a history of western art

from the renaissance to the present

the northern renaissance


people, terms, and concepts:  transparent naturalism, hidden symbolism


The art of the 1400s in Northern Europe (Flanders, Germany, and England) has many of the same characteristics as Italian Renaissance art, such as a relatively high degree of naturalism and expression. You should be able to handle these concepts now, so I don't need to point out the anatomical knowledge evident in Dürer's Adam and Eve, or the use of perspective and chiaroscuro in Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding, and so forth, but do remember them.

There are also some new concepts that apply particularly to Northern Renaissance art, specifically:  (1) a tendency to paint in very fine, sharply focused detail with very careful attention to textures (a tendency that we will call transparent naturalism); and (2) a tendency to use hidden symbolism, in which ordinary objects such as pots, candles, flowers, and dogs are made to signify deeper (and frequently spiritual) meanings. Be able to describe lots of examples of such hidden symbols in all of the works below.  How do these symbols help to expand on the works’ meanings in each case?  That is, how does the symbolism in the Arnolfini Wedding explain what marriage is all about?  How does the symbolism in the Merode Altarpiece explain what was miraculous about Christ’s birth?  How does the symbolism in Dürer’s Adam and Eve explain what happened to the world upon the occasion of the Original Sin?  

Know the intent of this combination of transparent realism and hidden symbolism: to spiritualize ordinary objects so that the viewer is constantly reminded of spirituality in everyday life.

Roger Campin, The Merode Altarpiece, Northern Renaissance, c. 1425


Campin, Merode Altarpiece, central panel, The Annunciation, c. 1425

Jan van Eyck, The ‘Arnolfini Wedding’, Northern Renaissance, c. 1435

Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve (engraving), Northern Renaissance, c. 1505