Knight, Death, and Devil
from the Manual of the Christian Soldier by Erasmus of Rotterdam,
the greatest of Northern humanists. It is the first of three engravings
that were probably conceived as a unified program, as Durer often sold
them as a set. Taken together, they are an unusually personal statement.
A St. Jerome in His Study complements the knight of action, who
carries his faith into the world, with one who pursues it through
The last of the trilogy, Melancholia I (fig.
717), is the very antithesis of
the other two. One of the four temperaments, she holds the tools of
geometry, yet is surrounded by chaos. She thinks but cannot act, while
the infant scrawling on the slate, who symbolizes Practical Knowledge,
can act but not think. This is, then, the melancholia of an artist,
Durer himself. He cannot achieve perfect beauty, which is known
only to God, because he cannot extend his thinking beyond the limits of
space and the physical world. The conception of this disturbing image
comes from the humanist Marsilio Ficino, who .esteemed melancholia (to
which he was himself subject) as the source of divine inspiration. He
tied it to Saturn, the Mind of the World, which, as the oldest and
highest of the planets, he deemed superior even to Jupiter, the Soul of
the World. It is evident, however, that in contrasting the
ineffectiveness of Melancholia, who derives her tools from Saturn, to
the spiritual achievements of the knight and saint, Durer asserts the
superiority of faith over reason.
715. ALBRECHT DURLR. Adam and Eve.
1504. Engraving, 25.2
x 19.4 cm.
Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Durer. Knight, Death, and
Devil. 1513. Engraving, 25.2 x
Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Melancholia I. 1514. Engraving,
The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Not surprisingly, Durer became an early and enthusiastic follower of
Martin Luther, although, like Grunewald, he continued to work for
Catholic patrons. His new faith can be sensed in the growing austerity
of style and subject in his religious works after 1520. The climax of this trend is
represented by The Four Apostles (fig. 718),
paired panels containing what has rightly been termed
Durer's artistic testament.
Durer presented the panels in 1526
to the city of Nuremberg, which had joined the Lutheran
camp the year before. The chosen apostles are basic to Protestant
doctrine: John and Paul face one another in the foreground, with Peter
and Mark behind. Quotations from their writings, inscribed below in
Luther's translation, warn the city government not to mistake human
error and pretense for the will of God. They plead against Catholics and
ultrazealous Protestant radicals alike. But in another, more universal
sense, the figures represent the Four Temperaments and, by implication, the other cosmic quartets—the
seasons, the elements, the times of day, and the ages of man—encircling,
like the cardinal points of the compass, the Deity who is at the
invisible center of this "triptych." In keeping with their role, the
apostles have a cubic severity and grandeur such as we have not
encountered since Masaccio and Piero della Francesca. That the style of
The Four Apostles has evoked the names of these great Italians is
no coincidence, for Durer devoted a good part of his last years to the
theory of art, including a treatise on geometry based on a thorough
study of Piero della Francesca's discourse on perspective.
Durer. The Four Apostles.
Oil on panel,
each 216 x
Alte Pinakothek, Munich
Lucas Cranach the Elder.(1472-1553),
also tried to cast Luther's doctrines into visual form,
but created no viable tradition. On his way to Vienna around
1500, Cranach had probably
visited Durer in Nuremberg. In any event, he fell early on under the
influence of Durer's work, which he turned to for inspiration
throughout his career but invested with a highly individual expression.
In 1504 Cranach left
Vienna for Wittenberg, then a center of humanist learning. There he
became court painter to Frederick the Wise of Saxony, as well as a close
friend of Martin Luther, who even served as godfather to one of his
hope for a monumental art embodying the Protestant faith remained
unfulfilled. Other German painters, notably
Lucas Cranach the Elder
Like Grunewald and Durer, Cranach relied on Catholic
patronage, but some of his altars have a Protestant content; ironically,
they lack the fervor of those he painted before his conversion. Such
efforts were doomed, since the spiritual leaders of the Reformation
looked upon them with indifference or, more often, outright hostility,
even though Luther himself seems to have tolerated some religious art. Cranach is best remembered today for his portraits and his
delightfully incongruous mythological scenes. In The Judgment of
Parts (fig. 719),
nothing could be less classical than the three coquettish damsels, whose
wriggly nakedness fits the Northern background better than does the
nudity of Durer's Adam and hue. Paris is a German knight clad in
fashionable armor, indistinguishable from the nobles at the court of
Saxony who were the artist's patrons. The playful eroticism, small size,
and precise, miniaturelike detail of the picture make it plainly a
collector's item, attuned to the tastes of a provincial aristocracy.
Cranach's contribution lies above all in the handling of the
landscape, which lends
Durer's naturalism a lively fantasy through the
ornate treatment of forms, such as the crinkly vegetation. Cranach had
formulated this manner soon after arriving in Vienna. It played a
critical role in the formation of the Danube School, which culminated in
Albrecht Altdorfer (c. 1480-1538),
a somewhat younger artist who spent most of his career
Lucas Cranach the Elder.
Judgment of Paris.
1530. Oil on panel,
As remote from the classic ideal, but far more impressive,
Battle of Issus (fig. 720).
Without the text on the tablet suspended in the
sky and the inscriptions on the banners, we could not possibly identify
the subject, Alexander's victory over Darius. The artist has tried to
follow ancient descriptions of the actual number and kind of combatants
in the battle. To accomplish this, he adopts a bird's-eye view, so that
the two protagonists are lost in the antlike mass of their own armies. (Contrast the Hellenistic representation of the
same subject in fig. 220.)
Moreover, the soldiers' armor and the fortified town in the distance
are unmistakably of the sixteenth century. The picture might well show
some contemporary battle, except for one feature: the spectacular sky,
with the sun triumphantly breaking through the clouds and "defeating"
the moon. The celestial drama above a vast Alpine landscape, obviously
correlated with the human contest below, raises the scene to the cosmic level.
This is strikingly similar to the vision of the Heavenly Host above the
Virgin and Child in the Isenheim Altarpiece (see fig.
710) by Grunewald, who influenced
Altdorfer earlier in his career. Altdorfer may indeed be viewed as a
later, and lesser, Grunewald. Although Altdorfer, too, was an architect,
well acquainted with perspective and the Italian stylistic vocabulary,
his paintings show the unruly imagination already familiar from the work
of the older master. But Altdorfer is also unlike Grunewald: he makes
the human figure incidental to its spatial setting, whether natural or
architectural. The tiny soldiers of The Battle oflssus have their
counterpart in his other late pictures, and he painted at least one
landscape with no figures at all—the
earliest "pure" landscape we know of since antiquity. (Durer's sketch,
Italian Mountains, fig.
after all, is not a finished work of art.)
apprentice of Durer spent much of his career in Strasbourg, which is not
far from Isenheim and, like Nuremberg and Wittenberg, was a center of
humanism. Yet he was fascinated above all with the magical and the
demonic, which exemplify the dark side of the Renaissance. Humanism and
the occult may be viewed as two sides of the same coin. Since the late
thirteenth century, humanists had been nearly as interested in the
treatises of the ancients on magic as in their literature and learning.
In fact, the key text of Renaissance magic, the Corpus Hermeticum,
was translated by the humanist Marsilio Ficino. But whereas the
occult only rarely makes an appearance in Italian art, it was the object
of continuing fascination in the North. Nowhere is this better seen than
in Baldung Grien's Death and the Maiden (fig.
Albrecht Altdorfer. The Battle of
Oil on panel,
Hans Baldung Grien.
fantastic landscape partakes of the imaginative qualities to be found in
Hans Baldung Grien
Clearly based on Durer's Eve (see fig.
she is the personification of Vanitas, signifying
the triumph of Death over Beauty. The Three Ages of Man—infancy,
adulthood, old age—are
repeated in the mirror, where three heads stare out at the young woman,
who nevertheless examines her features serenely.
The painting epitomizes the prophetic and demonic powers of the
convex mirror. In antiquity, mirrors had often served as attributes of
goddesses and sometimes of mortal women, such as brides. The motif of a
woman contemplating her beauty reappeared in Gothic cycles of the Vices
and Virtues. This moralizing tradition was revived after
1500 as part of a widespread
renewal of Gothic piety and mysticism during the Reformation. It was
closely linked in turn to resurgent occultism at a time when rationalism
seemed inadequate to explain the world. Because of their association
with light, mirrors have often had mystical connotations throughout
history, and reflected images were widely valued for their revelatory
power. At the same time, supernatural qualities were attributed to them
in folklore as a means of effecting hexes and other forms of black
Initially the convex mirror expressed the "Late Gothic" fascination
with the visible world, as we have seen in Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini
Portrait (fig. 547),
which was painted within a few decades after mirrors began to be
manufactured from polished metal. After 1500
the convex mirror came to be used almost
exclusively as a Vanitas symbol, due to its extreme distortions, which
heighten visionary reality; this, too, had its origin in another work by
Baldung Grien's painting, the characteristic image soon became a
nude woman holding a convex mirror. It is used to convey a tragic vision
of life to chilling effect through the striking contrast between the
sensual nude and the grinning corpse, who holds an hourglass above her
head as the horrified man vainly tries to stay Death's hand.
Hans Baldung Grien.
Death and the
1510. Oil on panel, 40 x 32.4
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
(1497—1543), the one painter of
whom this is not true, confirms the general rule. He was born and raised
in Augsburg, a center of international commerce in southern Germany
particularly open to Renaissance ideas, but left at the age of
18 for Switzerland. By
1520, he was firmly established
in Basel as a designer of woodcuts, a splendid decorator, and an
incisive portraitist. His likeness of Erasmus of Rotterdam (fig.
painted soon after the
famous author had settled in Basel, gives us a truly memorable image of
Renaissance man. Intimate yet monumental, this doctor of humane letters
has an intellectual authority formerly reserved for the doctors of the
Gifted though they were, Cranach and Altdorfer both evaded
the main challenge of the Renaissance so bravely faced, if not always
mastered, by Durer: the human image. Their style, antimonumental and
miniaturelike, set the pace for dozens of lesser masters. Perhaps the
rapid decline of German art after Durer's death was due to a failure of
ambition among artists and patrons alike. The career of
Holbein the Younger
Holbein must have felt confined in Basel, for in
1523-24 he traveled to France,
apparently intending to offer his services to Francis I. Two years
later, Basel was in the throes of the Reformation crisis, and he went to
England, hoping for commissions at the court of Henry VIII. (Erasmus,
recommending him to Thomas More, wrote: ''Here [in Basel] the arts are out in the
cold.") On his return to Basel in 1528,
he saw fanatical Protestant mobs destroying religious
images as "idols." Despite
the entreaties of the city council, Holbein departed for London four
years later. He went back to Basel only once, in
1538, while traveling on the Continent as court
painter to Henry VIII. The council made a last attempt to keep Holbein
at home, but he had become an artist of international fame to whom Basel
now seemed provincial indeed.
Holbein's style, too, had gained an international flavor. His
portrait of Henry VIII (fig.
723) has the rigid
frontality of Durer's self-portrait (see fig.
714), but its purpose is to convey the almost
divine authority of the absolute ruler. The monarch's physical bulk
creates an overpowering sensation of his ruthless, commanding presence.
The portrait of the king shares with Bronzino's Eleanora of Toledo
(see fig. 682) the
immobile pose, the air of unapproachability, and the precisely rendered
costume and jewels. Holbein's picture, unlike Bronzino's, does not yet
reflect the Mannerist ideal of elegance, but both clearly belong to the
same species of court portrait.
Holbein the Younger.
c. 1523. Oil on panel,
Musee du Louvre, Paris
Holbein the Younger.
1540. Oil on panel,
Galleria Nazionale l'Arte Antica, Rome
The link between the two may lie in such French works as
Francois Clouet's Francis I (fig.
724), which Holbein could have
seen on his travels. The type
evidently was coined at the royal court of France, where its ancestry can be traced back as far as Jean Fouquet
(see fig. 556). It gained
international currency between 1525
and 1550 as reflecting a new aristocratic ideal.
Although Holbein's pictures molded British taste in aristocratic
portraiture for decades, he had no English disciples of real talent. The
Elizabethan genius was more literary and musical than visual, and the
demand for portraits in the later sixteenth century continued to be
filled largely by visiting foreign artists.(1547-1619), a
goldsmith who also specialized in miniature portraits on parchment, tiny
keepsakes often worn by their owners as jewelry. These "portable
portraits" had been invented in antiquity (see fig.
297) and were revived in the
fifteenth century (see fig. 558).
Holbein, too, produced miniature portraits, which
Hilliard acknowledged to be his model. We see this link with the older
master in the even lighting and meticulous detail of A Young Man
but the elongated proportions and the pose of languorous grace come from
Italian Mannerism, probably via Fontainebleau (compare fig.
696). Our lovesick youth also
strikes us as the descendant of the fashionable attendants at the court
of the duke of Berry (see fig. 538).
We can imagine him besieging his lady with sonnets and
madrigals before presenting her with this exquisite token of devotion.
The most notable English painter of the period was Nicholas
Francois Clouet. Francis I.
Tempera and oil on panel, 96
Musee du Louvre, Paris
Hilliard. A Young Man Among
c. 1588. Oil on
parchment, shown at actual size, 13.7
Albert Museum, London
The Netherlands in the sixteenth century had the most turbulent and
painful history of any country north of the Alps. When the Reformation
began, they were part ol the far-flung empire of the Hapsburgs under
Charles V, who was also king of Spain. Protestantism quickly became
powerful in the Netherlands, and the attempts of the crown to suppress
it led to open revolt against foreign rule. After a bloody struggle, the
northern provinces (today's Holland) emerged at the end of the century
as an independent state, while the southern ones (roughly corresponding to modern Belgium) remained in Spanish hands.
The religious and political strife might have had catastrophic
effects on the arts, yet this, astonishingly, did not happen. The art of
the period, to be sure, does not equal that of the fifteenth in
brilliance, nor did it produce any pioneers of the Northern Renaissance
comparable to Durer and Holbein. This region absorbed Italian elements
more slowly than Germany, but more steadily and systematically, so that
instead of a few isolated peaks of achievement we find a continuous
their most troubled time, the Netherlands
produced the major painters of Northern Europe, who paved the way for
the great Dutch and Flemish masters of the next century.
Two main concerns, sometimes separate, sometimes interwoven,
characterize Netherlandish sixteenth-century painting: to assimilate
Italian art from Raphael to Tintoretto (albeit in an often dry and
didactic manner), and to develop a repertory supplementing, and
eventually replacing, the traditional religious subjects.
When Flanders passed from Burgundy to Spain
1482, Antwerp, with its
deep harbor, superseded Ghent and Bruges as the political, commercial,
and artistic capital of the Netherlands. Flemish artists spent the next
quarter-century largely imitating earlier Netherlandish painting. Then,
around 1507, we find two
important new developments. "Antwerp Mannerism" is the misleading label
applied to the largely anonymous school of painters which first arose in
that city. Their preference for elongated forms, decorative surfaces,
and arbitrary space seems to reassert Late Gothic tendencies, although
the similarities are superficial at best. Actually, the style bore no
direct relation to either the Renaissance or Mannerism in Italy. Still,
the term is not without foundation. It suggests the peculiar flavor of
their work, for it represented a "mannered" response to the "classics"
by |an van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, and their successors. Almost
simultaneously, a second group of Netherlandish artists, the so-called
Romanists, began to visit Italy in the wake of Albrecht Durer and
returned home with the latest tendencies. The preceding generation of
Flemish painters had already shown a growing interest in Renaissance art
and humanism, but none ventured below the Alps, so that they assimilated
both at second hand.
his hometown), was also the first to travel south. In
1508 he accompanied Philip of
Burgundy to Italy, where the Renaissance and antiquity made a deep
impression on him. He nevertheless viewed this experience through
characteristically Northern eyes. Except for their greater
monumentality, his religious subjects were based on fifteenth-century
Netherlandish art, and he often found it easier to assimilate Italian
classicism through the intermediary of Durer's prints. Danae
(fig. 726), painted toward
the end of Gossaert's career, is his most thoroughly Italianate work. In
true humanist fashion, the subject of Jupiter's seduction of the mortal
is treated as a pagan equivalent of the Annunciation, so that the
picture may be seen as a chaste counterpart to Correggio's Jupiter
and Io (fig. 693). The
god enters Danae's chambers, where she has been confined by her father against all suitors,
disguised as a shower of gold comparable to the miraculous stream of
light in the Merode Altarpiece (fig.
Her partial nudity notwithstanding, she appears
as modest as the Virgin in any Annunciation. Indeed, she hardly differs
in type from Gossacrt's paintings of the Madonna and Child, inspired
equally by Van Eyck and Raphael. She even wears the blue robe
traditional to Mary. The geometric perspective of the architectural
fantasy, compiled largely from Italian treatises, marks a revolution.
Never before have we encountered such a systematic treatment of space in
The greatest of the Romanists,
Jan Gossaert (c.
however, narrative painting was largely supplanted by the secular themes
that loom so large in Dutch and Flemish painting of the Baroque era:
landscape, still life, and genre (scenes of everyday life). The process was gradual—it
began around 1500 and was
not complete until 1600—and
was shaped less by the genius or individual artists than by the need to
cater to popular taste as church commissions became steadily scarcer.
(Protestant iconoclastic zeal was particularly widespread in the
Netherlands.) Still life, landscape, and genre had been part of the
Flemish tradition since the Master of Flemalle and the brothers Van
Eyck. In the Merode Altarpiece (fig.
we remember the objects grouped on the Virgin's
table and the scene of Joseph in his workshop, or think of the setting
of the Van Eyck Crucijixion (fig.
But these had remained ancillary elements,
governed by the principle of disguised symbolism and subordinated to the
devotional purpose of the whole. Now they acquired a new independence,
until they became so dominant that the religious subject could be
relegated to the background.
Jan Gossaert. Danae.
Oil on panel, 113
x 95 cm. Alte Pinakothek, Munich
Later religious art in the Netherlands
presents a fusion of Antwerp Mannerism and Romanism, which produced a
distinctive strain of Northern Mannerism that persisted until the end of
the century. After
with St. Jerome Removing the Thorn from the Lion's Paw (fig.
him as the heir of Bosch in both his treatment of nature and
choice of subject, but without the strange demonic overtones of The
Garden of Delights (sec fig. 553).
Although the landscape dominates the scene, the
rather than incidental, are central to it, both visually and iconographically. The landscape has been constructed around the hermit
in his cave, which could exist happily in another setting, whereas the
picture would be incomplete without it. St. Jerome is an allegory
of the pilgrimage of life, contrasting the way of the world with the
road to salvation through ascetic withdrawal. (Note the two pilgrims
wending their way up the hill to the right, past the lion hunt which
takes place unnoticed by them.) The church on the mountain represents
the Heavenly Jerusalem, which can be reached only by passing directly
through the hermit's cave. Like Bosch, Patinir reveals a fundamental
ambivalence toward his subject, for the vista in the background, with
its well-kept fields and tidy villages, is enchanting in its own right.
Yet, he seems to tell us, we should not be distracted lrom the path of
righteousness by these temptations.
We see the beginnings of this approach in the paintings of
Joachim Patinir (c.
is remembered today mainly as a pioneer of still lifes,
but he seems to have first painted such pictures as a sideline, until he
saw many of his altarpieces destroyed by iconoclasts. The Meat Stall
728), done a
before he moved from Antwerp to Amsterdam, seems at first glance to be
an essentially secular picture. The tiny, distant ligures are almost
blotted out by the avalanche of edibles in the foreground. We see
little interest here in selection or lormal arrangement. The objects,
piled in heaps or strung from poles, are meant to overwhelm us with
their sensuous reality (the panel is nearly lifesize). Here the still
life so dominates the picture that it seems independent of the religious
subject. The latter, however, is not merely a pretext to justify the
painting; it must be integral to the meaning of the scene. In the
background to the left we see the Virgin on the Flight into Egypt
dispensing charity to the faithful lined up for church, while to the
right is the prodigal son in a tavern. The Northern Mannerists often
relegated subject matter to a minor position within their compositions.
This "inverted" perspective was a favorite device of Aertsen's younger
contemporary, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who treated it with mocking
intent in his landscapes. Aertsen belonged to the same ironic tradition,
reaching back to the Gothic era, whose greatest representative was the
humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam.
The Meat Stall may be an elaborate satire on the
gluttony of peasants, a favorite subject of Bruegel. Not until around
was this vision
replaced as part of a larger change in world view.
Only then did it no longer prove
necessary to include religious or historical scenes in still lifes and
727. Joachim Patinir.
Landscape with St. Jerome Removing the Thorn from the Lion's Paw.
1520. Oil on panel, 74
cm. Museo del Prado, Madrid
Aertsen. The Meat Stall.
Bruegel the Elder.
The only genius among these Netherlandish painters,
Bruegel the Elder
(1525/30-1569), explored landscape and peasant life. Although his career
was spent in Antwerp and Brussels, he may have been born near 's
Hertogenbosch, the home of Hieronymus Bosch. Certainly Bosch's work
impressed him deeply, and he is in many ways as puzzling to us as the
older master. What were his religious convictions, his political
sympathies? We know little about him, but his preoccupation with folk
customs and the daily life of humble people seems to have sprung from a
complex philosophical attitude. Bruegel was highly educated, the friend
of humanists, and patronized by the Hapsbtirg court. Yet he apparently
never worked for the Church, and when he dealt with religious subjects
he did so in a strangely ambiguous way.
His attitude toward Italian art is also hard to define. A trip to the
South in 1552-53 took him to Rome, Naples, and the Strait of Messina,
but the famous monuments admired by other Northerners seem not to have
interested him. He returned instead with a sheaf of magnificent
landscape drawings, especially Alpine views. He was probably much
impressed by landscape painting in Venice, above all its integration of
figures and scenery and the progression in space from foreground to
background (see figs. 669 and 670).
Out of this experience came such sweeping landscapes in Bruegel's mature
style as The Return of the Hunters (fig. 729), one
of a set depicting the months. Such series, we recall, had begun with
medieval calendar illustrations, and Bruegel's winter scene still shows
its descent from the February page in Les Tres Riches Heures du
Duc de Berry (see fig. 536). Now, however, nature is more
than a setting for human activities. It is the main subject of the
picture. Men and women in their seasonal occupations are incidental to
the majestic annual cycle of death and rebirth that is the breathing
rhythm of the cosmos.
Bruegel the Elder. The Return
of the Hunters. 1565.
Oil on panel, 117 x
The Peasant Wedding (fig.
is Bruegel's most memorable scene of peasant life. These
are stolid, crude folk, heavy-bodied and slow, yet their very clumsiness
gives them a strange gravity that commands our respect. Painted in flat
colors with minimal modeling and no cast shadows, the figures
nevertheless have a weight and solidity that remind us of Giotto. Space
is created in assured perspective, and the entire composition is as
monumental and balanced as that of any Italian master. Why, we wonder,
did Bruegel endow this commonplace ceremony with the solemnity of a
biblical event? Was it because he saw in the life of the peasant, free
of the ambitions and vanities of city dwellers, the natural, hence the
ideal, condition of humanity?
Bruegel the Elder. Peasant
Wedding, ñ 1565.
Oil on panel, 114 x 162.5 cm.
Bruegel's philosophical detachment from religious and political
fanaticism also informs one of his last pictures, The Blind Leading
the Blind (fig. 731).
Its source is the Gospels (Matthew 15:12-19):
Christ, speaking of the Pharisees, says, "And if
the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch." This parable
of human folly recurs in humanistic literature, and we know it in at
least one earlier representation, but the tragic depth of Bruegel's
forceful image gives new urgency to the theme. He has used continuous
narrative to ingenious effect. Each succeeding pose becomes
progressively more unstable along the downward diagonal, leaving us in
little doubt that everyone will end up in the ditch with the leader.
(The gap behind him is especially telling.) Perhaps he found the
biblical context of the parable specially relevant to his time, tor
Christ continued: "Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders
. . . blasphemies." Could
Bruegel have thought that this applied to the controversies then raging
over details of religious ritual?
Bruegel the Elder. The Blind
Leading the Blind. c.
Oil on panel, 85 x
Museo di Capodimonte,