The Forgotten Renaissance

Exploring the Artistic Pioneers of the North

The Renaissance. It’s every art-lover’s first stop on the tour through the history of art, and we are usually taught that the Renaissance is quintessentially Italian. So today I am going to blow your minds! After the Medieval and Byzantine periods (which you’ll find on any art timeline), we are introduced to the Renaissance. Our main man Giorgio Vasari wrote in his book Lives that it was started by Italians such as Giotto and Cimabue, but as an Italian himself, he was biased; so it falls to later art historians to uncover what was going on elsewhere.

In this post, I am going to talk about some of the pioneering artists and artworks from Northern Europe during this period. To clarify, “Northern art” was mainly produced in what we now call The Netherlands and Belgium, but at the time this area was referred to as Flanders or Holland and was called Flemish painting. Some of the paintings produced in this period were incredibly advanced for their time, and put artworks from the early Italian Renaissance to shame…

So first thing’s first- what was the Renaissance? It was basically the light at the end of the tunnel that was the dark ages. The rediscovery of Ancient Greece and Rome sparked a rebirth of interest in the ancient world, and so the arts underwent a revival. In particular, artistic technique and subject were changed almost beyond recognition. There were lots of reasons for this, but two of the most important ones were the revival of ancient mythology which influenced subject matter (this was mainly in Italy to begin with) and the invention of oil paint, which allowed artists to create paintings with incredible detail and lustre. Despite his lack of interest in northern art, Vasari did accredit the invention of oil painting to Jan van Eyck. This is only partly true – it is more likely that someone else invented the paint, and he was one of the first artists to understand and use it well.

“Some of the paintings produced in this period were incredibly advanced for their time”

Jan van Eyck was producing incredibly detail and artistically advanced paintings before Italian masters like Botticelli and Leonardo were even born. One of his most famous works is the Arnolfini Portrait, which you can read my post about here! He often worked with his brother, Hubert van Eyck, and together they produced some of the most highly regarded paintings ever created. ‘The Ghent Altarpiece’ is a true masterpiece, and is also known as ‘Adoration of the Majestic Lamb’. Since its creation in 1432, it has come to be known as one of the most stolen artworks of all time. It was stolen by Napoleon, nearly destroyed by the Calvinists, and highly sought after by the Nazis. During the Second World War, it was stored in a salt mine, causing massive damage.

The painting is a breathtaking example of Netherlandish painting and the subjects range from nude portraits, soldiers on horseback, choirs, peasants, disciples and of course, Christ. The colours are vivacious and vibrant, and the early use of oil paint has paid off to leave a strong and luminous lustre to this day. There are many examples of still lifes throughout the polyptych, featuring a jeweled crown, and organ and an intricately carved song sheet stand. The painting is also a fantastic example of detailed landscapes included in early Northern painting, and it stretches from rolling fields to rambling cities. Perhaps the most astounding feature of the Ghent Altarpiece is the unbelievably high-quality realism. It is photo-like, with each individual face expressing a different emotion, to the incredible jewelled cloaks worn by Christ, the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. To find out more about this intriguing and enigmatic work of art, click here.

“Paintings of St Jerome became less focused on religion, leaving a painting that was nearly entirely focused on landscape”

One of my favorite genres of art is landscape, and I’ll let you guess where this was invented… you got it, not Italy. In fact, the development of landscape was a slow process, which mainly begun scenes of St Jerome in the Wilderness. Art was mainly commissioned for religious purposes, but this subject allowed artists to explore the background in more detail. Gradually, the subject of St Jerome got smaller and smaller, to be left with a painting that was nearly entirely focused on landscape. You can see this development in the paintings below, from Giovanni di Niccolo Mansueti 1460, Lorenzo Lotto 1506, and Joachim Patinir 1517. Early artists sometimes produced sketches of landscapes, probably to use in religious paintings, but the first example of a completed oil painting with no meaning other than the celebration of the landscape was Albrecht Altdorfer’s ‘Landscape with a Footbridge’, 1516. It is a fairly unremarkable painting, but it is a true milestone in the history of art, and was pioneered in the Netherlands.

“Without the advanced developments of the North, the Italian Renaissance would never have been what we know it as today”

Pieter Bruegel the Elder lived from c.1525 to 1569 in a period known as the High Renaissance. One of the most famous artists of the Renaissance, he lived in an area known as Brabant, which today is known as Belgium and the Netherlands. He was one of the pioneering artists of the Dutch Golden Age, which saw the Netherlands develop in industry, science, military and arts. The Golden Age also saw artists such as Vermeer, Ruisdael, and Rembrandt.

Bruegel is known for his role in the development of Genre paintings (one of the five traditional art genres), which predominantly features scenes of peasant life, and also still life, landscape and religious painting. The artist had a very distinctive, almost cartoon-like style and he used this to capture scenes of Netherlandish life. This can be seen in some of his most famous works such as ‘Peasant Wedding’, 1566–1567 and ‘Hunters in the Snow’, 1565.

I hope this list has helped to show that the Renaissance was more than Leonardo, Michelangelo and Botticelli. Without the advanced developments that occurred in The Netherlands and Belgium, the Italian Renaissance would never have been what we know it as today. The Italian masters have predecessors such as van Eyck and Bruegel to thank for their success! From oil painting itself, to the invention of landscape and incredibly detailed artistic technique, Northern Europe should not be forgotten as a key part of the Renaissance. Next time you’re in a gallery, spare a thought for the masters of the Dutch Golden Age and the forgotten Flemish painters, without who, who knows where art would be today!

Thanks for reading!

The Art Wanderer

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