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Art History 101 - The High Northern Renaissance

By October 29, 2006

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That which we now classify as the "Northern Renaissance" has always struck me as a bit less joyful than similar period doings down in Italy. Perhaps it was that the Italians enjoyed relatively more sun and longer hours of daylight, better wines and more abundant seasonal produce. More likely it was that they simply sidestepped the thorny idolatry issues in the visual arts that the Protestant Reformation laid upon their Northern neighbors. For whatever reason, the Italians' Renaissance art seems somehow quite celebratory. Conversely, German and Netherlandish Renaissance art is somewhat dark, almost as if it was afraid to be thought frivolous. A strong Gothic influence still pervaded and this, combined with rather dour, dire, death-is-inevitable religious proscriptions, made for an artistic style which we might now label as "Goth."

Ironically and perhaps surprisingly, the Northern Renaissance drew very heavily from the Italians. German artists, in particular, frequently headed off to Italy and spent months (or even years) moving about visiting with Italian artists and studying their techniques, themes and materials - absorbing everything, it seems, except the "fun" aspects. To learn how that towering genius, Albrecht Dürer, made three major contributions towards bringing the Northern Renaissance about, read the article "The High Northern Renaissance."


October 30, 2006 at 9:17 am
(1) Starrpoint says:

I wonder how much influence the “mini-ice age” had on the art of Northern Europe during this time. It was a harsh time for all involved, and the people and societies of Northern Europe were struggling to survive.

All society seems to have been sheading any “lightness” and getting stripped down to just survive.

October 30, 2006 at 12:30 pm
(2) gretchen says:

As an art student, the Italian Renaissance has been extremely important to me. Albrecht Durer is absolutely a master in line. I agree with Shelley. I am glad I had his examples to work with when I was in life drawing class.

November 18, 2006 at 2:15 am
(3) Sue says:

There is another way to view the Northern Renaissance. There is an attention to detail and an interest in showing all as a reflection in the belief of a world whose glory and complexity is impossible to behold in one glance (and therefore a reflection of God’s grand creation). This is an art often for contemplation. There is also a keen interest in the exploration of vision and optics (vs. strict perspective and order) and the delight and interest in the fall and play of light.
Since the greater part of the Northern Renaissance is confined to the era before the Reformation, I’m not sure we can attach as much influence on painting as is noted here. The light *is* different in the North compared to Italy. (Just as the light in Venice is often cited as the reason Venetian painting looks ‘different’.) It makes sense that the Northern artists would paint the environment as they sensed it around them (hence a bit darker).
Also, Northern artists did come to Italy and were influenced, but by Van Eyck and van der Weyden’s time, the Northern artists and their ‘ars nova’ were very much in demand and would go on to influence Italian art for a time.

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