While the Renaissance spread over Europe, it was not the same everywhere. The Northern Renaissance (usually defined as being in the German States, the Netherlands, and England) was the result of a different climate and different motivations than the better-know Italian Renaissance. To point out just two examples of the differences: fresco did not become an important art form in the North, simply because it was too cold much of the time for artists to work in that medium. Thematically, Northern Renaissance art was different as well, because those artists were more concerned with “purifying” the Catholic Church than rediscovering the classic pagan art of Greece and Rome (Finnan). Perhaps this is why Northern Renaissance art seems to lack the joyous quality of so much of its Italian cousins.
Two paintings from the Northern Renaissance illustrate how different this art was. The first, the Arnolfini Wedding Portrait, was painted by Jan Van Eyck in 1434. This portrait of a newly-wedded couple is solemn, with neither of the participants cracking a smile. Their surroundings are rich but also somber. If compared to Botticelli’s Primavera, which was also painted as part of a wedding celebration, the differences become clear. Botticelli’s work is lush and pagan, with Muses and figures from classical mythology (Botticelli’s Primavera). Van Eyck’s couple are prim and proper.

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The second work, Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, is also more concerned with religion than with classical antiquity. This triptych portrays man in all his sinfulness, with the left hand panel showing Adam and Eve enjoying the Garden of Eden before they sin and are banished, the right hand panel depicting the torments of Hell, and the middle panel showing mankind heedlessly wallowing in delights of the flesh instead of worrying about their salvation (Finnan).

While the artists of the Northern Renaissance were every bit as talented as those in Italy, their message was definitely different. Many of the Italian artists celebrated pagan freedom and the joys of love. Northern artists seemed to be far more pessimistic about mankind and its future.

  • Finnan, Vincent (2014). “Hieronymus Bosch: The First Surrealist?” Italian Renaissance Art.com. http://www.italian-renaissance-art.com/Hieronymus-Bosch.html
  • Finnan, Vincent (2014). “Jan Van Eyck: The Father of Oil Painting.” Italian Renaissance Art.com. http://www.italian-renaissance-art.com/Jan-Van-Eyck.html
  • ItalianRenaissance.org, “Botticelli’s Primavera,” in ItalianRenaissance.org, June 26, 2012, http://www.italianrenaissance.org/a-closer-look-botticellis-primavera/.