Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites @ the National Gallery

This is a smallish (just 33 works) but really beautiful and uplifting exhibition.

It’s devoted to showing the influence of the northern Renaissance painter, Jan van Eyck, on the Victorian Pre-Raphaelite painters. Well, I love Northern Renaissance art and I love later Victorian art, so I was in seventh heaven.

In the mid-19th century Jan van Eyck was credited as the inventor of oil painting by the Italian painter and historian Giorgio Vasari, author of the Lives of the Great Painters (1550). We now know this not to be strictly true; a more realistic way of putting it is that Van Eyck and his contemporaries in the mid-15th century Netherlands brought oil painting to an extraordinary level of refinement and brilliance. They were the first to use multiple ‘glazes’ (building up successive layers of partly translucent paint) and to pay astonishing attention to detail, producing works which combined amazing precision and sumptuous colour, with an intoxicating sense of depth.

Van Eyck versus del Piombo

The exhibition opens with a ten-minute film (shown in a dark room off to one side) which explains the idea succinctly. In the 1840s the National Gallery only owned one work by any of the Netherlandish masters – Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding, which it acquired in 1842 when the National Gallery itself was only 18 years old.

Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife (1434) by Jan van Eyck

Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife (1434) by Jan van Eyck

At that point, the Royal Academy’s School of Art was located in the same building as the small National Gallery collection. All the art students of the day had to do was walk along a few corridors to view this stunning masterpiece. Among these art students were Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and others who went on to form the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, in 1848.

Nearby hung the very first painting acquired by the Gallery, this enormous work from the High Renaissance, The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19) by Sebastiano del Piombo. The PRBs thought that works like this had become so stylised and formalised as to have become meaningless and devoid of emotion. They disliked the artificial poses, the pious sentiments, the sickly colouring, the simplified pinks and blues and greens.

The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19) by Sebastiano del Piombo

The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19) by Sebastiano del Piombo

The raising of Lazarus typified everything the PRBs disliked in painting, a sterile academicism. Compare and contrast the van Eyck, with its precision of detail (look at the pearls hanging on the wall, the candelabra, the fur trimming of husband and wife), the humane mood and emotion, and the realistic use of light.

The PRBs rejected Piombo, Michelangelo, Raphael, all the masters of the High Renaissance and, as a group, made a concerted effort to return to the twinkling detail and humanity of medieval painting. (A trend which was helped by the medievalising tendency in Victorian culture generally, epitomised by the poetry of Tennyson, the historical novels of Scott, and which would be carried through into the Arts and craft movement by William Morris).

The appeal of the Northern Renaissance

In total the exhibitions comprises a room or so of works by van Eyck and contemporaries (Dirk Boults, Hans Memling) before three rooms look at masterpieces by the PRBs which pay homage to the Arnolfini Wedding; and a final room looks at its influence on art at the turn of the century.

Pride of place in the first room goes to van Eyck’s stunning self-portrait. For me this epitomises the strength of northern Renaissance painting in that it is humane and realistic. Unlike Italian Renaissance paintings which tend to show idealised portraits of their sitters, this presents a genuine psychological portrait. The more you look the deeper it becomes. His wrinkles, the big nose, the lashless eyelids – you feel this is a real person. For me, this has extraordinary psychological depth and veracity.

Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait) (1433) by Jan van Eyck © The National Gallery, London

Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?) (1433) by Jan van Eyck © The National Gallery, London

Near to it is a Virgin and Child by fellow northerner, Hans Memling. I love the medieval details which cling to these works, the toy sailing ship in the background such as might have been used in the Hundred Years War. Note the way there is perspective in the picture (things further away are smaller) but it is not the mathematically precise perspective which Italian Renaissance painters liked to show off. In particular the floor is set at an unrealistically sloping angle. Why? To show off the detail of the black and white tiling, and especially of the beautifully decorated carpet.

As well as the humanity of the figures and faces, it is this attachment to gorgeous detail which I love in north Renaissance art.

The Virgin and Child with an Angel, Saint George and a Donor by Hans Memling (1480) © The National Gallery, London

The Virgin and Child with an Angel, Saint George and a Donor by Hans Memling (1480) © The National Gallery, London

The convex mirror

Next we move on to the first of the Victorian homages to van Eyck and it immediately becomes clear why the exhibition is titled Reflections. The curators have identified a thread running through major early, later and post-Pre-Raphaelite paintings – use of the CONVEX MIRROR.

If you look closely at the Arnolfini Wedding, you can see not only the backs of the married couple but a figure who is usually taken to be a self-portrait of the artist. It adds an element of mystery (nobody is completely certain it is the artist in the mirror), it expands the visual space by projecting it back behind us, so to speak, and painting an image distorted on a convex surface, along with the distorted reflection of the window, is an obvious technical tour de force.

Now look at this early Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece, the Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt (1853) in which a ‘kept woman’ is suddenly stirring from the lap of the rich bourgeois who keeps her (in this instance, in a luxury apartment in St John’s Wood).

The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt (1853) © Tate, London

The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt (1853) © Tate, London

Note the sloping floor which gives full scope to a gorgeous depiction of the patterned carpet; the hyper-realistic detailing of every one of the cluttered elements in the room, for example the grain of the piano, the gilt clock on top of it, the crouching cat, which recalls the dog in the van Eyck. But behind the figures is an enormous mirror which adds a tremendous sense of depth to the main image.

Maybe it is a symbol in a painting packed with religious symbolism: maybe the window opening into sunlight and air is an allusion to the woman’s possible redemption from her life of shame.

The curators have selected works which demonstrate the way the mirror theme is repeated by all the pre-Raphaelites, famous and peripheral. Here’s an early Burne Jones watercolour where he’s experimenting with a complex mirror which consists of no fewer than seven convex mirrors each reflecting a different aspect of the main event (the capture of Rosamund by Queen Eleanor).

Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor (1862) by Sir Edward Burne-Jones © Tate, London

Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor (1862) by Sir Edward Burne-Jones © Tate, London

The exhibition explains that this type of convex mirror became highly fashionable among the PRBs and their circle. Rossetti was said to have over 20 mirrors in his house in Chelsea, including at least ten convex ones. In fact we have a painting done by his assistant Henry Treffry Dunn which shows a view of Rossetti’s own bedroom as reflected in one of his own convex mirrors.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Bedroom at Tudor House, 16 Cheyne Walk (1872) by Henry Treffry Dunn © National Trust Images/ John Hammond

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Bedroom at Tudor House, 16 Cheyne Walk (1872) watercolour by Henry Treffry Dunn © National Trust Images/ John Hammond

A generation after The Awakening Conscience Holman Hunt uses a mirror again, this time because it is part of the narrative of the influential poem by Tennyson, The Lady of Shalott. In Tennyson’s poem the eponymous lady lives her life in a high tower, shut off from real life outside, devoting her life to creating an enormous tapestry, seeing the world outside only as it is reflected in a grand mirror. One day along comes the heroic knight Sir Lancelot, the mirror cracks and the lady rises up, leaves her ivory tower and ventures out into ‘real life’.

(A relevant fable for our times, maybe, when so many of us are addicted to computer screens and digital relationships that we have coined an acronym, IRL [in real life] to depict the stuff that goes on outside the online realm.)

The Lady of Shalott (1886-1905) by William Holman Hunt © Manchester City Galleries/Bridgeman Images

The Lady of Shalott (1886-1905) by William Holman Hunt © Manchester City Galleries / Bridgeman Images

Note the wooden sandals or ‘pattens’ on the floor which are a direct quote from the Arnolfini Wedding, as is the candelabra on the right.

This painting is hanging in a room devoted to the story of the Lady of Shalott since, obviously enough, the mirror plays a central part in the narrative, and so gave painters an opportunity to explore ideas of distortion, doubling and reflection, ways to convey complex psychological drama.

Nearby is hanging another masterpiece by a favourite painter of mine, John William Waterhouse.

The Lady of Shalott (1888) by John William Waterhouse © Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) Bridgeman Images

The Lady of Shalott (1888) by John William Waterhouse © Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) / Bridgeman Images

In the mirror we can see what the lady sees i.e. the window through which she can see dashing Sir Lancelot and the green fields of the real world. But we are looking at her looking at him although, in fact, she seems to be looking at us. And in her eyes is conveyed the haunting knowledge that, although her life to date may have been a sterile imprisonment – in fact, her emergence into ‘real life’ – in the poem – leads to her mysterious and tragic death.

I love Waterhouse’s faces – like Burne-Jones he hit on a distinctive look which is instantly identifiable, in Waterhouse’s case a kind of haunted sensuality.

By this stage, we are nearly 40 years after the first Pre-Raphaelite works, and Waterhouse’s art shows a distinctively different style. Among the things the PRBs admired in van Eyck was the complete absence of brushstrokes; the work was done to such a high finish you couldn’t see a single stroke: it was a smooth flat glazed surface, and they tried to replicate this in their paintings. Forty years later Waterhouse is not in thrall to that aesthetic. He has more in common with his contemporary, John Singer Sargent, in using square ended brushes and being unafraid to leave individual strokes visible (if you get up close enough), thus creating a looser, more shimmering effect.

In the final room the curators attempt to show that van Eyck’s convex mirror remained a source of inspiration for the next generation of artists, including Mark Gertler, William Orpen, and Charles Haslewood Shannon. These artists incorporated the mirror into their self-portraits and in domestic interiors well into the early 1900s, as seen in Orpen’s The Mirror (1900) and Gertler’s Still Life with Self-Portrait (1918).

Still Life with Self-Portrait (1918) by Mark Gertler © Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) U.K. Bridgeman Images

Still Life with Self-Portrait (1918) by Mark Gertler © Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) U.K. Bridgeman Images

Conclusion

In the final room the curators include a massive copy of Velázquez’s masterpiece Las Meninas (1656) on the basis that the van Eyck was for a time hung in the Spanish Royal Collection and so might have directly inspired Velázquez’s use of the mirror motif.

At moments I became confused whether this was an exhibition about van Eyck’s overall stylistic impact on the Pre-Raphaelites – or a history of ‘the mirror’ in painting. You feel the exhibition doesn’t quite do either theme thoroughly: ‘the mirror in art’ would be a vast subject; ‘van Eyck’s convex mirror’ would result in probably a smaller show than the one here, whereas ‘van Eyck’s influence on the PRBs’ would have stopped earlier, certainly not including the 20th century works and probably not the Waterhouse.

So in the end I was left slightly confused by the way the exhibition had two or three not-totally-complete threads to it. But who cares: on the upside it includes a number of absolutely beautiful masterpieces. The mirror theme is kind of interesting, but I found the alternative thread – the direct relationship between van Eyck’s meticulous realism and that of the early PRBs – much the most visually compelling theme.

It is epitomised in this wonderful masterpiece by John Everett Millais, painted when he was just 22.

Mariana (1851) by John Everett Millais © Tate, London

Mariana (1851) by John Everett Millais © Tate, London

No convex mirror in sight, but what is in evidence is a luminous attention to naturalistic detail (the needle in the embroidery on the table, the leaves on the floor, the wee mouse, bottom right, echoing van Eyck’s doggie) and the technique.

The curators explain that Millais used a resin-based paint for the stained glass and especially the blue velvet dress, comparable to van Eyck’s use of layers of ‘glaze’ — both of them seeking – and achieving – an incredible sensation of depth and colour and sensual visual pleasure which only oil painting can convey.


Videos

Here’s the one-minute promotional film, with funky three-dimensional techniques.

And the 50-minute-long presentation by the exhibition’s co-curators.

There are a few other short films the National Gallery has produced on aspects of the show, all accessible from this page.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Rogier van der Weyden by Stephan Kemperdick (2013)

‘The most influential painter of the 15th century’ (p.6)

The Northern Renaissance

When I went around the Renaissance wing at the National Gallery in London I found myself drawn again and again to works by the Netherlands and Flemish masters from the so-called ‘Northern Renaissance’ – in particular, Robert Campin (A man and a woman, 1430), Jan van Eyck (The Arnolfini portrait, 1434) and Rogier van der Weyden (The Magdalen Reading, before 1438). There’s something magical about the 1430s and 1440s…

For in 1400 Netherlandish art still shared the late medieval International Style, but in the first third of that century a new school of art arose, led by van Eyck and van der Weyden, which introduced:

  • light and shade used to give people and objects three-dimensionality
  • individualised modelling of faces
  • realistically depicted interiors
  • extensive landscapes in the background extending into the distance

Campin is a shadowy figure, whose name appears in the documentary record and who, only after a lot of research, has been identified by modern scholars with the master of Flemelle. Van Eyck made the sensible career move of signing all his paintings, thus guaranteeing his identity as their creator.

So for centuries after their deaths Van Eyck was seen as the founding father, and many paintings now attributed to others were credited to him. Only in recent generations have Campin and van der Weyden emerged as credible artists in their own right. For both we are only certain of a relatively small number of core works which can definitely be attributed to them – followed by a larger number of works which may be by them or from their workshops – and then an outer nimbus of works which may be by followers, or not connected at all. All these decisions are liable to potentially endless scholarly debate.

Despite controversy at the edges, the core assertion is secure – that these three artists were responsible for introducing a revolutionary new spirit of realism into northern painting, an approach which went on to flower in the next generation of Netherlandish painters – notably Hans Memling (b.1440) and Hugo van der Goes (b.1440).

Given the longevity of Van Eyck’s authentication and fame it’s no surprise that there are scores of books about him. There don’t appear to be any in print about the shadowy figure of Campin, and only one I could find about van der Weyden.

The book

The book is 140 pages long, printed on glossy paper which brings out the best in the 130 or so glorious full-colour images. There are also ten or so black-and-white reproductions of cartoons and sketches, along with a one-page chronology of Rogier and a handy three-page glossary of terms.

The text goes chronologically through what is known of Rogier’s career, with a final chapter on his reputation and influence. But this narrative is interrupted by 2- or 3-page ‘insets’ on related topics e.g. a useful background on the kingdom of Burgundy, one on how an artist’s workshop of the time functioned, on contemporary manuscript illumination and tapestries, and so on.

It was written and published in German and was translated by Anthea Bell OBE, a prolific translator from French and German who is probably most famous for her translation of the 35 Asterix books.

Rogier van der Weyden

Rogier was born in 1399 or 1400 in French-speaking Tournai in northern France. From 1427 to 1432 there is documentary evidence that he worked as an apprentice in the workshop of master painter Robert Campin. Having ‘graduated’, Rogier moved to Brussels, where he lived and worked till the end of his life in 1464. There are enough scattered mentions of him in old records to be able to sketch out his life story: the birth of a son in 1437; the purchase of a house in 1444; an Italian writer records seeing the Deposition in Ferrara in 1449; the philosopher Nicolas of Cusa mentions seeing Rogier’s (now lost) Scenes of Justice in Brussels and calls him ‘the greatest of painters; the Italian humanist Bartolomeo Fazio mentions that Rogier travelled to Rome in the Jubilee year of 1450; there’s records of a legal dispute with the Italian painter Zanetto Bugatto in 1461; in 1462 he becomes a member of a religious order in Brussels, and lends money to a local monastery; and we know that he died on 18 June 1464 and is buried in the church of St Gudule.

More biographical information than for many medieval figures, and enough to begin to sketch out a chronology of his works. We know that he was prosperous (from his donations to religious houses), eminent (the dispute with Bugatto was settled by the Dauphin i.e. heir apparent to the throne of France, no less), and famous – a number of Italian historians refer to him, works were commissioned from him by the Medici family, and by the king of Spain.

The Deposition

The earliest work we can definitely identify is also his greatest, his most copied and most influential – the Deposition or Descent from the cross.

The Descent from the Cross (or Deposition of Christ) by Rogier van der Weyden created (c. 1435)

The Descent from the Cross (or Deposition of Christ) by Rogier van der Weyden created (c. 1435)

The ten figures are placed in a shallow box as of a niche in a church. The background is covered with gold leaf. It is a masterpiece because of the flow or rhythm of the composition, with the two groups of three one either side of the cross, subtly reflecting each other, for the way the Virgin Mary’s swooning body echoes Christ’s body – and for the stunning detail of their hands, almost touching, hers white and pure, his hideously mutilated. For the sumptuous detail of the clothes, for example the gorgeous pattern of gold brocade on Nicodemus’s fur-lined gown and – my personal favourite, the high, tight belt around the vertically ribbed green dress of Mary Salome (if that’s who she is). It’s hard to see in this reproduction but the tears were important and influential, capturing the real grief of the mourners. The combination of the strange Gothic box setting, the foreshortening of the space and the gorgeousness of detail set it apart from Italian renaissance painting.

Scholarly tone

As you read on, you realise this is quite a scholarly work, which goes into considerable detailed discussion of every aspect of Rogier’s work, including a comprehensive review of the evidence for and against the attribution of each of the 70 or so works it discusses. Since none of these attributions are straightforward, and often involve assessing the reliability of 18th or 19th century copies of archives which were themselves written a century after the events they record and which frequently contain palpable errors of chronology, names and attributions – well, it means the text can get quite heavy-going.

Kemperdick also explains modern scientific methods which are applied to medieval paintings, namely:

  • dendrochronology – since almost all these works were painted on wood (almost always oak wood, generally imported from the Baltic) it is possible to date individual works by counting the number of annual growth rings on the planks – although it turns out to be a little more complicated than that.
  • infrared reflectography – this process pings infrared rays through the work and records the images which bounce back. These black and white images allow scholars (and us, since Kemperdick includes reflectographs of some of the key paintings) to see the underdrawings for each piece, and – if you’re lucky – also to show how the artist changes and adapts the composition during its creation.

The techniques are interesting but the results are of limited interest (e.g. at some point the forefinger of John the Baptist was changed from pointing to heaven to pointing towards the Christ child; there was originally going to be a wall at the back of the Miraflores Tryptich – but it was changed to open landscape in the final version). In fact the results of both these techniques don’t really add anything to our appreciation of the work; they are used mostly to add into the extraordinarily dense web of discussion of the relative styles, attribution, provenance, dating and possible authorship of the rather confusing array of works by Rogier, his workshop, or by other contemporary and generally anonymous artists. As the text progresses this involves increasing numbers of comparisons between details of different pictures. (The angular folds of the Virgin in figure 53 are reminiscent of the so-and-so altarpiece in figure 11, but the change in hand position suggests the influence of the later work shown in figure 85, although recent dendrochronology evidence pushes both of them back before the latest possible date of composition as suggested by the 18th century copy of the original archive record of the commission of the painting from the Monastery of such and such. And so on.)

Stunning pictures

For students and fellow scholars this is important stuff, but as an amateur fan I found myself drifting away from the text to just luxuriate in the wonderful images on display, flicking over the pages to discover another treasure to absorb yourself in. And not necessarily sticking to Rogier, though he is the subject of the book; there are plenty of works by other contemporaries, reproduced here in excellent high quality colour illustrations.

For example, I find the painting of St Veronica displaying the veil on which Christ’s face was miraculously imprinted – nowadays attributed to Robert Campin – frankly astonishing. The characterisation of the face and the gorgeous orange background bring early John Everett Millais to mind (for example, the famous Lorenzo and Isabella of 1849). It is hard to believe it is from the early 15th century, 400 years earlier.

Saint Veronica Displaying the Sudarium (c.1430) by Robert Campin

Saint Veronica Displaying the Sudarium (c.1430) by Robert Campin

Van der Weyden’s largest work is the Beaune Altarpiece, which shows a vivid and striking depiction of the Last Judgement.

The Wikipedia article gives a comprehensive account of the altarpiece’s genesis and meaning – and is a good example of the way these artefacts are not just works of art but important exemplars of social history. For me the two most striking elements are the oval-faced archangel St Michael balancing the scales of Justice directly under the Judging Christ.

Jesus Christ and the Archangel Michael in judgement by Rogier van der Weyden

Jesus Christ and the Archangel Michael in judgement by Rogier van der Weyden

But also the amazing spectacle of the buried dead burrowing themselves up out of the ground like worms. Normally in Day of Judgement scenes we see coffins opening; but here the dead are like moles erupting directly out of the soil. For me medieval and northern art often has this weird, unexpected, half-mad quality – think of Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516). Similarly, the really horrified look of the naked people being dragged (by their hair in one case) down into the burning pits of hell.

Learnings

  • Archivolt -the moulding or band around the inside of an arch. In many of the altarpieces the figures are framed by a Gothic arch and inside the archivolt are depicted scenes from the life of Christ which relate to the scene depicted in the main image.
  • Dendrochronology
  • Infrared reflectology
  • Most of the Netherlands was, at this period, part of the Duchy of Burgundy, and the Duke of Burgundy who ruled during this period was Duke Philip the Good, who had a long reign from 1419 to 1467. He commissioned altarpieces, portraits and illuminated manuscripts from Rogier and his workshop.
  • Grisaille – a painting executed entirely in shades of grey or another neutral colour, such as brown. Mostly used to duplicate the effect of sculpture e.g. the statues in the bottom two central panels of van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece (when closed) or this image of St Lawrence, on the reverse side of a full-colour portrait of Jean de Froimont.
  • Halos – towards the end of the book I noticed that all the holy figures in contemporary Italian paintings have big round solid halos, which emphasise the hieratic staginess of the figures e.g. The Entombment of Christ by Fra Angelico (c. 1440), whereas there are few if any haloes in the northern paintings and then they are either transparent or bursts of golden rays, for example it’s quite hard to see the golden rays emanating from the head of the Virgin at the centre of the St Columba Altarpiece (c.1455).
  • Medieval painters whose names we don’t know are often named ‘the master of x’ where x is a particular work with a distinctive style. For centuries scholars referred to ‘the master of Flémalle’ after three painted panels, now in Frankfurt, said to have come from a monastery in Flémalle. Controversy has raged for over a century as to whether the master of Flémalle is one and the same as the Robert Campin who we know ran a workshop in Tournai, modern Belgium. Nowadays most scholars think they are one and the same.
  • Tears – there is evidence that Italian nobles, who commissioned works from Rogier, particularly valued the realism of the tears he gave to Christ’s followers:
  • Tryptich (i.e. three-part) altars fold out. The two side wings are hinged so the tryptich can be ‘closed’ or ‘opened’ to reveal the gorgeous colours of the interior. They were usually closed and only opened on special Holy Days. The outside of the closeable doors were also painted – but generally in drabber colours – and often with portraits of the donors who commissioned the work. For example, the relatively drab but beautifully modelled exterior of the Beaune Altarpiece features portraits of Nicolas Rolin, the powerful Chancellor to Philip the Good, and his wife. Roline was in fact portrayed several times by both Rogier and Jan van Eyck. A tough and powerful man, and van Eyck captures that wonderfully.

In later generations Rogier was venerated for the delicacy and artfulness of his compositions, along with the ability to convey the intense emotion and anguish of the characters in the Passion (all those weeping Marys). But I love the beauty, the calmness, the delicacy, and the quiet intimacy of the best of his portraits. Nearly 600 years later his people still live and breathe.

Portrait of a young woman (c.1435) by Rogier van der Weyden

Portrait of a young woman (c.1435) by Rogier van der Weyden

Related links

The Art of the Northern Renaissance by Craig Harbison (1995)

The period covered is 1400 to 1600.

‘Northern’ means north-west of the Alps, excluding Eastern Europe which had its own development, and Spain, ditto. So it includes the many different little German medieval states, France, but especially the northern part of the Duchy of Burgundy (modern-day Netherlands and Belgium). In these rich northern cities the wealth from the wool and textile trade created patrons who wanted paintings of themselves, decorations for their houses, but especially grand altarpieces for the big churches they built.

The Renaissance in Italy was closely linked to a rebirth of interest in classical statuary, architecture and literature, examples of which lay all around its Italian artists. This revival of learning led to new experiments in building in the pure classical style, to the introduction of mathematically precise perspective in painting, along with unprecedented anatomical accuracy in the human form. The paintings, like the architecture, were big, grand, monumental. At its peak, think of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Many Renaissance paintings are vast and use classical architectural features to emphasise their monumentality and to bring out the artist’s clever knowledge of perspective. I often find this art sterile.

By contrast, northern art is more continuous with the medieval art which preceded it. Curly Gothic architecture continues to provide its frame of reference and design. The figures often still have the elongated, willowy S-shape of medieval statuary rather than the new, muscular bodies being pioneered in Italy by the likes of Michelangelo et al. Harbison says that northern art of the 15th century is in many ways a transfer of late-medieval innovations in manuscript illustration to the public spaces of altarpieces, painted boards and frescos.

What I love northern art for is:

  1. its more flattened, less perspective-obsessed images allow for the surface of the work to be covered by gorgeous decorative schemes, particularly sumptuous fabrics and carpets
  2. it is always teeming with life – there are always tiny figures in the distance riding into a wood or firing a crossbow – every time you look you notice something else
  3. the faces – the people in northern art have much more rugged individuality than in Italian art – another way of saying this is that they are often plain and sometimes positively ugly in a way few Renaissance portraits are

As an example of gorgeousness of decorative design, I suggest Virgin among virgins in the rose garden by the unknown artist known from one of his other works as the Master of the St Lucy Legend.

There’s perspective of a sort, in that the wooden pergola covered with climbing roses creates a proscenium arch through which we can see an idealised version of the city of Bruges in the middle distance. But the overall affect of the foreground is more flat than in an Italian work. This brings out the wonderful detail of every leaf and petal of the dense rose hedge behind the characters; and emphasises the decorative layout of those figures, two on either side of the Virgin and in similar poses but with enough variation to please the eye. It allows the eye to rest on the sumptuous gold dress of St Ursula sitting left and contrast it with the plain white dress of St Cecilia sitting right. As to my ‘teeming with life’ point, I love the tiny figures of the two horse riders departing the city in the distance. In this work, I admit, the faces lack the individuality I mentioned, but I like this kind of demure medieval oval facial style.

Harbison contrasts this northern work with a contemporary Italian work, Madonna and child with saints by Domenico Veneziano (c.1445)

For me, all the human figures are dwarfed and subordinated to the ruthless application of the new knowledge of mathematical perspective. I find all those interlocking pillars and arches exhausting. And, ironically, somehow for me this does not give the image the desired depth of field but makes it appear flat and cluttered. The orange trees peeping up over the back wall don’t make up for the clinical sterility of the architectural setting. And although the human figures are obviously individualised and their clothes, the folds of their cloaks and gowns, are done with fine accuracy, these aren’t enough to overcome what I see as the overall flat, arid, washed-out and sterile effect.

As Harbison puts it:

In place of the clear, open, even and often symmetrical Italian representation, northerners envisioned subtly modulated, veiling and revealing light effects, intriguing nooks and crannies, enclosed worlds of privacy and preciousness. (p.35)

As an exemplar of this Harbison gives Rogier van der Weyden’s wonderful three-part St John Altarpiece (1450-60).

The dominant feature in all three scenes in this altarpiece is obviously the Gothic arch. (These repay study by themselves, with a different set of saints and small scenes depicted on each of the three arches.) The three main scenes depict, from left to right, the presentation of the newborn John the Baptist to his father; John the Baptist baptising Jesus; and then John’s head being chopped off and given to Salome.

The figures are given quite a lot of individuation, especially the balding executioner with his stockings half fallen down which gives a bizarrely homely touch. But the foreground scenes are really only part of the composition. Equal emphasis is given to the detailed backgrounds of all three. Perspective is used, but not ruthlessly – with enough poetic license to allow the backgrounds to be raised, tilted upwards, so we can see and savour them better.

In the left panel St Elizabeth being tucked into bed (a typically homely northern detail) is good, but better is the deep landscape behind Jesus in the central panel, with its church perched on cliffs on the right in the middle distance and city on a cliff in the remote distance left. But best of all is the right-hand panel, where our eye is drawn by the steps and tiled floors of King Herod’s palace, complete with a lounger staring out a window, a bored dog lying near the table where courtiers appear to be feasting.

And, as always, at the very bottom, in the corners, the humble, everyday, weedy flowers of northern Europe which I love so much.

The St John Altarpiece is a prime example of the richness of detail which characterises northern art and makes it – to me – so much more enjoyable, homely, decorative and domestic – funny, even, with its wealth of humanist touches.

The Art of the Northern Renaissance

The book is divided into four parts addressing different topics:

  1. Realism
  2. Physical production & original location
  3. Religious behaviour and ideals
  4. Italy and the North.

Within these there are 35 separate sections addressing issues like ‘artist and patron’, ‘manuscript illumination’, ‘the production of a panel painting’, ‘the pilgrimage’, ‘landscape imagery’, ‘the naked body’, and so on. From these sections we we learn lots of detail about specific areas of medieval life and their depiction, but nothing which affects the basic thesis that at the core of northern art is, as Harbison puts it, ‘a love of detailed description’.

It is as if one is always catching sight of something out of the corner of the eye. The ideal is not simple harmony but complex polyphony. (p.39)

Northern art is fragmentary, interested in detail. Italian art is more unified, classical and spare. Take this masterpiece by Rogier van der Weyden.

For a start it was a north European convention to depict the Deposition within an architectural frame (cf. The descent from the cross by the Master of the Bartholomew altarpiece) which gives it a kind of continuity with the Gothic architecture of the church where it is located.

I love everything about this painting, the cleverness with which ten human figures are composed so as to make a polyphony without excessive artifice; the colour of the clothes e.g. the olive green and high cord of the woman holding the fainting Mary, the sumptuous fur-lined cloak of the rich burgher (Nicodemus) on the right. Harbison points out the detail of Christ’s pierced bloody hand hanging parallel to the Virgin’s long white hand, providing a powerful and moving real and symbolic contrast.

And, as always, I love the flowers in the foreground – is that yarrow at bottom left and herb bennet at bottom right? Harbison gives a detailed analysis of another northern masterpiece:

The detail of daily life, the sense of real people in an actual community, is what I love about this art: the unashamed flat-faced ugliness of the three shepherds, the (married?) couple standing by the gate in the background beside the shepherds; the wrinkled face and hands of old Joseph praying on the left.

As always, flowers in the foreground, here the highly symbolic lilies and irises (symbolising the passion), columbine (representing the Holy Spirit) and three small dark red carnations symbolising the nails of the cross.

Harbison makes the interesting point that the shadows of the two vases fall sharply to the right as if the floor of the stable (incongruously tiled) is almost flat; whereas, somehow behind the sheaf of wheat the floor suddenly tips upwards, presenting a much more flattened surface than strict perspective would suggest – which is then ‘decorated’ with the various figures. There are perspective points in it, but the painting ignores a strict rule of perspective in order to create a more effective, colourful and ‘rhythmic’ composition.

Top artists of the northern renaissance

If I summarised every one of Harbison’s analyses this post would be as long as the book. Instead here’s a quick overview of the key players and some major works:

Early Netherlands masters

The weird

From the generation following the deaths of these early fathers of Netherlands painting comes the one-off genius of Hieronymus Bosch.

  • Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450 – 1516) The religious triptych was the most common format of painting in this period, and Bosch produced at least sixteen, of which eight are fully intact, and another five in fragments. The most famous is the weird and wonderful Garden of earthly delights. No one has adequately explained where his bizarre fantasies came from.

The Germans

I find the Germans a lot less pleasing than the Flemish or French painters of this period. They lack grace and delicacy. Their depictions of the human body, especially of the crucified Christ, seem to me unnecessarily brutal. Albrecht Dürer is meant to be the great genius but I like hardly anything that he did.

After the Reformation

The Reformation forms a watershed halfway through the period 1400 to 1600, usually dated with great specificness to 31 October 1517, when the monk Martin Luther sent 95 theses systematically attacking Roman Catholic theology to his superior, the archbishop of Mainz. His arguments became a rallying cry and focus of decades of growing discontent with the corruption and over-complex theology of the Catholic church. His ideas spread quickly and were taken up by other theologians, who were often protected by German princes who had their own secular reasons for rejecting Papal authority, until it had become an unstoppable theological and social movement.

In artistic terms the Reformation’s rejection of the grandeur of Roman Catholic theology and the authority of the super-rich Papacy played to the strengths of the northern artists, who already produced an art often characterised by its relative smallness and intimacy.

Harbison very usefully brings out the fact that fifteenth century art was so dominated by images of the Madonna seated holding the Christ child because such a static image encouraged silent devotion and meditation – in contrast with the more dynamic and emotionally upsetting images of the Crucifixion and Resurrection.

He points out how the corruption of the official church had already alienated many Christians from public worship and created through the 15th century a cult of private devotion. It was onto this fertile ground that the anti-establishment teachings of Luther and his followers fell, and proved so fruitful.

Thus Reformation theology tended to foreground personal piety, meditation and reflection – moving away from bravura displays of big ostentatious public ritual. And so while the Counter-Reformation in Italy (the theological and artistic reaction against the northern Reformation) was marked by the increasing ornateness and vast, heavy, luxury of the Baroque in art and architecture, in northern Europe – although Christian subjects continued as ever – there was also a growth in depictions of ‘ordinary life’, in domestic portraits and still lifes.

It was during the post-Reformation 16th century that landscapes and still lifes came into existence as genres in their own right.

Quentin Matsys

A figure who straddles the pre- and post-Reformation era is Quentin Matsys (1466–1530) (also spelt Massys) founder of the Antwerp school of painting. His mature work dates from the period of the High Renaissance (1490s to 1527) but is the extreme opposite of the vast panoramas of human history being painted in the Vatican (the Sistine Chapel, the Raphael Stanza). Instead, Massys typifies for me the virtues of northern painting, with its small-scale atmosphere of domesticity, its focus on real, living people – not the Prophets and Philosophers of Michelangelo and Raphael – and its portraits not of heroic archetypes, but of plain ordinary and, sometimes, ugly people.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder

This increasing valuing of secular life is one way of explaining the rise of the genre of ‘peasant paintings’, which was, apparently, more or less founded by the teeming peasant panoramas of the wonderful Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Hans Holbein the younger

The northern Reformation was suspicious of religious imagery. In many places it was stripped out of churches and burned; in others merely covered up. Certainly the market for grand altarpieces collapsed, and the period saw a rise in other more specialised subjects. Critics from centuries later define these as genre paintings.

Portraits also became more secular and more frequent, a trend which produced one of the most wonderful portraitists of all time, Hans Holbein the Younger.

Technique

Harbison explains a lot about the technicality of northern Renaissance painting. Some of the most notable learnings for me were:

Panel painting Almost all northern renaissance artworks were painted on wooden panels, ‘panel paintings’ as they’re called. It wasn’t until the 17th century that prepared canvas became the surface of choice for artists. Some works were painted on linen but almost all of these have been lost. A small number were painted directly onto metal and some onto slate.

The rise of oil painting Most 15th century paintings were made with tempera. Tempera, also known as egg tempera, is a permanent, fast-drying painting medium consisting of coloured pigments mixed with a water-soluble binder medium, usually egg yolk. Tempera also refers to the paintings done in this medium. But as the 1400s progressed, northern artists experimented with using oil as the binding material – first mixing colour pigment with oil then applying it to prepared surfaces.

Most of these new ‘oil’ paintings were built up from multiple layers. This required paintings to be put to one side for weeks at a time to fully dry before the next level could be done – a repetitive process which explains the incredibly deep, rich and luminous colours you see in these works.

Most Renaissance sources credited the northern European painters of the 15th century, and Jan van Eyck in particular, with the ‘invention’ of painting with oil media on wood panel supports (‘support’ is the technical term for the underlying backing of a painting). There is ongoing debate about where precisely it originated but it was definitely a northern invention which headed south into Italy.

Destruction and loss

The vast majority of European art has been lost.

  • Much of it was created for ephemeral purposes in the first place – for ceremonies, processions, pageants or plays – and thrown away once the occasion had passed.
  • Thus, much effort and creativity was expended painting on fabrics, such as linen or flags, on backdrops and sets and panels, which have rotted and disappeared.
  • Huge numbers of paintings in the churches of northern Europe were lost forever when they were painted over with whitewash during the Reformation. Outbreaks of popular or state-sanctioned iconoclasm also saw the systematic destruction of statues, wooden tracery and decorative features – all defaced or thrown out and burned in the decades after 1520.
  • Successive wars wreaked local havoc, destroying in particular castles which would have held collections of art sponsored by rich aristocrats. As an example, only ten paintings and thirty-five drawings survive of the entire life’s work of Matthias Grünewald – ‘many others were lost at sea in the Baltic on their way to Sweden as war booty’.
  • The destruction of the Great War – epitomised by the German army’s deliberate burning of the manuscript library at Louvain – was essentially localised to north-west Europe.
  • But the destruction of the second World War ranged all across Europe, deep into Russia and involved the destruction of countless churches, galleries, museums, libraries, stately homes, castles and chateaux where art works could be stored. Dresden. Hamburg. Monte Cassino. The loss was immense.

It’s always worth remembering that the comfortable lives we live now actually take place amid the ruins of an almost incomprehensibly destructive series of wars, religious spasms and conflagrations, and that the art we view in the hushed environments of art galleries is not an accurate reflection of what was painted and created in Europe, but are the scattered remnants and lucky survivors from a continent of incessant destruction and artistic holocaust.

Related links

Where to see some

You can see some masterpieces from this period for free in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery (in London):

You can see the fabulous Seilern Triptych by Robert Campin in room 1 of the Courtauld Gallery, off the Strand, which currently costs £7 admission price, but is worth it for the stunning collection of masterpieces from these medieval pieces through the French post-Impressionists.

%d bloggers like this: