Northern vs. Southern Renaissance
Masaccio and JanVan Eyck
As anticipated I wanted to get back to my entry on the Flemish Primitives – a much misleading name which came into use in the 19th century, perhaps simply for the lack of anything better. There is no negative connotation, as it might seem, in the use of the word “Primitives”. Rather, it is in reference to the unique straddling of the Late Gothic period and that of the renewed and more universal period of the prominent artists of the time in northern Europe. The differences of the art being produced in the north and the south at the very same period in time, around 1420, are intriguing.
In summary The Italian Southern Renaissance artists were generalists, interested in the universals, while the Northern Renaissance artists were literalists, interested in the particular. This I believe is the most general, over-reaching philosophical difference which can explain the very different art of the same period between the Flemish/Northern Renaissance and the Southern/Italian Renaissance periods – two very different “world views”, one looking back to its glorious Classical past – the other grounded in the here and now world of every day life. Where the Italian Renaissance saw God in the Macrocosm (the Universal), the Northern artists saw God in the Microcosm (the Universe in Miniature). In the South they were awed by the magnificence of God’s overall plan (the big picture, so to speak) for the universe and mankind in general. The Northern artists saw that same plan in the single man or woman or in the smallest details of daily life. The North had not mastered perspective, nor did they seem interested in doing so. They hesitated to instill pronounced emotional content in their figures, preferring to hang on a little longer to the late Gothic style.
Comparing Van Eyck’s Adam and Eve from the marvelous work that is the Ghent Altarpiece to Masaccio’s magnificent Adam and Eve from the Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence illustrates clearly the Southern Renaissance artists’ knowledge and use of perspective. While Van Eyck created believable, plastic bodies, they are still heavily anchored in the typical late Gothic static and flat representation, totally in contrast to Masaccio’s rendering of the two figures – figures in movement and displaying deep emotional anguish for their plight.
The beginning of the “Northern Renaissance”
is a unique moment in the history of art. It is a rare example of a period that borrows, uses and unites the styles and the genius of two opposing periods: while its general plan clearly belongs to the Middle Ages, its execution, its manner of seeing things and putting them on canvas, are truly modern. The masterpieces of the period have a double nature, so to speak. The genius of the Renaissance for what was concrete and realistic is wedded to the majesty of the late Gothic with its love of the abstract. It is an exquisite example of the perfect blending of two principles that might, but do not, seem to exclude each other, the Past and the Future.
The Flemish Primitives – endless fascination!