The Renaissance was a period of cultural evolution that spread across Europe throughout the 14th- 17th century. Began in Florence, the Italian Renaissance had a profound impact in the development of the Renaissance outside of Italy resulting with the Northern Renaissance which included the German Renaissance, the French Renaissance, and other European nations. Although both movements have heavily affected the societies they have centered on, there are major differences between the Italian and the Northern Renaissance including the centralization of political power, the style of arts, and the intellectual movement. The Northern Renaissance also influenced a significant religious evolution that changed the course of history: The Protestant Reformation.
The Northern Renaissance was distinct from the Italian Renaissance in its centralization of political power. While Italy consisted of city-states that were dominant in trading and economy such as Florence, Milan, and Rome, the Northern Renaissance consisted of large nation-states or unions of countries such as England, Netherlands, and the Holy Roman Empire. For that reason, the political power of the Northern Renaissance rested in the hand of the church rather than the elite class like the Medici family in Florence. The political situation influenced the style of arts and architectures of the Northern Renaissance. Unlike the Italian Renaissance where arts focused on the wealthy class and the individual’s power to succeed, the Northern Renaissance combined the individual with a religious tone. Without a direct link to Rome and Greece antiquity, the Northern Renaissance focused more on religion and spirituality instead of humanism. The Renaissance outside of Italy also used a different type of painting material and technique: panel painting which used oil painting on wood, rather than fresco which used paint on wet plaster. One of the first important examples of the oil painting technique is the Mérode Altarpiece by Robert Campin. The altarpiece reflected the transition from Medieval art to Renaissance art. Different from the Italian Renaissance’s art that focused on the scientific principles and realistic composition of human anatomy and proportion, Robert Campin painted his figures in large size and not in realistic relative scale. It focused more on color and detail rather than humanism. The painting depicted the Annunciation as taking place not in a church or holy realm but in a home, which reflected the combination of individualism and religion. The painting also depicted the central painting technique in the Northern Renaissance, the iconographic. Every object, even an ordinary household item, could carry implications. The lion finials on the bench symbolized Jesus and his resurrection; the candle referred to the light brought into the world by Jesus. The architectural setting of the painting was of the Medieval era rather than Roman and Greek architecture. Although greatly influenced by the Italian Renaissance, the Renaissance period outside of Italy showed a different approach to arts and human perception.
The Renaissance focused on the fundamental value of humanism, a movement of educationalists and scholars seeking to understand human’s value, truth and knowledge by re-examining classical texts and the Bible. The Humanists ideas, the growth in textual analysis, and the Northern Renaissance changed the intellectual landscape and encouraged many religious reformers, such as Martin Luther. Martin Luther’s book, 95 Theses, challenged the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and began the religious reformation movement called the Protestant Reformation. Luther’s 95 Theses and the Reformation was not an attempt to destroy the Roman Catholic Church, but it was an effort to reform it. The central ideas of 95 Theses and the Reformation movement were to inform people of the true salvation that came from God. The Pope and the Church could not forgive nor cause true repentance because eternal forgiveness comes from Christ alone. The Reformers attacked the selling and buying of indulgences as a doctrine invented by man. The sale of indulgences was an act of giving false hope that forgiveness can be purchased. Luther also believed that nonessential religious practice needed to be taken away. Salvation came through faith, not good works. Central to the reformers’ ideas was the emphasis on the personal relationship with God, rather than a relationship mediated by priests and religious traditions. Luther also believed that the Bible should be in vernacular, not Latin, so people could be able to read and interpret the spiritual meanings instead of following the Church’s orders.
The Catholic Church responded to the attack by banning and excommunicating people who supported the Reformers, then military force and the Counter-Reformation. The Church declared the effort for religious reformation a heresy. Martin Luther was subject to a death sentence; however, he was protected by the German nobles. The Reformation movement was suppressed by the military crusade that led to the Thirty Years War between the Protestants and the Catholics. Eventually, the war became less about religion and more about political power. In the end, the Protestantism remained intact and the distrust among religious groups became prominent. The Thirty Years War also caused a major outbreak of witch hunting. This violent wave of destruction caused neighbors to turn against each other and killed innocent people. When these methods failed to stop the spread of Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church turned to the Counter-Reformation. The Counter-Reformation was initiated to preserve the power, influence and wealth of the Catholic Church and to challenge the Reformation. A prime example of the Counter-Reformation was St. Ignatius of Loyola. After being wounded in battler, Ignatius underwent a spiritual conversion that led him to Christ. His journey of finding the personal experience with God resulted in the most influential devotion books in the church’s history, The Spiritual Exercise. The Spiritual Exercise contained Christian meditations, contemplations, and prayers that were designed to help people to experience personal relationships with God in their daily lives. St. Ignatius also founded the religious order called the Society of Jesus or Jesuits. The Spiritual Exercise was the foundation documentation and practice for the Jesuits. The Jesuits became preachers, confessors to monarch and princes. The Society of Jesus soon became the most influential order of the Catholic Church that played a prominent part in the Catholic Reformation. The Protestant movement of the Calvinist in France failed partially due to the Counter-Reformation. In addition to the Thirty Years War, the Protestant Reformation also caused the rise of iconoclasts. Iconoclasts referred to the destruction of religious painting and increasing censorship in arts and literature. The Calvinist Reformers considered paintings or images of God as unnecessary. The Protestant Reformation also gave rise to a stronger state in Europe. Before the Reformation, the Catholic Church possessed the political power in the form of land while kings did not have the authority to directly tax their subjects. The Protestant Reformation aided to state resources through the expropriation of the church land and buildings which caused the strengthening of state. The beginning of a modern state really began with Henry VII and the English Reformation in which he wanted to exert political control over a national church.
The Italian and Northern Renaissance fostered new approaches to art, human perception, and society. Although each part of Europe was subjected to different changes, the Renaissance remained as a significant period that had a profound impact on Europe and the world. The Renaissance had successfully led the way for the Protestant Reformation that later changed the course of history.