The northern Renaissance was a revolution in paining and in sculpture. It was a time of looking to the past, to the Romans, and incorporating ideas of realism to their own techniques and methods. There was a transition from the courtly style of luxury objects, such as tapestries and small sculptures made of sumptuous materials, to an emphasis on realism and an involved interaction between the viewer and the artist’s work.
At the start of the Renaissance, the courtly style involved pieces of art that incorporated rich materials and labor intensive objects. Many of these included rich tapestries made with gold and silk thread and that often depicted religious scenes or scenes of victory. Miniature sculptures were made of gold and jewels that were soon melted down to make new items. With the works of Jan Van Eyck in painting and Sluter in sculpture, naturalism and the illusion of a real world start to characterize the style of the Northern Renaissance.
Jan Van Eyck paintings evoke a naturalistic world through the use of minute details, his technique of layering oil paints and oil veneers to create luminous paintings rich in color and seem to glow with reflected light. One of his great, said to start the revolution of art during the Northern Renaissance, is his great altar piece at Gent. His figure of Adam shows many naturalistic details including the translucent quality of his skin, the veins that are just visible just beneath the surface, the detail of hair on the legs, the tan color added to his skin, and the way his foot is raised so it seems like he is about set foot outside of his frame. What’s truly amazing is his incorporation of the altar piece with it’s surroundings. He made the light in the painting seem to reflect off the actual light of the altars location. The direction of light can be seen in the reflection of Adam’s eye compared to Eve, who faces the opposite direction, and whose eyes don’t show any reflection. The jewels on the crowns reflect the direction of the light as well.
His paintings showed such illusions of reality that they almost seemed like a mirror to the people of that time who viewed the paintings. There seemed to be an interaction of that world with the real world that was emphasized by his use of light and reflective surfaces in his paintings. They seemed like windows into another world.
This illusion of another world can be seen in the book of hours. Eyck was a master at creating an illusionary landscape within a minute amount of space. Paintings were no longer boxed in, but they framed by “windows” that showed whole new worlds and realistic miniatures. It opened landscapes into a three dimensional world and made an intimate relationship between the art and the viewer.
Sluter’s sculpture of the well of Moses in Dijon shows the sculptors freedom from sculptures constrains of architecture and instead an emphasis on naturalism. Each figure is sculpted in the round and each figure shows individualized characteristics, which help to give each figure a gravity and presence. The individualized details can be seen in their clothing, difference in shoes, differences in the details of the face (the deep wrinkles apparent in the brow of Moses) and the facial hair (Moses has a big curly beard compared to King David and Jeremiah). They also appear to lean out and come out at the viewer, almost forcing interaction and an intimacy with the viewer.
One main idea that was valued during the Northern Renaissance and that had a profound effect on artists, was the idea of artists taking credit for their works of art. Personal skill became highly prized, especially in the courts of the Duke of Burgundy, and artists were starting to make a name for themselves and starting to gather fame. One very skilled and famous painter, Jan Van Eyck, was known to leave signatures, dates, personal mottos, even portraits of himself in his paintings.
Another idea of the period included ideas of consistency. If an artist used a certain medium, such as oil paints, then there was a an idea that the consistency of that medium would be preserved and there wouldn’t be any incorporation of foreign objects such as jewels and gold foil. Gold foil was often used to represent the halos in pictures of the saints and it was used to represent their rich clothing and royal crowns. Instead, Jan Van Eyck used techniques of layering oils to produce luminous objects and jewels in his paintings. According to documentary, “Northern Renaissance”, whatever is in the picture appears consistent with the world in which we inhabit. Consistency helps to preserve the illusion of reality.