The Italian Renaissance had a strong influence on all of Europe, for it was a cultural and intellectual revolution. The countries from the Northern region also felt the effect of this new era but differed in some aspects. The representation of classic mythology during the Northern Renaissance was rare, for Greek and Roman culture wasn’t appealing to these artists. This is mainly because the Protestant Reformation was against the use of sacred images and encouraged a more realistic representation of humanity and the visible world.
Northern artists always executed proportions with ease in the past, for they work well intuitively. But they are impressed by the accuracy of the Italian’s mathematical systems used to represent space, perspective and the human proportions. Subsequently, Albrecht Durer wrote two treatises about geometry (1525 and 1528).
Another advantage these artists had was the advanced techniques in oil paint, where Jan Van Eyck is a pioneer. Having access to oil paint meant the artist could paint with more detail and in a more realistic way than with egg tempera. This helped artists stand out with the ability to paint in a microscopic manner, impeccably imitating fabric textures, glass, metal, reflected images on surfaces, for example. This can be seen in early paintings, like in Van Eyck’s Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife, done in 1434.
Most artists strived to achieve the same type of realism when portraying the real world, like a landscape, an interior image, a still life, or a human anatomy study. At the time, they were critiqued for not looking at the theme as a whole, like the Italian artists did, and focusing excessively on details.
Painting landscapes took a while into the Northern Renaissance Era to expand into an independent genre of painting, although there was already a concernment in producing precise topographic records. Painters start using landscapes of familiar places and sometimes using these specific sites in different contexts.
Joachim Patenier (Patinir) changed the view on landscapes during the Northern Renaissance. He would choose particular religious themes as a pretext to paint a magnificent landscape and put the character in the corner, as seen in Landscape with St Jerome. His landscapes weren’t realistic, and his perspective was dubious, but he was very much praised for this, for the oddness made it look like he was portraying an exotic and unknown land.
Another factor that made the Renaissance in northern Europe take a different direction than the rest was the propagation of printing techniques. The first method used was the wood print, but the copper print became more common in the XVI century. An artist that sold print versions of his paintings was very profitable and kept a good reputation. Making prints also made it easier for an artist to be known internationally.
Durer published a book called The Apocalypse with Images that revolutionized book illustrations. It contained fifteen wood prints, including The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. This was so profitable that he guaranteed his income for the rest of his life. As the year 1500 was approaching, many people believed the end of the world was near, making the book’s theme even more appropriate.
The Protestant Reformation had a bigger impact on Northern Europe than Italy and affected some artists personally, a few to their advantage. Hans Holbein had to leave Basile for England, because of religious turbulence and ended up being a famous portrait painter, author of The Ambassadors. Lucas Cranach was able to take advantage of his close friendship with Martin Luther and became the official painter of the Protestant Reformation.
The use of moral and religious images was more discrete at this time, as some artists hid religious themes in still life paintings, like Pieter Aertsen in Butcher's Stall with the Flight into Egypt. Some preferred to treat it with madness, like Hieronymus Bosch in The Garden of Earthly Delights, an oil painting done on three panels, each showing a different scene: paradise on one side, hell on the other side and the garden of heavenly delights in the middle. The garden represents all of the carnal and mundane pleasures that would make sinners worthy of going to hell. Pieter Bruegel also masks forbidden subjects in Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, that tells a well-known Greek myth, but instead of representing Icarus falling from the sky, he paints a beautiful landscape and Icarus already drowning in the water, and no one around seems to care.
Artists cannot be told not to portray something in their art, even if it’s to be hidden in their work. This elusive approach has extended and also been used in Mannerism, the movement that emerges after the Renaissance ends.