Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Impacts of Protestant Reformation in Northern Europe

            The Protestant Reformation had an impact on the visual arts in northern Europe.  As the art in southern Italy became more chaotic and stylized, which can be seen in the Mannerist paintings of Pontormo’s “Descent from the Cross” and Parmigianino’s “Madonna with the Long Neck”, art in Northern Italy turned away from Catholic art.  Instead artists were interested in secular scenes of landscapes that often depicted the everyday lives of peasants and workers.
The main interest in Northern Europe turned to secular scenes. Artists started specializing in different types of art, such as graphic artists who would often depict moralizing and satirical scenes.  Some artists depicted scenes of the common laborer and showed people at work or performing actions found in their daily lives.  Landscapes also became popular in Northern Italy and they would often incorporate these scenes of common people.  Ironically it was wealthy and sometimes aristocratic patrons that would commission these paintings and place them in their homes.  This characteristic showed a continued interest in classicism, and was based on the ancient Roman interest in decorating their country villas with landscapes. 

Even though Pieter Bruegel the Elder started in prints, he specialized in landscapes.  His painting “Return of the Hunters” and “The Harvesters” are examples of an interest in landscapes, especially by humanists and those still interested in the Classics.  They both show the Northern European interest in naturalism and an interest in details.  “The Harvesters” show the figures in the foreground and who are at work and at rest in a field of grain.  The field of grain is a warm golden color that draws the eyes and seems to reach far into the background.  The field is interrupted by swaths of green trees that seem to reach even further into the background and seem to fade away in a smoky haze, which shows a continued interest in atmospheric perspective and naturalism.  The golden fields are repeated in the background on the left side of the scene and really help to draw the viewer’s eye into the scenery and to notice the minute details of the houses figures in the background.  His painting “Return of the Hunters” shows naturalistic figures in the foreground, who diminish in size as they walk further into the background.  It also opens up into an expansive landscape.  There are many small details of houses and figures ice-skating, which again shows the Northern interest in small details.  The eye is also drawn to the craggy mountains that he depicts in the background, which helps to lend a naturalistic sense of depth and scale.  This painting and the harvester painting were part of a series of six large paintings that were commissioned to show landscapes of the different months.  This depiction of the months and of the seasons ties into the Northern tradition of calendars and Books of the Hours.

            Patronage interest in religious art waned in Northern Europe.  There were still some religious works produced, such as Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights”, which is quite fantastical and full of allegories about human sin.  The painting that was separated into three different sections like a triptych, shows the transition from the first people of Adam and Eve, to the human centered pleasures of the flesh in the central panel.  The central panel and the right panel, which depicts the torture of hell, depart from the carefully rendered realism during the Renaissance period.   Instead the panels show an imaginative and fantastical world.  The scenes are chaotic in the middle and right panel, with figures gathered in huge groups and circles with no real focal point.  The pictures are almost claustrophobic with so many figures and abstract structures and creatures.  Bright colors have been used to show the sinful fruits, and the dark color of the water in the middle panel, and the sky in right panel, contrast with the pale skin of the human beings who are depicted paying for their sins in hell in the right panel.

Catholic art went from the High Renaissance style of showing realism and great attention to detail, with classical reference to humanism, the use of pyramidal and linear perspective in Southern Italy, and the use of intuitive perspective in the North, to a more chaotic and stylized style during the Mannerist period.  The Mannerist artists did not always have an obvious focal point, which was common with Renaissance art where the viewer new the focus by the pyramidal or triangular composition which would lead the eye to the main focus.  Mannerist paintings, such as Pontormo’s “Descent from the Cross” often have figures that are not even facing the viewer sometimes leading the eye away from the main subject or focus of the painting.  The figures too were highly stylized, often with elongated fingers and hands, their bodies were often contorted and twisted in unrealistic poses, and sometimes they seemed off balance or about to fall.  They were sometimes depicted in unusual and unrealistic colors, such as the front figure on his toes in the foreground of Pontormo’s painting.

Where religious Italian art showed the growing unease and unrest with the Protestant Reformation through their expressive and chaotic use of different manneristic styles of off balance figures, often stylized, and sometimes contorted and twisted in different positions, the Northern European style went to mainly secular interests.  There starts to be an interest in landscapes and this classical interest can be seen in Bruegel’s landscape paintings.  There was also an interest in art that showed morals and a humanist view of trying to teach a lesson to improve oneself, such as Bosch’s painting showing the consequences of human sin.


  1. You have some good thoughts, Sarah. For the sake of clarity, though, I just want to emphasize that Bosch's painting pre-dates the Reformation. The "Garden of Earthly Delights" was created c. 1505-1515, and the Reformation really began in 1517. That being said, this is a good example of how moralizing subject matter existed in the North, even before the Reformation.

    -Prof. Bowen

  2. It's so interesting to see one of the earliest influences for Surrealism in Hieronymous Bosch's work. His imagery is extremely fantastical and quite disturbing, as was some of the other work by German artists during this time.

  3. I like that you brought up that there was still good art that wasn't religious or that was retaliating against the religious rebellion.