The Arts in Sixteenth-Century Northern Europe

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The Arts in Sixteenth-Century Northern Europe


During the fifteenth century Netherlandish artists had dominated Northern European painting. A distinguished lineage of painters, particularly in the wealthy city of Flanders, had perfected the medium of oil painting, developed a highly realistic art, and produced scores of altarpieces, religious panel paintings, and portraits. Netherlandish art had often affected painters in regions far from Flanders and Holland, and a lineage of fine painters continued the tradition of achievement in the sixteenth century. After 1500, though, artistic leadership in Northern Europe passed to Germany, a region that had been somewhat of an artistic backwater in the previous century. This great flowering of German art occurred at roughly the same time that the High Renaissance was shaping artistic values in Italy. The German artists of the first half of the sixteenth century learned both from Netherlandish and Italian examples, while developing their own native traditions. Although they were expert in practicing the new medium of oil painting, German artists did not rely on the kind of free and dramatic brushwork that was typical of many Venetian and Italian artists at the time. Their work, moreover, never concentrated on the beauty of the human body in the same way that Italian artists did. The nude human form, in particular, often looks somewhat uncomfortable in the works of sixteenth-century German artists. And while these German painters studied the traditions of classical Antiquity, they did not usually fill their works with the trappings of ancient Greece or Rome, as Italian masters at the same time did. German painting and engraving relied instead on finely drawn and sinuous lines to create great dramatic effect. This great flowering of artistic activity in Germany developed suddenly after 1500, and faded just as quickly after 1550. In the first half of the sixteenth century the High Renaissance in Germany produced a number of masters, including Albrecht Dürer, Albrecht Altdorfer, Matthias Grünewald, Lucas Cranach, and Hans Holbein. By 1550, however, great figures like these ceased to appear, and the achievement of the German Renaissance drew to a close rather quickly. Even as it faded, new centers of artistic innovation appeared in other Northern European centers, making the sixteenth century an era of undeniable achievement in the visual arts throughout the continent.

Albrecht DÜrer.

The greatest artist of the High Renaissance in Northern Europe was Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), a native of the central German city of Nuremberg. Like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti, Dürer kept journals that provide a glimpse of his ideas about art. These writings show that Dürer had a high sense of his calling as a creator and an artistic innovator. He was the first Northern European artist to write about art as something more than a mere craft, and his writings reveal that he had a unique sense of his own individuality. The artist was the son of a local goldsmith, and his father had emigrated from Hungary to Nuremberg. Even before the young Albrecht had been apprenticed he displayed a natural artistic ability. This ability can be seen in the Self-Portrait, a drawing Dürer completed when he was only 13. The artist followed this first Self-Portrait with a series of other such works completed before he was thirty. Even at this tender age, Dürer already shows an astonishing clarity of observation, technical finesse, and individuality of expression, all of which reveal him to have been a natural prodigy. Dürer perfected these gifts, first in the workshop of the Nuremberg engraver, Michael Wolgemut, and then in several years spent traveling after 1490. He returned to Nuremberg in 1494, but soon left on a journey to Italy. On those travels, he visited Mantua and Padua before settling in for a longer time in Venice. Ten years later, Dürer returned to Venice and for a time his art emulated the painterly style of the Venetian artists Giorgione and Bellini. By temperament and training Dürer was always an engraver, and since the art of engraving placed a high premium on the skills of drawing, the artist came in his maturity to develop his use of line, rather than the painterly deployment of color.


introduction: The Nuremberg scholar Joachim Camerarius included this personal description of Albrecht Dürer in the foreword to a Latin translation of the artist's Four Books of Human Proportions, published in 1532. The work thus appeared shortly after the artist's death, and Camerarius' description is noteworthy for the depth of personal details it includes.

Nature bestowed on him a body remarkable in build and stature and worthy of the noble mind it contained; that in this, too, Nature's Justice, extolled by Hippocrates, might not be forgotten—Justice, which, while it assigns a grotesque form to the ape's grotesque soul, is wont also to clothe noble mind in bodies worthy of them. His head reminded one of a thoroughbred, his eyes were flashing his nose was nobly formed … His neck was rather long, his chest broad, his body not too stout, his thighs muscular, his legs firm and steady. But his fingers—you would vow you had never seen anything more elegant.

His conversation was marked by so much sweetness and wit that nothing displeased his hearers so much as the end of it. Letters, it is true, he had not cultivated, but the great sciences of Physics and Mathematics, which are perpetuated by letters, he had almost entirely mastered. He not only understood principles and knew how to apply them in practice, but he was able to set them forth in words. This is proved by his Geometrical treatises which, as far as I can see, leave nothing to be desired within the scope judged appropriate by him. An ardent zeal impelled him toward the attainment of all virtue in conduct and life, the display of which caused him to be deservedly held a most excellent man. Yet he was not of a melancholy severity nor of a repulsive gravity; nay, whatever conduced to pleasantness and cheerfulness, and was not inconsistent with honor and rectitude, he cultivated all his life and approved even in his old age, as is shown by what is left of his writings on Gymnastic and Music …

source: Joachim Camerarius, Foreword to Four Books of Human Proportions by Albrecht Dürer, in Northern Renaissance Art, 1400–1600. Trans. and ed. Wolfgang Stechow (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966): 123–124.


While Dürer was an accomplished painter, his greatest works are engravings and woodcuts. This latter medium required artists to draw their designs onto blocks of wood and then to cut away everything but the lines of their drawing. It was a time-consuming method that required a steady hand. Up until this time, most woodcuts had fairly simple designs with the drawing merely providing the outward lines of the forms and objects that the artist was portraying. Dürer developed the technique so that he included lines for shading and rendering patches of light and dark. These new refinements can be seen in his woodcuts of the Apocalypse, a series of fifteen works based upon the biblical book of Revelation. Dürer completed these prints during 1498 and sold the works together as a set. The works display the artist's powerful hand and his subtle sense of shading. Dürer continued to develop his skills as a printer throughout his life, mastering new techniques to enhance the process of copper engraving. As a result, he extended the boundaries of what was achievable in this medium beyond those that had already been established by Martin Schongauer in the late fifteenth century. Dürer made full use of the possibilities of the medium, applying straight and curved hatching, stippling, and cross-hatching to create forms within his engravings that appeared sculptural. He lit his works with a light that seems inspired by fifteenth-century Netherlandish traditions. At the same time he applied the techniques of perspective common to the Italian art of the period. During 1514, the artist produced three prints generally accepted as the highest expression of his achievement in the graphic arts. These include his St. Jerome in His Study; his Melancolia I, a work that muses about the solitary pursuits of the artist; and The Knight. The grandeur of these prints helped to found a great tradition of graphic arts that was practiced by many accomplished German artists in the following decades and centuries.


Dürer's achievements in woodcuts and copper engravings marked him as an artist of the highest order. In painting, he rarely achieved the level of finesse common to his graphic art, although Dürer was immensely prolific, and in some cases he succeeded in endowing his paintings with the same depth and finesse typical of his prints. One of these works is the artist's Adoration of the Trinity, completed in 1511 for a chapel in Dürer's hometown of Nuremberg. The painting shows a vision of heaven in which God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the dove of the Holy Spirit are worshipped by a throng of onlookers, including popes, kings, princes, and ranks of human admirers. Rich colors—reds, greens, blues, and yellows—combine here with Dürer's typically florid use of line and his expert compositional skills. The work presents a traditionally medieval conception of the communion of saints and the Augustinian notion of the City of God. About a decade following its completion, though, Dürer became one of the first Northern European artists to accept the premises of the Protestant Reformation. In his writings the artist paid homage to Luther as the "Christian man" who had helped relieve him of "many anxieties." Ironically, it was the Protestant Reformation that ultimately moved to confine greatly the role of the visual arts in Northern European religious life. The Reformation, in other words, served to dampen the great artistic flowering the Renaissance had created in Germany. Dürer, though, accepted the doctrines of the new movement. In 1526, one year after Nuremberg had adopted the new religious teachings, the artist presented his famous panel paintings of the Four Apostles to the Nuremberg city council. While there was nothing explicitly Protestant about the style of the work, the choice of the four apostles—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—highlighted the artist's new faith in the scriptures. Dürer seems as well to have intended his gift to encourage the city's rulers to remain steadfast in their commitment to the Reformation.


Another area in which the artist excelled was in the production of portraits of German notables and wealthy patrons. The artist completed several portraits of important princes and dignitaries as engravings, and these were widely circulated at the time. At home in Nuremberg he also painted a number of portraits for the town's wealthy burghers. Dürer and Hans Holbein were the two greatest portraitists at work in Northern Europe at the time. A Holbein portrait was usually a dramatic tour de force, filled with opulent trappings that lent majesty to the noble and princely figures he immortalized. Dürer, on the other hand, strove to present an accurate image of his subjects while at the same time providing his viewers with some deeper psychological insight about the person's internal character. Dürer practiced portraiture increasingly in his final years, perhaps because of the poor state of his health, which seems to have been damaged by a malarial fever he contracted while visiting the Netherlands in 1520–1521. In these years he also wrote theoretical treatises on art, battle fortifications, and human proportions. The artist's fame continued to grow after his death, and his prints had many collectors throughout Germany. During the years between 1570 and 1620, the artist's style inspired a "Dürer Renaissance" among engravers who imitated the artist's dramatic engravings. In subsequent centuries Dürer continued to be celebrated as Germany's greatest artist, and this reputation sometimes prevented a realistic assessment of the other great figures that contributed to the German Renaissance. More recently, these artists' reputations have been reassessed, while Albrecht Dürer's role in the country's artistic flowering has not diminished.

Matthias GrÜnewald.

Little is known about the training and early work of Matthias Grünewald (c. 1475–1528), a German painter who was likely born in the city of Würzburg on the Main River in central Germany. In 1510 he joined the archbishop of Mainz's court at Aschaffenburg, where he served as a painter and superintendent of public works. Soon after that appointment Grünewald won a commission to paint an altarpiece for the monastery church of St. Anthony at Isenheim in Alsace (now in eastern France). This great work is one of the strangest and most macabre pieces produced during the German Renaissance. Grünewald created the Isenheim altarpiece as a carved work that had two sets of wings and which could consequently be displayed with three different views. Although the work has long since been disassembled, when it was originally closed the altarpiece showed a gruesome Crucifixion, in which rigormortis has already set in on the body of the dead Christ. The Savior's flesh is a mass of pockmarks and on his legs are visible the scourge marks from his recent tortures. The Isenheim monastery ran a hospital that cared for those suffering from leprosy and the plague, a fact that helps to explain Grünewald's gruesome depictions of Christ's skin. Below, Mary Magdalene, John the Beloved, the Virgin Mary, and John the Baptist witness the harrowing tortures of the Savior, while a Paschal lamb accompanies the figure of the Baptist, a symbol that recalls both Christ's divine and human natures. The entire scene is set before a dark landscape, the nighttime sky lit only by patches of a deep greenish color. When the first set of the altarpiece's wings were opened, this gruesome horror of the Crucifixion is transformed into scenes of joy that recount the Annunciation, the early life of Christ, and his Resurrection. In place of the somber and often disturbing colors of the closed altarpiece, Grünewald here adopts a palette of vivid reds, golds, and blues. The culmination of these three scenes, the Resurrection, is an awe-inspiring work in which Christ seems to have surged dramatically from the tomb and now floats above the soldiers stationed there to guard his dead body. In this panel the wounds of Christ's skin have been transformed into rubies while his hair and beard are now pure gold. The ascending Christ appears before a vivid halo of red, gold, and green. With the altarpiece in its third position, the work revealed a sculptural central panel in which a seated St. Anthony was flanked by Saints Augustine and Jerome. On each side Grünewald painted scenes from the life of St. Anthony, the patron of the Isenheim Church. One theme that ran throughout the work was of disease and suffering, and the possibility of both medical and spiritual intervention to overcome these earthly trials. St. Anthony, long a patron of the sick, is presented in the final Isenheim setting as a refuge against the otherwise unstoppable forces of disease. The artist's grim vision of illness coupled with his reassurances of the possibility of either an earthly or a heavenly cure were intended as consolation for those being treated at Isenheim.

Other Works.

The Isenheim altarpiece was Matthias Grünewald's indisputable masterpiece. Relatively few of the artist's other works survive, but these show a similarly dramatic temperament. In 1526, Grünewald left his post in Catholic Aschaffenburg, perhaps because of his sympathies for the developing Lutheran movement. Shortly after Grünewald's death, Luther's close associate, Philip Melanchthon, listed the artist just behind Albrecht Dürer in a ranking he compiled of major German painters, one measure of the enthusiasm with which the sixteenth-century audience received the artist's tempestuous vision. In the intervening centuries, though, the memory of Grünewald's works faded, and the artist was left largely to twentieth-century connoisseurs to rediscover.

The Danube School.

At the same time as Dürer and Grünewald were active in Central Germany, a prolific school of artists was coalescing to the southeast along the Danube River. The Danube School of painters flourished in Germany between 1500 and 1530 in the towns and cities that lay between the city of Regensburg and Vienna along this major river artery. In this region a number of venerable and wealthy monasteries commissioned many lavish altarpieces from these masters. Among the greatest practitioners of the Danube school was Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553), who came to the region from the neighboring German province of Franconia in 1500. Cranach took up residence in the city of Vienna where he began to acquire skills as a notable portrait painter. In 1505, he left the Danube region for Saxony, where he became court painter to the elector Friedrich the Wise, who later protected the Reformer Martin Luther. In Cranach's maturity he was won over to the Protestant cause, became a friend of Luther, and used his art to propagandize for the Reformation. The artist ran a notable studio in which he trained a number of pupils, including his two sons. Of the many artists associated with his workshop, though, only his son Lucas Cranach the Younger was to have a notable career. Another great figure of the Danube School was Albrecht Altdorfer (c. 1480–1538). Altdorfer was a native of the Danubian city of Regensburg and he worked there throughout his life. The influence of Cranach and Dürer is detectible in Altdorfer's early work, but over time he acquired an altogether more personal and dramatic style. He also evidenced an interest, early among Northern European artists, in the painting of landscape. In works like his Battle of Alexander and Darius on the Issis Altdorfer relied on dramatic lighting effects to bring alive the lakes, mountains, and rivers in which he set this famous battle from Antiquity. Similarly, in his many religious paintings Altdorfer achieved a great harmony between his human subjects and their surrounding natural environment. Other artists who were active in the Danube School included Jorg Breu and Wolf Huber, who shared Altdorfer's and Cranach's fascination with landscape. Both figures set many of their works within the dramatic vistas that were a common feature of this river valley region.

Hans Holbein.

The final great figure of German Renaissance painting was Hans Holbein the Younger (c. 1497–1543), one of the greatest portraitists ever in the European tradition. The artist was born in Augsburg and his father, brother, and uncle were all painters. Like Dürer, Holbein traveled widely as a young man, arriving in Basel in Switzerland in 1515. There he met and became friends with the great Dutch humanist Erasmus, who asked the young Holbein to illustrate his satirical farce, The Praise of Folly. Throughout his career the artist also made illustrations for other famous books, including Luther's translation of the Bible. One of his most successful sets of prints was a series of 41 illustrations retelling the story of the Dance of Death. Holbein stayed in Basel for almost a decade, but in 1524 he left the town for France in search of work. At this time Basel had become riddled with factional strife resulting from the Reformation, and the market for religious art was quickly drying up. In France he worked for John, the Duke of Berry, but soon returned to Basel. In the meantime the situation had grown increasingly worse there, and so in 1526, Holbein left the city again, this time to travel to the Netherlands and England. In England, he presented a letter of introduction from Erasmus to Sir Thomas More, a close associate of the Dutch humanist. Holbein painted More's family, and a portrait of the humanist and More opened doors for the artist among the prominent patrons of the island. Richly rewarded for his portraits, Holbein returned to Basel, where he set up his shop again, this time staying until 1532 when he returned permanently to England. Eventually, Holbein became court painter, undertaking more than 100 full-size and miniature portraits for the English crown and nobility. These works display the hallmarks of Holbein's mature style: a sure and certain use of line and brilliant, gemlike colors. Among the many English portraits the artist created, his Portrait of Henry VIII from around 1540 is one of the most accomplished and famous. One of a series of portraits the painter completed of the king, the work shows the notorious monarch in a fully frontal pose in which Holbein enhances the visual interest of the monarch through his intricate rendering of the king's dress. Though this impressive garment provides a suitably royal frame, Holbein still manages to endow the king's visage with a steely will and frightening intensity. The artist's linear skill and his ability to render infinite detail is also to be seen in his famous portrait of two French ambassadors. Surrounded by curiosities and the attributes of cultivated court life, the artist paints each item in the room using a perfect and minutely rendered perspective.

Painting in the Sixteenth-Century Netherlands.

During the sixteenth century the Netherlands continued to produce a number of accomplished painters. At first these figures followed in the tradition laid out by Jan van Eyck and other fifteenth-century masters. But over the course of the sixteenth century Netherlandish painting was to be reinvigorated by the journeys of Low Country artists to Italy and by a shift in the centers of artistic productions. The city of Antwerp, long a site with only a negligible circle of artists, gradually became the leading center in pioneering new forms in the visual arts. The town benefited from the decline of nearby Bruges as its harbor silted up and traders moved east to Antwerp. Among the accomplished artists who worked there in the sixteenth century were Quentin Metsys (also spelled Massys) (c. 1465–1530), Jan Gossart (c. 1478–1532), and Joachim Patinir (active 1515–1524). Metsys settled in Antwerp in 1491, where he painted a number of portraits and religious works. Deeply pious sentiments and the use of finely drawn lines characterized his religious paintings, while over time Metsys developed the portrait as a vehicle for great individuality of expression. By contrast, Joachim Patinir created wild and fanciful landscapes to serve as the backgrounds of his religious paintings. He filled these with jagged rocks, perfectly conceived villages, and other details that showed that these were not real, but imaginary realms drawn from the artist's own conception of what constituted the glory of Creation. The final figure, Jan Gossart, brought the lessons that he learned on a journey to Italy back to Antwerp, and over the next decades he worked to integrate Italian techniques and attitudes into his works. At first his allegiances remained firmly tied to Netherlandish traditions. Over time, however, he painted more as a "Romanist," adopting the proportions and classical iconography typical of Italian Renaissance art. Gossart won the praise of the famous Italian art historian and biographer, Giorgio Vasari, who noted that he was the first Northerner to paint the nude body with the beauty of the Italian style.


introduction: Carel van Mander, the great sixteenth-century biographer of Northern Renaissance artists, admired the work of Pieter Bruegel for its clear observation of nature. Van Mander believed that Bruegel was primarily a rustic peasant, largely unschooled, who painted the life of peasants sympathetically because he himself had been born a member of the class. More recent research has shown that the currents of humanism deeply affected Bruegel, and he was in conversation with many of the most sophisticated intellectuals in the Netherlands. His paintings of peasants were not mere visual journalism, but were filled with philosophical musings about the tie of all human beings to the earth and the natural cycles that governed all existence.

In a wonderful manner Nature found and seized the man who in his turn was destined to seize her magnificently, when in an obscure village in Brabant she chose from among the peasants, as the delineator of peasants, the witty and gifted Pieter Breughel, and made of him a painter to the lasting glory of our Netherlands. He was born not far from Breda in a village named Breughel, a name he took for himself and handed on to his descendants. He learned his craft from Pieter Koeck van Aelst, whose daughter he later married. When he lived with Koeck she was a little girl whom he often carried about in his arms. On leaving Koeck, he went to work with Jeroon Kock, and then he traveled to France and thence to Italy. He did much work in the manner of Jeronn van den 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 which the observer can contemplate solemnly and with a straight face. However stiff, morose, or surly he may be, he cannot help chuckling or at any rate smiling. On his journeys Breughel did many views from nature so that it was said of him, when he traveled through the Alps, that he had swallowed all the mountains and rocks and spat them out again, after his return, on to his canvases and panels, so closely was he able to follow nature here and in her other works. He settled down in Antwerp and there entered the painters' guild in the year of our Lord 1551. He did a great deal of work for a merchant, Hans Franckert, a noble and upright man, who found pleasure in Breughel's company and met him every day. With this Franckert, Breughel often went out into the country to see the peasants at their fairs and weddings. Disguised as peasants they brought gifts like the other guests, claiming relationship or kinship with the bride or groom. Here Breughel delighted in observing the droll behavior of the peasants, how they ate, drank, danced, capered, or made love, all of which he was well able to reproduce cleverly, and pleasantly in water colors or oils, being equally skilled in both processes. He represented the peasants—men and women of the Camping and elsewhere—naturally, as they really were, betraying their boorishness in the way they walked, danced, stood still, or moved …

source: Carel van Mander Life of Pieter Breugel, in Northern Renaissance Art, 1400–1600: Sources and Documents. Trans. and Ed. W. Stechow (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966): 38–39.


The greatest Netherlandish painter of the sixteenth century was Pieter Bruegel (c. 1525–1569). Although Bruegel's life is shrouded in obscurity, he did sign and date his paintings, a fact that permits the reconstruction of the development of his art. These show a transformation from early landscapes which were conceived and executed according to the traditions of Flemish realism to later works which were more Italian in character. Bruegel traveled in Italy between 1551 and 1555, and while on the way there, he kept a visual record of his journeys. His drawings of the Alps rank as some of the best landscapes ever sketched by a European artist. While in Italy, the beauty of the southern Italian landscape inspired his Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, a work that retold the story of the ancient figure who flew too close to the sun. The story traditionally had been used to condemn pride and too great ambition. In Bruegel's hands, however, he elevated the story into a moralizing sermon that instead exulted the toil of earth-bound peasants. In the foreground one such figure plows the soil, while behind him a shepherd tends his sheep. Neither takes notice of Icarus himself, who is barely visible, a floundering form upon the sea. In this work the typically harmonious balance the artist struck between the more monumental traditions of Italian art and the landscape conventions of the Netherlands became visible. Upon Bruegel's return to the Netherlands he settled in Antwerp where he often worked for a local printer, Hieronymous Cock, the town's most distinguished engraver. Bruegel produced designs for Cock, even as he also painted a number of works in the tradition of Hieronymus Bosch, an artist who was undergoing a surge of popularity at the time. The artist increasingly painted landscapes, particularly after his move to Brussels in 1563. Bruegel elevated landscape painting into moral sermons, reflecting the long Flemish tradition of seeing religious and moral significance in simple everyday things. Such is the case in Bruegel's Harvesters, a work that celebrates the simple toil of peasants and the human tie to the soil as a consoling inevitability. In these late landscape creations the artist endowed his peasants with a deep humanity while placing them within a grand landscape. No Netherlandish artist who followed Bruegel ever again achieved this great harmony.

Painting in Sixteenth-Century France.

In comparison to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the sixteenth century produced few great native artists in France. For much of the 1500s the French court imported its artists from Italy. Leonardo da Vinci spent the last years of his life working in France; somewhat later the Italian mannerist Rosso Fiorentino and Francesco Primaticcio popularized their style in the country through their work in royal palaces. Native artists, though, did flourish as portraitists. The French artists Jean Clouet (c. 1485–1541) and his son François Clouet (1510–1572) served the crown for many years in this capacity. The origins of this family of painters lay originally in Flanders and they infused their works with the conventions of Netherlandish realism. Holbein probably saw the portraits that Jean Clouet had completed for the king of France while visiting the country on one of his European journeys since something of their stiff formalism and opulent grandeur also appear in his portraits of the English royal family. By contrast, Jean's son, François was more affected by Italian examples than his father; his works seem to be influenced by the contemporary portraits of the Florentine Mannerist Bronzino. If great native painters were relatively few in sixteenth-century France, the country did produce two sculptors of merit, Jean Goujon (c. 1510–1568) and Germain Pilon (c. 1535–1590). Goujon completed most of his sculptures within the contexts of architectural projects, the five surviving reliefs he created for the Fountain of the Innocents in Paris being among his masterpieces. These works show a dramatic adoption of Italian Mannerism, with its elongated forms, supple drapery, and elegant refinement. At the same time the grace of these figures points forward to trends that French artists developed later during the Rococo period of the eighteenth century. By contrast, Germain Pilon's sculptures were altogether more powerful. While originally influenced by Italian mannerism, Pilon developed a style that was more realistic and natural. The artist excelled in both bronze and marble and was a particular favorite of the French kings. He worked on the tombs of several French kings and completed sculptures for the royal palaces of the Louvre and Fontainebleau.


Despite its great colonial empire and wealth, Spain produced few painters and sculptors during the sixteenth century. The country imported most of its artists from abroad. The greatest of these figures was the brilliant El Greco (1541–1614), which means literally, "the Greek." The artist, whose real name was Domenikos Theotokopoulos, was a native of the island of Crete in the Eastern Mediterranean, which at that time was a colony of Venice. When he was about 20, El Greco settled in Venice, where he had an active career painting works for the local Greek community. The dramatic and fluid brushwork of the Venetian artist Tintoretto strongly influenced the development of El Greco's style, as did a visit to Rome somewhat later during 1570. There he admired the sculptural forms of Michelangelo, an influence which is evident in his painting of the Pietà, completed soon after his arrival in Rome. There he came into contact with a group of Spaniards who encouraged him to immigrate to Toledo in 1577. In Spain he developed his own inimitable style, characterized by extremely elon-gated human forms, wildly vivid, even garish colors, and unusual compositional groupings. These tendencies grew more pronounced as El Greco matured, and late in life, the artist developed an intensely mystical and personal style. One of the first masterpieces of El Greco's Spanish maturity was The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, which he completed in 1586. The subject of the painting was the interment of a saintly medieval nobleman. This burial is attended by ranks of Spanish aristocrats and important church dignitaries. Above this scene Orgaz's soul rises to heaven to be met by the Virgin Mary, Christ, and ranks of saints. In this work El Greco has already begun to elongate his human figures, a tendency that increased over time. During the artist's late years his art also grew more feverishly intense, as can be seen in his view of Toledo and his famous Resurrection, both completed after 1600.


The period between 1300 and 1600 was one of amazing achievement in the visual arts throughout Europe. Change was constant throughout these centuries, and artistic styles frequently overlapped, with medieval styled works continuing to appear at the same time the newer more naturalistic styles of the Renaissance flourished. The primary achievements of Renaissance artists lay in their observation of the world, their discovery of nature and its complexities, and their ability to produce space and the human body realistically. Renaissance artists also considered new themes in their art. Sometimes they drew these subjects from pagan Antiquity; at other times they recorded the lives of their fellow countrymen in genre paintings and portraits. The growth and development of portraiture over the period points to the appearance of a new kind of individualism, as both painters and their patrons strove to immortalize the outward appearance and inward spirit of the personality. During the sixteenth century religious issues made the visual arts increasingly subjects of controversy. In Northern Europe the Protestant Reformation moved to limit the uses of religious art, while in Italy and other Catholic regions the Counter-Reformation aimed to reform painting and sculpture. Counter-Reformation artists gave expression to the church's demand for an art that was clearly intelligible and which stirred the faithful to pious living. In time the new style they fashioned gave rise to the seventeenth-century Baroque, a style that drew upon the achievement, innovations, and sheer inventiveness that Renaissance artists had demonstrated over the previous centuries.


J. Brown, The Golden Age of Painting in Spain (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998).

S. Buck, Hans Holbein the Younger: Painter at the Court of Henry VIII (London, England: Thames and Hudson, 2002).

C. D. Cuttler, Northern Painting; From Pucelle to Bruegel (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1968).

W. S. Gibson, Bruegel (London, England: Thames and Hudson, 1977).

J. C. Hutchinson, Dürer (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990).

J. Snyder, Northern Renaissance Art: Painting, Sculpture, the Graphic Arts from 1350 to 1575 (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1985).

see also Architecture: The Architectural Renaissance Throughout Europe

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The Arts in Sixteenth-Century Northern Europe

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The Arts in Sixteenth-Century Northern Europe