The Art of the Renaissance in Northern Europe: Its Relation to the Contemporary Spiritual and Intellectual Movements

By Otto Benesch | Go to book overview

I
The Medieval Heritage and the New Empiricism

DURING the fifteenth century, when art in Italy was aiming at a new secular and scientific understanding of the physical world and when art in the Netherlands was striving for a new interpretation of its visual beauty in the pious mood of a still-medieval religiosity, edification and education completely overshadowed all self-consistent artistic problems in Central Europe. There scientific or exclusively artistic problems meant little to the artists. Their works were intended to narrate and to teach. It is not without significance that book printing and the graphic arts were German inventions, that they found their most extensive development in Central Europe and there engaged the foremost artistic energies.1

Of course, during the fifteenth century, the artists of Germany, Bohemia, Switzerland, and Austria very ardently followed up artistic problems as well -- for instance the pictorial realization of solids, and of space as the result of their interrelation. In the 1440's, we see this very clearly in the paintings of Conrad Witz. We notice violent efforts to conquer a new kind of reality, to achieve a new kind of plastic illusion. Yet the artist did not regard his purpose as reached through that achievement, as an Italian master would have done; his final aim was to give to an old religious content a new intensity and nearness to life. In Italy, the emphasis was greatly shifted from the old medieval stock of contents to new humanistic concepts. In Northern Europe, the old contents kept their central position. Humanistic subjects, if they penetrated from the South, were represented with a definitely medieval flavor.2 Thus the medieval spirit remained in power in the North much longer than in the South, and it ruled the Germanic countries especially in unbroken strength throughout the

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