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Northern Renaissance Art

Northern Renaissance art is distinguished by the Gospel piety, the simple hearted, literal realism, and the symbolic grace. The human and practical side of religion was what the artists cared for. In spite of the orthodox Catholic dogma that their works expressed, they seem to carry in them the unconscious seeds of Protestantism. A glorious fidelity is their note, and this devotion to reality could never degenerate into materialism; it was raised by reverence and dignified by humility.

As in the South, the interpretation of ideas in the Northern Renaissance began with art. In sculpture, the forerunners of the German Renaissance were as striking as their Italian counterparts. The carved Virgins, Sybils and Saints, the portrait-statues and allegorical figures of Bamberg and Strassburg, Freiberg and Halberstadt, executed between 1225 and 1270, are distinguished by their naturalism and their mastery, and their beauty which far surpasses that realized by later workmen. For the most part their creators remained anonymous.

Northern Renaissance - Albrecht Dürer: Self-Portrait at 22
Albrecht Dürer
Self-Portrait at 22
Musée du Louvre, Paris

The first to bring the art of the Northern Renaissance into wide reputation were the painters of Flanders. Encouraged by the patronage of the Burgundian Dukes, the country became a natural school for artists. In spite of the glow and radiance of Van Eyck's "Adoration of the Lamb", of the jeweled innocence and happiness of Memling's musician-angels, or of the serenity of Gerard David's saints, sadness rather than gladness is the characteristic of Flemish artists.

The struggle and grief of the North are in them, together with its conscience. Their Queens of Heaven are somber, and no brushes are more vivid than theirs in the rendering of woe. Their contribution to art is rather prose then poetry , suited both to the Humanists and the Reformers.

The beauty of Northern art is chiefly abstract, a beauty of idea. The Virgins of Van Eyck and Albrecht Dürer are distinguished more by majesty than by beauty. The most significant trait of the German art was the intention to reveal the inner nature, with the slight disregard of external beauty. Few German Virgins can rival the Italian Madonnas in formal beauty. Dürer's art and the works of his contemporaries are showing a metaphysical conception rather than any sensuous perception. The German art is the child born of philosophy and of fairy-tale. Both elements mark the groups of fantastic, literal painters, each of them native to its own city, for every free town boasted its individual school of artists and scholars.

Chief among these towns ranked Nuremberg and Augsburg, and first among Augsburg Masters was, in Dürer's times, Albrecht Altdorfer (c. 1480-1538).

Northern Renaissance - Albrecht Altdorfer: Christ Taking Leave of His Mother
Albrecht Altdorfer
Christ Taking Leave of His Mother
National Gallery, London

German sculpture takes no different direction, whether we consider the Knights of legend, and the long-haired princesses from the hand of the Suabian Riemenschneider (1460-1531), or the works in stone and wood of the earlier school of Nuremberg, their fountains and shrines. Or the statues of Peter Vischer and Veit Stoss, and the passionate piety of Adam Kraft (1443-1507), master builder and the sculptor of the history of the Cross and the Entombment.

Architecture represented little more than a prolongation of the Gothic style, and the German sculpture could show fewer names compared to the numbers in Italy.

The Northern Renaissance art was the art of burgherdom, of a refined democracy. It merged, it ended, in the Reformation.

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