German Painting of the Northern Renaissance



 Almost at once, at about 1500, the liberating spirit of the Italian Renaissance flowed into Germany, where an amazing (albeit relatively short) transformation happened in painting. Evidence of this can first be seen in this striking altarpiece by Matthias Grunewald, The Isenheim Altarpiece (c. 1510). With St. Sebastian on the left, and St. Abbot on the right, the Crucifixion stands in front of us: dark and ominous. Christ is obviously in agony, as are the mourners. Upon closer inspection, one can see hundreds of small lesions and pustules covering Christ's body, no doubt in reference to those of the plague that hit Germany quite hard just a couple decades prior. There is a definite Gothic feeling to the work, until the doors are opened.

 Upon opening the doors to the Isenheim Altarpiece, one is blown away by the sheer radiance and joy of the imaged inside! The most striking is the Resurrection panel, where Christ explodes from his tomb with unbelievable radiant glory, knocking the guards to the ground. The experience of the local townspeople when they witnessed this must have been overwhelming, as it is quite awe-inspiring to us today. (For a full inside view of the altarpiece, click on the image to the right.)

There are several interpretations that can be assigned to this work......all of them most likely correct. First, the fact that the exterior of the altarpiece is done in a Gothic-like style, only to change dramatically to something totally new and exciting reflects the change going on in Germany (and indeed Northern Europe as a whole) with the Reformation: out with the old suffering, and in with the new light. Second, the plague had hit this area rather hard, and people had suffered for years. To help ease people's suffering, seeing Christ and how he had suffered on the exterior panel, only to see him regain all his glory after death, gave people hope that all would be wonderful when they, too, would join Jesus in the kingdom of God: . . . . "hey, things are tough now, but just wait until we go to heaven!"

Albrecht Durer

 Like Grunewald, Albrecht Durer was awed by the Renaissance. Unlike Grunewald, Durer agreed with the Southern tradition of painting with order and balance, and appreciated paintings placement with with the liberal arts. Durer was also one of the first "super stars" of the art world, due to his expert printmaking skills in woodcut and etching. Durer's superstar status wasn't lost on himself.......he painted dozens of self portraits (the most famous one is shown to the right) and did hundreds of prints of himself with intent to circulating them throughout the land. In the self portrait on the right (c. 1500), we see the Flemish style associated with the likes of Van Eyck, however, the pose is full frontal view.......and rather Christ-like too, which I'm sure occurred to Durer. (He was actually quite the ladies man. Legend has it that he (quite irresponsibly) fathered quite a large number of children all over Europe.)

Durer is best known for his exquisite woodcuts and etchings, which were actually a Northern phenomenon. With the invention of the printing press, words and art work could be mass produced for the first time, making it accessible to the working classes, rather than only the elite.


 Durer's Adam and Eve (c. 1504), top left, and his Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (c. 1498), top right, were wildly famous during the time. With the Adam and Eve etching, we see the Germanic notion of the ideal man and woman.......very different from their Italian counterparts, while the earlier Apocalypse woodcut looks back to the Gothic era for its inspiration

The paintings shown above, The Great Piece of Turf (c. 1503) and The Four Apostles (c. 1526), are important works in their own right. The Great Piece of Turf is an excellent example of the Renaissance's new appreciation of nature study and the desire to carefully observe the world in which mankind lived. The Four Apostles represent Durer's passion for Protestantism in their austere style and the inscriptions at the bottom, which criticize both the Catholic Church or any other religious extremism. They may also be seen as symbolic of the four temperaments, the four seasons, the four ages of man, etc.

Hans Holbein (the Younger)

 After the death of Durer, Hans Holbein was really the only other German artist able to step up to the plate and paint the human figure in a way that was truly "renaissance." Holbein's The French Ambassadors (c. 1533), above, uses all the traditional elements in Northern Renaissance painting. It is richly detailed, with voluptuous textures and patterns. It's also full of symbolic images that represent the humanistic interests in the liberal arts and science. The oddly shaped "thing" in the lower center of the painting, when viewed at an angle is "death's head."

 Looking at three more of Holbein's portraits, we see (starting at the top and going clockwise) the Portrait of Erasmus (1523), the Portrait of Henry VIII (1540), and the Portrait of Georg Gisze (1532), a wealthy merchant from London. Notice that the earlier Portrait of Erasmus is done in profile, a position quite common in early Southern Renaissance portraits. The Portrait of Henry VIII, a later work, has the same regal, full frontal pose as Durer's self portrait, projecting an atmosphere of authority and importance. As Holbein matured, his paintings relied less and less on the clutter of objects, and more on the figure itself, with out all the distractions. We notice that the clutter is back with his earlier Portrait of Gisze, as he sits in his shop.  

Pieter Bruegel

 After 1550, when the Reformation was strongly established in the North, we see a shift to a new subject matter in painting called genre. (Genre painting is about the "every-day" kind of scenes one would experience in normal, every-day.) With religious commissions dropping like flies, artists courted a new patrons: members of the middle class. The Peasant Wedding (c.1565), by the renowned genre painter Pieter Bruegel, shows this type of subject matter.

 It may strike us as curious why Bruegel, a highly educated man with numerous friends in high places, would use peasant life as the subject for most of his paintings. The answer lies in his strong, humanist philosophy, which appreciated the simple pleasures of the working class and their customs. (In fact, Bruegel and some of his wealthy patrons would sometimes dress up in peasant garb and join in their merry-making, as in Bruegel's the painting to the right, the Peasant Dance, (c. 1570).
 Bruegel's Return of the Hunters (1565), below, is another good example of landscape genre painting that became popular after the Reformation.

Click on the thumbnails below to learn more about other Northern Renaissance Artists (that might very well show up on the AP exam:)

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