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.

The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Michelangelo and Sebastiano @ the National Gallery

Introduction

Michelangelo Buonarroti was born near Arezzo, in Tuscany, in 1475. At age 13 he was sent to study art in Florence, the greatest centre of art and learning in Italy, where he was apprenticed to Ghirlandaio, a master in fresco painting, perspective, figure drawing and portraiture. Here he imbibed the Florentine principles of meticulous figure drawing and careful planning of a composition.

Sebastiano Luciani, later nicknamed del Piombo, was born ten years later in 1485 in Venice. He became a pupil of Giovanni Bellini and then of Giorgione. From the latter, especially, he absorbed a more improvisatory approach to composition, combined with a soft almost misty use of light, along with the traditional Venetian emphasis on gorgeous colour. (The greatest colourist of all, Titian, was born in Venice just 5 years later.)

In 1511 Sebastiano arrived in Rome whose art world he found riven with rivalries, especially that between the established genius, Michelangelo, who was hard at work painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (a commission which took from 1508 to 1512) and his main rival, Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino – otherwise known as Raphael – born in 1483, who was soon to be commissioned to paint the walls of the nearby Vatican library.

Michelangelo never liked oil painting; he was more a sculpture or a creator of frescos. He quickly realised that Sebastiano was the only oil painter in town who could take on Raphael, so there was a strong element of calculation in  his befriending of the younger man. Sebastian, for his part, was able to work with the greatest genius of the age.

It was the start of a 25-year-long friendship, which included a long correspondence, and collaboration on a number of major commissions. This exhibition features seventy or so works – paintings, drawings, sculptures and letters – which are masterpieces in their own right, shed light on the working practices of both men, and chronicle a unique friendship at the height of the Renaissance.

Differing approaches

Their differing approaches are epitomised in the first of the show’s six rooms by two unfinished works. Michelangelo is represented by a painting of The Virgin and Child with Saint John and Angels (‘The Manchester Madonna’). Note the careful composition, the adult figures and child figures in neat rows, and the high finish of the human skin, almost like sculpted stone.

The Virgin and Child with Saint John and Angels ('The Manchester Madonna') by Michelangelo (about 1497) © The National Gallery, London

The Virgin and Child with Saint John and Angels (‘The Manchester Madonna’) by Michelangelo (about 1497) © The National Gallery, London

Compare and contrast with Sebastiano’s Judgement of Solomon. It’s possible to see, on the unfinished legs of the figure at right, various other postures which have been tried out and superseded. Also the faces are much softer and misty, something which is especially clear on the face of the mother on the right.

The Judgement of Solomon (about 1506-9) by Sebastiano del Piombo © National Trust Images / Derrick E. Witty

The Judgement of Solomon (about 1506-9) by Sebastiano del Piombo © National Trust Images / Derrick E. Witty

Collaborations

1. The nocturnal Pieta

Lamentation over the dead Christ, also known as the Viterbo Pietà (about 1512-1516) was Michelangelo and Sebastiano’s first collaboration. Michelangelo did the design and detailed sketches of the figures (sketches which can be seen here, next to the finished work) while Sebastiano actually painted it, adding the background landscape characteristic of Venetian art. (Compare and contrast with the softness of the figures and the mysterious background in the famous Tempest of Sebastiano’s teacher, Giorgione). In fact, this is, apparently, one of the first nocturnal landscapes in European art.

For my money, by far the best thing about it is the body of Christ. It has the best of both artists – Michelangelo’s sense of structure and musculature, softened by Sebastiano’s smooth oil technique.

Lamentation over the Dead Christ (1512-16) by Sebastiano del Piombo. Museo Civico, Viterbo © Comune di Viterbo

Lamentation over the Dead Christ (1512-16) by Sebastiano del Piombo. Museo Civico, Viterbo © Comune di Viterbo

2. Raising of Lazarus

There are several stories about this painting.

1. It was commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici in Rome, who simultaneously commissioned a ‘Transfiguration’ from Raphael. The Lazarus was taken to Cathedral of Narbonne, where Giulio was cardinal.

2. Raphael’s Transfiguration is arguably the better painting, in terms of the drama of its structure and composition. The Sebastiano comes over as more cluttered and cramped. In fact the reproduction below makes it look better – more dramatic – than it is in real life, where it feels immense and overpowering.

3. X-ray photography has shown that Sebastiano changed the posture of some of the figures. The audioguide suggests that Michelangelo dropped by after the initial outline was created, and suggested changes to make it more dramatic e.g. the arm of Lazarus (bottom right) originally stretched out towards Christ and his head was further back. Changing the arm and head positions makes his figure more dynamic.

4. Lastly, the painting came into the ownership of the British collector Sir George Beaumont who, in turn, left it to the nation in 1824, in the collection which was to become the foundation of the National Gallery. All the NG’s works are numbered and this painting is actually the very first in the catalogue – NG1.

The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19) by Sebastiano del Piombo, incorporating designs by Michelangelo © The National Gallery, London

The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19) by Sebastiano del Piombo, incorporating designs by Michelangelo © The National Gallery, London

3. The Borgherini chapel

The Borgherini Chapel was commissioned by Michelangelo’s friend and broker, the Florentine banker Pierfrancesco Borgherini (1488–1558) and was created inside the church of San Pietro in Montorio in Rome.

The frescoes showing The Flagellation of Christ and The Transfiguration were painted by Sebastiano. Michelangelo was slated to provide the designs, but left Rome for Florence after only providing drawings for the central Flagellation and possibly a layout for the Transfiguration. The entire wall and alcove of the chapel has been recreated using state-of-the-art digital technology by Spanish workshop, Factum Arte.

The composition is in three levels: centre bottom is Christ being flagellated; above in the ceiling is Christ rising to heaven; above that is the coat of arms of Pierfrancesco Borgherini. He is flanked by three sets of ‘authorities’: on the lowest level, by Saint Peter (left) and Saint Francis of Assisi (right) (the namesakes of the sponsor); to either side of the transfigured Christ are Moses (left) and Aaron (right); above, on the flat wall, are St Matthew (left) and Isaiah (right). It is these last two figures which are most reminiscent of Michelangelo; they could both have come straight from the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

The exhibition's digital recreation of the alcove at the Borgherini Chapel in the church of An Pietro in Montorio in Rome, featuring designs by Michelangelo but painted by Sebastiano del Piombo

The exhibition’s digital recreation of the alcove at the Borgherini Chapel in the church of San Pietro in Montorio in Rome, featuring designs by Michelangelo but painted by Sebastiano del Piombo

It’s only mentioned a few times, mainly in reference to the stunning over-life-size sculpture of Jesus by Michelangelo which is displayed here in two versions, but I was fascinated to learn how the image of the resurrected Christ was an object not only of anatomical beauty but of philosophical and theological inspiration for these artists and contemporary humanist reformers. The perfection of the naked body, as first created by Greek sculptors 2,000 years earlier, embodied a perfection of moral and theological being to which all humans could aspire. Hence there is a kind of luminous perfection of Michelangelo’s sculptures.

The Risen Christ (1897-8, after the Risen Christ, 1519-21, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome) after Michelangelo. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen © SMK Photo / Jakob Skou-Hansen

The Risen Christ (1897-8, after the Risen Christ, 1519-21, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome) after Michelangelo. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen © SMK Photo / Jakob Skou-Hansen

Catholic Christianity and its discontents

It’s sort of obvious, but all these works celebrate Roman Catholic Christianity, at its headquarters in Rome, working for its chief officer on earth, the Pope. As a Protestant I am always aware that these exquisite art works were produced with money mulcted from the peasants and poorest people of Europe by huge numbers of roaming tax collectors, penance providers, summoners and pardoners of the kind satirised by Chaucer over a hundred years earlier, and whose cynicism and corruption so disgusted the monk Martin Luther that he undertook a sweeping condemnation of the entire structure of the church and its underlying theology.

These years of glorious artistic achievement also saw the start of what came to be known as ‘the Reformation’, triggered when Luther nailed his 95 theses against the church to the door of his local church in Wittenberg in 1517.

Luther’s theology was diametrically opposed to the optimistic humanism of Michelangelo and many of the other artists of the High Renaissance. While they thought humans could aspire to an almost supernatural perfection – bodied forth in their immaculate statues – Luther emphasised the irredeemably fallen state of degraded sinful humanity – incapable of anything, any action, any moral behaviour, any thoughts of beauty, without the all-powerful grace of God to lift us.

The sack of Rome

The Reformation itself doesn’t impinge on any of these works, but the chronic instability of central Europe certainly does. For the cardinal who commissioned Sebastiano’s Raising of Lazarus went on to become Pope Clement VII, ruling from 1523 to his death in 1534. In the interminable conflict between the Holy Roman Emperors (in this case, Charles V), the Papacy and the rising power of France, Clement made the mistake of allying with France. This led a large mercenary army of Charles V to lay siege to Rome and, on 6 May 1527, to breach the city walls and go on a week-long rampage of looting, raping, killing and burning.

Clement retreated to the enormous Castel Sant’Angelo, where he was accompanied (presumably among many others) by Sebastiano who forged a close friendship with him. Before and after the siege Sebastiano painted several portraits of Clement. As a result, in 1531 Clement appointed him piombatore, or keeper of the lead seal which was used to seal papal messages. It was a lucrative sinecure paying a stipend of some eight hundred scudi and explains why in later life he was nicknamed ‘del Piombo’, which translates literally as ‘of the lead’ and, more figuratively, as ‘of the seal’.

Portrait of Clement VII (1525-6) by Sebastiano del Piombo/Museo di Capodimonte, Naples © Soprintendenza Speciale per il Polo Museale di Napoli

Portrait of Clement VII (1525-6) by Sebastiano del Piombo/Museo di Capodimonte, Naples © Soprintendenza Speciale per il Polo Museale di Napoli

End of the friendship

Raphael had died suddenly, very young (aged 37) in 1520, at which point Sebastiano became the leading painter in Rome. During the 1520s he gradually lost his Venetian style, adopting more monumental forms and a cooler range of colour. According to Michelangelo’s friend, the painter and great historian of Renaissance art, Giorgio Vasari, Sebastiano grew increasingly lazy, addicted to gaming and drinking.

His friendship with Michelangelo seems to have ended in the mid-1530s. Michelangelo had spent much of the 1520s in Florence, carrying out various commissions for the Medici family. In 1534 he returned to Rome and to a major commission to paint the end wall of the Sistine Chapel with the scene of the Last Judgement. The story goes that Michelangelo asked his old collaborator to prepare the wall for him, but that Sebastiano prepared it to be painted in oil – using a technique he had developed in Michelangelo’s absence. Apparently, Michelangelo was furious, had Sebastiano’s preparatory work torn down and insisted on doing the fresco his way.

Maybe. But Michelangelo was notoriously touchy. As the historian who is interviewed on the audioguide put it, Sebastiano had a longer run than most friends of the irascible genius, possibly because through most of the 1520s they’d lived in different cities. Maybe it was simply living in the same city again, that led to an inevitable break.

The works of art in this exhibition are stunning. But it can also be enjoyed as the story of a remarkable friendship; as giving fascinating insight into the compositional and painting techniques of the High renaissance; and as shedding an oblique light on the seismic contemporary events of the reformation and the Sack of Rome.

Although housed in just six rooms, it feels very, very full – of ideas, insights and breath-taking works of art.

Favourite

It’s easy to be over-awed by the brilliance, or certainly the size, of many of the works on display here. For me (the copy of) Michelangelo’s sculpted Pietà was head and shoulders better than anything else on display. It is an astonishing work and mind-boggling to realise that he made it when he was only 25!

Pietà (copy after Michelangelo's Pietà, 1497-1500, St Peter's, Vatican City) © Photo Vatican Museums

Pietà (copy after Michelangelo’s Pietà, 1497-1500, St Peter’s, Vatican City) © Photo Vatican Museums

But it would be easy to overlook the maybe thirty sketches and cartoons by both artists – the Michelangelo generally more forceful and energetic than the Sebastiano. My favourite work in the whole exhibition was Michelangelo’s Seated nude and two studies of an arm. I love sketches and drawings which emphasise structure and draughtsmanship. And I like unfinished works, which are full of mystery and suggestion. So this really pulls my daisy.

Seated nude and two studies of an arm (1510-1512) by Michelangelo © Albertina, Vienna

Seated nude and two studies of an arm (1510-1512) by Michelangelo © Albertina, Vienna

The video

No self-respecting exhibition these days is without at least one promotional video.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Medieval and Renaissance art at the Victoria and Albert Museum

The Victoria and Albert Museum’s Medieval and Renaissance collection is scattered over different floors and different parts of the building. (See the V&A floor plan to understand what follows.)

If you enter the main entrance on Cromwell Road, turn immediately right, then left down the narrow steps (past the men’s loo) into rooms 8, 9, 10, 10a, 10b and 10c, to begin at the chronologically earliest part of the display, covering the years 300 – 1500.

Stairs at the end take you up to level 2, where rooms 62 to 64 continue ‘Medieval & Renaissance 300-1600’. From this balcony level you can descend back to ground level and to the huge east hall (probably the first thing you see when you’re buying tickets or asking for information in the entrance lobby) this hall comprising rooms 50a, 50b, 50c and 50d, which house monumental sculptures and a vast stone church screen.

Also on the ground floor, though in the opposite wing, is another huge room 48a, which houses some Raphael cartoons and, in the corridor beside the main bookshop, rooms 16a, 26 and 27, which house a series of sculptures from 1300 to 1600. Close to this are the two large rooms 46a and 46b, which contain casts of Renaissance sculptures, the so-called ‘Cast Courts’.

Early medieval

A visit to all of these rooms confirmed me in my sense that I prefer art from what used to be called the Dark Ages and the early Medieval period, and my interest falls away during the religious revival of the 14th century – although I still like its humanistic medieval approach – and then falls off a cliff as the technically perfect artists of the Renaissance put their gifts to the service of hundreds of horrible Italian princes and the manufacture of countless pastiche classical statues, or gold-larded altars adorned with simpering Madonnas and halo-happy saints.

Why visit galleries or museums?

You visit museums or galleries not only to learn about the ostensible subject matter of what you’re seeing, but also:

1. Visiting helps you find out what you like and don’t like and so helps you define your tastes and preferences – helps inform and improve those tastes and preferences. In this day and age you don’t have to conform to pre-set canons of taste, but how do you know what you like till you try it?

2. It is also a form of therapy. By clarifying what you like and don’t like you find out who you are, the kind of person you are – an art lover, a science lover, a weapons lover, a photograph lover: there are museums and galleries for every taste. And finding out what you like is part of understanding who you are.

3. Exhibits are not only data for value judgements they are witnesses to the past and since all art is produced in some part of the past, it is difficult to avoid engaging with history, in one or other sense of the word. And understanding fragments of the past may help you better understand the troubled present.

Personal prejudices

If I ask myself why I like the pieces I warmed to, it is for one of two reasons:

1. Real Dark Age art is original, weird and different from the Classical or Renaissance periods which bookend it. It speaks of pagan mysteries, the Teutonic forests, a northern ecosystem, a barbarian bestiary of ravens, foxes, gargoyles, green men and grotesques, not laid out in expensive open perspectives, but crammed together into constricted spaces which make them adopt strange stylised postures.

In its avoidance of the the perfection of classical statuary, in its interest in energy compacted into a stylised space, it has obvious similarities with the Modernist art, especially from the period of the Great War, which I also love.

2. When the art of painting revives from the 1200s onwards, I dislike almost all religious ie Catholic, subject matter, and warm to the depiction of people in their own right, for their humanity, for the love of suffering humanity which they evoke. Linked to that view, I warm to animals, flowers, trees and all the indications of a lush, fertile northern environment, and am almost physically repelled by the harsh, barren, rocky landscapes under a pitilessly blue sky, which characterise so much Italian Renaissance painting.

Personal highlights

So this isn’t an attempt to be definitive or authoritative; it is a very personal list of highlights.

Rooms 8 to 10

  • Ivory Last Judgement and Transfiguration (800, recarved 860) I liked the very literal way the coffin lids were coming off in the middle of the image and how, at the bottom right, a big devil’s head is swallowing naughty sinners.
  • Elephant ivory comb (875) Ceremonial combs were used to comb the hair of a priest before he conducted the Mass. Combing was a symbolic process, which established bodily order. It also stopped unruly hair falling in the communion wine.
  • Tabernacle with deposition (1150) I liked the polished crystal in the base, the cartoon bendiness of the human figures and the way they blend into the crucifix which, unusually, has the form of an actual, organically growing tress, rather than the usual straight planks.
  • non-classical animals, bestiaries
  • Relief of the Virgin and Child in orange-red Verona marble (1160-80). The flat smooth expressionless faces remind me of Modernist sculpture, maybe of the Eric Gill reliefs on display at Tate Britain.
  • Grotesque corbel, made from carved sandstone between 1125 and 1150. Corbels stick out from walls to support other features. Why were grotesques and gargoyles so common on medieval buildings?
  • The Becket Casket (1180-90) I liked the stylised hieratic figures, especially the dancing knights beheading the saint, and the prominent polished rock crystals.
  • Virgin and child with goldfinch (1280-1300) made from elephant ivory. What caught my attention was the way Jesus is holding a bird like a toy. It is a goldfinch, symbolic of the crucifixion because it (supposedly) eats seeds of thistles, prickles, thorns.
  • Morse ivory fragment with the Deposition (c. 1190-1200) The humanity of the effort, the closeness, the physical intimacy of the task.
  • Relief of Saints Philip, Jude, and Bartholomew (1150) from limestone. I like the flat stylised effect. Again, like modern art.

There were two touchscreen information panels (complete with a quiz to take after you’ve read the content) about the Romanesque and Gothic.

Romanesque 1000-1200 (so named in the 1820s to refer to a ‘debased Roman style’.) Round arches lined by chevron or dogtooth patterns, scrolling plants, the human form more decorative than realistic, imaginary creatures. Characteristic buildings: Durham Cathedral. People: Henry of Blois, brother of King Stephen of England.

Gothic 1200-1500 (used by the 16th century Italian Renaissance critic Vasari to refer to the ‘barbarous German style’ which defeated and repressed good classical taste until the revival of classical style in the 15th century.) Pointed arches, flying buttresses, curving human figures, naturalism of detail eg leaves, expressive emotion. Key buildings: Notre Dame Paris, York Minster (still the largest building in York, it took 250 years to build).

  • The Devonshire Hunting Tapestries; Boar and Bear Hunt (1425-30) This fills one big wall and has an audioguide of its own with a touchscreen which allows you to pick out particular details and hear them interpreted. Ever since I read the wall labels for the wall painting of Nebamun at the British Museum, I’ve realised the symbolic importance of hunting scenes: they may have value as naturalistic depictions, but their primary purpose is to assert the hierarchies of authority in a society, to show the ruling classes enacting, imposing and creating order in the natural world and, by extension, in their culture.

Rooms 50a, 50b, 50c, 50d

Nothing. I disliked everything in this huge space, the flawless pastiches of classical statues, the vast oppressive ‘s-Hertogenbosch Choir Screen which covers one wall, the numerous heavy, threatening church features such as pulpits, fonts and screens, all done with a leaden, heartless perfection.

Rooms 62 to 64

  • The huge timber staircase from Morlaix in Brittany (1530) redolent of Henry IV and Falstaff’s tavern scenes.
  • Room 1 at the British Museum has an extended explanation of the ‘cabinet of curiosities’ as created by collectors in northern Europe. One room here contains a small but striking collection of luxury items from the Cabinet of Curiosities or Kunstkammer of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I (1503-1564).
  • Towel holder (1520-25) The missing arms would have held a pole over which a towel would have been draped. Apparently, the fool towel holder was a common feature.
  • Virgin and very ugly Child by Carlo Crivelli (1480) Note the fly on the parapet. And the carnation and two violets.

In the eight rooms on this level, by far the best, the most stunning, original, powerful and sophisticated exhibit was a Benin bronze on loan from the British Museum, demonstrating the sophistication of other cultures as the Europeans began faring forth to discover and then colonise the world.


Related links

Other museums

Every room in the National Gallery

A friend’s son is over from Spain. He’s studying art and so we spent one full day, from 10am till closing time at 6pm, on a mission to visit all 66 rooms in the National Gallery. We did it, and with 20 minutes left over to slip into the Goya exhibition as well.

The four sections

The Gallery holds some 2,300 works. They’re divided into four periods or themes, all of which are found in the 66 or so rooms spread over the gallery’s second floor:

  • 13th- to 15th-century paintings (rooms 51-60, west or Sainsbury wing) Duccio, Uccello, van Eyck, Lippi, Mantegna, Botticelli, Dürer, Memling, Bellini
  • 16th-century paintings (west wing, rooms 2-14) Leonardo, Cranach, Michelangelo, Raphael, Holbein, Bruegel, Bronzino, Titian, Veronese
  • 17th-century paintings (north wing, rooms 15-37) Caravaggio, Rubens, Poussin, Van Dyck, Velázquez, Claude, Rembrandt, Cuyp, Vermeer
  • 18th- to early 20th-century paintings (east wing, rooms 33-46) Canaletto, Goya, Turner, Constable, Ingres, Degas, Cézanne, Monet, Van Gogh

Floor plan of level 2 Hover your mouse over a room to see its title and click through to a detailed listing.

NB Rooms 41 and 42 are closed, some of the paintings have been moved to rooms C, D and E on level 0. Floor plan of level 0

Audioguide

There’s an audioguide: it costs £4, covers almost every painting in the collection and takes 5 hours to listen to non-stop. Obviously, if you pause it to wander from picture to picture, have lunch or take a comfort break, it will take longer. Maybe reckon on doing one of the four themes or periods on each visit.

Personal highlights

As with my recent trip to the British Museum, these are obviously not any kind of official highlights, just a list of things that made me stop and think or admire or want to make a note:

The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and the Infant Saint John the Baptist ('The Burlington House Cartoon') (about 1499-1500) by Leonardo da Vinci, 1452 - 1519. The National Gallery, London.

The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and the Infant Saint John the Baptist (‘The Burlington House Cartoon’) (about 1499-1500) by Leonardo da Vinci, 1452 – 1519. The National Gallery, London.

  • Leonardo da Vinci The Burlington House Cartoon (1500) This is kept in a small darkened room by the entrance to the Sainsbury wing where you can sit and admire genius. It is worth visiting the National Gallery to see this one image. Has any artist ever made any image more perfect, more mysterious and profound than this one? Leonardo is in a class of one. If you had to explain Western art to a Martian this painting would do it.
  • The Wilton Diptych (1395-9) This was a portable altarpiece made for the use of King Richard II (1377-99). I like the sideways posture of the young king and the generally static, hieratic posture of the figures. A gallery attendant explained Richard has ginger hair and therefore so do the angels. I really liked the image of the white hart on the reverse, with a crown round its neck and a golden chain. It was Richard’s personal emblem and therefore it is stamped onto the chests of the angels’ astonishingly blue tunics, like the logo of a football team.
  • Jan van Eyck Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?) (1433) Next to the famous Arnolfini Portrait is this work. Like so many works of the northern Renaissance it is of a real person. No Christ child, Mary, angels, Magi, disciples or attendant saints. A real person commemorated for all time in their hereness, nowness, personhood.
  • Robert Campin A man and woman (1435) Real people.
  • Portrait of a Woman of the Hofer Family (about 1470) Swabian. A real person painted with great delicacy and sensitivity.
  • Sandro Botticelli Venus and Mars (1485) Not really looking like any human beings ever seen, this is like a high class cartoon, complete with lines around the figures, and the stylised neck, jaw and hair of the woman.
  • Giovanni Battista Moroni – Portrait of a Gentleman (‘Il Gentile Cavaliere’) (1564) Not a beautiful man but the rendition is perfect in every detail, including the gold lining and buttons up the front, and the loose binding of the leather-bound books under his left hand.
  • Titian emerges as one of the great geniuses of painting. He seems to have introduced a new much brighter palette. His portraits of 16th century notables are striking and individualistic. But I was struck by the handful of outdoors paintings which seem to have created a new way of conveying the human figure in outdoor settings, complete with realistic trees and earth and streams, old ruined buildings, in a brown palette. Before him there was nothing like this and after him everything looked like this for centuries: the effect on Gainsborough, for example, seems obvious:
  • Paolo Veronese The Dream of Helena (1570) The posture of the dreaming woman is perfect and the light on the dress, shimmers impressionistically.
  • Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) A whole room is devoted to Poussin (room 19) and I thought it significant that it was almost empty (three people). I’ve read that Poussin is a very intellectual painter and appreciating him is a developed taste. But I find his paintings empty of all passion or feeling, the characters positioned in stylised gestures, the overall composition draining the mythical events depicted of all energy or meaning. They are like a kind of abstract idea of painting, specimens of what painting would be if drained of all passion or feeling:
  • Peter Paul Rubens (room 29) is famous for his plump women. Out of his big compositions I noticed his subjects’ black eyes, white breasts and shiny armour, all three exemplified in Minerva protects Pax from Mars (1630). In The Judgement of Paris (1632-5) the black eyes and white boobs are obvious, but the shiny armour is there in the bottom left, in the shield with an image of the Gorgon and a discarded helmet on the ground.
  • Rembrandt van Rijn Portrait of Aechje Claesdr (1634) I like north European art because its humanism trumps the Mediterranean’s emphasis on Christian ideology. The compassion doesn’t come from choruses of angels or saints turning up their tearful eyes to heaven, but from the honest depiction of real people in all their frailty and humanity, deserving our empathy and compassion.
  • Portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels (1654-6) by Rembrandt. His mistress, apparently, young, fresh faced, innocent, her open chemise hinting at her warm body, the whole image exudes intimacy, trust and love.
  • The solid, thick-waisted, small-breasted Rubens women make the Rokeby Venus (1647-51) by Diego Velázquez in the next room (30) all the more striking, her very slender waist, narrow back and defined shoulder blades looking anorexic by contrast.
  • Frans Hal Portrait of a Young Woman (1650s) A real person, looking innocent and vulnerable. You expect her to start talking to you
  • The Procession of the Trojan Horse into Troy (about 1760) by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, only a sketch but the more powerful for that.
  • Thomas Gainsborough The Painter’s Daughters with a Cat (1760) What could be lovelier, more charming, more innocent. After all the friars, monks, weeping saints and tortured Jesuses of the Spanish and Italian Baroque, coming into the Gainsborough gallery was like being able to breathe again. Generally, arriving in the English gallery with its trees, open country and educated landowners was a great relief: sun and air, trees and rivers and not a tortured, bleeding Christ in sight.
  • La Coiffure (about 1896) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. In last year’s Impressionism exhibition I was surprised not to like more Degas. But this painting seems to me a masterpiece: the combination of reds; the unfinished parts on the left; the heavy black lines giving a cartoon quality; the ordinary everyday subject matter; the two quiet women, not kings or gods or angels; the intimacy. A ragged modern perfection.

I learned…

Ugly babies There are a lot, a really huge number, of terribly painted babies masquerading as the little baby Jesus. I don’t think we saw one believable image of an actual baby, and so many horrid ones we started a competition to find the ugliest baby Jesus. From a strong field (eg Virgin and Child (1475) by Hans Memling) the winner was The Virgin and Child in a Garden (late 15th century) in the style of Martin Schongauer. Enlarge the image to savour the full horror of the old man baby.

Geniuses who died young

  • Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, known as Raphael (1483-1520) aged 37.
  • Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) aged 36.

Carlos’s Law All the Dutch winter landscapes under snow (room 26), of villages or towns with people ice skating on frozen rivers and so on, are immediately appealing:

My friend’s son is called Carlos and after he pointed this out we developed a hypothesis – maybe one day it will become Carlos’s Law – which is that: No painting of a winter scene can be bad. Or, Every painting of a winter scene is automatically good. This held pretty much true from the 17th century Dutch painters where it began to dawn on us, through the intervening centuries to the wintry Impressionist works at the end of the gallery eg:

Personal taste

Turns out I like medieval and Gothic art and don’t like the Renaissance. I like medieval art’s emphasis on the humane, on gorgeous or quirky detail, the prevalence of design and pattern over the clear and (to me) often empty or sterile backdrops which Italian Renaissance art uses to show off its mastery of perspective. Thus I prefer the tight composition, the symmetry, the packed and slightly claustrophobic feel, the sumptuous fabric and cracked floor tiles and the dense foliage climbing over the cloisters of The Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor (1510) by Gerard David to, say, The Nativity (1470-5) by Piero della Francesca, with its – to me – sense of abandonment in a sterile, rocky, Beckettian landscape.

And so I preferred almost any northern Renaissance painter – van Eyck and the fabulous Hans Holbein and Rogier van de Weyden – to the more famous Italians, because they seem to me to be more humane; to value the truly human, often ungainly, individual over the more religious types of the Italian Renaissance. Botticelli’s Venus and Mars are smoothly executed cartoons: Robert Campin’s man and woman are people.

Related links

Other reviews of National Gallery exhibitions

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