The Northern Renaissance: from Durer to Holbein

Durer, Melanchthon and Pirckheimer, 1524-26

In London for a couple of days last week, I knew that I had to see the exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery – The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein.  The Renaissance art of Northern Europe emerged from significantly different traditions and political experiences than those that informed the art of the Italian Renaissance. This large exhibition is organised around two of the greatest artists of the age: Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein.  When I look at a portrait by Durer or Holbein, I am struck by the humanism that these works express in their quest to depict the uniqueness of the individual, questioning what it means to be human and the place of humanity in the wider world.

Two portraits by Albrecht Dürer of his closest friends are displayed side by side at the start of the exhibition; they seem epitomise  the respect for learning and the individual pursuit of truth that lay at the heart of the dissemination of ideas which ultimately challenged authority and religion.

Durer, Willibald Pirckheimer, 1524

Durer, Willibald Pirckheimer, 1524

The first is an engraving made by Durer in 1524 of the Nuremberg humanist Willibald Pirckheimer, Dürer’s closest friend. He was a respected scholar and translator, and a close friend of Erasmus.  It was from discussions with Pirckheimer that Durer, who had not benefited from an academic education, acquired the classical and humanist learning displayed in his works. Pirckheimer appears in several other Dürer’s prints, sometimes in a less than academic pose, as in ‘The Bath House’, discussed below.  The inscription to Pirckheimer’s portrait, composed by Pirckheimer himself, reads, ‘We live by the spirit. The rest belongs to death’. Durer’s portrait of his friend does indeed seem to probe beneath mere likeness to reveal the soul of the man.

Durer, Philip Melanchthon, 1526

Durer, Philip Melanchthon, 1526

The companion portrait is of another of Durer’s friends, Philip Melanchthon, Professor of Greek at the University of Wittenberg.  He was a respected man and staunch supporter of Luther, with whom he worked closely to put reforming ideals into practice. In 1525 Melanchthon was invited to Nuremberg to oversee reform of education in the city. During his stay, Melanchthon lodged with Willibald Pirckheimer and undoubtedly met Dürer, either through his host or through other members of the city’s humanist circle.

Dürer’s inscription translates as ‘Dürer was able to depict the features of the living Philip, but the skilled hand could not portray his mind’, a reflection of Melanchthon’s own views on images, which he believed served as valuable signs and prompts to religion, but which were not interchangeable with the subject.  This radical Protestant attitude to religious images meant that they could not be the object of worship themselves, and would lead ultimately to the destruction of religious imagery in churches across northern Europe.

But something else is implied in the inscription: it relates to a debate that raged in artistic circles about the extent to which a work of art could portray the essential reality of its subject.  Melanchthon’s image, the inscription states, is a good likeness, facilitating remembrance of the sitter, but it does not bear his essence and therefore falls short of being the man himself.

Quinten Massys, Desiderius Erasmus,1517

Quinten Massys, Desiderius Erasmus, 1517

In the period delineated by this exhibition – from 1450 to around 1600 – Northern Europe experienced profound changes.  The period is often described as the Northern Renaissance, analogous to the revolution in art and scholarship which took place in Italy from the fourteenth century. The Renaissance in Northern Europe was, however, different from that in Italy in several respects. At its heart was the challenge to the teachings of the Catholic Church initiated by Martin Luther. Thinking minds in the north were more concerned with religious reform, feeling that Rome had strayed far from Christian values. As northern Europe became more openly rebellious of the authority of the Church, art shifted in a secular direction, turning in many cases from devotional scenes to non-religious subjects such as portraiture and mythology.

As demand for paintings shifted in response to these changes, artists moved from city to city seeking work. The printing press, invented in Germany around 1450, 21 years before Dürer’s birth, allowed texts – and thus ideas – to circulate freely and enabled Durer to disseminate engravings and woodcuts throughout Europe.  As the Reformation led to a decisive move away from idolatry, demand grew for images that glorified the secular, a demand met by the artists represented in this exhibition.

Northern scholars drew upon the approach of Italian humanists, who had turned to classical sources to explore man’s identity.  Among them was Desiderius Erasmus, whose books, arguing for religious tolerance and reform of clerical abuses in the Church, gained readers across Europe.  He is represented here in a portrait by Quinten Massys painted in 1517.  Erasmus sent this portrait to Sir Thomas More, the lawyer, author and statesman who, until his arrest and execution in 1535, was prominent at the court of Henry VIII.

The exhibition reminds us that the Northern Renaissance did not develop in isolation – there was regular interchange, both artistic and commercial, between the northern lands and Italy.  Florence was a centre of continental banking, Venice traded in spices and luxuries from the Orient, while the Rhine and Rhône served as fast trade routes between the Mediterranean and the northern seas. There were as many Italian merchants in the commercial centres of the north as there were Germans, Flemings and English in Italy.  Hilary Mantel picks up on this in her novel Wolf Hall, in which Thomas Cromwell returns to England after some years involved in commerce (and maybe more) in Italy.

But it wasn’t only commerce: artists from Flanders, the Netherlands and Burgundy journeyed south, to gain an education in classical and Renaissance art. Dürer, for example, went to Venice as a student in 1494, and Bruegel went to Rome around 1550.  Italian artists and their apprentices never travelled north, though: Michelangelo never contemplated a jaunt to Brussels.

The Northern Renaissance was a superb series, presented by Joseph Leo Koerner, shown on BBC4 a few years back.  Someone has uploaded a clip of the first 6 minutes of part 1 to YouTube:

The Renaissance in the north crystallized around the intense vision and realism of Dürer’s work. Other painters in both Germany and the Netherlands followed the same Northern impulse for precise observation and naturalism in the fields of landscape painting and portraiture.

Durer's eye (from the 1500 Self-Portrait)

Durer’s eye (from the 1500 Self-Portrait)

The son of a goldsmith, Albrecht Durer set up his workshop in 1494 in his native Nuremberg. From here, he produced a wide variety of painted and printed works, from images of saints and Biblical stories to mythology, portraits and scenes of contemporary life. Durer was not only a brilliant artist, but also a very clever entrepreneur. He was the first artist fully to exploit the potential of prints – mainly engravings and woodcuts – which could be issued in multiple impressions, circulating his images widely and relatively cheaply. He spread his fame by stamping his prints with his trademark AD monogram. By 1497, he was successful enough to employ an agent to handle his foreign print sales.

The prints Durer made were used as objects of devotion, pasted onto walls and into collectors’ albums, and purchased by artists to use as models in their own work. He is represented in this exhibition by a number of his most famous prints, including his woodcut of an Indian rhinoceros, which is surprisingly accurate given that he never saw the beast in the flesh.

Durer, The Bath House, 1496

Durer, The Bath House, 1496

Here are two contrasting examples of Durer’s work, perhaps an example of his success in catering to entirely different markets. Both are examples of Durer’s consummate draughtsmanship.  First, the profane: ‘The Bath House’ is a woodcut of four men at a male bathhouse, washing, socialising and listening to two musicians. One leans against a water pipe, another drinks from a tankard and two sit in the foreground, one holding a back scraper, the other a carnation. The man standing against the water pipe is recognisably the artist himself, while the plump seated man drinking is Dürer’s friend Willibald Pirckheimer, who we’ve already met in different circumstances. The two figures in the foreground have been tentatively identified as Lukas and Stephan Paumgartner, friends of Dürer who commissioned, and were portrayed in, an altarpiece by the artist. If the observer in the background is included, the figures stand for the five senses: Dürer as hearing, Pirckheimer as taste, the figure holding the flower as smell, his companion as touch and the onlooker in the background as sight. Dürer demonstrates his skill at portraying the male nude in varying poses, but the print is not simply a study of the male figure. There is also some profane humour here, as indicated in the suggestive cock-topped tap that juts from the post against which Dürer leans. It’s perhaps relevant that the communal baths in Nuremberg were closed in 1496 in an attempt to prevent the spread of syphilis.

Durer, The Virgin and Child with an angel playing the viol, 1519

Durer, The Virgin and Child with an Angel playing the Viol, 1519

And so to the sacred: ‘The Virgin and Child with an Angel playing the Viol’, a delicate composition and an excellent example of Dürer’s confident yet exacting draughtsmanship, which was paralleled by his bold woodcuts. It shows the artist’s deft hatching, which was clearly executed briskly, yet with remarkable precision, making a careful contrast between areas of light and shade. Lines with which Dürer worked out the proportions of the Virgin’s face can be seen clearly.

Durer, A Greyhound, 1500

Durer, A Greyhound, 1500

I stood and stared at this one for a very long time, for what is astonishing about this depiction of a greyhound is that it is composed entirely of delicate brushstrokes.  The handling of the elegant brushmarks is deceptively simple; as an engraver, Dürer knew how to use swelling and tapering lines to convey the dog’s wiry yet muscular form and coarse coat.

Durer, The Great Triumphal Cart (detail), 1523

Durer, The Great Triumphal Cart (detail), 1523

‘The Great Triumphal Cart’ is a large woodcut, over 2 metres in length, displayed across one wall of a room.  It exemplifies Durer’s success in gaining recognition, not only in the popular marketplace, but from rich and important patrons.  None was more important than the man who commissioned this work. It was originally planned as part of a huge printed frieze, undertaken by a team of designers and woodblock cutters, to show a triumphal procession celebrating Maximilian I, who had been Holy Roman Emperor since 1493. Dürer and his friend, the humanist Willibald Pirckheimer, however, proposed a revised version of the chariot to Maximilian in 1518, and issued it as a posthumous memorial in 1523 (Maximilian had died in 1519).

Dürer’s triumphal chariot shows the Emperor seated in a cart drawn by six teams of horses. The Emperor holds a palm, and a laurel wreath is being placed on his head by Victory, while other virtues holding laurel wreaths stand on the cart or lead the horses. The cart is driven by ‘ratio’ (‘reason’) and the horses are reined with ‘nobilitas’ (‘nobility’) and ‘potentia’ (‘power’). The wheels of the cart, which are adorned with Maximilian’s symbols, the splayed eagle and the Burgundian flints, are named ‘magnificentia’, ‘dignitas’, ‘gloria’ and ‘honor’. An extensive interpretive text, by Pirckheimer, is included on the print. Pirckheimer was largely responsible for the iconography of the chariot, over which he had corresponded with Maximilian in 1518. Drawing on a long tradition of triumphal entries, thought to date back to Roman emperors, the design implied a parallel between Julius Caesar, the archetypal Roman emperor, and Maximilian, the modern Caesar.

This is the first part of a documentary on Durer from YouTube.  Five more parts are also available

Like Durer, Hans Holbein gets a whole section of the exhibition to himself.  The Royal Collection contains one of the finest collections of work by Holbein, who came to England for the first time in 1526 during the reign of Henry VIII. Anyone who has read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall will be fascinated by the portraits of members of the royal family and eminent courtiers on show here.

Hans Holbein, Self Portrait, 1542

Hans Holbein, Self Portrait, 1542 (not in this exhibition)

Hans Holbein was born in southern Germany in 1497. In 1516, he moved to the Swiss city of Basel where he worked as a portraitist, book illustrator and designer of stained glass. Among his employers was the publisher Johannes Froben, who commissioned illustrations for books by Sir Thomas More and Desiderius Erasmus.  The exhibition includes a portrait of Froben by Holbein in which he records in the sitter’s face his wisdom and age, while the textures of skin, hair and the fur collar are presented with consummate skill.

Holbein, Johannes Froben, 1522

Holbein, Johannes Froben, 1522

After making his reputation Basel, Holbein was appointed as the King’s Painter to Henry VIII in 1536. Apart from a brief return to Basel between 1528 and 1532, Holbein spent the rest of his life in England. Holbein had arrived in London in  1526, carrying an introduction from Erasmus to Thomas More, who gave the artist his first English commissions.

In 1527, eight years before Henry VIII ordered his execution for denying the supremacy of the crown, Holbein had painted his patron Thomas More, the social philosopher, humanist and Lord Chancellor to the King. Although this portrait is not in this exhibition, the Royal Collection does own a fine and detailed cartoon of the painting, which is on show.

After Hans Holbein, The Family of Thomas More, 1787

After Hans Holbein, The Family of Thomas More, 1787

One of Holbein’s first commissions after his arrival in England in 1526 was a group portrait of the family of Sir Thomas More.  This work is now lost, but on display here is this 18th century print, a copy of a line and ink drawing, an annotated record of an early draft of his painting.  Holbein showed the members of More’s household sitting and standing, in conversation and reading.

Holbein, William Reskimer, 1532

Holbein, William Reskimer, chalk drawing, 1532

William Reskimer, who came from Cornwall, held a number of minor positions at Henry VIII’s court, among them Page of the Chamber. In 1543 he was granted keepership of the ports of the Duchy of Cornwall and in 1546 was appointed Gentleman Usher.  I have no idea what those responsibilities would have entailed!

Holbein, William Reskimer, 1534

Holbein, William Reskimer, oil, 1534

A comparison of the preparatory drawing and the oil painting shows how closely Holbein followed the former. The painting deviates only marginally in the contour of the inside of the earlobe, and even such details as the fine lines around Reskimer’s eyes and the shadows on his cheeks follow the original drawing.

As with Durer’s portraits, Holbein has the ability to capture personality as well as likeness: you can sense thoughts and feelings behind each face on show.

Holbein, Henry Guildford preparatory, 1527

Henry Guildford preparatory drawing, 1527

Sir Henry Guildford was one of Henry VIII’s inner circle, and one of his closest friends. On the King’s accession in 1509 he was appointed Esquire of the Body – a personal attendant on the King – and Master of Revels, responsible for organising the lavish entertainments at court. He threw lavish parties that featured morris dancers, moving stages and elaborate costumes for the young King.  Guildford  went on to have a distinguished career as Comptroller of the Royal Household. In his continuing support for Katherine of Aragon he made a dangerous enemy of the King’s mistress, Anne Boleyn, but it was a mark of his friendship with Henry that he remained in post until his death in 1532.

Holbein, Sir Henry Guildford, 1527

Sir Henry Guildford, 1527

The finished oil painting of Guildford is considered to be one of Holbein’s most impressive surviving portraits. It shows Guildford standing, richly dressed in velvet, fur and cloth of gold.  Holbein has meticulously painted these varied textures, with the satin of the sleeves set against the rich black of the velvet on his upper arms. To emphasise the luxuriousness of the sitter’s dress and his high status, Holbein has made lavish use of both gold paint and gold leaf (which has been used to depict the highlights of gold thread in the material).  Guildford holds the white staff of office of the Comptroller of the Household, and a hat badge showing a clock and geometrical instruments.

Holbein, Hans of Antwerp, 1532

Holbein, Hans of Antwerp, 1532

Another fine portrait is this one, of Hans of Antwerp, a goldsmith who worked in England from 1515 and was in royal employ between 1537 and 1547. It seems that he and Holbein were friends.  On his return to England from Basel in  1532, Holbein painted several portraits of German merchants based in London. Here, Hans has paused from writing on the paper in front of him to cut the string of a letter he has just received.

Holbein, Derich Born, 1533

Holbein, Derich Born, 1533

Another superb portrait, of another of the German merchants: Derich Born was a merchant from Cologne, and the youngest member of the London Hanseatic League. The translated inscription (seen on the stone ledge on which Born leans, reads: ‘If you added a voice, this would be Derich his very self. You would be in doubt whether the painter or his father made him. Der Born, aged 23, the year 1533.’ As already noted, the question of whether art could perfectly imitate nature was much debated by contemporary humanists.

In 1541 Born and his elder brother were expelled from the London Steelyard (the walled area where the Hanseatic merchants resided and did business) after a dispute with the Duke of Suffolk concerning payment for a consignment of lead.

Remigius van Leemput, Henry VII, Elizabeth of York, Henry VIII and Jane Seymour, 1667

Remigius van Leemput, Henry VII, Elizabeth of York, Henry VIII and Jane Seymour, 1667

Holbein’s greatest achievement at the court of Henry VIII was reputedly a magnificent wall painting in the Privy Chamber at Whitehall Palace which was destroyed by fire in 1698. The mural was painted in 1537 following the long-awaited birth of a male heir – Prince Edward.  Its aim was to celebrate the strength of the Tudor dynasty by depicting Henry VIII and Jane Seymour standing in front of Henry VII and his wife, Elizabeth of York.

The first part of the Latin inscription on the plinth in the centre translates as: ‘If it pleases you to see the illustrious images of heroes, look on these: no picture ever bore greater. The great debate, competition and great question is whether father or son is the victor. For both, indeed, were supreme’.

This small painting was copied by the Flemish artist Remigius van Leemput for Charles II from the life-size mural on the wall of the Privy Chamber in Whitehall before it was destroyed in the fire of January 1698.

Urs Graf, A couple embracing on the shore of a lake, 1516

Urs Graf, A couple embracing on the shore of a lake, 1516

I liked this drawing by the Swiss artist (and mercenary) Urs Graf. Graf was the son of a goldsmith who, by 1511, had established himself in Basel as a designer of stained glass and prints. Graf was repeatedly involved in acts of violence, and in 1518 he was forced to leave the city after attempting murder. The city council recalled the artist from exile to work for the Basel mint in 1519, having decided that his talent as a die cutter outweighed his violent character. Graf also saw active service in military campaigns as a Swiss mercenary .

The engraving work shows a soldier embracing a woman, probably a prostitute, by a lake. Graf’s deft penmanship is shown in the economical depiction of the landscape – in which loops denote trees and a handful of strokes become a boat – and in the exuberance of the feathers in the man’s cap. Exotic dress was a hallmark of the mercenary, whose itinerant lifestyle meant that money was quickly converted into items that were easily portable. Although the scene is one of calm, in which both the figures and the landscape appear still, an underlying aggression, both physical and sexual, is provided by the perpendicular sword, a phallic as well as a military symbol.

Hans Brosamer, Portrait of a Man, 1522

Hans Brosamer, Portrait of a Man, 1522

This portrait, like the previous drawing, is from the section of the exhibition that brings together a range of work under the title, ‘Art in the Holy Roman Empire’.  It forms a pair with the painting below, and is attributed to Hans Brosamer, who was probably born in Fulda, in the dukedom of Hesse, and died in Erfurt in Thuringen. No documentary evidence for the artist survives.  The black fur-lined gown, possibly lamb fleece, worn by the sitter in this portrait suggest that, though affluent, he was not one of the most wealthy members of the civic elite.

Hans Brosamer, Portrait of a Woman, 1522

Hans Brosamer, Portrait of a Woman, 1522

The woman in the paired portrait is perhaps his wife.  Her blue apron (rather than white) suggests that she came from the same social strata as the man. She wears a linen coif worn by married German women, and apart from the gold rings on her fingers, her most expensive clothing is the short cape which seems to be made of a cut silk velvet with an edging of blue silk velvet.

Ulrich Apt, A Man and his Wife, 1512

Ulrich Apt, A Man and his Wife, 1512

Here’s another German couple, painted by Ulrich Apt of Augsburg in 1512.  From a family of painters, Apt was an important member of the city’s Guild of Painters, Glaziers, Carvers and Gilders.  This painting is a marriage portrait: the numbers 52, 35 and 1512 (painted on the white window frame) indicate that the man was 52 and the woman 35 on their marriage in 1512. A church holds the central position in the landscape between the couple. The husband, in a gown possibly lined with marten, is set against the open landscape with a castle at his back, suggesting that he is part of the world of affairs, while the wife’s domestic realm is alluded to by her enclosure within the house and placement against a blank wall. The painting would probably have been displayed in the family home, and reflects the self-assurance of the new middle class in Augsburg.

Marinus van Reymerswaele, The Misers, 1548

Marinus van Reymerswaele, The Misers, 1548

Another extensive section of the exhibition presents a nearly 30 works of various kinds that illustrate the theme of ‘Art in the Netherlands’ during the Renaissance.  At that time, the Netherlands included present-day Belgium, Luxembourg and part of north-eastern France as well as the Dutch Republic, an area ruled by the Habsburg family. Charles V inherited the Netherlands along with the Holy Roman Empire and Spain, thereby becoming the most powerful ruler in Europe.

The Netherlands flourished as a centre of trade at this time. Bruges was particularly wealthy, its success reflected in the presence of many artists’ workshops, including those of Hans Memling and Jan Provoost. Later, Antwerp’s increasing prominence meant it was the base for painters such as Quinten Massys, Jan Gossaert and Joos van Cleve.

Until the Reformation, devotional paintings were an important part of the market, but with changing beliefs and social attitudes, portraits and other subject matter became more significant.  In Marinus van Reymerswaele’s ‘The Misers’, portraiture was turned to caricature to mock the despised occupation of tax collector, and to highlight the perils of wealth (which, ironically, put bread on the table for artists).  The painting here is representative of what was, apparently, a popular genre of painting in the sixteenth century, showing miserly figures with grotesque features.  The curators note that recent cleaning and conservation have revealed the high quality of the painting and the precision of details, such as the change in skin tone when seen through the spectacles worn by the man on the left and the blemishes in the skin of the man on the right.

Memling, Portrait of a Man, 1480

Hans Memling, Portrait of a Man, 1480

Another brilliant Netherlands portrait is this one, by Hans Memling who, although he was from Frankfurt, probably trained in Brussels before becoming a citizen of Bruges in 1465, where he worked for the rest of his life. He built up a strong network among the European aristocracy, thereby generating a steady stream of work. No record exists of this commission and there is no clear clue within the portrait to identify the man. In his portrait style Hans Memling created a means of expressing not only the individual personalities of his sitters but also a sense of idealised beauty.

In the final room of the exhibition, on one wall alone, hangs a masterpiece which reveals the dark side of the Renaissance: religious intolerance, war, and the imperial suppression of attempts to assert new national identities.  But more about this in the next post.

See also

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