In the 15th century, artistic tastes throughout Europe started to shift. This change resulted in a period known as the Renaissance, a 300-year “golden age” of enlightenment. To many people, this piece of European art history is often only associated with masters of the Italian Renaissance, like Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Sandro Botticelli. However, this transformation touched many countries across the continent, culminating in a separate but simultaneous movement known as the Northern Renaissance.
Like their Italian counterparts, Northern Renaissance artists rejected recent Medieval ideas and instead found inspiration in the age-old aesthetic of Classical antiquity. This approach culminated in an artistic revival that helped bring Europe out of its Dark Ages.
Here, we look at the lesser-known Northern Renaissance, exploring its history and presenting its achievements.
What is the Northern Renaissance?
The Northern Renaissance is a period in which artists north of the Alps—namely, in the Low Countries (the Netherlands and Belgium), Germany, France, and England— adopted and adapted the ideas of the Italian Renaissance. It is characterized by a realistic approach to painting, improved techniques, and the proliferation of printmaking.
By the beginning of the 15th century, Europe's Dark Ages (approximately 500-1000 AD) were coming to an end. During this time, art in Europe was usually religious, and, though often rendered in expressive detail, displayed little interest in perspective and human realism. However, around the year 1400, Italian artists began to emulate Classical sculpture in their work.
Thanks to the invention of the printing press 50 years later, these ideas would spread across the continent, inspiring northern artists to embrace a likeminded approach to artistic representation. Albrecht Dürer, a German painter and printmaker who knew many Italian Renaissance artists personally, embodied this ideal, famously nothing that “the new art must be based upon science.”