Introduction | Painting | Sculpture | Architecture | The Northern Renaissance | Bibliography

The Northern Renaissance

Arnolfini Wedding, Jan van EyckThe Arnolfini Wedding is a wedding portrait by Jan van Eyck. One of the first works to be done in oil paint on panel, the level of detail and realism is unprecedented. The mathematical precision makes the room believably three dimensional, and the light flowing in the window adds a glow to the oil paints. Both of the subjects are dressed in the height of fashion for the time, and look completely lifelike. However, it is the smaller details that make the work so interesting. Symbols such as the fruit (fertility) and the shoes (a man's place) are scattered throughout. The purely decorative bed, especially a red one, is a symbol of passion as well. It is clear here that van Eyck is experimenting and perhaps even showing off. The furry dog, the tiny images surrounding the amazing convex mirror and the photograph-like candelabra on the ceiling are all extremely difficult to paint, but are all pulled off with ease. I really enjoy it. If not for the slightly strange looking couple, then for the small details which add personality, character and awe to an otherwise uneventful portrait. The masterful way van Eyck uses oil paints to create such objects leaves no question as to why he was one of the greatest artists who ever lived.
He is not the only amazing man to come out of this time, though. Rogier Van der Weyden, while not quite as realistic as van Eyck, was very skilled at capturing true feeling and emotion in his subjects. His works were intended to make people feel what the subjects were feeling, or to glimpse a truth within them. His influence was felt in France, Germany, Italy and Spain.
A much stranger man is Hieronymous Bosch. His works used bizarre and symbolic imagery to convey messages about morality and religion. His views were extremely pessimistic. It is unclear if his paintings were meant to stir people up, to amuse people, or to send a deeper and important message. Either way, he was very successful and received business from all over. Looking at the works of Dali today, you could say that Bosch was far ahead of his time.
Albrecht Dürer is another highly important artist. His woodcut prints made him a lot of money, and his paintings were not only amazing works of art but also windows into his mind. These prints spread across Europe and undoubtedly influenced Titian, Parmigianino and Raphael. His self-portraits also set a precedent for many later artists painting an excess of self-imagery.

Portrait of a Man

Jan van Eyck
oil on panel
25.5 x 19 cm
1433 (Renaissance)
National Gallery, London

Subject: Thought to be a self-portrait, it is at the very least an artist. This is known by the head garment, which accounts for the painting often being mistitled Man in a Turban. The accessory is in fact a chaperon. Here, it is not worn traditionally. A long 'tail' usually extends from the back of the doughnut-shaped head garment worn by many facets of society at this time. Artists, however, would tie it up to keep it from getting in the way of either the eyes or the painting itself. The look in the subject's eyes is almost glazed-over, similar to the appearance of looking at oneself in the mirror. This furthers the speculation that this piece is likely a self-portrait.

The Artists's Work: Van Eyck captures in this portrait a lot of realism, but conceals a lot of personality. Superficial elements can tell us some things about the man but there is little on a human level to enlighten us. Technically speaking, the painting is done with extreme skill. The cloth making up the chaperon is completely believable, as are the wrinkles of his aging skin. Even on aged oil paint, the skin still looks touchably smooth. This painting makes use of chiaroscuro which is an Italian word meaning light-dark. A lit subject is used in juxtaposition with dark background and surroundings to draw attention where it is deemed necessary. Here, the face is the main subject, and so the background is completely devoid of light and the outfit is very nearly the same.

First looking at this painting, I didn't think it was anything very special. No interesting background meant I was stuck having to stare at this unnamed man. After finding out it was a possible self-portrait, I began to see a new side to it. Now when I look at the face, I see a feeling of "I know something you don't know" in his eyes and mouth. He almost looks like a man trying to conceal a smile. Does he know that people will one day puzzle over his identity? It is almost Mona Lisa-like in this way. So, though the painting itself is not beautiful or stunning enough for me to have a desire to have it hanging on my wall, the mystery and interest surrounding it and evident in the corners of his mouth makes it one I could easily get lost in.

Descent of Christ from the Cross

Rogier van der Weyden
oil on oak panel
220 x 262 cm
1435 (Renaissance)
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Subject: This piece is a deposition, meaning it shows Christ being removed from the cross after his death. This scene, the 13th station of the cross, is often just as striking as scenes of the Lamentation as Christ is often clearly limp and dead. Mary is shown in extreme sorrow, as are Christ's other followers. Traditionally, depositions are painted with Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus removing Christ's crucified body from the cross. Usually, part of the humiliation and horror of crucifixion was the fact that the bodies were not removed and were left hanging to rot and be eaten. That Christ was removed is important in itself.

The Artists's Work: Commissioned by Saint George's Guild of the crossbowmen, it has an odd shape to fit a particular wall, but it is convenient for a deposition. He crowds the subjects around the cross in a way that suggests claustrophobia. This is quite a gothic notion. Many other elements are included to set the viewer at unease. First, a wall is painted behind the subjects. The deposition obviously didn't take place indoors and so the viewer, once they notice this, feels disturbed. Also, Mary and Jesus are in a very similar position. His death mirrors her grief as she swoons into the arms of St. John the Evangelist. The detail evident in the wall decor and the clothing of the onlookers shows great skill on the part of van der Weyden.

Reaction: While I appreciate the reasons for it, I don't particularly like the crowding of this work. It feels to me like a throwback to the Gothic age, and this does nothing for me. Mary's understandable pallor bothers me, and the colours all feel contrived. To me, Mary and Jesus mirror to a ridiculous extent to the point that it is distracting. Though there are many features designed to disturb the viewer, I find myself simply bored and unmoved. I suppose seeing it in real life might be more striking, but I somehow doubt it. Boring and emotionless is how I would describe the work, surely the opposite of the intended reaction I should experience.

The Garden of Earthly Delights

Hieronymus Bosch
oil on wood
220 x 389 cm
1503/4 (Renaissance)
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Subject: This piece is a triptych, meaning it is a 3-panelled, folding painting. The outside of the work shows the Earth as it is being created. God is shown in the corner and the earth is full of plant life. We open the painting and the first scene is one of the Garden of Eden. It is peaceful and harmonious. God is shown presenting Eve to Adam. Here, God is shown younger looking than the outer painting. The second panel is today's world, after the expulsion from Eden. It is fantastical and bizarre, debauched and busy. Filled with people doing strange things, it shows the path of humans to hell. Finally, the far right panel shows hell. People are crucified, beasts torture and kill, and a city in the background burns.

The Artists's Work: The largest and probably most strange of the four paintings is the central one. It is filled with nude people, both light and dark skinned, doing all sorts of odd things. They ride beasts, both fantastic and real around a pond. In the background is a lake containing a debauchery-filled sphere. Fruits are everywhere, being eaten and used strangely, often magnified. Futuristic contraptions give the painting a feeling of modern art though it is still clearly Renaissance. The leftmost panel shows a youthful looking God between Eve and Adam. He eyes her with a sinful look, and she does nothing to stop this. Bosch's pessimistic view of the world is evident here: we never had a chance, we were always doomed to fall from grace. The hell scene is more similar to the central panel, perhaps drawing parallels between our world and hell itself. Musical instruments feature heavily; at this time they were often used to symbolize sins. A pig dressed as a nun beats a man, and an eerily modern looking city burns in the background. A pair of ears wields a knife. All three panels and filled to the brim with complex symbolism which likely would have made sense to people at the time, especially those who belonged to Bosch's church, the Brotherhood of the Virgin. Unfortunately, many of the hidden meanings died with him. We can only speculate today on the meanings.

Reaction: There is so much to look at in this work that it is difficult to know where to start. The shared skyline of the first two panels provides a pleasant flow to the piece that is interrupted when we reach hell. On closer inspection, the disturbing nature of the work became clear to me. Perhaps the most creepy is the bird/lizard-like creature devouring a human headfirst. The pig nun is hardly a calming image either. Even in the panel depicting today, the perversion and lack of shame is evident. They appear to have the same attitudes as those on the Ship of Fools. Also unsettling to me is the burning image in the background of hell. The city looks like a modern bombed city. The 'tree man', who Bosch had drawn before, stares out at us and I am disinclined to stare back. Overall, the work intrigues me, but I don't like it. Looking at it, I feel a morbid curiosity as opposed to enjoyment.



Albrecht Dürer
oil on panel
52 x 41 cm
1498 (Italian Renaissance)
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Subject: This painting is one of Dürer's many self-portraits. He paints himself here with an air of confidence that was not entirely there in his earlier works. On the back wall there is an inscription. It states "Das malt ich nach meiner gestalt / Ich war sex und zwenzig Jor alt/ Albrecht Dürer" Which translates to "I painted this from my own appearance; I was twenty-six years old". By this time, he is an accomplished artist and is respected as such. Though he wears the hat of an artist, his gloves and other attire give him a courtly appearance unusual for a painter. His facial hair is also unusual for this time. When this was painted, the artist had just returned from his first trip to Italy. The background is probably the alps, or some sight from his trip. Though he does look confident, he doesn't look entirely at ease, possibly due to his religious uncertainty at this time.

The Artists's Work: The focus of the word is clearly the face and hands. The gaze of the artist is somewhat glazed as he painted it using a mirror he bought on one of his trips. However, aside from these two important parts of the painting, he gives us other things to look at. Outside, is in incredibly detailed landscape which harkens back to his watercolours. Also, his outfit is extremely detailed and interesting. Lace, rope, folds, straps and rouching all sit gently providing visual interest but do not look busy or unsettling. His golden rests on his shoulders, framing his expressive eyebrows. The style of painting portraits like these in a windowed room came from Dirk Bouts several decades earlier. Though not as striking as a very dark background, it does not take away from the personality of the subject. His body shape reflects the L-shape of the window which only increases the focus on the face and hands.

Reaction: When I first saw this piece, my reaction was immediately positive. The colours, though not bright, looked pleasant to me. His clothing, though obviously I know nothing about fashion at this time, looked somehow cool to me and I was not surprised to learn that he was representing the height of fashion for this time. The way the cape sits on his shoulder looks so natural, that it could have been a spontaneous photograph; except, of course, for the fact that he is completely posed. I also completely believe the way the fabric is folded and wrinkled. His hands, too, I was impressed with because I always have found it particularly impossible to draw realistic hands. The hair is so incredibly detailed and falls with such naturalism over his shoulders that is is hard to believe he was using a paintbrush. Effortless is a word that comes to mind as I look at him. Both his appearance and the painting seem to be pulled off with ease. If (and it's a big if) I were ever to get bored of looking at him, I could take a look out the window where Dürer has painted for us a beautiful miniature landscape. He has truly brought the best of two facets of art into one painting which is my new favourite.