Viewed as a much-needed revival of art and culture, the Renaissance played a pivotal role in ushering Europe out of its Dark Ages and into a world of enlightenment. Beginning in the 14th century and coming to an end in the 17th, this “golden age” swept the continent, culminating in two distinctive yet unified art movements: the Italian Renaissance and the Northern Renaissance.
Starting in 1400, the Italian Renaissance reawakened Italy's interest in classical antiquity. Though it influenced and inspired the Northern Renaissance, many artists based north of the Alps—namely, in Flanders and the Netherlands—were already embracing humanism and secular subject matter in 14th century.
While numerous figures shaped both the Italian and the Northern Renaissance, today, a select few are particularly praised for their contributions to Europe's “golden age.” Here, we present these artists and take a look their most well-known masterpieces.
Northern Renaissance Artists
Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Today, painter and printmaker Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1569) is regarded as the master of Dutch and Flemish Renaissance art. With a penchant for painting scenes of lower-class life—evident in Netherlandish Proverbs—on top of more common religious iconography (like the tower of Babel) he is esteemed for his unique approach to subject matter. Additionally, his crowded canvases are distinctive for their detail and, with their beautiful backdrops (like the icy peaks in The Hunters in the Snow), their influence on modern landscape painting.
Jan van Eyck
Bruges-based painter Jan van Eyck (c. 1390-1441) was an Early Netherlandish painter and key figure of the Northern Renaissance. Though only 20 paintings are attributed to the artist, his work is among the most well-known Dutch art.
Like other Netherlandish artists, van Eyck had an eye for detail and a knack for naturalism, evident in oil paintings like The Arnolfini Portrait—so detailed that it features a hidden self-portrait—and the Lucca Madonna.
On top of his works on canvas, van Eyck is also celebrated for his Ghent Altarpiece. A wooden piece with many panels, the Ghent Altarpiece features richly painted scenes from the Old and New Testament. The masterpiece has been housed in St. Bavo's Cathedral, a Gothic church in Ghent, since 1432.
Dutch draughtsman, painter, and master of the triptych Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516) is known for his narrative-rich panel paintings that feature iconography ranging from whimsical to grotesque. Rendered in intricate detail, his most famous pieces, The Garden of Earthly Delights, The Last Judgment, and The Temptation of Saint Anthony, each mix a menagerie of surreal creatures with lesson-laden Biblical themes.