The 15th Century in Northern Europe: Sacred and Secular Space

When we speak of northern Europe, we are not speaking of a single nation-state but regions which eventually become distinct nations and which, to a degree, were already separate kingdoms prior to the 15th century.  As your book points out, this does account for some of the differences we’ll find since political factors may be competing with piety or religion in the creation of northern art. It is also the case that parts of northern Europe see the rise of a middle class of merchants and tradesmen in the 15th century while other parts remain dominated by kingdoms and aristocrats. Key factors influencing the art of northern Europe include the following:

Religion and religious art did not disappear (when the Reformation occurs, very little art will be made for churches). Unlike religious practices in Italy at this time, there was a greater emphasis on private religious practices in the home environment. Books had already became an important source of communicating religious beliefs – the medieval illuminated manuscript was a part of life long before the 15th century. Domestic altarpieces are a newer form of private observance and one which we find in northern Europe far more often than in Italy. The last influence we should note is that because sculpture was such an intrinsic part of the Gothic cathedral, the sculptural tradition which will dominate northern European art is visibly quite different from the classical tradition which will be so important to Italy.

Some differences between northern Europe (often referred to as Flanders) and Italy in the 15th century:

The Ghent Altarpiece

Hubert and Jan van Eyck: the Ghent Altarpiece, 1432 (oil on panel): closed position
Ghent altarpiece, open position, with the figure of God the Father united with the image of Christ of the Last Judgment and the Deësis* (11'6 x 14'5)

[*Deësis: an iconic image, usually Byzantine, which shows Christ between Mary and St. John the Baptist.  The Last Judgment shows Christ enthroned with the right hand raised.]

In the closed position, the two "statues" of St. John are examples of the grisaille (made to look like grey stone) technique, used in a lot of altarpieces.  The couple who donated money to the chapel for which this was made are shown kneeling and praying before the statues.  Above them, we see an annunciation scene, with an open window which reveals a view of Ghent.  Prophets and sybils who foretold the event are above the annunciation.

When open, we have a richly detailed altarpiece in which the top half consists of religious icons and the bottom half creates an image of the Flemish countryside that is lushly green and filled with flowering plant, most of which have been identified.  A lot of people in the altarpiece hold books, and in most cases, the words in the books can be read.  It seems that the books were used to communicate a theological discourse requested by the donors and the priest.

An Altarpiece by Rogier van der Weyden

Rogier van der Weyden: The Deposition (Descent from the Cross), 1435-8 (oil on wood)

In this example, notice how Rogier van der Weyden uses a composition based on rhyming bodies.  He does this throughout his work, whether altarpiece or portrait.  Here, in the Deposition, you can follow the rhymes from one body to another. Although van der Weyden excels at creating compositions based on rhyming patterns, he is hardly the only artist to do this. We can see it in the Ghent altarpiece as well, especially in the bottom panel in the open position.  Compositions based on repeating curves, lines and forms are probably inherent to an art which is more interested in line and pattern (as is the case with most northern art) than the creation of deep space (the concern of Italian artists).

The Deposition exemplifies what some people think of as a tableau vivant or "living picture" (people deliberately posing as a painting).  The figures look believably three-dimensional, almost as if they had been carved in relief inside a box.  The crowded space which does not allow for any movement enhances the emotional quality of the scene.

The Portinari Altarpiece: Hugo van der Goes, 1475-6

central panel: The Adoration of the Shepherds grisaille panels on outside of the Portinari altarpiece in the closed position
open position, Portinari altarpiece

This is a recognizable religious narrative, set in a northern landscape, with the Portinari family represented and their patron saints behind them, almost twice the size of the humans.  The use of scale recalls the hieratic compositional style of earlier religious icons, a style that for the most part, was no longer characteristic of this type of religious painting.  Van der Goes' painting creates relationships between the figures which add to the composition and communication of the narrative and in which importance is conveyed by size.

The effect is a union of realism and idealism in which both can be perceived separately yet both are united. At the same time, the degree of naturalism in parts of the painting is extremely accurate and as many people have commented, the vase of flowers could be an independent still life painting.  The flowers were chosen carefully for their symbolic value: violets = humility; lilies and iris = passion; columbine = Holy Spirit; 3 red carnations (nail flowers) = nails of the cross.

You might have noticed that "Portinari" is an Italian name. The family which commissioned this was indeed Italian and kept the altarpiece in their private chapel. This is one of the most significant elements of this altarpiece because it eventually meant that Italian artists could see an example of Flemish painting without traveling to Flanders.

Uniting the sacred and secular? The Merode altarpiece

Robert Campin (the Master of Flemalle): the Merode altarpiece, 1425-30, open position

Although humans and saints and angels occupied the previous altarpiece, and everything looked naturalistic, it still does not appear to be a real place in which the real humans might have lived. In this altarpiece, that separation is challenged. Although the patrons are kneeling outside the kitchen where the annunciation takes place, one can easily imagine that the room is a real room in their home.  This is the earliest Annunciation panel set in a fully detailed domestic interior, an element of reality which creates an interpretive problem: every element now has a second meaning.  The goal apears to be one of making sacred symbols look like part of the natural world.

This union of symbolism and realism is characteristic of many 15th-century northern European paintings.  It is a union which makes the secular world sacred and may help to explain why donors wanted their portraits included in the altarpieces (and other religious paintings) they commissioned.  Here, the artist has also made a consistent attempt to render a complete spatial reality, although it is not the same space from one panel to another. Despite the fact that it is not accurate perspective, every detail is made concrete.

This particular altarpiece is probably much smaller than you imagine. It was not made for a chapel or church - it was made for the patrons to keep in their own home.  The male patron's family name was Ingelbrecht, which means "angel bringer" and the female patron's family name was Schrinmechers, which means "shrine maker." Robert Campin seems to have chose this scene, the Annunciation and Joseph making a mouse trap, as a deliberate reflection of the meanings of the patrons' names.

The Rise of the True Portrait in Northern Europe

Given the increasing tendency to make the setting of the religious scene resemble the home of the patron, it may not be that surprising to find that the donors of these altarpieces and frescoes wanted their portraits to be included as well. The portraits by Hans Memling of the Portinaris are so precise and accurate in their depiction of the physiognomies and facial features that we are able to identify the Portinaris in paintings by other artists, even without initially knowing the names of those paintings. In real life, these paintings are even more detailed than they look in reproduction.  One of the characteristics of Memling's paintings, in these as well as his others, is the suggestion that Tommaso and Maria are sitting in a real, three-dimensional space and that they are leaning slightly out of it, as their hands rest on a "ledge" in front of them.  Because they are not looking at each other and because there is no background behind them, most historians believe that the portraits were once separated by a third panel containing a religious scene. If true, it would have been a fairly small altarpiece, made for private use.
Hans Memling: portrait of Tommaso Portinari, ca 1470, approx 17x13", oil on wood Memling: portrait of Maria Baroncelli Portinari (same date and dimensions)

The Early "Independent" Portrait

Jan van Eyck: The Arnolfini Double Portrait, 1434 (oil on wood; 32" x 23")

The portrait as a painting which was made just to be a portrait, as opposed to a portrayal of the donors of an altarpiece, begins to appear in the early 15th century with some of the earliest examples found in northern Europe.  The Arnolfini portrait has stimulated a great deal of interpretation, as well as a name change (previously called the Arnolfini Wedding Portrait).  In fact, the focus of interpretation has been the question of whether the painting documents a marriage, a betrothal, or is better understood as a double portrait, falling in the class of court portraits.  Van Eyck was a noted portrait painter for the royal court, a factor which gives credibility to the idea of seeing this as a double portrait.  That does not eliminate the symbolic meaning of the clogs, the dog (faith and fidelity), the mirror (the eye of God), and other religious symbols in the painting (St. Margaret, on the corner of the chair; the scenes from the passions of Christ painted on the frame of the mirror), but it corresponds more closely to the fact that the Arnolfinis were not married in 1434 (they did not marry until 1447) and to the dominant tendency in northern paintings to find sacred meaning in "ordinary" objects.

The document interpretation has always rested on the belief that van Eyck can be seen in the mirror.  Certainly, two other figures can be made out, but it is unclear as to who they are.  Van Eyck did sign the painting right above the mirror, at the very least leaving no doubt in anyone's mind that he was the artist who made it.  Whether he intended his presence in the mirror as a witness to a legal ceremony or not, it was not unusual for aristocrats to use portrait paintings as a metaphorical document of their status.  In this painting, every object which can be identified (basically everything in the painting) is either there as a symbol of fertility, of betrothal, of faithfulness, or as a symbol of the wealth of Arnolfini.  For viewers today, besides being a brilliant work of art, the painting is a wonderful source of information about the lifestyle of the merchant class.

Rogier: Portrait of a Lady, c. 1460, oil and tempera on wood, 14x10" Rogier: Lady Wearing a Gauze Headdress, c. 1445, oil/wood

The male subject was often potrayed in the guise of his name saint. For a woman, Mary was the model. Rogier van der Weyden's portraits are more idealized and less naturalistic than either Memling's or van Eyck's. Although this reflects a difference of styles, it also relates to the difference between portraits of women and men.  We do not even know the names of the two women in the above portraits, making them less about the subjects (although it is quite apparent that the artist did use real models for those paintings) than about the proper behavior of women of a certain class.  Male portraits were also idealized, but less often in terms of their physical characteristics than in terms of making a statement about the man's position in the world.  Van Eyck, however, was far less likely to glamorize his subjects than most other artists.  Certainly, this lack of glamorization was true of the painting we believe to be his self-portrait.

Jan van Eyck: Man in a Red Turban, 1433 (self-portrait?)