Chapter 11: Northern Renaissance

The word Renaissance is generally defined as the rebirth of classical antiquity in Italy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This definition seems simple enough, but the word “Renaissance” is actually fraught with complexity. Scholars argue about exactly when the Renaissance happened, where it took place, how long it lasted, or if it even happened at all. Scholars also disagree about whether the Renaissance is a “rebirth” of classical antiquity (ancient Greece and Rome) or simply a continuation of classical traditions but with different emphases.

Traditional accounts of the Renaissance favor a narrative that places the birth of the Renaissance in Florence, Italy. In this narrative, Italian art and ideas migrate North from Italy (largely because of the travels of the great German artist Albrecht Dϋrer who studied, admired, and was inspired by Italy, and he carried his Italian experiences back to Germany). However, so much changed in northern Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that the era deserves to be evaluated on its own terms. So we use the term “Northern Renaissance” to refer to the Renaissance that occurred in Europe, north of the Alps.

Some of the most important changes in northern Europe include the:

Video Transcript

Northern Renaissance Art refers to the art produced in Northern Europe (Europe north of the Alps) in the 15th and 16th centuries. Unlike the Renaissance art produced in Italy, Northern Renaissance art places less of an emphasis on reviving classical antiquity and more of an emphasis on capturing minute detail, which was facilitated by the use of oil paints. The invention of the printing press in the mid-1400s led to the development of printbased media including woodcuts, etchings and engravings, allowing artists to massproduce artworks. Printed media and texts helped facilitate the exchange of ideas and artistic styles between Northern and Southern Europe. This is the age of the Protestant Reformation, which began with Martin Luther in 1517. The Reformation questioned the role art should play in worship and led to a loss of religious patronage in the regions of Northern Europe where the Reformation took hold. Northern Renaissance art is characterized by: 

  • An extreme attention to minute detail
  • The use of oil painting and glazing to create rich, glowing colors 
  • The incorporation of symbolism

Early Northern Renaissance

We may think of an individually named artist as the lone maker of a work of art, but workshop assistants played a vital part in artistic production in fifteenth-century northern Europe. The artistic workshop operated a lot like today’s fine dining restaurant kitchen. The executive chef oversees the kitchen and hierarchically organizes the space depending on task and skill level. Even though the executive chef designed the restaurant’s theme and the menu, his/her hand played little part in actually cooking each dish during service. For instance, the executive chef trains the staff and coordinates responsibilities to the chef de cuisine or sous chef. The individual stations in the kitchen are set up according to specializations with clearly defined tasks. the saucer makes sauces; the poissonnier works solely on fish and seafood; the garde manager provides elements to complete the dish, among other tasks; and the pastry concentrates on the desserts. If there’s an especially high-end client, the executive chef might step in for quality assurance. But on a typical night of service, multiple hands touch the dish before it leaves the kitchen. Above all, restaurant patrons know that the executive chef stands as the mastermind from ideation to execution.

In this analogy, substitute executive chef for a master workshop, and dish for a work of art, and the inner workings of the artistic workshop reveal a collaborative enterprise. The idea of ​​an artist without assistants stems from nineteenth-century ideas of originality (imagine a solitary artist in the studio as the sole creator of a work of art from start to finish). Our modern idea of ​​individual innovation doesn’t reflect the conditions of the fifteenth-century artistic workshop, in which artists were highly skilled artisans or craftsmen that worked together. 

The Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece), Robert Campin and his Workshop

One example of this collaborative enterprise is the Merode Altarpiece. This work not only highlights the Northern excessive interest in detail and undifferentiated naturalism (every inch of the works from this time and place tend to be hyperrealistic) but also the kind of work that comes through the combined effort of a workshop. 

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Video Transcript

We're in the cloisters, which is part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in upper Manhattan looking at one of their treasures. This is a painting that for a long time was known as the Merode Altarpiece, but is now known as the Annunciation Triptych. And for a long time too we thought that the painter was Robert Campin, but now the current thinking is that this is from the workshop of Robert Campin. Campin was a very successful painter in Tournai in Northern Europe. He had assistants and apprentices and obviously a large workshop. Tournai was part of the Burgundian Netherlands, this tremendously wealthy place where luxury goods were being produced, where there was a level of mercantile activity that had been rare during the medieval era.

So we have all of this new-found prosperity here in Northern Europe, and there's an increasing interest in commissioning paintings as aids in prayer for people to use in their homes. Look at the scale of this painting. This is not a grand altarpiece, this painting is only about two feet tall. Because it's a triptych, it can be folded up and almost put under one's arm and carried to another room. And what's fascinating is that the central scene of The Annunciation looks like it's taking place in the living room of someone who lived in this area of Northern Europe in the 1400s.

 So hold on, we're seeing the archangel Gabriel and the virgin Mary, and a scene that would have taken place 1500 years before this painting was made, and yet we're seeing them in a modern context. And when we first say this it sounds like it's meant to secularize this scene, to bring it into the real world, but actually the opposite is true. This biblical scene of the annunciation is taking place in a Flemish household precisely to make these figures of Mary and Gabriel closer to us, to make our prayer more profound, to bring us closer to God. We know something about the order in which this was painted. The annunciation was painted first, and possibly on spec, that is, it was painted in the hopes that somebody would come along and want to buy it. And we know that the donor was added and then he was married, and the woman was added. And the gatekeeper behind her was also added at that time. And it's interesting to think about this being painted on spec.

Normally paintings are commissioned, but here, in an increasingly trade-oriented culture, it makes sense that artists would start painting things in the hope that they would get patrons. Let's start on the left. Let's start with the donors. When we say donors we're referring to the patrons, the man and his wife who commissioned this painting, and they're shown kneeling, which is a typical position and makes it easy to recognize them as donors. They're set within a walled garden which has important symbolism in late medieval and rennaissance art which often refers to Mary's virginity. In Latin this is known as the hortus conclusus, a closed garden, but we know we're in the northern renaissance because we've got an incredible amount of detail. When we think about the Italian Renaissance we think about artists paying real attention to a rational construction of space, and an interest in the anatomy of the body, but here in the north, the artists pay attention to everything, whether it's the nails or the bolts on the door or the plants in the foreground or the birds that are on the ledge of the crenelated wall in the background.

I particularly love the rose bush and the foliage in the very foreground, but you mentioned the nails that hold those planks of wood together that make up the door, and if you look at those nails, each one is defined by a bit of a shine and a bit of a shadow, and we can even see traces of rust that is staining the wood below, so we understand that this door is old and has rusted. The level of detail is astonishing. And an interest in light, which we'll see throughout this triptych, this is one of the things that the artists of the northern renaissance can do because they have oil paint, they can paint texture and light reflecting on surfaces like metals in a way that artists of the Italian Renaissance, who didn't yet have oil paint, couldn't do. And we can see that beautifully if we look at the key in that door, we can see that the key has a shine and it is casting a shadow. But this is the large door in the foreground.

We can see that level of detail even in the door in the background, and beyond that, we see a Flemish city. And figures on horseback, and figures in a doorway, and another woman sitting on a bench. The artist is paying attention to everything equally when you would think that some things would be more important than others. So let's move on to the Annunciation scene in the center. The archangel Gabriel has just appeared to Mary and is announcing to her that she will bear Christ, that she will bear God. This is such a beautiful example of early northern renaissance painting, easily identified by the way in which the drapery that's being worn by Gabriel the archangel on the left and the virgin Mary on the right is portrayed, look at the sharp folds, the complexity of the way in which that thick fabric falls on the floor. It's not actually the way drapery falls. The cloth is thick and it largely obscures those bodies. When you look at this painting you're struck immediately by how much stuff, how many things there are in this small room. A bench and a table and a vase and a candle and a towel or shawl in the background and a basin and candles and a fire screen and a fireplace, there's a lot here. 

Remember, this painting would not have been looked at as we now look at it. We go into a museum, we may spend a few minutes looking at it. This was a painting that would have been seen over and over again, and so there is, I think, a real effort to maintain an interest, to develop one's focus. And so we can say that everything in this painting, or most things in this painting, would have led the viewer from these physical objects to spiritual ideas. And in fact, everything in this painting has a purpose, has a meaning. And of course much of that is lost.

This painting is hundreds of years old, and art historians speculate about the original meaning of these things. But we can recognize some things with certainly. So, for example, that shiny pot in the background that reflects the light from those two windows, that is a symbol of the virgin Mary, of her purity, of her sinlessness. Perhaps the most obvious symbol is the representation of a small figure holding a cross that seems to be gliding down golden rays that come through the round window that is closest to us. It is heading right for Mary, and this is the holy spirit, but it's unusual because normally we would expect to see a dove, a symbol of the holy spirit. This is the moment when God is made flesh, when one world ends and another world begins, the world where it's possible for human beings to be saved because of Christ's death on the cross.

And so a lot of the symbols that we see here have to do with this idea of the incarnation of God and of Mary's virginity. So what's astounding here is the level of realism. The candlestick and the candle, and that's exactly what happens to the smoke when a candle is just snuffed out, it goes straight up and then it curls back and forth on itself. It's so carefully, minutely observed. There are places, for example in that basin in the niche on the wall where we see a double shadow because there are two slightly different sources of light, so we have incredibly carefully observed items, but the space of the room doesn't make sense.

Well, it doesn't make sense to us since we live after Brunelleschi developed linear perspective in Italy, actually an idea that's just developing as this painting is being made, but those ideas have not been transmitted up to the North yet. So the result is that the floor is too steep, the space is not mathematically accurate according to the rules of linear perspective. We're looking at the top of the table and the side of the table at the same time, that bench is rather thin and elongated, but none of this is anything negative, what we have in the Renaissance is this interest in naturalism.

Whether you're in northern Europe in the Burgundian Netherlands, or whether you're in Italy, but a realism that's expressed very differently in each place. For me the distortions of space actually work very well here. They create a kind of telescoping that brings me in, it creates a kind of closeness to the forms, and makes this sumptuous interior even more available. And that makes sense given the purpose of this painting, which was to aid in private devotion, that it would draw you in, that you would need to spend time focusing on these things which appear to be everyday objects, but which are also symbols of theological, spiritual ideas.

Imagine what it must have been like to make this painting. Imagine holding a brush with a single hair on it in order to render the Virgin Mary's golden hair, and I think that emphasis on making is probably most evident in the panel on the right, where we see Joseph, Mary's husband, a carpenter, who is in the act of making. And he's surrounded by his tools, so just like the scene of Annunciation in the center, there's so much to look at here. Art historians have spent a lot of time trying to decipher what each object means. We're relatively confident that the object that's out the window and the object that is to Joseph's right are mouse traps. Saint Augustine said that the cross of the lord was the devil's mouse trap, the bait by which he was caught was the lord's death.

So even as we're seeing a painting that is celebrating the coming of Christ, we see references to Christ's death. And we also have other references to Christ's death, likely in the objects that surround Joseph. We've got wood on the floor next to him and an axe, perhaps a reference to the cross that Christ was crucified on, or even the fact, to me, that Joseph is boring holes in wood reminds me of the holes from the nails that Christ received in his hands and feet. What that workshop reminds me of is that this is an object that was made by hand, that this is not an artist who went to the art supply store and bought his paints and bought a pre-stretched canvas, this is actually painted with oil on panel, and so it is made of wood, it was crafted. I think there is a kind of pride here in the reference to Joseph as a carpenter, and the artist here as a maker as well.

When we look closely at the Joseph panel we see an open doorway, and the shadow on the wall is a sort of odd shape. There's all of these wonderful observed moments. If you look at the shutters that are open against the ceiling, you can see nails, and you can see actually the stain marks from the rust of those nails, because of course, naturally, they would be down and outside.

And so you can imagine someone in the 15th century looking at these details, looking at the axe, the wood, the tools, even that object that looks like a cross on the work table, and being led from these objects to ideas about Joseph and Christ's sacrifice on the cross and humanity's redemption. If we look through the window we can see this prosperous city with merchants and people strolling and goods for sale. The mouse trap is out of Joseph's window  because it's for sale. So the naturalism of the Renaissance, serving that mercantile culture and their interest in things, but also used here to aid devotion.

Tier 2: Context—The Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece)

Like all artwork, the context of this work helps us to know how to understand the work in its own time. As you consider this work, refer to the elements of art listed in Tier 2: Context.

In this work, several contexts illuminate various aspects of the work, such as economics and logistics.

Though profoundly different, the Italian and Northern Renaissances shared a similar interest in the natural world and re-creating the illusion of reality in their paintings and sculptures. This interest was in part fueled by the economics of the time. In the fifteenth century, the northern European countries we know today as Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg were controlled by the enormously wealthy Dukes of Burgundy (Burgundy is a region in France). This region during the fifteenth century is often referred to, today, as the Burgundian Netherlands. The court of the Dukes of Burgundy were the most important patrons of the early Northern Renaissance, but newly wealthy private citizens also commissioned art as part of a growing interest in private meditation and prayer. Portraits were also commissioned in growing numbers. Like Florence, cities in northern Europe (Bruges, Ghent and then later Antwerp and Brussels), were rich industrial and banking centers during this period and this allowed a large merchant-class to flourish creating an ideal environment for artistic production. The great artists of this period created work that reflected their increasingly mercantile world, even when they worked for the court of the Dukes. The spiritual world reigned supreme but the representation of wealth and power were also a hugely important motive for patrons whether a pope, a duke, or a banker.

This robust market for transportable works of art in the North led to a number of logistical advances. Though the medium of oil paint had been in use since the late Middle Ages, the artists of the North more fully exploited this medium’s unique characteristics. Using thin layers of paint, called glazes, northern artists created a depth of color that was entirely new, and because oil paint can imitate textures far better than fresco or tempera, it was perfectly suited to representing the material reality that was so important to Renaissance artists and their patrons. In the Northern Renaissance, we see artists making the most of oil paint—creating the illusion of light reflecting on metal surfaces or jewels, and textures that appear like real fur, hair, wool or wood.

Arnolfini Portrait

The intensity of detail in Northernist works from this period is evident in one of the most famous paintings from one of the most famous artists of this region, Jan Van Eyck. Van Eyck operated within the tumultuous environment of Burgundy, a hotbed of political and artistic activity. Works from this region tend to be heavily detailed (in the case of Van Eyck, it borders on photographic realism) and layered with symbolic meaning. His Arnolfini portrait is no exception. Indeed, some of the features appear only through very close examination.  

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We're in the National Gallery and we're looking at Jan Van Eyck's portrait of, well, I learned this painting as the Arnolfini wedding portrait. But there's been a lot of scholarship subsequently and there's a lot of disagreement over what this painting actually represents. But the National Gallery, which probably represents the most authoritative view right now, or the most widely accepted says that, in fact, this is not an actual wedding taking place or being witnessed as you and I were taught, but that it's simply a double portrait of a couple who are already married.

Some scholars suggested that perhaps it's a memorial portrait and the woman on the right actually had passed away the previous year, but that's only one of a variety of theories. What we do know is that whoever is represented here was an Italian merchant who worked in Bruges. Bruges was a thriving economic town in the early 15th Century. His wealth is quite apparently throughout this portrait.  In a way, this portrait is about his wealth. Everything from both their clothing to the furnishings of the house. Some have suggested that perhaps this is a kind of witnessing of the male actually giving a kind of authority to the women in legal affairs. I don't think we'll ever know exactly what this represents.

The thing is, that it's always seemed to me that it can't simply be just a double portrait because it really looks like something important is happening. They're joining their hands, their shoes are off. Now those all have symbolic value. This is a period when there's tremendous importance put on symbolism, so the shoes being off, for instance, as you mentioned is often a reference to a sacred event taking place. We have a single candle in the chandelier, which I was taught is a symbol of the presence of God, but again, we're just not really sure. But the way that they're joined together, the way his hand is up, perhaps he's just greeting the visitors who we see in the mirror.

There are two people who are in the doorway, actually, wonderfully situated where we would be looking at this painting. It does seem to me like something significant is going on. That there is a kind of witnessing taking place. I think that that's reinforced by the signature that we see above the mirror and below the chandelier that says, "Johannes van eyck fuit hic" or translated, Johannes van eyck was here. So there is that sense of the artists presences, the artist witnessing, the artist being here in this room with these figures. Let's go about this painting and really look at the different elements because there are many things that we do agree about as our historians.

The mirror in the center is really one of the most compelling elements you have, not only in a sense, the greater visual reality of this room depicted because we can actually see as if we're standing in the back of the room looking forward, Scenes from the passion of Christ painted on the back pieces of glass panels that are set into that wooden frame. I have to say that it's hard to get a sense of this when you're watching a video or looking at illustrations in a book, but those little roundels around the mirror, how big would you say those are? They are, I would say, about half the size of my fingernail, they're tiny. And yet we can make out what scenes from the Passion of Christ are represented there, there's that attention to detail and detail painted in enormous clarity that we associate with the Northern Renaissance.

Some of this painting seems to have been painted with a single hair brush. If you look at the hair of the dog, for example, the dog is an interesting element because you wouldn't expect to see a dog in a formal portrait. How many wedding photographs have you seen with a dog in it? Actually, dogs are common symbols in paintings of couples because the dog is a symbol of fidelity or loyalty. Of course, there's tremendous attention that's been paid to the dress of both figures and there's a kind of curious element because they're wearing fur-lined clothing and yet there is fruit on the tree outside. So, it's a war moment and yet they're wearing their finest winter wear, that's an issue that has, I think, perplexed our historians. And that fruit on the window sill may also be a symbol, or a sign I should say, of their wealth since oranges were very expensive in Flanders. Someone suggested that that was one of the items that the Arnolfini's actually imported a reference to the source of their wealth. This is a good example of one of the ways that it's easy to misinterpret, it looks as though the scene is taking place in what we would think of as the bedroom, in a kind of private space, but in fact, bedrooms were not that in the 15th Century. 

They were rooms where you received visitors. And a symbol of wealth. There are all kinds of symbols of wealth here, beyond the oranges if you look at the carpet down on the floor, that would have been a symbol of both taste and wealth. Look at the way that the way you see those teeny little cuts in the green robe that she wears, this heavy  frayed out style that was a very fashionable. And the crispness of the lace that she wears around her head. Now, there's a mistake that is often made, which is people often look at the sort of bulge of her belly and suggest that she's pregnant, this was very much an expression of the fashion of the day. And another way that it's easy to misinterpret based on what we know in the 21st Century. 

Van Ecyk is, I think, critically important not only because of the brilliance of his painting, but because he was using oil paint in a way that had never really been used. He was able to create a luminous quality, a richness of color that tempera simply couldn't achieve. Yeah, and he's doing this because he's applying thin, multiple layers, or glazes of thinned out oil painting so that each layer is translucent and layer after layer applied creates these incredibly deep rich colors. Which allows him to then produce this rich, luminous, incredibly subtle light and moves across the faces of the figures, their hands, across the furniture. On the chandelier, the little shadow cast by that bottom bar of the window. There's a real love of light here that also is very typical of the Northern Renaissance.  And the way they can sort of brilliantly pick up a color, like on the oranges, for instance, or to find an object such as Arnolfini's shoes. The figures are kind elongated. The base of the room seems very cramped, it's filled with all of these material objects.  It's certainly not perspectively correct. Both of those things, that lack of interest in human anatomy and the rational prospectively correct space really tells that we're not in the Italian Renaissance, we're in the Northern Renaissance, that love of texture, the use of oil paint, the attention to detail. Van Eyck is a master, or 'the' master of the Northern Renaissance.


Apart from being an excellent example of early Northern Renaissance painting, The Arnolfini Portrait also affords an opportunity to explore the question of gender in this period. One of the most common questions surrounding this painting is: is the female figure pregnant? 

The short answer is no. The illusion is caused because the figure collects her extensive skirts and presses the excess fabric to her abdomen where it springs outwards and creates a domelike silhouette. Her hand position is regularly read by modern viewers as a universal acknowledgment of pregnancy, but in the Renaissance this gesture would have been understood instead as a sign of adherence to female decorum. Young Renaissance women were encouraged to keep their hands demurely clasped around their girdles when in public, as this was seen as polite and unobtrusive.

The issue of pregnancy in the Arnolfini Portrait is a complex one: the figure is not literally pregnant, because painting or sculpting pregnancy violated the period’s artistic customs—yet pregnancy is nevertheless present in the picture. Both pregnancy symbolism and expectation are at play within the painting.

Jan Van Eyck, Oranges (detail left) and carved bedpost depicting Saint Margaret atop a dragon (detail right), The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434, tempera and oil on oak panel, 82.2 x 60 cm (National Gallery, London)
Figure 11.1 Jan Van Eyck, Oranges (detail left) and carved bedpost depicting Saint Margaret atop a dragon (circled in red, detail right), The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434, tempera and oil on oak panel, 82.2 x 60 cm (National Gallery, London), photos: Dr. Steven Zucker CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Objects alluding to future pregnancy pepper the composition, from the ripened fruit arranged on the windowsill, to the wooden statuette of Saint Margaret, the patron saint of childbirth, who is shown overcoming the dragon of heresy on the bed frame. Though it’s impossible to sever the question concerning pregnancy from this painting, we can answer it by examining both Renaissance pregnancy and dress practices.

Renaissance pregnancy

The highly-gendered Renaissance world produced widely disparate male and female lived experiences. While a man generally married in his third or fourth decade, allowing him ample time to grow his business or estate, women became brides ideally between the ages of thirteen and seventeen. Women, therefore, were expected to and did spend the majority of their married lives with child.

Jan Van Eyck, Hands (detail), The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434, tempera and oil on oak panel, 82.2 x 60 cm (National Gallery, London)
Figure 11.2 Jan Van Eyck, Hands (detail), The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434, tempera and oil on oak panel, 82.2 x 60 cm (National Gallery, London), photo: Dr. Steven Zucker CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Arnolfini’s wife is not pregnant in the picture, but period norms assumed she soon would be. Art historian Diane Wolfthal agrees that although the woman is not pictured pregnant, “the panel alludes to the proper goal of sexual relations through the wife’s protruding belly . . . her gesture . . . brings attention to her womb,” and argues that the few period viewers who came into contact with the Arnolfini Portrait would have understood and recognized this signaling.

Although married Renaissance women spent the majority of their premenopausal lives with child, pregnancy itself was rarely represented. Artists working across a myriad of media shied away from depicting pregnancy, most likely because the condition was thought to be indecorous. During the Renaissance, when a woman entered into her third trimester, she generally remained at home in a ritual called confinement. Further, depicting pregnancy admitted a direct link to human sexuality. Though procreative intercourse between heterosexual married couples was the only church-sanctioned form of sexuality in the Renaissance, to portray a married woman pregnant was generally seen as improper. Even paintings depicting the Visitation—a moment in the Gospel of Luke when Mary and Elizabeth meet and both are pregnant (Mary with Christ, and Elizabeth with St. John the Baptist)—the two biblical heroines are rarely depicted as obviously gestational.

Renaissance dress and gender norms

While the Arnolfini Portrait foregrounds many domestic objects, dress takes center stage. Both outfits in the portrait are ludicrously expensive and detailed, but the woman’s clothing outshines her husband’s. This excessive disparity in color and yardage is perfectly in line with Renaissance fashion and gender difference. Men’s outfits tended to be tailored from darker fabrics to signal the wearer’s sobriety and lack of vanity. In contrast, Renaissance women’s bodies in both images and reality were potent sites of material display. An exemplary upper-class wife was required to demonstrate her husband’s wealth (through his ability to keep her adorned in the latest fashion trends) as well as the couple’s potential fertility.

The woman's pose in the Arnolfini Portrait is not uncommon in depictions of Renaissance women, especially in the Northern Renaissance context. The odd pose was adopted for practical purposes: full Renaissance skirting forced women to pick up their gowns when they walked. The gesture likewise illuminates the wearer’s moneyed status. According to costume historian Ann Hollander, the notorious, seemingly pregnant silhouette touted by the woman in The Arnolfini Portrait (and countless other images of women created throughout the early modern period) connoted elegance and luxury on the part of the wearer and her male keeper (for the man it was a swelled midsection). The more dramatic a woman’s curves, the more real estate to show off exquisitely tailored fabrics. The lifting of skirts likewise provided a chance to further showcase wealth by revealing contrasting undergarments (such as the blue undergown worn by the woman in the Arnolfini Portrait).

While the woman’s gown does not display an actual pregnancy, it is possible that the controversial dress is coded with pregnancy and may be read as symbolic of women’s roles in the Renaissance, including motherhood. The woman’s ample costume does not conceal or describe a pregnancy; however, it is roomy enough to easily host a future one without the need for tailoring. Its green hue could also connote fecundity, as the color was widely associated with springtime and therefore fertility and fruitfulness in the period. Additionally, the gown is lined with ermine. Art historian Jacqueline Musacchio has argued that martins and weasels in portraits (either alive or skinned) may be symbolic of pregnancy or the hope for future pregnancy. It is no accident, therefore, that mid-fifteenth century Flemish haute couture (high fashion) suggests pregnancy.

Perhaps the question we should be asking when considering the Arnolfini Portrait is not “is the female figure pregnant?” Instead, we can consider why the female figure appears to be pregnant. The persistent illusion asks us to consider Renaissance gender roles, as well as our own beliefs concerning depictions of women in pre-modern art. The woman in the green dress is not meant to be read as actually pregnant, yet—more significantly—she lived and died in a culture that expected near-constant pregnancy from women.


Late Northern Renaissance

While the Renaissance was happening in Italy, great artistic and social changes occurred in Germany and the Low Countries. A bias in favor of Italian art among earlier generalizations of scholars made Italy the focus of artistic invention and the Northern Renaissance a less sophisticated imitation of the real thing. One might debate whether the North experienced a Renaissance, but the artistic, institutional, and intellectual changes are evident.

Albrecht Dürer is the indisputable rock star of the German Renaissance. In addition to being a successful painter, Dürer built his reputation on his prints, both woodcut and engravings. Because prints can be made in multiples, he had an unusually broad audience. Mechanically reproducible media such as woodcuts and engraving not only helped Dürer disperse his ideas, they also made it possible for Northern artists to see Italian art without traveling.

Dürer likely had his first exposure to Italian art in Germany, in woodcut or engraved copies of Italian works. Looking at an Italian work of art in Germany may seem unremarkable to us. However, until prints were available all works of art were one of a kind, and the only way to see a new work of art was to travel. Prints were typically far less expensive than paintings and much lighter and therefore more portable.  The switch from one-of-a-kind works of art to prints is in some ways comparable to the switch from buying or borrowing picture books to searching for images on Google.

Adam and Eve

Is there anything left to say about Adam and Eve, quite literally the oldest story in the book? The engraving of Adam and Eve of 1504 by the German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer recasts this familiar story with nuances of meaning and artistic innovation. In the picture, Adam and Eve stand together in a dense, dark forest. Far from the garden evoked in Genesis, this forest is distinctly German, the dark woods of the devils and spooks of Grimm’s fairy tales. Foreign and unexpected motifs intrude into this German wood.
Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, 1504, engraving (fourth state), 25.1 x 20 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Figure 11.4 Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, 1504, engraving (fourth state), 25.1 x 20 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Despite the chill of the forest, the two human figures appear nude. Their bodies are frontal, and they stand in a classical contrapposto, or counterpoise, where the weight of the body is shifted onto one foot. The corresponding shift in hips and shoulders creating a convincing illusion of a body capable of movement but temporarily at rest. Despite this apparent naturalism, their heads are turned to the side as they gaze at one another. This twisting configuration of head and body is distinctly artificial. The naturalizing contrapposto clashing with the artificiality of the rest of the pose establishes a pattern of contradictions that run throughout the picture. A seemingly astutely observed tree becomes distinctly odd, as we recognize that Eve is plucking an apple from a tree with fig leaves. A parrot, a tropical bird, perches on a branch to the viewer’s left. Six other animals stroll disinterestedly through or stand about—an elk, ox, cat, rabbit, mouse, and goat.

Graphic identifying the placement of animals (detail), Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, 1504, engraving (fourth state), 25.1 x 20 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Figure 11.5 Graphic identifying the placement of animals (detail), Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, 1504, engraving (fourth state), 25.1 x 20 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Questions to Consider

  1. How does the development of this artistic technique alter the transmission of style and form? 
  2. What features of the Italian Renaissance are evident in this work? 

The cartellino or small sign hanging from branch Adam grasps contains its own contradiction. It proudly identifies the artist as a citizen of the Franconian city of Nuremberg (Noricus), but does so in Latin, the language of the Mediterranean, of the Roman Empire and of the Italian Renaissance. How does this curious blend of motifs further the story of Adam and Eve?

The answer is that the picture tells us primarily about the Renaissance, about Germany, and about Dürer himself rather than the text of Genesis, from which it departs most strikingly. The poses of the two human figures are contrived to show off this German artist’s knowledge of classical (Greco-Roman) proportions. Based on the ideals of the Roman architect Vitruvius, the proportions of the face—for instance the distance from forehead to chin—determine the ideal proportions of the rest of the body. Dürer sacrifices naturalism to showcase his mastery of Vitruvian ideals.

Animals (detail), Albrecht Dürer, <em>Adam and Eve</em>, 1504, engraving (fourth state), 25.1 x 20 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Figure 11.6 Animals (detail), Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, 1504, engraving (fourth state), 25.1 x 20 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The print allows Dürer to express his personal and cultural concerns. Proud of his German identity (Albert Dvrer Noricvs or “Albert Dürer of Nuremberg”), the artist is nonetheless enthralled by Italian and classical tradition. The German forest is ennobled by classically proportioned figures who actually reference Greek sculptures of Venus and Apollo, and anchored in tradition with the symbolism of the humors. In Renaissance fashion, the perfect physical proportions of the body correlate with the interior harmony of the humors.

Like his older contemporary Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer had a curious intellect and scientific mind in addition to being an artist. Also like Leonardo, Dürer’s surpassing skill and inspiration made him a leading artist of the Renaissance. After his trips to Venice and his encounter with the Italian Renaissance, Dürer embraced the ideals of the Renaissance that he experienced firsthand while continuing to celebrate his German heritage. Dürer was to master painting and surpass all others in printmaking, both relief and intaglio. Ultimately he would rely on his prints for profit and recognition. Dürer not only experienced the transformation from Gothic to Renaissance, he was an agent of that change.

The Ambassadors

One of the most famous portraits of the Renaissance is without question Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassadors from 1533. Even today, it is a favored portrait to parody, mimic, or cite in art, TV, film, and social media, and it remains an important source for contemporary artists.

Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533, oil on oak, 207 x 209.5 cm (The National Gallery, London, photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Figure 11.7 Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533, oil on oak, 207 x 209.5 cm (The National Gallery, London, photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

This double portrait depicts two men standing beside a high table covered in objects. On the left is Jean de Dinteville, age 29, a French ambassador sent by the French king, Francis I to the English court of Henry VIII. On the right is Georges de Selve, age 25, the bishop of Lavaur, France. They stand on an elaborate abstract pavement, which has been identified as belonging to the sanctuary in Westminster Abbey—the same space where Anne Boylen, second wife of Henry VIII, had been crowned and more recently, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were married.

The painting is filled with carefully rendered details, in a clear style that we have come to identify with Renaissance naturalism of the sixteenth century. The anamorphic skull in the foreground continues to delight and surprise viewers, and to inspire artists.

Figure 11.8 Anamorphic skull (detail), Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533, oil on oak, 207 x 209.5 cm (The National Gallery, London, photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Skull seen at angle, Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533, oil on oak, 207 x 209.5 cm (The National Gallery, London, photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Figure 11.9 Anamorphic skull seen at angle, Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533, oil on oak, 207 x 209.5 cm (The National Gallery, London, photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
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Video Transcript

We're looking at Holbein's "The Ambassadors" from 1533 here in the National Gallery in London. This is a painting that's actually about the things we can't see. See on the left, Jean de Dinteville. He was an ambassador from France living in England. And on the right, Georges de Selve, his friend, a bishop and also an ambassador. Both of these men are in England, and Holbein, who was a Swiss painter, had moved to England because he could get work here. And in fact, within a short time after making this painting, he would actually become the painter to the King of England, Henry VIII. King Henry VIII is about to break away from the Catholic Church. And we know that the French ambassador was in England to keep an eye on Henry VIII during this tumultuous period. We see within the painting references to the turmoil that is taking place in England, but it's all within an even greater context. 

So let's start with the two men. We see Jean de Dinteville on the left, and he's the one who commissioned this painting, and he's the one whose house the painting hung in. And he's obviously represented as an enormously wealthy and successful man with this fur-lined cloak and velvet and satin clothing. He has a dagger on which is inscribed his age, which was 29. So he's a very young man. Holbein described his clothing with a sense of clarity and detail that we expect of that Northern tradition that Holbein in comes from. And then on the right, Georges de Selve is dressed more modestly in a fur cloak. The book that he's got his elbow on has inscribed on it his age, which was 25. And it is an interesting contrast. We have that dagger on the one side and the book on the other, references which were actually quite traditional to the active versus the contemplative life. We're meant to look at both of them, but even more than that, perhaps we're meant to look at what's in the middle of the painting, which is all these objects on these two levels of shelves. 

Holbein is just brilliant in his ability to render textures and the material reality of those objects. They also mean something. On the top shelf, we have objects that are related to the study of astronomy and to the measuring of time, and on the lower shelf, things that are more earthly. We have a terrestrial globe and a lute and a book about arithmetic and a book of hymns. The painting is functioning basically as a grid. On the left, you have the active life, on the right, you have the contemplative life, at the top, you've got the celestial sphere, at the bottom, the terrestrial sphere. Look at the beautifully foreshortened lute on the bottom shelf. Lutes were traditionally objects that were rendered in order to learn perspective. And here there's this masterful representation of the way in which that lute is much shorter than it should be because we're seeing it on end. But if you look very closely, you can see that one of the strings is actually snapped. Art historians understand this as referring to the discord in the Church in Europe at this time. 

That can also be seen in the hymnbook, which is just below that. It's open, and it's so precisely painted that it can actually be read. It's a translation of a hymn by Martin Luther, the head of the Protestant Reformation. All of this luxury, all of these objects, all the extraordinary fashion that they wear, all this stands on a mosaic floor with this beautifully detailed tiling. And it's seen in perfect linear perspective. And this is reference to an actual floor at Westminster Abbey. That floor in that church is actually a diagram, and it's meant to represent the macrocosm, that is, the cosmic order. Look at the very large form that occupies the foreground. I had a student once that said it looked like a piece of driftwood that had somehow been placed down oddly in the foreground. What we're really looking at is an anamorphic image, a kind of image that's been artificially stretched in perspective. But when you go to the right corner of the painting, crouched down a bit- Or look at it in a mirror at an angle. And it's a human skull. It's something that you can't see when you can see the other things in the painting, but it's something you can see when you don't see the other things in the painting. Front and center in this painting,really, in a sense, the star of the painting, is this skull, which is a traditional symbol of death. A memento mori. A reminder of death. And that's a very common element that we see in paintings.

But here, we have a painting that seemed for a moment to be celebrating these earthly achievements, and now seems to be undercutting it. If you look even more carefully, in the extreme upper-left corner of the painting, peeking out from behind the curtain, you can just make out a little sculpture of a crucifixion. But then we have this question that goes back to Holbein, and that is about representation. So you have the lute that's perfectly foreshortened or that floor that's a perfect perspective illusion also. So this ability to render reality so perfectly. And then you have Holbein choosing to represent the skull in an unnaturalistic way. So choosing to represent the earthly things in a realistic way,

but choosing to represent that which is supernatural, or that which is transcendent, in a way that is not according to that perfect illusionism. And I think Holbein really wants us to see that contrast. Look at the relationship between the lute and the skull. The skull is distorted so extremely that it really is hard to read. But when we think about stretching something, you generally think about stretching it horizontally or perhaps vertically. But to do so diagonally is very particular. The lute is resting on that shelf. It really is foreshortened at an angle that is very close to the angle of the distortion of the skull. But remember, a foreshortening is another kind of distortion. And so in a sense, they are both distortions, but one is a distortion that creates a reality of our world, as we see. But it's reminder that perhaps what we see is not really truth. It's not all there is. This painting was all about what these men had achieved in life. And what human beings had achieved historically for our investigation of the world. And so the two elements that are half hidden in this painting, the crucifix and the skull, point to the limits of earthly life, the limits of earthly vision, of man's knowledge, and the inevitability of death and the promise of Christ's sacrifice on the cross.


Questions to Consider

  1. In what ways does Holbein use symbolism to enhance the message of his work? 
  2. How does the context of this work unlock the symbolic meanings of the various objects on display? 
  3. How is this work about seeing and not-seeing?

The Anatolian Carpet

Draped over the top level of the table between the two men is a carpet, usually referred to as a “Holbein Carpet” because of the artist’s fondness for painting this type of textile. This name, though, would not have been used in the sixteenth century. Instead, the carpet would have reminded observers of the place from where it was produced—in this case Turkey—which was controlled, in the sixteenth century, by the Ottomans. Anatolian carpets were popular luxury objects in Europe from the fifteenth century onward. Textiles from Turkey, as well as other parts of the eastern Mediterranean were highly sought after because of their extraordinary craftsmanship and beauty.

Carpet (detail), Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533, oil on oak, 207 x 209.5 cm (The National Gallery, London, photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Figure 11.10 Carpet (detail), Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533, oil on oak, 207 x 209.5 cm (The National Gallery, London, photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Often, so-called “Holbein carpets” display octagonal medallions, other stylized patterns, and sometimes borders with Kufic, a type of Arabic calligraphic script (which the one in The Ambassadors does not). This type of carpet became so popular in Europe, that other textile makers began to try to copy it, often with pseudo-Kufic designs intended to mimic the script.

Carpets like the one in Holbein’s painting were expensive. They figured prominently in elite European homes, and often cost as much as paintings and sculptures. Unlike today, a carpet of such expense would not be placed on the floor. It would be draped over a table, as shown in The Ambassadors, to be displayed as a beautiful object to observe and delight in. We can find similar carpets In other Renaissance paintings, often draped over parapets or tables. Occasionally such carpets are shown on the floor underneath the Virgin Mary to convey her elevated status as a holy figure.

So why is a carpet in Holbein’s painting? The carpet is a luxury object meant to elevate the two men’s status. It also reminds us of the power and prestige of the Ottoman Empire at the time. The Ottomans were considered a threat to the European powers, even as Europeans desired Ottoman luxuries, such as carpets.

There is also likely another reason for the carpet’s appearance in the painting. Francis I, the French King, had recently aligned with King Henry VIII of England in an attempt to reduce the power of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor who controlled much of mainland Europe. Charles V was a powerful ruler, and Francis I and Henry VIII were concerned that he might try to wrest control away from them. Francis I also tried to cultivate relationships with the Papal States and the Ottomans, and he reached out to Süleyman the Magnificent, the Ottoman ruler. The carpet in Holbein’s painting may refer to the French ruler’s attempts to strengthen political ties to the Ottomans. Francis I no doubt coveted such a relationship as it would bolster his commercial ties, strengthening his ability to acquire Ottoman commodities and giving him greater access to goods from China and India that were also highly desirable.

The carpet has multiple meanings: politically, it speaks to Francis’s attempts to forge a political connection with the Ottoman ruler, and culturally, as an expensive, imported textile from the Anatolian peninsula. The carpet is a reminder that the Ottomans were an important part of European Renaissance culture.

Globe (detail), Anamorphic skull seen at angle, Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533, oil on oak, 207 x 209.5 cm (The National Gallery, London, photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Figure 11.11 Globe (detail), Anamorphic skull seen at angle, Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533, oil on oak, 207 x 209.5 cm (The National Gallery, London, photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The Globe

On the shelf below the carpet, there are a number of intriguing objects, including a lute with a broken string, a hymn book, and a globe. The lute’s broken string is thought to reference the discord that resulted from the Protestant Reformation, which the hymn book also calls to mind. Martin Luther, who initiated the Reformation, composed the hymns shown.

Luther's Hymn Book (detail), Anamorphic skull seen at angle, Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533, oil on oak, 207 x 209.5 cm (The National Gallery, London, photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Figure 11.12 Luther’s Hymn Book (detail), Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533, oil on oak, 207 x 209.5 cm (The National Gallery, London, photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The globe, however, does not refer to the upheaval that resulted from the Reformation, but it does call to mind other types of transformations then taking place. The map on the globe is displayed upside down from a globe’s common orientation. Despite this, many parts of Europe have legibly written inscriptions. Holbein positioned Europe closest to the picture plane and painted it in a golden color to draw our eyes to it. We see Africa above, and beyond that parts of the Americas.

Interestingly, one of the legible inscriptions on the globe is “Brisillici R.” for Brazil. The visual clarity and reference to Brazil is important. The French crown made a claim to Brazil after it had sponsored an expedition to the Americas in 1522. Heading the expedition was Giovanni da Verrazano, who returned in 1524, helping France to stake a claim to lands across the Atlantic. Verrazano would return to Brazil in 1527 to collect Brazilwood, a valuable resource. The French crown attempted to establish trading posts in Brazil in order to claim control over this rich foreign land, an action that pit France against its colonial rival Portugal.

Globe (detail), Anamorphic skull seen at angle, Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533, oil on oak, 207 x 209.5 cm (The National Gallery, London, photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Figure 11.13 Globe (detail), Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533, oil on oak, 207 x 209.5 cm (The National Gallery, London, photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Several red lines also run through parts of the globe in Holbein’s portrait. One, which runs through Brazil and divides the Atlantic, was the line agreed to with the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. This treaty resulted in much of the Americas being granted to Spain, while Brazil was granted to the Portuguese. Another line, one that resulted from the Treaty of Saragossa in 1529 (once again between Spain and Portugal), divided the map in the other direction, giving the Portuguese the Moluccas, or Spice Islands. The inclusion of these lines reveals the importance of the competition between colonial powers for land, resources, and people, and the far-reaching implications that European maritime voyages and colonial expeditions would have across the globe.

19th-century facsimile of a 16th-century globe of the type depicted in Holbein's The Ambassadors. 1 globe: 12 woodcut paper gores mounted on solid wooden sphere; 54 cm. in diam. (Beinecke Library, Yale)
Figure 11.14 19th-century facsimile of a 16th-century globe of the type depicted in Holbein’s The Ambassadors, 12 paper gores mounted on solid wood sphere, 54 cm (Beinecke Library, Yale)

What makes Holbein’s globe even more fascinating is that it replicates an actual globe from the sixteenth century. Holbein copied a globe such as the replica in the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University, from around 1526. The original was a printed globe, made possible by the revolution in print technology that had transformed Europe since the middle of the 15th century. The globe was likely printed in Nuremberg, and was popular in the 1520s and 30s. On the printed globe, there are clear references to Ferdinand Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe which was completed in 1522. The globe then alludes to Habsburg dominance, since Charles V, a Habsburg, had sponsored Magellan. Despite Holbein’s borrowing from the printed globe, he omits the Magellan route. It has been suggested that this was an effort by Holbein, who was aware that his patron was a subject of Francis I, to downplay Habsburg power.

Peter Apian, A New and Well-grounded Instruction in All Merchants’ Arithmetic(detail), Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533, oil on oak, 207 x 209.5 cm (The National Gallery, London, photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Figure 11.15 Peter Apian, A New and Well-grounded Instruction in All Merchants’ Arithmetic (detail), Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533, oil on oak, 207 x 209.5 cm (The National Gallery, London, photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Like the globe and the Turkish carpet, the book that rests on the table just in front of the globe also alludes to the importance of trade. Holbein’s precise manner of painting the book allows us to identify it as an arithmetic text, specifically the German astronomer Peter Apian’s A New and Well-grounded Instruction in All Merchants’ Arithmetic (Eyn Newe unnd wolgegruündte underweysun aller Kauffmannss Rechnung). The book discusses profits and losses—an important aspect of mercantilism and trade in this period. The navigational instruments on the upper shelf also point to commercial activities that sponsored travel and exchange, but also imperialist expansion and colonization. Each is an important theme in this complex painting.

Previous Citation(s)
Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Workshop of Robert Campin, Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece)," in Smarthistory, December 18, 2015, accessed June 7, 2023, https://smarthistory.org/robert-campin-merode-altarpiece/. Dr. Bonnie Noble, "Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve," in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, accessed June 7, 2023, https://smarthistory.org/durer-adam-and-eve/. On the Arnolfini Portrait: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Jan Van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait," in Smarthistory, November 25, 2015, accessed July 12, 2023, https://smarthistory.org/jan-van-eyck-the-arnolfini-portrait/ and Dr. Lane Eagles, "The question of pregnancy in Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait," in Smarthistory, August 26, 2018, accessed July 12, 2023, https://smarthistory.org/arnolfini-pregnancy/. Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank, "The carpet and the globe: Holbein’s The Ambassadors reframed," in Smarthistory, October 30, 2020, accessed June 7, 2023, https://smarthistory.org/hans-holbein-the-younger-the-ambassadors/.

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