The Protestant Reformation and Northern Renaissance Art

The Northern Renaissance was greatly influenced by the Protestant Reformation and its attempts to reform the Catholic Church. The inability of the Church to aid in the Black Plague and the Western Schism had torn Europe asunder. As a result of this failure, many secular institutions and beliefs, including humanism, developed.  Although Christ still remained a dominant figure in the lives of both nobility and commoners, religious purists in the agrarian areas of western Europe vehemently opposed the new secular or materialist spirit developing in the Renaissance and embraced the Reformation (Wikipedia 1).

According to Benesch (24,59), the religious revolution in 16th century northern Europe coincided with its artistic and intellectual rebirth. Artists began referencing Christian as opposed to classical themes as the demand for religious reform during this time deeply affected their  lives, freeing  their creative and imaginative energies to overcome  torpid formalism and impart  fresh spiritual meaning to the religious life.

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A great number of artists created veritable masterpieces during this period of volatile transition.

One of these artists, Hieronymous Bosch, developed quite vivid imagery. Although he  painted the Passion , along with devotional work, he is best known for his horrific portrayals of humanity, particularly the demon -ridden The Temptation of St Anthony and the triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights.  Through these terrifying, yet  marvelous paintings he mirrored the social and political upheaval of the day; one in which Christians were extremely concerned with faith and the afterlife.  As a member of the Brotherhood of Mary, he was active in putting on pageants dealing with the macabre.

Death, hell, and eternal damnation were recurring themes. Perhaps the bizarre figures of devils and spirits within these pageants translated to his more artistic endeavors, thus producing a unique vision among Flemish painters; with motifs arranged in a manner not seen in the Italian Renaissance. For example, Michaelangelos’ Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel contrasted vividly with the one that Bosch painted in the Garden of Earthly Delights. While Michaelangelo‘s Last Judgment is described by one art critic as containing “profoundly allegorical meanings understood by few …because Michelangelo was intent on returning art to the proper images of the famous painters and sculptors of antiquity” (Barnes 2), Bosch’s work was not veiled at all, but a clear reference to memento mori: Remember we will die.

The Garden of Earthly Delights  showed the Christian tradition of religious terror. This theme demonstrated the ignoble end of our earthly bodies, followed by exotic  punishment scenarios for those dead without Christ. As Delevoy (48) posits these depictions provided a foil for Christian consolation arguments. Emphasizing bodily decay, corruption, and  decomposition as the end result for unbelievers,  the consolation tradition tried to show the need for faith. By exploring these nightmarish realms, Bosch provided a reminder of the need for repentance.

Additionally, he pointed out the results of specific sins, such as Avarice, Lust, Gluttony, embodied within the Seven Deadly Sins. The imagery and texts are explicit. The four corner roundels present the “Four Last Things”: death, judgment, Heaven and Hell. The importance of sight is depicted through mirrors. The most powerful image of right seeing and the ultimate issues of death and damnation appear in the “Death” roundel at the top left. As a dying man receives the last rites, an angel and a demon wrestle for his soul, as a skeletal figure of Death stands by the door, arrow in hand, pointed at the dying man. As the  man reaches for the money offered by the demon, instead of the cross held  by the angel, this imagery makes clear that the matter of choice, of right seeing, is still being offered to a dying man  (Franger 4).

Jon Levenson (9) states that “geography is simply a form of theology;” that talk about God cannot not be separated from talk about a place and a landscape plays a central role in the manner that one envisions the holy. The place tells us who we are, how we relate to others, and even to God. Meaningful participation in any environment  requires that we learn the means of approach that makes entry possible and leads to the contemplation of spirituality. The Garden of Earthly Delights described such a landscape through the chaotic world that it created. With the tangled mass of humanity , a sense of the unreal emerges; instruments such as the drum and the lute have become vessels of torture. The picture is dominated by a tree-man with a broken body. Each motif has the stamp of Bosch’s singular genius; is full of the vitality and visionary sweep of his art. The  Last Judgment figure is on the central panel. Vivid references from Scripture demonstrate man’s depravity. Delevoy  (106) speculates that “men would gain much from contemplating this picture and then looking into themselves, unless indeed they are so blind as not to see what lurks within them and not to recognize the passions and vices that transform man into an animal, more exactly a number of animals.”

Imagery in another of Bosch’s triptychs ,the Hay-Wain , clearly reveals the vanity of earthly life . This vanity is reflected in the parable of a large harvest wagon piled with hay, fistfuls of which are being greedily grabbed by the rapacious guests at God’s harvest home, nuns and monks, burghers, peasants, beggars, and vagabonds of every sort. The highest dignitaries on earth, the Pope and the Emperor, accompanied by the clergy and the nobility, follow after the hay wagon, on the top of which is an amorous young couple. Although the black robed prophet Isaiah utters a dire warning of the vanity of all flesh, no one pays any attention to him or to the fact that the hay wagon is being drawn straight to Hell by a band of fiends (Franger 9).

Although Franger (7) states that Bosch’s work can be described as “freakish, grotesque, fantastic” in the ghoulish aspect that he lets loose in his painting of hermits and Hell, an important fact needs to added: that his imagery is also counterbalanced by an impeccable anchorite, or by Mount Ararat, or by the Garden of Eden. Although the infernal aspect, with its more glaring intensity, has always overshadowed the others, there can be no doubt that Bosch’s central idea really lies with the ideal scenes.

Yet these triptychs, which could never be placed on an actual altar, are biting  satire of the Church.  With his anti-clerical motifs, Bosch shows the rumblings of the Reformation; yet in his work clerical and anticlerical subject matters occur in different contexts, which makes his art a document of an era of transition. Therefore one group of Bosch’s religious paintings reveal topical satire: sometimes nuns and monks in their medieval habits that are targets of his ire, sometimes gnostic priests and sibyls in fantastic vestments , followed by an unholy group of wizards and witches in the guise of Nordic vegetation, willow stump and hazel clump.

The two main groups of Bosch’s work appear to have two mutually antagonistic patrons: the Church, the traditional guardian of the altar, and a revolutionary opponent of the Church who pours old wine into new bottles, keeping the traditional form of the altar piece, while simultaneously destroying its old meaning by audaciously substituting a new content. These conflicting motifs indicate that this second patron, who was combating both the clerical and the pagan abominations of the time , is among the  groups working towards the Reformation. The period of transition in which Bosch lived made it possible for enlightened members of religious orders to belong to the most radical sects while remaining in their monasteries or convents; while on the other end of the continuum, for far sighted spokesmen of the Church to be so convinced of a root and branch reformation that they could commission altar pieces from a painter unafraid to make no secret of his reformist inclinations. Thus his anti clerical and anti occultist stance place him squarely within the confines of desiring changes within the practice of Christianity.(Franger 11).

     Another Northern Renaissance artist concerned with both comic and satiric content was Pieter Bruegel the Elder, considered one of the greatest painters of the 16th century. Painting works that could be reproduced in large numbers and offered to the largest possible populace, Bruegel interpreted the popular conceptions of the day, especially the diabolic iconography of Bosch. (Delevoy 23).

      By the time he began painting, Calvinism had become firmly established in his world. Although a great deal of information is not available about Bruegel’ s religious opinions,  it is known that he was close friends with two men sympathetic with the Reformation, Hans Franckert and Christophe Plantin. Because of his belief in the Reformation, Farnckert had migrated to Antwerp and was one of Bruegel’s first buyers. The frequency of his commissions must have produced a beneficial effect on the artist’s productivity. These friends often went into the country to see the peasants at their fairs and weddings. Dressed as peasants, they brought gifts, claiming friendship with the bride or groom. But they could have not gotten along so well together unless they had more tastes in common than the proclivity for rustic jaunts. We may surmise that they, along with Plantin,  had similar ideas on the problems of the day .Plantin made no secret of his affiliation with the Reform movement, dangerous though these were. In 1563, having been denounced as belonging to a clandestine sect, he had to leave Antwerp. This was also the year that Bruegel left and married at Bruessels. It has been suggested that he, as his friend, had become involved in some secret religious movement and  used the wedding as a pretext for moving to a safe venue, away from potential persecution (Delevoy 24).

      Since churches desired religious paintings, he painted numerous Bible stories , all set in Flanders instead of the Holy Land, painting people dressed in 16th century clothing. Since paintings were becoming popular for homes he painted scenes of festivals and weddings. He also painted the yearly changes that showed what country people were

doing season by season. Winter Landscape with Bird Trap was one of his most popular. This painting revealed that food was in short supply during the winter months, hence the reason for the bird traps. The two black ravens perching on the branches symbolized death. Dark patches on the ice revealed that life was slippery and people could fall if not careful. Flemish paintings always conveyed messages (Hubbard 1).

     His Procession to Calvary revealed an eye for the absurd. Influenced by medieval folk art, Bruegel’s  painting demonstrates an unusual treatment of the Crucifixion. There is a lop sided parade winding its way up to Calvary. The scenery is green, showing a beautiful spring day. Farmers and gossips, drunkards and peddlers covort in the sunlight. The curious strain their necks to see the condemned, but most of the people are just having a gay time. The scene is like a jolly country fair with Jesus nowhere around. Then we see a tiny figure straining under the weight of the cross. Why has Bruegel, a Christian artist, painted him in such a way? But seen from this perspective, the Crucifixion scene becomes a circus…a provocative joke; the setting 16th century Flanders. Bruegel makes Calvary a contemporary event and the result is a masterpiece of the grotesque. His travesty of the Crucifixion is satirical. By placing the condemned Christ in a Christian setting, he shows Christendoms’s falling away from its ideals. Additionally he debases the crucifixion in order to recrucify Christ. As in all grotesque art, he destroys the very standard of his satire. By desecrating the ideal , he shows that Christ must be recrucified in order to be reborn. Christ, the ideal , must be continually crucified so that he can continually rise in the human condition; if not, he remains only an abstraction (DiRenzo 19).

    By showing contemporary life in such a manner, Bruegel got to the heart of true religious life. Everywhere in his depictions is the style of Bruegel’s own day. His predecessors had portrayed religious themes in contemporary dress, but the outer and the inner stayed separate. Bruegel established the outer in its proper context, painting so thoroughly that an entire sociological knowledge of the time might be established by his pictures. (Barker 51).

     Delevoy (53) states that he showed  real men living out their lives, not those who rule nations, but men who work and suffer and have simple wants, existing at the lowest social level, without wealth or prestige. Whether young or old, healthy or infirm, sad or merry, pagan or Christian –he depicts them all; and in Carnival and Lent he brings them all together. As Luther had freed the peasant by making the vernacular language acceptable to read the Bible, so Bruegel also made the vernacular acceptable in his portrayals of peasant life. This is a distinct departure from the Italian Renaissance tendency to create works depicting exalted and idealized themes. Works during this time such as Michaelangelo’s David, the mysterious Mona Lisa of Da Vinci, and  The Annunciation by Fra Angelico were worlds apart from the scene of feasting peasants and rabbits hunters that Bruegel painted. .

     In his early pictures each person is an individual, yet remains part of a crowd. Although each individual keeps his own personality, he is subsumed into a greater identity, a collective whole. Bruegel’s intricate depictions express his love for the individual, while his large hordes of people show his intent to view life as an interconnected whole. By making the purported subject of a painting almost invisible, Bruegel demonstrated the importance of the individual and the events happening around him. Carrying of the Cross, The Fall of Icarus, and The Conversion of Paul all have this subject-incidence. Through the content of his paintings, Bruegel showed man as he is in all the grandeur of life without the classical idealization of the Italian Renaissance( Barker 53).

      Albrecht Durer of Germany was another great painter of the Northern Renaissance. Focused on Lutheran ethics, he showed in Melancholia, Apolalypse, and The Four Apostles the struggle of a man with ethical and spiritual responsibility. Although Durer stated that no one on earth, save God alone, can know what the most beautiful form of man is, he still felt responsible to show man as the eternal vessel of God. (Blayney, 101).

     In his early years Durer had a patron, Frederick the Wise. An upright and pious man, he was one of the most honored men among the German Electors. Durer devoted one of his most inspiring late portrait engravings to him. The Elector is seen as a pondering, brooding person, whose face is filled with lines. Fredrick had a large treasure of relics in his chapel. His homeliness revealed authentic piety. His righteousness led him to advocate the cause of religious reform. As Luther, he had a deep respect for Holy Scripture, and became the political mentor of Luther’s fight for the purity of the Word of God. Thus the spiritual atmosphere of the Reformation which is established on the strength of the faith of the individual is evidenced in Durer’s patron, Frederick the Wise.

    Durer’s patron was a far cry from the patrons of the Italian Renaissance who often had themselves painted into annunciations and other great works. His motivations were unselfish, seeking only the glory of God, as opposed to earlier patrons, such as tLorenzo the Magnificent, one of the Medici clan. Lorenzo the bon vivant, was reviled as not keeping the Catholic tradition and violating Lent. He was one who sought glory solely for himself, believing the Renaissance tenet that life must be given largely to those stimuli which excite the senses and affect men pleasurably (Loth 110).

     In contrast to the external emphasis of the Renaissance, the Reformation conceded that the here and now is but a series of fleeting moments; that man is commanded to be perfect in the blessedness of inner vision (Blayney 95).Influenced by the Reformation, the Northern Renaissance artists succeeded in imparting this vision, and giving the eternal dominance in their paintings.

Works Cited

Barker, Virgil Pieter Bruegel the Elder: A Story of his Paintings. New York: The Arts                                                      Publishing, 1926.

Barnes, Bernadine. Metaphorical Painting:Michelangelo and the Last Judgment.

            New York: Gale, 1995.

Benesch, Otto. The Art of the Renaissance in Northern Europe. Cambridge, M: Harvard            University Press,1945.

Blayney, Ida. The Age of Luther. New York: Vantage Press, 1957.

Delevoy, Robert. Bosch. Biographical and Critical Study. Lausanne: Skira, 1960

Di Renzo, Anthony. American Gargoyles: O’Connor and Medieval Grotesques. Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois Press, 1995.

Franger, Wilhelm. The Millennium of Bosch. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,


Hubbard, A. Artnotes. New York: Mcdowell, 1963.

Levenson, Jon. The Spiritual Landscape. New York: Columbia Press, 1988.

Loth, David. Lorenzo the Magnificent. New York: Brettano. 1929.

“Northern Renaissance.” BBC Online. Retrieved 24 April 2006.

“Northern Renaissance.” Retrieved 24 April 2006. Ошибка! Недопустимый объект гиперссылки.            

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