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Northern Renaissance Art: Inspiration and Transformation

Updated on April 8, 2012
St Luke Portraying the Virgin ~ Weyden
St Luke Portraying the Virgin ~ Weyden

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Europe experienced a sort of rebirth of art known as the Northern Renaissance. According to Craig Harbison, author of The Mirror of the Artist: Northern Renaissance Art in its Historical Context, “The art of the Northern Renaissance is, to a great extent, based on that simple point – discovery of the world and of the self.”

Religion has always been dominant in the history of art, and when the Northern Renaissance began, there was no exception. Although there was always conflict with worshipping the figures in images, art gave people something to see and imagine as they learned the story of God and the famous disciples that followed Him. The image St. Luke Portraying the Virgin by Roger van der Weyden is one example of the religious art of the time. In this painting, van der Weyden uses his own face for St. Luke, honoring himself and his profession, as artists saw their work as holy and important to relaying the messages of God. This importance to the people of seeing what they read or heard is what kept people loyal to and artists employed by the church. As time passed, however, art became more than just a religious medium; it developed a market and acquired rich and prominent patrons.

In keeping with the idea of the Northern Renaissance, the people began to observe the physical world more closely, resulting in a change of art style and what was considered important in art. Artists became concerned with the authentic representation of the spaces portrayed in their illustrations. Three-dimensional images surfaced and there was a higher emphasis on architecture. This is evident in Roger van der Weyden’s St. John Alterpiece. This three-piece work portrays interiors and exteriors, architectural arches, and nature. The people are more realistically presented, and there is unquestionably more intricate detail. Instead of just trying to convey a message, the artist takes care with the images themselves, representing each part in a more realistic way.

Art of the Northern Renaissance was dependent on external variables, not on artistic problems and theory. Everything was based on location and purpose, and art was strictly regulated as a craft and profession, not as a hobby. Most work was commissioned and under the contract of a patron, so artists had strict guidelines as to what was to be painted based on what the patron wanted and where the work was to be placed. Such a contract still exists for the Coronation of the Virgin by Enguerrand Charonton, consisting of twenty-six paragraphs describing the images and details that were to be portrayed. Of course, Charonton was able to represent the images desired the way he saw fit, whether realistically or not, but his work was regulated, and he was told what to paint instead of having some kind of inspiration of his own.

Meanwhile, the Church was struggling to increase its attendance. There was such political gain and abuse of power in the Church that many people only went once a year to “buy” their salvation through the “indulgence” certificates the church sold as a reprieve from their sins. Roger van der Weyden was commissioned to paint the Seven Sacraments altarpiece with a central prayer tablet attached. The tablet’s purpose was to bring the images to life, pointing out that people can only reach salvation within the walls of the Church. This was a small effort by the Church to arouse a new faith in the people and ultimately raise attendance.

The Money Changer and his Wife
The Money Changer and his Wife

After the Reformation and as a response to Protestant criticism of “idol worship,” artistic subjects began to shift. The core of art had always been religious, but it was changing to include portraits, landscapes, and still-life. Still-life was an essential and constant part of Northern art. A painting with still-life uses seemingly random objects that gives the central part of the painting more meaning, almost symbolic. Times were changing and people were becoming wealthier, as is depicted in Quinten Massy’s Money Changer and His Wife. He tests his money for value, and in the background we see an eclectic mix of objects such as a crystal vase and beads and dusty books. This mix of new and old gives us the idea that people were able to acquire new things and economic change was at hand.


A Renaissance is a sudden renewed interest in Greek and Roman art. This may not have been exactly the case in Northern Europe, but their interest of ancient works earns them a period of Renaissance. As far as mythology goes, it was often shaped into a story that fit into the Christian or Nordic category. Jan Gossaert did this in Danae. In Greek mythology, Danae was locked in a tower to protect her virginity, but Jupiter snuck in as a shower of gold and impregnated her. In Gossaert’s image, Danae is dressed in blue and seated on a red pillow; this was the classic pose and colors for the Christian Virgin of Humility. It brings the viewer back to modern beliefs, leaving just a hint of ancient Greece.

Northern Europe experienced all kinds of changes and shifts in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Church struggled to hold its power through art; artists began to explore new subject matter; and peoples’ lives began to change economically and politically, resulting in new categories of art. The altered view of artists and people in general, and their willingness to explore new “frontiers” resulted in the Northern Renaissance.


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