Like Us!

Worth Watching
  • Empires - The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance
    Empires - The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance
    A fascinating and highly entertaining look at one of the most important families of the Renaissance era--the Medici.
  • Sister Wendy - The Complete Collection (Story of Painting / Grand Tour / Odyssey / Pains of Glass)
    Sister Wendy - The Complete Collection (Story of Painting / Grand Tour / Odyssey / Pains of Glass)

    “Sister Wendy Beckett has transformed public appreciation of art through her astonishing knowledge, insight and passion for painting and painters.” This set includes Sister Wendy's Story of Painting, Sister Wendy's Odyssey, and Sister Wendy's Grand Tour. Simultaneously delightful and scholarly--this is a must have for anyone interested in art history.

  • Exit Through the Gift Shop
    Exit Through the Gift Shop
    When British stencil artist Banksy traveled to Los Angeles to work, he came across obscure French filmmaker Thierry Guetta and his badly organized collection of videotapes involving the activities of graffiti artists. Inspired, Banksy assembled them with new footage to create this talked-about documentary, and the result is a mind-boggling and odd film (so strange as to be thought a hoax by some) about outsider artists and the definition of art itself.
  • The Impressionists
    The Impressionists
    A dramatization of the Impressionist movement as seen through the eyes of Claude Monet. Highly entertaining and informative.
  • The Impressionists: The Other French Revolution
    The Impressionists: The Other French Revolution
    A very personal and revealing look at the personalities that created Impressionism.

Entries in Northern Renaissance (23)


The Census at Bethlehem: A Recomposition of Everyday Life

Pieter Bruegel the Elder - The Census at Bethlehem - 1566 - Oil on oak, 116 x 164 cm - Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels (click photo for larger image)Pieter Bruegal the Elder (c. 1525-1569) is discussed elsewhere on What About Art? - being one of the great Northern Renaissance masters. 

“Seen from above, the snow-covered village stretches on the one side to a ruined castle and on the other, beyond the pond, as far as the church. People are going about their daily tasks: sweeping the snow, building a cabin, crossing the pond on foot next to a ferry-boat caught in the ice, gathering around a fire. The children are playing, throwing snowballs, skating, spinning their tops, sledging. In the right hand foreground, a man with a large carpenter's saw is leading an ox and an ass, the latter bearing a women wrapped tightly in an ample blue mantle. Without attracting attention, they pick their way between the carts of beer barrels and bales. These are Joseph and Mary, who have come to Bethlehem to be enrolled in the universal census ordered by Emperor Augustus. The Gospel episode is associated with the payment of tax. And indeed to the left, the crowd is pressing in front of the tax-gatherer's office, installed at the window of the inn.” (Web Gallery of Art)


Konrad Witz: Immediate and Convincing Scenes

Conrad Witz - Miraculous Draught of Fishes - 1443-44 - Tempera on wood, 132 x 151 cm - Musée d'Art et d'Histoire, Geneva (click photo for larger image)Konrad Witz (c. 1410-1446) was a German-born painter from Rottweil in Swabia. He was active in Switzerland and is generally considered a member of the Swiss school. He entered the painters' guild in Basle in 1434 and apparently spent the rest of his career there and in Geneva. Little else is known of him and few paintings by him survive. These few, however, show that he was remarkably advanced in his naturalism, suggesting a knowledge of the work of his contemporaries Jan van Eyck and the Master of Flémalle (both discussed elsewhere on What About Art?) Instead of the soft lines and lyrical qualities that characterize International Gothic Style works, we find in Witz's paintings more monumental figures, whose ample draperies further emphasize their solidity.

Witz's most famous works are the four surviving panels (forming two wings) from the altarpiece of St Peter, which he painted for the cathedral in Geneva. His Miraculous Draught of Fishes, featured here, is Witz's masterpiece and his only signed and dated work. The landscape setting depicts part of Lake Geneva (one of the earliest recognizable landscapes in art). Witz’s naturalism is even more remarkable in his observation of reflection and refraction in the water.


Adoration of the Shepherds by Hugo van der Goes

Hugo van der Goes - Adoration of the Shepherds - 1476-79 - Oil on wood, 253 x 304 cm - Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence (click photo for larger image)Hugo van der Goes (ca. 1440-1482) was one of the greatest Flemish painters of the second half of the 15th century. His strange and melancholy genius found expression in religious works of profound but often disturbing spirituality. Van der Goes’ art, with its affinities to Mannerism and his tortured personality, have inspired a particularly sympathetic response to contemporary viewers.

The Adoration of the Shepherds featured today is the most important work by the greatest Netherlandish painter of the late 15th century. The painting has a unique historical and artistic significance. The altar was donated to the Florentine church of San Egidio by Tommaso Portinari, who since 1465 had been living in princely style in Bruges as manager of the Medici family's commercial interests. The central panel is flanked by two wings depicting other members of the Portinari family and the family's patron saints, with a grisaille Annunciation on their reverse.

From an artistic point of view, the differences between this work and those of the preceding generation, and earlier paintings by the same master, are astounding. While space and anatomy are easily mastered, they are no longer major themes of the composition, The infant Jesus lies within an aureole in an outdoor square, surrounded by his Mary and Joseph, clusters of angels and the worshipping shepherds. The more or less circular arrangement of the figures can be perceived equally in three-dimensional and two-dimensional terms. A certain impression of spatial depth is suggested by the figures' varying distances from the front of the picture and by the oblique line running from the Antique-style column beside Joseph in the left-hand foreground, through the manger with the ox and ass, and on through the buildings in the middle ground. Its logic is overthrown, however, as the artist reverts to the medieval system in which figures are portrayed on a scale directly related to their importance—the hierarchy of size. Thus the angels in the foreground are surprisingly small in comparison to Mary and Joseph - a contrast repeated in the sizes of the donors and saints portrayed in the wings.


The Nativity by Hans Baldung-Grien

Hans Baldung-Grien - Nativity -1520 - Oil on wood, 105,5 x 70,4 cm - Alte Pinakothek, Munich (click photo for larger image)Today’s featured work is an idyllic representation of the frequently painted subject of the Nativity, by one of the most outstanding (and peculiar) German Renaissance artists, Hans Baldung Grien (ca. 1484-1545). Balding served as an assistant to Albrecht Dürer, whose influence is apparent in his early works. The demonic energy of his later style is closer to that of Matthias Grünewald (1470-1528).

By electing to portray the main figures simply and quietly at the back of the stable, Baldung draws the eye first to the ruined architecture and the ox and ass seen in larger scale on the left. His construction of the interior embraces the opposite poles of precise foreshortening—as in the incisively drawn plinth in the foreground—and perspective uncertainty, something heightened by the differences in scale between animals and the figures. However, viewer irritation and Mannerist alienation are quite clearly not the artist's aims.

With the help of painted light, whose source seems to lie beyond the natural world, Baldung portrays the miracle of the Holy Night with what is (for him) an unusual depth of feeling. The infant Jesus, held in his swaddling bands by putti, seems to radiate light onto Joseph's red coat and Mary's hands and face. Through the brick archway in the cracked, plastered wall, we glimpse a second miraculous vision. An angel encircled by a radiant glory is appearing to a shepherd watching his flock. The fusion of light and shade and the soft modulation of the contours suggest that Baldung may have come into contact with the Danube School.


The Annunciation by Joos van Cleve  

Joos van Cleve - The Annunciation - ca. 1525 - Oil on panel, 86 x 80 cm - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (click photo for larger image)Netherlandish painter Joos van Cleve (ca. 1480-1540) is known for his portraits of royalty and his religious paintings. He is now often identified with the “Master of the Death of the Virgin” although that isn’t our particular theme for the period of Advent (a season observed in many Christian churches as a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus). Joos’ work is facile, eclectic and conservative, and he generally altered his style only to agree with the changes in fashion. Nevertheless, he was a fine painter and a successful one. He entered the Antwerp guild as a master painter, and in 1520 he was appointed its dean. He received a number of commissions from Cologne, where he influenced the local school of painting.  

Joos’ painting of the Annunciation takes place in a fully furnished, sixteenth century bedchamber. There is a bed, a prie-dieu, a chair, a dresser, a sconce, a pewter dish and jug, a stone vase, a cloth, and a chandelier. Netherlandish painters had a remarkable ability to render works in extraordinary detail, without making the overall scene appear cluttered or overdone.

Here is the Met’s description of this exquisite painting:

Gabriel and Mary are presented within an elaborately furnished interior that would have been familiar to sixteenth-century viewers. However, most of the objects, arranged unobtrusively within the room, carry symbolic meaning. The altarpiece and the woodcut on the wall, for example, show Old Testament prophets as prefigurations of New Testament themes. Influenced by Italian art, Joos appropriated a new canon of beauty, a new repertory of rhetorical gesture, and a striking grace of movement in his figures.