15 Century Art in northern Europe and Spain


15 Century Art in northern Europe and Spain
15th Century Art in northern Europe and Spain
The 15th Century was a very eventful time for Europe and the rest of the world. It was known as
the age of discovery. During the latter part of the 15th century, Columbus made his famous
voyage to the Americas, which brought about change, not only for Europe, but left the American
continent forever changed. In the early 15th century, Europe was making progress in unifying
and building nations. At this time the Renaissance was beginning in Italy, and Northern Europe
would shortly follow. While royal families had traditionally dominated government across
Europe, in Northern Europe, people began to be more educated and a dominant middle class
emerged which held a great deal of wealth. This new class of people were known as Bourgeoisie
(bu(r)zh-wa-ze). The Bourgeoisie was a group whose status was below nobility and whose power
came from employment, education and wealth, rather than aristocratic birth.
In painting, Italian painting evolved from Italio- Byzantine panel paintings, while in Northern
Europe, it was preceded by illuminated manuscripts. Illuminated manuscripts were hand written
texts (usually books) which were typically written by monks in monasteries. The margins were
illustrated with very decorative, colored designs.
Above: Early 15th century illuminated Bible.
With the rise of the middle class, people started to build careers instead of just working for basic
survival. In Northern Europe, guilds were the most common choice of career training for the
average man. Guilds controlled a person’s ability to train in a particular craft, for example,
painters, saddle makers, and mirror makers belonged to the Guild of St. Luke. Women were
typically not admitted to guilds. An exception was a woman named Lavinia Teerlinc, who was
trained in the guild system by her father, and became the royal painter for King Henry VIII. To
enter a guild a young man had to first be an apprentice to their father or a master. The apprentice
stage was typically kept busy with the more menial tasks of the trade. Later, after learning from
the master, they moved into the second stage, which was called the journeyman. This stage was
the hands-on stage, where the student was participating in the work of the master. After several
a time working as a Journeyman under the master’s close supervision, he would present his
work, known as a masterpiece, to the guild to determine if he was ready to be accepted as a
master which entitled him to begin working for commission, and accepting his own students.
The center for art and commercialism in Flanders, during the 15th century, was Bruges. Bruges
is also known as the “Venice of the North” because of its’ canal-based city plan and good port.
For a variety of reasons, the Duke of Burgundy chose Bruges as his capital. The countries of the
Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg are collectively known as the Low Countries, due to
their elevation. In 1384, the Low Countries or The Netherlands became part of the Duchy of
Burgundy. The region is known for fertile agricultural lands. The Dukes of burgundy were the
most powerful rulers in northern Europe, reigning from this region for the first three quarters of
the century.
Jan van Eyck was a 15th century Flemish painter and is considered one of the great painters of
the late Middle Ages. It is a common misconception that Jan van Eyck created oil painting, but it
is true that he achieved, or perfected, new and remarkable affects using glazing techniques. Two
of his most famous works were the Ghent Altarpiece and Giovanni Arnolfini and his Bride.
(Pictured Below)
Jan van Eyck, Adoration of the Lamb, from the Ghent Altarpiece, 1432
There is much symbolism in the Ghent Altarpiece. It is one of the largest (24 panels) and most
admired Flemish altarpieces of the 15th century. It was painted for the Cathedral of Saint Bavo in
Ghent, Belgium and its panels show a variety of Biblical scenes.
Jan van Eyck, Giovanni Arnolfini and His Bride, 1434
The Flemish panel of Giovanni Arnolfini and His Bride is another piece which shows the
characteristic symbolism of the time. It shows the couple taking their wedding vows in the
bedroom, with their shoes cast aside, symbolizing sacred ground. The dog in the foreground
represents fidelity. The fruit in the window sill represents fertility, which obviously worked
since the bride is far along with child. The whisk broom on the head board shows domestic
duties. The single candle burning in the fixture represents the all seeing eye of God. Scattered
throughout the piece are several other symbolic objects. This painting was for the patron
Giovanni Arnolfini who was an agent for the Medici family in Bruges.
Above: Jan van Eyck, Man in a Red Turban, 1433. Oil on wood, 10 ¼”X7 1/2”.
The piece above by Jan van Eyck demonstrates the Flemish painting style of the 15th century in
its sharply focused, hard-edged, brightly colored work, with tight brushwork. It shows an
interest in the overall appearance. The rounded forms are accomplished by glazes, a transparent
layer of paint, layered over an opaque monochromatic under-painting.
At this time, few large artistic enterprises were being commissioned. When large commissions
were offered, artists from all across Northern Europe came for the opportunity for work. One of
the largest artistic enterprises in Northern Europe around the turn of the 15th century was
centered at Chartreuse de Champmol. It was commissioned by the duke of Burgundy, Phillip
the bold, as a Carthusian Monastery near Dijon. One of the major sculptural features of the
project was a fountain called the Well of Moses (pictured below). The fountain served as the
water source for the monks. The commission for this endeavor was given to Claus Sluter. Sluter
was the most influential sculptor of Northern Europe during his time. He is considered the father
of northern realism and was considered an outstanding representative of the School of Burgundy.
The well depicts Moses, King David and four other prophets. The water pours down from the
cross over the figures, symbolically washing away their sins.
Sluter, Claus,The Well of Moses:
detail, figure of King David, 1395-1406
Within the School of Burgundy, painting was based on the style invented by Simone Martini
called the International Style. The International Style is characterized by an enamel-like finish
and elaborate molding, finished in gold-leaf, as we saw in earlier sections. Reinforcing the
International Style in the north were the old northern traditions of stained glass and miniature
The three Limbourg brothers were miniature painter. They created a book of hours depicting
scenes from the seasons known as the Tres Riches Heures de Duc de berry (The Very Rich
Hours of the Duke of Berry). This represented 12 months of religious tasks. It reflects the
influence of illuminated manuscripts from the medieval era and was done in the Northern
European miniature tradition. (Pictured Below)
Herman, Pol and Hennequin Limbourg, Tres Riches Heures de Duc de berry, France , 1410
The decorative, linear, aristocratic and artificial style of International Gothic was changed a little
by the Master of Flemalle (thought to be Robert Compin) in the Merode Altarpiece. (Pictured
Master of Flemalle (Robert Compin?), The Merode Altarpiece (open), 1425-1428
The piece is full of symbolism, as were many of the paintings from this period. Objects such as
lilies, represented the Virgins’ purity, the extinguished candle represented the death of the savior,
and many other symbolic references exist throughout the piece.
Altarpieces became very popular during this century. Panel painting evolved into portable
multi-sectioned pieces, rather than a single large panel. These panels were often hinged so they
could be closed and transported. The exterior was also commonly decorated. They are classified
according to the number of panel sections. A three-paneled altarpiece with folding wings is
called a triptych and an altarpiece with many panels is known as polyptych.
Rogier van der Weyden was another admired Flemish Panel painter in Northern Europe. Next to
Jan van Eyck, he was one of the most influential Northern European painters of the time. He
enrolled as a student in the studio of Robert Compin (shown above), and studied under him for
five years. One of his most famous works was the Escorial Deposition. (Pictured Below) The
piece was painted for the Archers Guild of Louvain. As with most of his scenes, the focus was
on human drama.
Rogier van der Weyden, Escorial Deposition, 1435
Petrus Christus (ca. 1410-1472) was another Flemish painter, however unlike many other
Flemish painters, little is known about Christus. It is believed that he was a student of van Eyck.
He showed a marked interest in space and cubic form in his work and his work contained a lot of
symbolism. Examples of his work include Portrait of a Young Girl (pictured below) and A
Goldsmith in His Shop (1449) (link below). The painting A Goldsmith in his shop, is thought to
have been commissioned by the gold and silversmiths’ guild of Bruges. The scene shows much
attention to the tools of the goldsmith trade and the neat interior setting surrounding the
impending purchase of the ring for the wedding.
Petrus Christus, Portrait of a Young Girl, 1470
These past Flemish altarpieces were remarkable, however the Northern European painting of the
15th century which showed the most successful interior in its consistency in scale and perspective
was The Last Supper (1464-68) by Dirk Bouts (pictured below).
Dirk Bouts, The Last Supper,
Louvain Belgium, 1464-1468
The painting shows the application of the rules of perspective. While Jan van Eyck and Rogier
van der Weyden had already used perspective in interior scenes, they hadn’t done anything
nearly this complex. Many believe that this is the first Flemish altarpiece depicting the Last
An artist in the second half of the 15th Century who demonstrated interest in expression of
emotion was Hugo van der Goes. Nothing is known of his life before 1467, when he became a
master in the painters' guild at Ghent. No paintings by Hugo are signed and his only documented
work is his masterpiece, a large triptych of the Nativity known as the Portinari Altarpiece ca.
1476 (pictured below). In 1481 he suffered a mental breakdown (he had a tendency of acute
depression) and although he recovered, died the following year. (Pictured below)
Hugo van Der Goes, Portinari Altarpiece, Florence Italy, 1476
Hans Memling was a Netherlandish painter, born in Germany, who was the last major fifteenth
century artist in the Low Countries. He was the successor to Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der
Weyden, whose practice he continued with little change. Hans Memling is known for the
Altarpiece of the Virgin with Saints and Angels, Bruges, Belgium, 1479. (Linked Below) His
figures are characterized by the typical Flemish frail form.
An unusual artist also emerged during the 15th century. He was an artist whose work verges on
caricature in his depiction of hate, sin, stupidity and bestiality. His name was Hieronymous
Bosch (ca.1450-1516). Bosch was a prolific Dutch painter of the 15th and 16th centuries. He
used images of demons, human-like creatures and machines to evoke fear in portraying the evil
of man. Bosch is said to have been an inspiration to the surrealist movement in the 20th century.
Surrealism is a movement stating that the freedom of our mind can be achieved by exercising
the imaginative faculties of the "unconscious mind" to the attainment of a dream-like state
different from, or ultimately ‘truer’ than, everyday reality. One of his most famous works was
the Garden of Earthly Delights. (Pictured below)
Hieronymous Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, 1505-1510
Below: details from the center panel of Garden of Earthly Delights.
Some have interpreted this painting as a warning like a Last Judgment scene. The center panel
depicts the immorality of mankind. The left panel depicts God presenting Eve to Adam in an
imaginative landscape. This is thought to hint at contemporaneous knowledge of alchemy.
(alchemy-medieval study of magical changes, especially chemical.)
The right panel “Hell” shows a wide array of punishment to sinners. Creatures are shown
devouring people. Others are being impaled, or strung on musical instruments similar to a
medieval rack. A gambler is nailed to his own table. It is thought that this is intended as a
deterrent to the sins shown in the center panel.
Below: Exterior of the closed panel of Garden of Earthly Delights, The scene shows the
world during the creation.
15th Century French Art
In France the Hundred Years’ War decimated the economy and prevented stability. This gave
rise to a group of duchies (the territory ruled by a duke or duchess), each with significant power.
The most powerful was the Duchy of Burgundy. French art was most strongly influenced by the
art of Flanders. In France, like Flanders images for private religious use were popular. One of
the most outstanding French artists was Jean Fouquet (c. 1420-1481). As was common during
this period, he often painted the artistic patron with a saint or other religious figure. His
masterpiece, Etienne Chevalier and Saint Stephen, (Pictured Below) was a piece rendered in
meticulous detail and ornamentation. This piece shows Chevalier with St. Stephen, his patron
saint. St. Stephen is shown holding the stone with which he was martyred.
Jean Fouquet, Etienne Chevalier and Saint Stephen, 1450
15th Century German Art
Germany during this period was the heart of the Holy Roman Empire. The Holy Roman Empire
was able to keep itself out of the Hundred Years War, which helped it maintain a stable
economy. Due to its stability, primary artistic patronage was the middle class, wealthy
merchants and clergy. Germany progressed not only economically but artistically as well. The
leading master of the School of Cologne was named Stephan Lochner (1400-1451). His style,
famous for its clean appearance, combined Gothic attention to long flowing lines with brilliant
colors and a Flemish influenced realism and attention to detail. His most famous pieces of art
were Adoration of the Christ Child by the Virgin (The Nativity) and Madonna in the Rose
Garden. (Linked Below)
This painting portrayed the extremely popular regional theme of the Virgin Mary surrounded by
a rose arbor. This symbolizes her Holiness/purity. The followers of Mary are often symbolized
by the Rose and the Thorns symbolizing her suffering as the mother of Jesus.
Conrad Witz was a Swiss painter known for painting the Altarpiece of Saint Peter in the
Cathedral of Saint Peter in Geneva. His triptych (Pictured below) is of importance because it is
one of the first paintings of the 15th century where the landscape was painted so meticulously
that historians can determine the exact location of the scene.
Conrad Witz, Miraculous Draught of Fish,
Michael Pacher was another famous artist of Germany. He was one of the first to incorporate
Italian Renaissance techniques into German art. He visited Italy where he became intrigued with
the use of perspective. Some of his paintings included St. Lawrence Distributing the Alms and
Saint Augustine and the Devil (Pictured below). Pacher often experimented with the eye-level at
which the scene is depicted in order to create a more dramatic effect. The piece below makes
use of a low eye-level in order to create a more dynamic scene.
Michael Pacher, Saint Augustine and the Devil, 1471 - 1475
He also created a masterpiece wood carving known as St. Wolfgang Altarpiece. It took the
Pacher 10 years to complete the altarpiece for the pilgrimage church of St. Wolfgang, in Austria,
where it still remains. http://gekos.no/fineart/html/p/pacher/wolfgang/index.html
Another Master of elaborately carved wooden altarpieces in the late 1500’s was a German named
Tilman Riemenschneider (ca.1460-1531). His notable works were the Last Supper and
Altarpiece of the Holy Blood (Pictured Below).
Tilman Riemenshneider Last Supper detail from Holy Blood Altar
Woodblock engraving flourished throughout the 15th Century, especially after the development
of the printing press by Gutenberg. Illustrations done in woodblock engravings were easily
incorporated into the printing process. The printing process allowed type to be removed and
replaced easily. The individual letters and illustrations were originally engraved in wood. The
woodblock printing process was barely maturing when the technique of metal engraving
(inscribing on a hard surface) was invented. It allowed a more detailed and durable plate than the
wood block. One of the German Representatives of the graphic arts at the time was Martin
Schongauer. Many northern artists were influenced by Italian paintings and engraved the same
theme or scene in metal to be reproduced repeatedly.
Above: Crucifixion by Martin Schongauer
Albrecht Altdorfer (ca. 1480-1538) was the leader of the Danube school of painters. The Danube
School is the name of a circle of painters of the first third of the 16th century in Bavaria and
Austria (also along the Danube valley). Some of his best known works are: Susanna in the Bath,
The Battle of Alexander (below), and Rest on the Flight into Egypt. He is also known for his
landscape paintings and will be discussed further below.
Altbrecht Altdorfer, The Battle of Alexander, 1529
16th Century Art in Northern Europe and Spain
The Sixteenth Century in Northern Europe
The sixteenth century in Europe was a time of political and religious turmoil. The Protestant
Reformation had begun in Germany with Martin Luther and rapidly gained ground with its
adaptation and protection by powerful monarchs. Henry VIII in England broke from the Roman
Catholic Church when he divorced Catherine of Aragon and married Anne Bolyn. He was
excommunicated by Pope Clement VII (the second Medici pope and friend of Michelangelo),
and declared himself the head of the Church of England, and Parliament voided the authority of
the Pope in England. Many other Protestant sects, including the Lutherans, Anabaptists,
Calvinists and others spread across northern Europe. There was much strife and civil war
throughout the century.
The first great nations were emerging out of the consolidation of smaller dukedoms and
kingdoms. France, England and Spain were powerful countries. In Spain gold was pouring in
from the plundering of the New World colonies, and from trade made possible by new sea
In addition to those newly-consolidated nations, the Holy Roman Empire was also a major
power. It was made up of over 300 separate dukedoms, kingdoms, archbishoprics, independent
cities, all containing German, French, Flemish, Walloon, Dutch and Italian-speaking peoples, all
ruled by an emperor who was elected by representatives of the states. In 1535, the Holy Roman
Emperor was Charles V, who was also the great patron of Titian. (Titian painted him in armor on
horseback.) Charles ruled a vast territory, including the Duchy of Burgundy, the Netherlands, the
German provinces, Austria, Switzerland and parts of what is now France and Italy.
How did one man come to control so much territory?
Charles's father was Maximilian the Habsburg Archduke of Austria, who had added the
Netherlands to his domains when he married Johanna, the heiress of Charles the Bold in
Flanders. Maximilian's son, Charles, married the only daughter and heir of the King of Spain,
Juana of Castile, and thus by marriage became King of Spain. In 1519 he was elected Holy
Roman Emperor. In 1555 he granted Spain and the Netherlands to his son, Philip II, and a year
later he abdicated entirely, leaving the rest of the Empire to his brother, Ferdinand I. Philip was
unpopular in the Netherlands, where he tried to impose the Inquisition on Protestant heretics and
sent 10,000 troops to enforce it. A civil war in the Netherlands against Spain eventually resulted
in the independence of the northern states, which were then established as a Protestant and
independent country, while the southern portion (now Belgium) remained Catholic.
Sixteenth-Century Art in Germany
There were some great European painters in the sixteenth century outside of Italy: in France,
Jean Clouet; in Flanders, Pieter Bruegel the Elder; in Germany, Matthias Grunewald, Albrecht
Durer, Albrecht Altdorfer, Hans Holbein, and Lucas Cranach; and in Spain, Domenikos
Theotokopoulos, known as El Greco.
Artists in Germany
After a period of strong influence from the Flemish schools, particularly from the more
expressive painters such as Rogier van der Weyden, German artists began to develop a style of
their own. In the work of Altdorfer and Cranach, we see an interest in nature--not the park-like,
civilized settings behind Raphael's Giorgione's and Titian's figures, but a wilder, rockier country
of forests, cliffs and rivers, with thorny trees. Italian influence began to show up in the use of
classical mythology, with nudes posing as Venus and other goddesses, but they don't look at
home in their chilly settings as the Italians do in their more sympathetic surroundings. There is
throughout, a tendency to be more sentimental on the one hand and more cruel on the other.
Rather than form, it is expression that interested the Germans, and it often manifests itself in
harsh ways. However, Italianate art was looked to with high regard and imitated and eventually
won over.
Matthias Grünewald (ca.1480-1528) was a multi-talented northern European Renaissance man.
He was a painter, architect and hydraulic engineer.
Grünewald and Dürer were painting in Germany at exactly the same time as the High
Renaissance was occurring in Italy. Grünewald was commissioned by the administrator of the
Monastery of St. Anthony of Isenheim to create a movable winged polyptych to be placed in the
hospital chapel. The closed altarpiece (pictured below) is arranged with a scene of the
crucifixion in the center section. The depiction of Christ is dramatic and more violent than those
done in Italy during the same time. On the left panel is St. Sebastian, who is shown pierced by
arrows. Below the crucifixion is a scene depicting the Lamentation. On the right panel is Saint
Anthony. On the reverse side of the altarpiece, Grünewald painted scenes showing the
temptation of St. Anthony and the Meeting of Saint Anthony and St. Paul.
Above: Isenheim Altarpiece (closed)
Above: Cropped open view of Isenheim
Above: Isenheim Altarpiece (open)
In the 16th century, landscape painting became very popular. Usually, landscapes until now had
been painted with figure and religious scenes. The German painter Albrecht Altdorfer (ca.
1480-1538) was the most successful landscape painter of the time. He was a printmaker, painter
and architect in the Renaissance of Northern Europe. He was taught by his father Ulrich
Altdorfer, who was a painter. Altdorfer painted in the Danube River area, where his subject
matter was “pure” landscape. His work was meticulously observed nature with no human
figures or religious purpose. Below is a prime example of Altdorfer’s landscape with its careful
attention to detail. The scene painted in the Danube region uses the winding path to take the
viewer into the composition while framing the scene with tall trees.
In Northern Europe during this period, paintings showing classical mythology were very rare.
An exception to this was the work of German painter Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553). He
was a favorite painter of Martin Luther. Cranach was not only a painter, but also a printmaker,
working in etching and woodcut prints. Cranach also painted a rare subject for Northern Europe,
the female nude. His style however is much different from the idealized style of the Italians.
Cranach placed his mythological subjects in lush German landscapes.
Albrecht Altdorfer, Danube Landscape, c. 1525. Oil on vellum on wood panel, 12”X18 1/2”.
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Venus and Cupid, 1534.
Albrecht Dürer was the leading artist in the Holy Roman Empire during this period. He was
often referred to as the “Leonardo of the North” for his careful analytical observation of nature
and man. Unlike Leonardo however, Dürer was extremely organized with his notes and studies,
which he even published. His diary recorded in detail, the events of his life and career and was
the first of its type by a Northern European artist. He lived in the city of Nuremberg and was the
son of a goldsmith. He did an apprenticeship in many disciplines such as goldsmithing, stainedglass, and printmaking. Of all of the various disciplines which he mastered, it was the graphic
arts, specifically wood cut prints and etching, in which he made his biggest contributions to the
art world.
Dürer often worked in series of prints using both wood cut technique, and the relatively new
technique of etching. Etching involves using acid to eat into a metal plate which is used as a
printing surface. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kyOtGRvE9h0
One of Dürer’s most famous series of prints was the Apocalypse series, which consisted of 15
prints done in the wood cut technique. Of those prints the most famous today is the Four
Horsemen. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mgCYovlFRNY
Albrecht Dürer, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. 1497-98. Woodcut, 15 ½” X 11 1/8”.
To enhance his education, Dürer traveled extensively. He eventually went to Italy, which was
experiencing the high point of the Renaissance. While there, he realized the importance of
theory in art. This was something which he felt was sorely lacking in the art of the north and he
encouraged others to study. While studying painting in Italy he developed a rich sense of color
and lighting which had a lasting impact on his work. A good example of this can be found in a
piece he presented to the city fathers of Nuremberg. The piece was painted without a
commission which signifies that he was not even planning to be paid for it. It was completed in
1526 and is entitled Four Apostles. It depicts in two panels showing John, Peter, Mark and Paul
pictured below.
Top left: Left panel showing John and Peter, Top right: Right panel showing Mark and Paul.
Hans Holbein the Younger was a German artist who migrated to England to avoid civil unrest in
his homeland. He was extremely skilled as a portrait painter and his work shows the influence of
the Italian masters through his technique, use of color, body structures and meticulous attention
to detail. Eventually Holbein became the court painter to Henry VIII of England.
Hans Holbein the Younger, The Merchant Georg Gisze, 1532.
A well-known painting by Holbein is The French Ambassadors, 1533. It is an oil on panel in
which Holbein used his attention to detail to show the education and refinement of the two
subjects in their surroundings. In the foreground of the scene he has a distorted human skull
which can be recognized when viewed from an angle. The purpose of the skull is widely
debated. This painting is the only one done by Holbein which was signed using his full name.
The link below is an HD image of the painting and others by Holbein. You can zoom in for a
detailed look.
German Artists on the Web
http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/a/altdorfe/index.html (Altdorfer, Albrecht)
http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/c/cranach/lucas_y/index.html (Cranach, Lucas)
http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/g/grunewal/index.html (Matthias Grunewald)
http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/d/durer/index.html (Durer, Alrbrecht)
http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/h/holbein/hans_y/index.html (Holbein, Hans the Younger)
Artists in Flanders
A Flemish painting showing Italian influences in its use of architectural form was St. Anne
Altarpiece by Quentin Metsy (various spellings Massy, Metsys). In this piece, Metsy
demonstrates his understanding of interior, architectural perspective in a style very much like
that done by Italian masters. http://www.wga.hu/html/m/massys/quentin/1/st_anne1.html
Metsy was the son of a blacksmith and he became the first major painter of the Antwerp school.
Bartolomaus Spranger (1546-1611) was a Flemish painter who started in Antwerp. He also
worked in Paris, Vienna and Rome. His work was an adaptation of Italian Mannerism and is
characterized by his use of nudes to fill space. His adaptation of the Mannerist style is taken to
the point of caricature much like modern cartoon caricatures.
Those 16th century Flemish artists who tried to make a synthesis of their own culture/national
style with Italian Mannerism are called Romanists. This name came about because of the
influence of the Italian masters.
Bartholomaus Spranger, Venus and Adonus, 1595-97.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (b. 1525-30 - 1569)
One of the most original painters of the sixteenth century in Northern Europe was Pieter Bruegel
the Elder, who portrayed contempory life in his location. In his work, Bruegel depicted Flemish
peasant life through simplification of detail, strong modeling and solidly drawn silhouettes.
Bruegel looked at his world with a keen eye and reproduced its characters with humor and
sympathy, at the same time moralizing on the behavior of that world and commenting on its
injustices and ironies.
Little is known of Peter Bruegel's early life. He was born in one of two villages called Brueghel
in the Netherlands, but the first secure date in his life is 1561 when he was admitted to the
Painters' Guild in Antwerp. Assuming that his age was 26 when that happened, he must have
been born around 1525. In 1563 there is a church document that shows he married Mayken,
daughter of the artist Pieter Coeck van Aelset and Mayken Verhulst, herself a painter of
watercolors and miniatures. Even Bruegel's death date is not known for sure, although it was
probably in 1569. His wife died 9 years later, and his two sons, Pieter the Younger, born in 1564,
and Jan, born in 1568, were raised by their grandmother. Both became well known painters.
Most of what we know about Bruegel the Elder comes from the account of his life by Carel van
Mander, dean of the Haarlem Painters' Guild, and author of Het Schilder-Boeck (Book of
Painters). Van Mander says that Bruegel did much work in the manner of Hieronymous Bosch
and "produced many spookish scenes and drolleries, and for this reason, many called him Pieter
the Droll. There are few works by his hand that the observer can contemplate solumnly and with
a straight face."
An example of the Brugel’s observation of society is Proverbs of the Netherlands (below). It
illustrates his often satirical work which often included political commentary in his painting. He
gives us a village scene with crowds of people in groups acting out the proverbs that people use
to comment on their own fate. One of B.s contemporaries, the German writer Sebastian Frank
said"We are all laughingstocks, fables and carnival plays before God."
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Netherlandish Proverbs, 1559. Oil on Panel, 3’10” X 5’4 1/8” .
Some of the proverbs portrayed:
Tarts on the roof (symbol of plenty)
There hangs the knife (a challenge)
The fool gets the trump card (fortune favors fools)
They lead one another by the nose
The cross hangs beneath the orb (it's a topsy-turvy world)
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Hunters in the Snow, 1565, Vienna, Kusthistorisches Museum.
Above: Nature is frozen to a standstill under winter green skies, but peasants are having a good
time skating on frozen ponds. Hunters with their dogs bring home a marauding fox. In front of
the Inn of the Stag, a pig is being singed before being butchered. Villagers play on the ice
practicing hockey, curling and skating. Black birds fly above the village and some of Bruegel’s
fanciful Alpine peaks appear in the distance. Bruegel gives a true picture of a Winters’ day.
The Mannerists in France
When we left Northern European art at the end of the fifteenth century, it was still under the
influence of the realistic, detailed style of Flemish artists such as Jan Van Eyck, Rogier Van Der
Weyden and others. That style of painting had spread to France, Germany, England and even
Italy. But then Italian influence began to make itself felt. Engravings of Italian paintings were
imported, Italian artists began to work in other countries, northern artists traveled to Italy, and by
the time of the High Renaissance (1500-1527) northern European artists were beginning to cope
with the less detailed, more monumental, heroic style of artists like Michelangelo, Raphael, and
Leonardo, as well as the Mannerists. There were some awkward moments in this period of
adaptation, because the Italian style was not completely understood, and when the northern
artists imitated the Italians, they often imitated the forms but not the spirit.
The Mannerist style was taken to France a little before mid-century by Fiorentino Rosso (the redheaded guy from Florence), who worked at the Chateau of Fontainbleau for the King of France,
Francis I (Francis earlier had brought Leonardo da Vinci to live in France in his old age, but not
much art seems to have come from Leonardo then.) Fiorentino Rosso, joined and then succeeded
by Francesco Primaticcio, created elegant combinations of architecture, sculpture and painting at
the chateau in the rather cold-hearted, slick, elegant and aristocratic style of Mannerism, and it
had great repercussions for French painting. The influx of Italian ideas into France continued
with the marriage of Henri II, the son of Francis I, to Catherine de' Medici from Florence.
In architecture, the Classical style arrived in France in the Château de Chambord. This
structure was commissioned by Francis I in 1519. In tradition, Château were typically used as
hunting lodges for royalty. This project lasted long enough that the king died before it was
completed. The chateau evolved from the castle-like, fortified buildings that we see in
illustrations of the Tres Riches Heures du Duc du Berry from the previous century, to country
houses with large windows and Italianate features such as symmetry in design, round arches and
various types of columns, with an over-all horizontal emphasis. Some Gothic features remained,
such as the sharply pointed roofs with their large chimneys, but classicism was beginning to be
the dominant style of French architecture. Books on Italian architecture were beginning to
circulate in Northern Europe.
Chateau de Chambord, begun 1519.
Art and Architecture in Spain
During the sixteenth century, Spain under the Hapsburg crown (aristocratic royal family from
Austria) had the most powerful military in Europe. The empire held control of a large portion of
the new world, and a large part of Europe as well as the Western Mediterranean and part of
North Africa. Wealth from these regions fueled the expansion. Spain was strongly Catholic and
supported the expansion of Catholicism.
In Architecture, Late Gothic and plateresque, styles dominated during the fifteenth and sixteenth
centuries in Spain. "Plateresque" is a term derived from "platero," the Spanish word for silver
work and applied to architectural decoration as if it were delicate work in silver. In the example
from the Colegio de San Gregorio there is a tracery reminiscent of Moorish screen designs and
elaborate ogival (gothic) arches. The branches of a pomegranate tree symbolizing Granada, the
Moorish capital of Spain captured by the Hapsburgs in 1492, wreathe the coat of arms of King
Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, making this a proud symbol of the recapture of Spain.
The link below shows the example of Plateresque style in Colegio de San Gregorio, Valladolid,
Spain, c. 1498
A massive complex called the Escorial was built during the reign of Phillip II. It houses the
remains of many of the monarchs of Spain and contains a church, palace and monastery. It is
obviously influenced by Italian architecture. The Escorial is located in an area about 30 miles
from Madrid. The primary architect for the complex was Juan de Herrera.
Juan de Herrera, El EscorialSouth façade, near Madrid, Spain, ca. 1563-1584.
In painting an artist from the island of Crete dominated the scene in Spain during the late 16th
and early 17th centuries. This artist was nicknamed El Greco or the Greek (ca. 1547-1614) . His
real name was Domenikos Theotokopoulus. El Greco moved from Crete to Italy while he was
young and eventually ended up in Venice, where he painted in the workshop of Titian. While in
Venice, he absorbed the style of the Venetian painters, especially Tintoretto. Because of his
exposure to Roman and Florentine painting he began to work in the Mannerist style. In the last
quarter of the 16th century, he immigrated to Toledo, Spain.
El Greco’s style appealed to the Catholic masses in Spain even though his style is clearly Italian.
El Greco, The Assumption of the Virgin, 1577-79. This was one of the first commissions El
Greco received when he arrived in Toledo.
El Greco, The Martyrdom of St. Maurice, 1580-81.