The Early Renaissance in Northern Europe: Sacred and Secular Space

Some differences between northern Europe and Italy:

Linear (mathematical) perspective is the achievement of Italy; northern perspective is more likely to be a combination of linear, atmospheric, and intuitive perspective.  By the 15th century, in Italian painting, space is something which seems to have existed before the characters were placed in it.  In northern European painting, although space appears to be convincing, upon close study it seems to be generated by the figures and the symbolic needs of the painting. This difference is less apparent when looking at pre-15th century Italian art because of the continued influence of the Byzantine style at that time.

Although both northern and Italian artists turn to antiquity, "antiquity" does not have the same meaning to them.  The artists of northern Europe were more likely to look to gothic and medieval models, which seem to be closer to the northern way of looking at the world and which were more likely to be found in northern Europe, while Italian artists turn to the ruins of ancient Greece and Rome, ruins which were virtually in their back-yard, so to speak.  The difference is visible -- one model leads to a more volumetric representation of people who appear to be capable of movement; the other leads to a greater interest in the linear qualities of the figure.  Add to this the northern interest in illuminated manuscripts and tapestries as a model for painting and you have a strong interest in surface pattern and texture. We should also keep in mind that illuminated manuscripts and tapestries are both influences on the northern Renaissance (they were made in the medieval era) and products of the northern Renaissance (they continue to be made), one of the factors which makes it difficult to identify a starting point for the Renaissance in northern Europe.

Books of Hours

Modeled on monks' prayer books, the book of hours included prayers for the hours of the day, stories of the saints, and a calendar, generally as the first part.  The days of the year in the middle ages were known as feast days, days which commemorated either an event in the life of Christ or the life of a saint.  In addition to giving the dates of each feast day and of all the Sundays of the year, the calendars were sometimes but not always illustrated.  The illustrations might contain pictures of the zodiac signs and also of the labors of the months.  The most famous calendar miniatures are those from the Duc de Berry's Tres Riches Heures, painted by the Limbourg brothers.  This particular book is characterized by a lot of a rather intensely saturated, brilliant blue.  The blue was made from crushed lapis lazuli - an expensive and imported rock.  Not only was the color a sign of the owner's wealth; he appears in many of the calendar pages, dressed in a blue robe with gold fleur-de-lys on the robe.
January, from the Tres Riches Heures of the Duke of Berry

The Unicorn Tapestries:

We did not discuss this in class but it's helpful to have an idea of what tapestries looked like. The Unicorn Tapestries originally consisted of seven panels--only fragments of the seventh exist today although it has been reconstructed as much as possible.  The panels narrate a story about the hunting and death of the unicorn, followed by its resurrection.  They would have been made as decoration for the walls of a nobleman's chateau. As with the illuminations from the previous Book of Hours, the images in these tapestries give us a variety of information about the lifestyles of the northern Europeans: fashion, leisure activities, plants and flowers which grow in the area, and so on. But all of this is given in this case in the context of a religious/mythological story about the unicorn.
 The Unicorn Defends Himself, one tapestry from the Hunt of the Unicorn, a Netherlands workshop, ca 1495-1505

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 Deesis* (11'6 x 14'5)

[*The Deesis is 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 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.

Altarpieces by Rogier van der Weyden

Rogier van der Weyden: The Deposition (Descent from the Cross), 1435-8 (oil on wood)
Rogier van der Weyden: Last Judgment altarpiece, after 1444-8

In the first one, notice how Rogier van der Weyden uses a composition based on rhyming bodies.  He does this throughout his work, and we'll also see it in his portraits.  Here, in the Deposition, you can follow the rhymes from one body to another.  In other works, like the Last Judgment altarpiece, the rhyming patterns are created through larger groups of figures and objects. Although van der Weyden excels at creating compositions based on rhyming patterns, 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 pattern than the creation of deep space.

The Deposition, more so than the Last Judgment, exemplifies what I 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 Last Judgment, although it does not create a sense of space, counters the frozen quality of a "living picture" through the movement of the damned and saved souls at the bottom.  There is also a greater sense of expansiveness in the top, created by the generous use of gold across the altarpiece.

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, somewhat like Van Eyck, a union of realism and idealism in which both can be perceived separately but it is difficult to separate them.  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.

Uniting the sacred and secular? The Merode altarpiece

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

Although it is not unusual to find real humans incorporated into the sacred setting in these altarpieces, there continues to be a strong sense that the setting for the sacred narrative was a different realm from everyday existence.  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.  The 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.  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 quite small.  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.
Hans Memling: portrait of Tommaso Portinari, ca 1470, approx 17x13", oil on wood Memling: portrait of Maria Baroncelli Portinari (same date and dimensions)

If this is true, it would have been a fairly small altarpiece, made for private use.  As we noted in class and as your textbook points out, the private, domestic altarpiece was fairly widespread in northern Europe.

The Early "Independent" Portrait

Jan van Eyck: The Arnolfini Double Portrait, 1434 (oil on wood; 32" x 23") enlarged detail of mirror on rear wall

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 in northern Europe.  The Arnolfini portrait has stimulated a great deal of interpretation, as well as a name change (previously being 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 as to how the merchant class lived and decorated their homes.

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

As we will see below, 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 or van Eyck's.  Although this reflects a difference of styles, it also relates to the difference between portraits of women and men.  Note that we do not even know the names of the two women in the previous 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 the 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?) Petrus Christus: St. Eloy (Eligius) in His Shop, 1449

This last painting give us another example of the way in which many northern paintings united the sacred and secular world, and in this case, doing it in the context not of an altarpiece but a painting which may have been a portrait of a man who was a goldsmith.  Many historians have interpreted this painting (very convincingly) as a last judgement.  At the same time, we should not overlook the fact that the painting gives us a very vivid and detailed view of daily mercantile life, to the point of including in the mirror a reflection of potential customers approaching his shop.  Whether a last judgement or not, the painting is also a true "occupational" portait.  It relates the goldsmith to the saint (who was probably his name-saint), so it is occupational in the more idealized sense, in which occupation refers to his status, morality and life goals, but it also shows us the goldsmith at work and surrounded by his tools, making it an occupational portrait in a much more everyday meaning of the word "occupation."  The tendency to portray a male subject in the guise of his name saint was a common approach to the male portrait, just as it was common to use Mary as the model for female portraits.