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2023 - 2024: South and North: Two Artistic Renaissances

The period that we covered, from 1425 to 1500, is an exciting one in which differing social and cultural changes across Europe had varying consequences for art, fuelled by a generally increased interest in naturalism. In Italy, the Early Renaissance initiated in Florence represented a reawakening to the ideals and achievements of the ancient Roman past, another influence on its art. Meanwhile, painting in Northern Europe was having a different kind of Renaissance, based on observation of the real world and facilitated by its mastery of the use of oil paint.

The Rolin Madonna by Jan van Eyck (c.1434, left) is named after its patron, depicting him in imagined conversation with the Virgin Mary. Notice the treatments of light and of textures, and the landscape view through the arcade as if a painting-within-the-painting, with buildings, hills and fields portrayed in meticulous fine detail, typically Flemish. We’re given a sense of depth into space, despite not obeying the rules developed in Italy of single-point geometrical perspective, which the work on the right does. It’s a panel in gilded bronze (modelled in the 1430s, right) of Lorenzo Ghiberti’s so-called Gates of Paradise for the Baptistery in Florence. The Old Testament story of Jacob and Esau is represented as if a view through a window, with successive scenes shown happening together, so-called continuous narrative.

Descent from the Cross by Roger van der Weyden (c.1435, left) depicts mourners around the dead body of Christ and is one of the most dramatic religious paintings ever made. The scene is compressed into a small non-natural space, a sort of shallow golden box resembling an altar shrine. This Flemish representation of human emotion and suffering seems to spill out of the picture towards us. It can be compared to Fra Angelico’s take (c.1434, right) on the same subject, an Italian Renaissance style composition that makes skilful use of the three arches of an existing Gothic frame. In the harmoniously receding landscape, each figure has a clearly defined place within the pictured three-dimensional space. The sorrowful scene is depicted with quiet reverence and with more interest in pleasing composition than in the expression of emotions.

On the left is one of three panels, each 10½ feet wide, painted by Paolo Uccello to hang together on the walls of a prominent Florentine family’s palazzo. The Battle of San Romano (c.1440) commemorates an event of a few years earlier but looks less like warfare than pageantry – the patron presumably wanted it to be decorative rather than realistic. Features such as the broken lances in the foreground stand in for perspective construction lines. On the right (c.1459) is a detail of The Procession of the Magi, fresco decoration by Benozzo Gozzoli in a small private chapel of the Medici family, unofficial rulers of the city. Their portraits in sumptuous garments stand in for leading characters. The tapestry-like effect follows the International Gothic rather than a Renaissance artistic style. It’s a show of luxury, sending out a message of prestige and high status.

Van Eyck’s Man in a Red Turban (c.1433, left), thought to be his self-portrait, epitomises the Northern Renaissance style of portraiture. The subject’s heavily lined face with saggy, wrinkled skin is subtly modelled by light falling from the left, standing out against the dark background. He’s looking at us with a slight hint of a smile on his face and a penetrating gaze. The glossiness of the oil paint adds shine to his eyes to look as if catching the light. It took until the time of Antonello da Messina for Italian portraiture to catch up. His Portrait of a Man (1475, right) has a three-quarter view instead of the profile view previously usual in Italy. Strong lighting focuses our attention on the face of the unidentified person. Antonello was one of the leaders in Italian art’s slow transition to using oil instead of egg tempera for panel paintings.

A Goldsmith in his Shop (1449, left) by the Flemish artist Petrus Christus is a pioneering example of genre painting, the depiction of everyday life. The table at which the craftsman sits is both his workbench and the front of his shop, separating it from the street, our viewpoint as we look at the picture. Two customers are considering a purchase, probably for their wedding. On the right is a detail from the Italian Piero della Francesco’s fresco cycle The Legend of the True Cross (c.1455), which represents a fanciful story about the wood that would be used for Christ’s crucifixion. The kneeling figure represents the Queen of Sheba, reverently paying homage to a plank bridging a stream. The alternating colours and poses of the horses and their grooms illustrate one of this artist’s ways of introducing balance and harmony.

The Adoration of the Shepherds (1470, left) by the Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes exemplifies the kind of realism typical of Northern Renaissance art. Individual parts are naturalistic while the perspective with which they’re depicted is varied for visual effect. The rough and rustic appearance of the three vividly characterized shepherds is more down-to-earth than in any previous depictions of the nativity story. The work was installed in a church in Florence and its influence is illustrated by Domenico Ghirlandaio’s painting with the same title (1485, right). This combines Northern qualities with Italian single point perspective and compositional harmony. Ghirlandaio’s shepherds, less exuberant than Van der Goes’, display more humanity than any figures previously seen in Italian art. The triumphal Roman arch through which the magi and their retinue are coming is one of several prominent references to classical antiquity.

It was in Italy that there were the most significant 15th century innovations in sculpture. Donatello’s bronze David (left, c.1443) is a surprisingly effeminate boy, wearing nothing but ornamented leather boots and a hat in a style associated with the classical god Hermes. The medieval world viewed the naked human body as a path to corruption, but here it’s being celebrated, reviving the attitude of Ancient Greece and Rome. The statue was made for a private space belonging to the cultured, humanist-minded Medici family. Bacchus (right, c.1497) is an early work in marble by Michelangelo, commissioned by a high-ranking cardinal but actually sold to another lover of classical art. The god of wine is angled backwards in a precarious rotating posture, seemingly on the point of losing his balance. The suggested influence of alcohol is also evident in the expression on his face.

Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (c.1485, left) shows the classical goddess of love and beauty arriving on land, born of the sea spray and blown there by the winds. The figures cast no shadows and the flatness and linearity of the painting are out of keeping with the mainstream of Renaissance art. The mythological subject-matter meant that the work would have been seen only in a private space of a member of the elite. On the right depicting an apparent paradise is the central panel of the Garden of Earthly Delights, a triptych (1490s) by the Dutch artist Hieronymous Bosch. Among the naked revellers in the bizarre pleasure park are some engaging in amorous encounters, behaviour that the medieval world believed would lead to horrific punishments in a hell like that shown on a wing of the triptych. The work went to the palace of a prominent aristocrat, where it might have been appreciated for its imagination and wit rather than for its religious message.

The Last Supper (1867, left) is the central panel of an altarpiece in the Flemish church for which it was painted by local artist Dirk Bouts. It follows the Northern realist tradition with much fine detail, while being an early example of a Flemish artist using the Italian single-point perspective system. The space between the two men at our side of the table seems to be inviting us to enter the scene as we look at the picture. On the right is a detail of the more famous version of the subject in a monastic refectory by Leonardo da Vinci (1498, detail), a fresco made to look like a high table overshadowing the monks eating their meals in the space below. The composition is in strict single point perspective, a harmonious whole within which are emphasised individual reactions to Jesus’s declaration of his forthcoming betrayal. It goes beyond a naturalistic representation to suggest a higher reality with a sense of grandeur.

Lady with an Ermine (1489, left), a portrait by Leonardo of the 15-year-old mistress of the Duke of Milan, shows how the artist had fully absorbed key lessons from the Northern Renaissance, building on its oil painting technique to achieve an unprecedented degree of naturalism. The turning poses of both the young lady and the animal that she holds create an impression of animation and mobility. Large intent eyes make her look keenly attentive and intelligent, her small mouth with thin lips almost imperceptibly parted in a faint smile. Albrecht Durer painted his Self-portrait at 26 (1498, right), just after returning from a visit to Italy, having there found artists much more respected than in his native Germany. His flamboyant clothes show the influence of Italian fashion and his assured self-confidence verging on arrogance expresses a claim to an elevated social position for himself as a highly talented artist.