The Thirty Years War by S.H. Steinberg (1966)

S.H. Steinberg’s history of the Thirty Years War is one of the ‘Foundations of Modern History’ series. It’s admirably short (128 pages including references and index), quite old (published in 1966) and surprisingly opinionated. The preface claims that Steinberg ‘reorientates and reinterprets’ the familiar story.

Steinberg’s ‘reorientation’ makes four central claims:

1. that the phrase Thirty Years War is a misnomer, a ‘figment of collective imagination’ – the phrase doesn’t refer to one ‘thing’, but to a proliferation of separate but interacting conflicts across Europe

2. that the war was only an episode in the far larger and longer-running conflict between the dynastic houses of Bourbon (rulers of France) and Habsburg (rulers of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire) which stretched from 1609 to the end of the Franco-Spanish War in 1659

3. that the German part of this conflict was not a war of religion – as is so often claimed – but the result of constitutional issues within the Empire, namely the efforts of the Holy Roman Emperor to weld his hundreds of little states into a more homogenous unit and at the same time to quell the powers of the ‘Estates’ or local authorities within each one

4. and, lastly, Steinberg very strongly asserts that the war was no more nor less destructive than any other conflict of the same size, and that Germany was not (contrary to received opinion) destroyed or ravaged

Three chapters

Steinberg’s book is divided into three chapters:

Chapter One – Background and Problems

This 23-page section does a very good job indeed of placing the conflict in its full European context. Steinberg takes us on a whistlestop tour of all the European powers, explaining their recent history in the build-up to 1618, and their diplomatic and geopolitical aims and goals.

The nations are Spain, France, the Netherlands, Britain, Denmark, Sweden, Poland, Russia, Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and then, of course, the complicated situation of the Habsburg dynasty itself, divided into two branches – one ruling Spain, its colonies and European territories (most notably in Italy and the Netherlands); the other ruling Austria and holding overlordship over the seven big Electors and the hundreds of states within the Holy Roman Empire.

These 23 pages explained where each of these states was coming from, and what they were looking for, and therefore the potential flashpoints between them, much more clearly than Peter H. Wilson’s epic book on the same subject.

Moreover, and crucially, Steinberg has the ability to sum up key issues in a sentence, which is so lacking in Wilson’s account.

For example, Wilson explains the idea of the so-called ‘Spanish Road’ at great length. This is that, because of hostile French or British or Dutch fleets which might intercept them at sea, it was safer for Spain to send its troops to crush the Netherland revolt, first across the Med to north Italy, and then across the Alps and along a land route between France and the Empire. This land route became known as The Spanish Road.

But it is Steinberg who then gives the reader the vital insight that, the importance of keeping this route open dictated Spanish policy for the next fifty years i.e. every time a duchy or province or state through which the Spanish Road passed threatened to become anti-Spanish, the Spanish were compelled to intervene.

Grasping this basic geopolitical concern of Spain’s makes what at first appear to be all kind of random interventions in faraway states suddenly make sense.

Similarly, Steinberg sums up his discussion of the Netherland’s revolt against Spain by saying that, by the time a truce of 1609 was put in place, Spain had effectively lost the northern Netherlands. The conflict would resume and then continue until 1648, but Spain had lost – it just took them thirty years to realise the fact: and so all their policy based round the aim of retaining the territory was a waste of life and treasure.

In good history writing you need an explanation of the detail, for sure – but at some point you need the author to take a breath, step back from the detail and summarise where we are, what has happened, and what it means. Wilson almost never does that in his vast 850-page book, which is the central factor which makes it so very difficult to read.

Some of Steinberg’s opinions (summarised above) may be controversial or debatable – but his book has the immense virtue that he regularly stops and explains what the situation is, why something was important, why it was a turning point, and what was at stake.

Chapter two – The European War 1609-1660

There’s no denying it’s a very complicated story, and once war breaks out and numerous armies led by umpteen counts, margraves, dukes and archdukes start tramping across Germany and seizing countless towns, cities and territories, it becomes as hard to follow as Wilson’s account of the same material.

Which is precisely why what you could call Steinberg’s ‘pit-stops’ are so invaluable – the bits every two or three pages where he stops and explains what’s happened and where we are.

So, for example, he makes the context of the Bohemian Revolt of 1618 much clearer to me than Wilson does, and also much clearer why it never really stood a chance.

He is much more prepared to pass judgement on the key actors, and it is amazing how just a sentence or two of character description clarifies your understanding of whole swathes of the story. Thus he explains why the leaders of the Bohemian rebellion looked around for a prince to lead them, why the various other candidates were rejected and why they finally settled on Elector Frederick V of the Palatinate. So far so dry and factual. But the text comes to life when Steinberg laconically remarks ‘The Bohemians could not have made a more unfortunate choice‘ (p.38), before proceeding to explain why.

Thus he gives the reader has a key insight to build on, an incisive judgement which puts the couple of pages before and after it into perspective.

Wallenstein Steinberg’s account makes much clearer to me why the 1629 Edict of Restitution led to the sacking of the Emperor’s best general, Wallenstein, in the war up to that point.

Basically, the Edict handed over to the Emperor a broad range of powers, especially about religion, that the states and their parliaments, the ‘Estates’, had been trying to prevent him acquiring for decades. Persuading him to sack Wallenstein was a way for them to get revenge and also of removing the Emperor’s most feared ‘enforcer’. A way of weakening the Emperor’s power to actually carry out the Edict which almost all the states resented as an intrusion into their affairs.

Another reason is that, wherever he went, Wallenstein was very efficient at extracting ‘contributions’ to pay for his forces from the local authorities, whether the stateholder was Catholic or Protestant, for or against the Emperor – and this had alienated the rulers wherever he and the Imperial army went. Thus it was that, when the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II convened the Electors to award his son (also named Ferdinand) the title ‘King of Rome’ (a bit like the title of dauphin in France or Prince of Wales in Britain, indicating that the elected person is the chosen heir to the throne) the states made it plain they wouldn’t do so unless Wallenstein was sacked. Reluctantly, Ferdinand II had to give in.

Steinberg also explains much more thoroughly than Wilson the true extent of Wallenstein’s power, that he set up his own foundries and war industries in the territory he was awarded, was a genius of industrial organisation and logistics as well as military strategy. Somehow, in a much smaller space, Steinberg gives the reader a much better sense of the magnificence Wallenstein had risen to and why he was and remains to this day such a controversial figure. I didn’t get any of that from Wilson.

All of this background information makes it all the more dramatic when, deprived of its inspiring leader, the imperial army promptly suffered a string of military defeats and the Emperor was forced to restore Wallenstein as generalissimo of the Imperial army – and Wallenstein was not shy about making enormous demands before he agreed to return, demands which in Steinberg’s opinion, almost made him ‘co-emperor’.

But resentment against Wallenstein carried on growing on all fronts – he was, crucially, not interested in currying favour with courtiers and politicians at the Imperial Court – and so, despite winning more victories, Wallenstein was eventually murdered on the orders of the emperor in 1633.

All of these facts, all of these events, are present in Wilson’s account, but not presented so clearly or dramatically. Wilson doesn’t give any of the kinds of judgments and insights which Steinberg provides. It was only by reading Steinberg that for the first time I could see how Wallenstein’s life story could be made to form the basis of not just one, but a series of tragic plays, as the German playwright Schiller was to do in the 1790s.

Compare and contrast with Wilson’s immense but strangely flat and uninvolving account, in which Wallenstein’s murder is only briefly mentioned and no analysed or summarised at all. Instead, as with the deaths of all the other key players, Wilson just moves on with his flood of facts.

Whereas it is typical of Steinberg that he devotes time to reflecting on the impact of such a momentous event. He describes how the dead general’s lands and riches were divided up among the most senior of his fellow generals who had conspired against him, in a fairly standard, expectable way. But then goes on to make the breath-taking point which opens up the long vistas of historical consequences:

Down to 1918 a large part of the Austrian aristocracy lived on these rewards of their ancestors’ loyalty to the house of Habsburg. (p.66)

Wow. What a thought! What amazing vistas of insight and understanding that opens up. There is nothing comparably thought-provoking anywhere in Wilson’s account.

Ferdinand on the back foot Similarly, when on page 60, Steinberg halts the narrative of events to summarise that ‘The emperor was in a desperate position’ and then goes on to briefly explain why – it sheds light on all the developments leading up to this point, and helps you, the reader, understand much more what the Emperor’s options were and why he did what he did next. Wilson never says that kind of thing.

Death of Gustavus Wilson was particularly bad at handling the deaths of key figures, often throwing away the deaths of key players in a half-sentence or parenthesis. In complete contrast, Steinberg claims that the death of Gustavus Adolphus in battle in November 1632, just two years into the Swedish invasion of Germany, had drastic consequences:

As far as one man can influence the course of history, the death of Gustavus Adolphus marked a turning point in the history of Europe – it removed the main obstacle in the way of the ascendancy of Richelieu’s France. (p.62)

Just this one sentence provides immense food for thought, and helps you appreciate the really big picture, which is (in Steinberg’s view) that this era saw the steady rise of France and its ruling House of Bourbon, at the expense of the Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs and that Gustavus Adolphus’s death in battle was a key turning point in that long struggle.

An end date of 1660 Steinberg gives credit to the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia for achievements large and small, but doesn’t consider it the end of his story. He ploughs straight on into an account of the Fronde (1648-53), an aristocratic rebellion against the young king of France. Then he describes the machinations between French and Spanish which were eventually resolved at the Peace of the Pyrenees at the very end of 1659.

It is only this – not the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia – which sets the seal on the sequence of events because, in Steinberg’s opinion, it marks a decisive shift in the balance of power towards France:

The Peace of the Pyrenees fulfilled the highest hopes Henry IV had entertained half a century earlier. Spain was reduced to a second-class power, soon to become the pawn in the game of European politics which she had dominated for a century and a half. (p.88)

Steinberg describes the key elements of the two distinct treaties which made up the Peace of Westphalia – a subject treated in depth by Wilson – but also sheds a typically interesting sidelight, a stylish grace note, when he points out that it was the first international treaty not written in Latin — well, the treaties concerning the Emperor were in Latin, he and his Catholic advisers insisted on it — but all the other treaties and related documents were written in French, and French was to become the standard international language of diplomacy down to the Versailles Conference of 1919-20.

It is a fascinating cultural indicator of the eclipse of the late medieval world, the advent of the early modern era, and the Rise of France.

(There’s a fascinating footnote about Cromwell. Steinberg explains that Cromwell tried to do a deal with the Spanish, but demanded two concessions – freedom of religion for Englishmen on Spanish soil, and freedom of trade with the American colonies – both of which the Spanish rejected. And so Cromwell adopted an anti-Spanish policy, seized Jamaica, and gave his support to France. In his small way, Cromwell, also, contributed to the rise of France to European hegemony.)

Chapter Three – The Thirty Years War: Myth and Reality

That title made me smile – it’s very much the kind of book title we had in our school library 40 years ago. You could write a book about more or less any subject in the humanities by simply adding ‘The Man and the Myth’ or ‘Myth and Reality’ after the name of an eminent writer or a famous event, much as all you have to do nowadays is add buzzwords like ‘gender’, ‘race’ and ‘identity’ to an academic book title to get it to sell.

Anyway, Steinberg defends his view that the Thirty Years War was not the unmitigated disaster it is traditionally painted as. He says the experience of two world wars has taught us:

  1. not to believe atrocity stories, which are quickly cooked up by propaganda units on all sides
  2. to learn the meaning of true mass destruction, next to which the TYW is no better and no worse than the wars directly before or after it
  3. that post-war politicians often use the war as an excuse for the failure of postwar policies of economics etc i.e. they have a vested interest in exaggerating a war’s impact, and this is what the rulers of post-war German states did in the 1650s and 60s

Steinberg details how the conflicting sides hired propagandists and learnèd writers (e.g. the jurist Samuel Pufendorf) to put their cases, writers who were paid to distort the war’s causes and course even as it was taking place.

This propaganda often took an anti-Austria approach, notably by the later Prussian ruler Frederick the Great (reigned 1740-86) who wanted to emphasise:

  1. the wickedness of the Austrian Habsburgs
  2. the devastation which they were responsible for
  3. which he (Frederick) so wisely repaired

An endless cycle of ‘reinterpretations’

In the introduction Steinberg confidently claims that the conflict ‘misnamed’ the Thirty Years War was not a religious war between Protestants and Catholics, but derived from constitutional issues within the empire which had been germinating for the previous fifty years. This is his bold new interpretation which ‘reorientates and reinterprets’ the traditional story of the Thirty Years War, as well as his insistence that the war was not nearly as destructive as the ‘traditional’ view holds.

So it is quite amusing that these views – that the war was not a war of religion but a squabble about constitutional powers within the Empire, and was not as destructive as commonly thought – are the radical ‘reinterpretations’ put forward by Peter H. Wilson in his book, fifty years later.

In other words, despite over fifty years of historians attempting to ‘reorientate and reinterpret’ opinion about events, it seems as if some stubbornly resist their efforts. That views about historical events remain firmly entrenched.

So that historians may not be Oedipuses continually overthrowing their fathers, but Oedipuses condemned to overthrow the same father again and again, because each time he is slain, he just pops back up alive again.

To put it more plainly, the evidence of these two books is that historians appear to be condemned to combat ‘myths’ and ‘traditional’ interpretations which, despite all their efforts, never seem to go away. They are driving round and round in circles.

In 1966 Steinberg writes that the phrase ‘The Thirty Years War’ is a misnomer, a ‘figment of collective imagination’, should be done away with, abolished as wildly misleading.

Fifty years later, Peter H. Wilson publishes a vast history of the Thirty Years War with the title The Thirty Years War and delivers a lecture about the Thirty Years War. So much for abolishing this wild misnomer, this ‘figment of collective imagination’.

Conclusion: a historian’s opinion doesn’t change anything. To change the traditional names of events, and the traditional understanding of them, requires more than a couple of lectures and books. It requires huge social and cultural change. Historians reflect broader social trends, and don’t lead them.

Black lives matter

In this respect, it will be interesting to see whether, for example, the recent flurry of interest in the Black Lives Matter movement, with the accompanying burst of interest in the slave trade, makes much difference to academic history, or to the public perception of history.

It would be a fascinating study for a sociologist to assess attitudes across society – from academics through to the woman in the street – before, during and after the BLM protests, to try to establish how historical knowledge and perceptions change, if at all.

The evidence of these two books, written fifty years apart, is that historical knowledge doesn’t really change much — but maybe that’s because they’re both on a subject which most Anglophone readers don’t know or care much about so there’s not really any motivation or need for change.

Maybe on more hot-button topics, like race or women or empire, knowledge and attitudes have changed a lot. I’m not really in a position to judge.

It would be fascinating to read a paper or book on the subject ‘How perceptions of history change’, which identified specific historical eras or topics where the majority opinion has definitely shifted – and then to analyse why the shift has taken place – not looking narrowly at the professional historians and insiders, but at the broader social understanding of key historical events, what has changed (if anything) and why.


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.

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