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3 Tutorials that teach Fifteenth-Century Flemish Painting
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Fifteenth-Century Flemish Painting

Fifteenth-Century Flemish Painting

Author: Ian McConnell
Description:

This lesson will consider a few examples of Flemish Painting.

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Tutorial

An overview of fifteenth-century Flemish painting.

Video Transcription

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Hello, I'd like to welcome to this episode of Exploring Art History with Ian. My name is Ian McConnell, and today's lesson is about 15th century Flemish painting. As you're watching the video, feel free to pause, move forward, or rewind as often as you feel is necessary. And as soon as you're ready, we can begin.

Today's objectives are listed below. By the end of the lesson today you will be able to identify and define today's key terms. Explain the symbology in paintings like the Arnolfini Portrait. Describe characteristics of Northern Renaissance paintings and identify examples using those characteristics.

Key terms, as always, are listed in yellow. First key terms is oil painting, the process of applying pigment suspended in linseed oil to a surface characterized by quality that gives it a luminous appearance. Altarpiece is a religious subject painted or carved on a screen above or behind the altar or table in a Christian church, often made of two or more panels. Flanders is a region in Belgium characterized by a thriving artistic, educational culture and society especially noted for textiles. And Flemish is Belgian Dutch.

The big idea for today is that Northern Renaissance painters in large begin using oil paints before their Italian contemporaries, and created a unique style that blended the secular and religious with an emphasis on detail and texture.

So we'll be looking at the time period ranging from 1425 to 1510. And Flanders is located here. These are the present day borders of Flanders. with the city of Brussels for a reference point.

Flemish versus Italian Renaissance painting and why do we care. There are stylistic and material differences between Flemish painting and Italian Renaissance painting of this time. Stylistically, Flemish painting was much more secular. And Italian painting could occur in fresco or in tempera medium, where these types of painting wouldn't work well in the north because of the climate. It was too cold and so they wouldn't dry properly, which is one of the reasons why oil painting took hold in the north before it took hold in Italy. And it eventually became the preferred method of painting.

Now humanism in Italy and the application of rational scientific principles such as one point perspective, or linear perspective, was the theme of the time. Applying those scientific principles to painting. Where in Flanders, the Flemish emphasis was on textures, textiles, and detail. The overall look of the painting was more important than the scientific mathematical qualities of it.

And the other reason that oil painting became the preferred method of painting was because there was more detail that could be achieved using oil because it was a layering process that occurred when painting in oil. You could lay down a glaze, as they would call it, and you could gradually build up color as well as depth to that color.

Oil painting was already mastered by a number of Flemish painters before the 15th century. Robert Campin was one of the earliest. Oil painting would be applied as a series of glazes, as I mentioned before, to build up depth and color in a way that wasn't possible with tempera paint. Campin uses it to create a second this depiction of the Annunciation, which occupies the space at the center of the panel which I'm showing you here.

Now notice how detailed and realistic the clothing looks, and also how the scene takes place in what would have been recognized at the time as a Flemish home. A well kept Flemish home, actually. Also notice how the perspective isn't exactly spot on. Something about it isn't quite right, particularly with the table. But that wouldn't have been the primary concern of the artist. Rather it was the way the painting looked that was more important than the proper application of scientific perspective, which wasn't really known in this region at the time.

The objects that were chosen be placed within the room were carefully selected and are symbolic in some way with the purity of the Virgin Mary, such as the extinguished candle, the lilies, and the copper pot in the back, just to name a few.

The panel on the left depicts the donor and his wife looking in on the event while Mary's husband Joseph works in his shop on the right panel making a mousetrap, symbolic of Christ's victory over Satan. Christ is the bait for the devil.

In another altarpiece-- this one by the artist Jan van Eyck-- is an enormous example. It's about 15 feet long by about 11 feet high approximately. The three panels are divided horizontally separating into two main horizontal registers. It was painted in 1432 and is oil on wood, as you'll see a lot of these portraits in the north are. There's plenty of wood, so that makes sense that they would use wood. As I said, the three panels are divided horizontally separating into two main horizontal registers. On the top God is enthroned and flanked by Mary to his right and Saint John the Baptist to his left. On either side of Mary and John are choirs of angels playing the organ. Further still on the outer edges are the figures of Adam and Eve.

In the lower register, the community of saints congregate around the altar of the lamb, which was a symbol for Christ, and fountain of life, which is in the foreground. It's three octagon-shaped fountain in the bottom register. Van Eyck took extra care to render the entire composition in really incredible detail and color. And the altarpiece still stands as one of the greatest examples of Northern Renaissance painting.

So Giovanni Arnolfini was a wealthy financier associated with the wealthy and influential Medici family from Italy. The portrait of Arnolfini and his bride called the Arnolfini Portrait by the artist Jan van Eyck is a wonderful example that embodies the northern Flemish style that emphasized incredibly detailed and realistically textured works of art. And although portrait appears to be simple wedding portrait perhaps, the painting is abundant with religious symbolism.

The context is possibly that of the actual ceremony, but this is one of many theories. There are actually two other people in the room, van Eyck himself and perhaps a religious official, whose reflections can be seen in the tiny mirror in the back of the room. Around the convex mirror, which represents the all-seeing eye of God, there are tiny medallions depicting the passion of the Christ, a reminder of God's salvation.

His bride is located near the marriage bed, where the curtains have been pulled back. And the finial, which is the ornament on top of the bedpost, is of Saint Margaret, the patron saint of childbirth. The bride's gesture and clothing suggest pregnancy, but she isn't pregnant. This style of clothing was consistent with the style at the time. The clog suggests that this is sacred ground, the place that they're standing. In the little dog is symbolic of trust or fidelity to one another, as well as their wedding vows.

Now finally their position in the room. He's closer to the window, as his life takes place out in the outside world, while her position further in is suggestive of the traditional domestic role of a female and in this period of time. Overall it's very interesting combination of the secular imagery that was common in the Northern Renaissance with the religious symbolism ever present in the Renaissance artwork of contemporary Italy.

A Goldsmith in His Shop is an example of the later Flemish panel painter Petrus Christus and is yet another example of how Flemish artists carefully selected everyday items that could function symbolically in the composition, such as the bride's girdle on the table, a symbol of chastity. The Goldsmith is possibly St. Eligius, who was a Goldsmith before committing himself to his faith sitting in his workshop wearing the gold ring of a wedding couple. It's believed that the local goldsmiths guild had commissioned this work and Christus undoubtedly chose the subject matter as a way of combining the religious with the secular.

The artist Hieronymus Bosch is one of most debated artists from this period of time. He hails from the Netherlands and much of his work, like this example of The Garden of Earthly Delights, is downright confusing, especially without knowing a great deal about the man privately. His work has been described as fantastical, satirical, surrealist, and obscene. And this particular image could really fall anywhere in between. And is believed to have been commissioned as a private piece of art in celebration of a wedding. Regardless, it's unique and a significant departure from the type of painting we see coming out of Italy at this time.

Now that we've reached the end of the lesson, let's take a look at our objectives again to see how we did. Now that you've seen the lesson, are you able to identify and define today's key terms? Can you explain the symbology in paintings like the Arnolfini Portrait, and can you describe characteristics of Northern Renaissance paintings and identify examples using those characteristics?

And once again the big idea for today is that Northern Renaissance painters in large began using oil paints before their Italian contemporaries and created a unique style the blended the secular and religious with an emphasis on detail and texture.

And that Is it. Thank you very much for joining me today. I will see you next time.

TERMS TO KNOW
  • Oil Painting

    The process of applying pigments suspended in linseed oil to a surface characterized by quality that gives it a luminous appearance.

  • Flemish

    Belgian Dutch

  • Flanders

    A region in Belgium characterized by a thriving artistic, educational culture and society, especially noted for textiles.

  • Altarpiece

    A religious subject painted or carved on a screen above or behind the altar or table in a Christian church often made of two or more panels.