Northern Renaissance

Artists of Northern Renaissance and Question Of Self Awareness 


By Taymaz Valley


“Late-medieval and Renaissance artists used a variety of strategies to construct their identity, among which we find self-portraiture, signatures, guild memberships, distinctive styles, special claims to memory skills, literary works along the lines of Cennini and Vasari, participation in art markets, specialized workshop practices, as well as social interaction with and emulation of higher social classes.” (Sherry Lindquist)




The emergence of the modern art has much in debt to the Netherlandish and German artists who were active from the 1400-1600 AD, and what has been termed Northern Renaissance made it possible for the painters and sculptors in the region to flourish without the constrains of antique mode and outright particularity of the patronage which had somewhat a limiting effect despite of some expressed academic art historical theories[1]. Northern artists, even though they learned much from the Italians, and indeed were influenced by the antique, adopted a manor in which they included other influences like the gothic, to create their own unique take on art, which can be termed a unique style. “Humanism”, which is expressed here to indicate the higher status of mortal and human conditions, did not clash with Christianity, and had a tremendous influenced on artists all over Europe. This notion can be observed in the way Netherlandish artists depicted the inward and self-reflective quality of their subjects, and indeed themselves. In many depictions of Biblical tales, the figures in the paintings and sculptures are seen to be contemplative, as is the case in many onlookers in crucifixion, passion and entombment of Christ depictions. Even Christ himself has been depicted as a very human like figure in some portrayals, vividly bleeding and along with the Virgin and in some cases Mary Magdalene, experiencing internalized pain and sorrow. The mindset of man becomes important during this period, and evidence shows that artists looked within themselves in order to access the conditions afflicting their subjects. There is also evidence that the artist himself becomes revered more than previous periods, and even though this was more prevalent in Venice, Rome and Florence, Northern artists were likely to make tours of the Italian regions, either as journeymen or as masters hoping to be influenced, and these qualities associated with the artists in the Italian regions would have surely been attractive to the Northern painters and sculptors. We also start to see an emergence of the artist as a gifted genius figure, someone who should have a higher standing and status within the community, and must be respected for his “god given” talent. Interestingly, we start to see this genius quality associated somewhat simultaneously with melancholy, and artists like Durer even depicted themselves almost in a mad like state, completely preoccupied by the their “power” to create images, as if they had seen the divine light and no longer were bound to inconsequential, trifling matters and conditions. Their calling is of something more holy and important, they should not be considered as another ordinary man, but as visionaries who through knowledge and higher learning are able to communicate truth and show people the heavenly light. The advent of printing in Europe went a long way to spreading information on anatomy and geometry, and artists used these technological developments not just in contribution to books, but also starting the distribution of their own prints. Prior to emergence of printing technology, artists by and large worked on commission or for the courts, however now they had the opportunity to make a substantial income from multiple runs of prints that saw a whole market open up within Europe. These prints were exchanged through private hands, sold by workshops, or were available in town markets, which had come to make a significant change in the way art and craftwork were being bought. Trade fairs in cities like Antwerp became central to these exchanges amongst artists, workshops and buyers, and this was caused by art becoming available more widely as important collectables, whilst the status of the artists became more prominent within the social structures.


Prevalence of anonymity that had come to dominate the art production, especially the sculptors for whom this condition had become the norm throughout the Middle Ages, started to see a change by 15th century. Indeed the earliest found signed piece of art in Northern Europe is the Reliquary Bust of St Frederick bishop of Utrecht who was murdered in 838, done by the well known goldsmith of the time Elias Scerpswert in 1362. The reliquary, which is said to contain part of the bishop’s skull, has come to be seen and treated as a devotional object, and the faithful could worship it on Christian feast days. The question must be asked: what did Scerpswert hope to achieve by signing his name onto such a ceremonial and sacredly significant piece? Could his intentions have been solely to promote his work further as it has been suggested, or was he conscious of this act associating his name, and his place within the community, with a hallowed object? The act of signing your pieces becomes more widespread as we move toward 16th century and certainly afterward it almost becomes a custom to sign your pieces, as the art market becomes a lucrative component of the artist’s income generation schemes. However, financial gain, marketing and promotion cannot be the only reason for these artists to have signed their name, or indeed included themselves within their work either in self-portraits or as models for periphery figures. What can be observed is a higher purpose for the inclusion of the artist or his hands and style within the artwork. Assertion of piety has been suggested as a possible motive for artists’ inclusion of themselves within their work, and even though this was a major factor, there is possibly more to read by these acts constituting self awareness and self reflection. Communication through these works cannot be far from the artists’ mindset, and the phrase “nosce te ipsum” (know thyself) here plays an interesting part in the establishment of one’s own standing within a religious context. The phrase “know thyself” is believed to have originated from the temple of Apollo at Delphi according to Greek traveler Pausanias, however a variation of it is attributed to Christ himself by Gospel of Luke which quotes the proverb “cur te ipsum” (heal yourself) allegedly said by Christ to a physician, urging him to take care of himself first before dealing with a patient. This phrase, which had become popular after the Latin translation of the Bible The Vulgate in late 4th century, can be read as Christ encouraging man to know himself first to be able to then convey any teachings of the Lord. This inward scrutiny of the self became essential for artists who were trying to find their own identity within the Northern way of life, and having seen how artists in other regions were being celebrated, allowed them to permit their self contemplation to take new heights. Luke the Evangelist was an influential figure to the artists of the period, and indeed remained a major inspiration for Northern painters and sculptors well into the 18th century, due to the fact that Luke was seen as the patron saint of artists. Luke was identified by Saint John of Damascus as having painted the Virgin mother of God’s portrait, and thus became epitomized as one the most important figures in the art. In his name, formations of Guilds of Saint Luke became the most important evolution in the lives of Northern painters and sculptors, as the separate guild just for artists meant that they no longer were forced to share the guilds with other craftsmen, and could identify their craft as inimitable and worthy of distinction. The earliest records of Saint Luke Guilds to be formed date back to 1338 in Ghent, 1358 in Bruges, 1360 in Louvain and 1382 in Antwerp[2]. There were strict rules that artists of all persuasion would have had to follow, and the guild’s enforcement of these policies became a way for them to financially secure their positions. By and large, new members would start by becoming apprentices which was likely to take four to five years, after which the aspiring artists would have to become journeymen and travel working for different master artists in order to receive proper training in variety of methods and also take in as much knowledge and experience as they could. Upon return, the journeymen, if they wished to become free masters in their own right and maybe open a workshop, would have been most likely asked by the guild to produce a masterwork, which then customarily, along with a payment, would have been donated to the guild. As the artist guilds were mostly named after Saint Luke, the subject of the evangelist painting or sketching the Virgin with Christ Child became a popular theme for aspiring artists, examples of which could be found all over the Netherlandish region at the time. What is interesting is the fact that even in the early days of the Saint Luke Guilds, artists were placing an identifying mark onto their pieces in order to distinguish their guilds and workshops, and this practice even became more widespread by the journeymen who prior to becoming free masters, would sign their work in order to classify their hands in the creation of the pieces. By the 17th century the monopoly of the guilds on artists’ productions was being challenged, and artists had started to take advantage of the new financial freedoms that came with advancement is technology and a widespread interest in art and collecting. It is impossible to speculate when exactly artists became “self aware”, and started to see their craft as distinct, however looking at the few cases where they did take it upon themselves to sign or include themselves within their work, can be a good place to start. Interpretation of their self identification should be taken as a theory that is up for debate, and most likely will continue to be debated for a long time, the hope should remain that the human element that has come to dominate their work not be forsaken or dismissed as blasphemous heresy, because their take on Christianity, and life of Christ has a meditative quality that is admirable. Roots of Christianity is based on defining what is morally good and just, and the artists that depicted biblical tales, especially in sculpture, were aware that these objects above all else were aimed to create a sense of belonging within their observers who would have ritualistically circle the work in a stirring milieu like the church, and they hoped their depictions by example lead the way to a more virtuous life. The question of patronage and social ranks that might have been achieved through the courts or commissions are equally important in understanding the lives of artists, however they are concentrated on less within this account, simply because they do not solely exemplify the connection between artists’ self awareness and their pieces, and indeed in many cases artists saw the commission and the courts as shackling them, constraining their freedom in production and quality. What this account aims to conclude will be a theoretical take on the way artists gradually saw themselves and their craft becoming laudable in the Netherlandish regions, and how this notion became the fuel that helped establish that melancholic, pensive, brooding genius persona that we associate with artists, even today. The context of self-promotion, notwithstanding the job of generating of income, becomes relevant to the notions of identity, self reliance, self reflection and communication in light of having the duty to lead or at least set examples.


Signature, Self-portrait, Self-inclusion and Style


There are many cases of painters including themselves within their work, and this is not unique to the Italian regions, indeed in the Netherlandish regions and Lower Countries there seems to be an emergence of artists including their signature or monograms within their work by the early 15th century. Some painters like Gorier van der Weyden even included themselves within their work depicted as Saint Luke sketching or painting the Virgin holding the Christ child, most probably for the guilds. Self-portraiture and signatures in the work of artists became frequent, and some like Jan Van Eyck who by 1433 has been agreed to have painted his own self-portrait, started to include his signature within his work. It was somewhat customary to include an inscription along with the signature and Van Eyck stating that he was present in his famous Arnolfini portrait, thought to be depicting a marriage in 1434, has been widely seen as the artist claiming witness status in the proceedings. However, the Arnolfini portrait is riddled with symbolic and allegorical features, like the lone orange on the windowsill indicating fertility; however what has been the most interesting interpretation[3] is the mortality allegories and symbols like the wooden pattens resembling bones with the dirt on them as if dug out from the ground, or the fact that there are two candles in the chandelier, one lit and the other burnt out. If these interpretation are taken into account then the hand of the artist, as well as his claim that he was there prompts a whole new interpretation within our perception of the work, and Van Eyck becomes the bearer of the ultimate truth, the communicator of the ultimate limit to life: death. His declaration of presence becomes an eternal message to whoever is contemplating this work. As if Van Eyck is pointing to that condition that shall befall all men, and the only salvation is the belief in the divine light that comes through the window with its stained glass, and the window fence curiously resembling gothic church archers. Death and salvation is never too far away from the artists’ intentions when they cease to produce work purely as a result of commissions or for the courts, and this is evident by the choices various artists make in including themselves in variety of manner as early as the late 14th century, throughout 15th century and beyond. The notion that courts were the principle inspiration for artists of the period, and becoming associated with them was a driving factor in artist becoming self-aware, leading up to the creation of our view of the modern artist[4], must be scrutinized and challenged further, simply because these artists, especially those of the Netherlandish regions, were not chiefly bound by the courts and the nobility, and indeed this self awareness came with financial freedoms that had become possible through print and book making ventures. These artists in most parts had their own workshops and dealt with their own accounts and customers. They were very careful about who they worked with, and how skilled their apprentices and journeymen were. Protection from the guilds could not have driven them to yet another “master”, only to be forced to work conditionally on their beneficiaries’ whims. The question must be asked: if an artist can independently survive on his own craft, without principally being aided by the courts, then what intention, other than establishment of his own touch, style and ideas, can an artist have by including his signature, portrait, monogram or inscription onto a painting, sculpture or print?


The place of the artist as the conveyer of the redemption, and communicator of deliverance cannot be more poignantly signified than Adam Kraft sculpting his own likeness, along with two journeymen, bearing the weight of his constructed sacrament house in the church St Lorenz Nuremberg, done between 1493 and 1496. This elaborate structure, known to have been commissioned by Hans Imhoff, contains intricate tracery interspersed with scenes from Christ’s passion, and more importantly the structure is made to house the wafer and wine for the Holy Communion. Christ indicating the bread being his own body, and the wine being his blood, plays a major role in the meditation and contemplation on the mortality of man, passion, crucifixion and the resurrection of the Christ, while receiving and also celebrating the Eucharist. There is a sense of comradery with the worshipers being expressed by Adam Kraft, and he by including himself in this structure has sought to include himself eternally by reminding all of ephemerality of life, and the need to observe and learn from Christ’s teaching and life for salvation. Yet another indication that Kraft was seeking to assert his own faith while including himself in grave sin, is the fact that he is holding his tools, which cannot only be to promote his craft. His hammer and chisel, could have easily been taken as the tools that carried out the crucifixion of Christ, the chisel looking very much like and effortlessly mistaken for a nail. The scenes depicting the Nailing of the Christ to the Cross existed around the time, becoming ever more popular as the time went on, and paintings like Gerard David’s Christ Nailed to the Cross, relief panel from the façade of the ‘s-Hertogenbosch choir screen by Coenraed van Norenberch, and various woodcut prints depicting this very act that were changing hands, are a testament to the availability of this subject to the wider audience, and no doubt to Kraft himself. One cannot ignore this subject when one is confronted with Adam Kraft’s other well-known masterpiece the triptych in the Church of St. Sebaldus again in Nuremberg, where amongst the various figures that are presented for the scenes from Christ’s Passion to Resurrection, there is a very captivating similarity between the features of the man holding a hammer and a nail and Kraft himself[5]. This figure resembling Adam Craft is somewhat as odds with the narrative sequence of the scenes, because where Christ is actually present there is another man with open yelping mouth who holds a hammer and some nails clearly pointed at the cross which is held by Christ, where as the second man with the beard that resembles Kraft is out of context near the corner dividing column between the passion and entombing scenes. What makes matters more convincing is the fact that the bearded man in a working attire is holding what reminds one of a chisel or a carving tool rather than a nail, and has a pouch hanging from his belt, confirming him as a craftsman. The question is: if this interpretation is plausible, what is Kraft hoping to achieve by provoking the notion of the artist as one of the fundamental sinners? Another aspect and use of wafer and wine apart from the usual Holy Communion, is receiving the sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation prior to taking the Communion if the person has committed an act of grave sin, to prepare him by prayer and assertion of piety. Is Kraft considering himself as having committed a grave sin, and his act of piety must be to create the work in the name of God? Is he including us, and thus all mankind, in this search for repentant? Doesn’t he by bringing the artist into the formula, bring clarity and reality into the religious narrative, making it ever more contemporary and immediate for the viewer?


Another case that highlights the emerging self awareness quality of the artists can be found in the family of the Borremans, whom some important altarpieces and sculptures have been attributed to. Jan Borreman the elder was active in Brussels between 1479 and 1520, and was known throughout the Netherlandish region as well as Scandinavian regions and the north of Holy Roman Empire as the “beste beltsnyder”. His most famous work is the St. George Altarpiece from the Chapel of Our Lady in Leuven done in 1493, and he proceeded to sign his name on the hem of Saint John’s robe and also dating the altarpiece “MCCCCXCIII”. It has been well documented that altarpieces were seen as great commercial projects, certain artists were asked directly to have their hands in making the pieces through contract terms. It was deemed that altarpieces should meet and satisfy the most stringent ecclesiastical requirements, in order to be worthy and satisfactory by the viewing worshipers, and by signing his name Borreman the elder was promoting his good name within the commissioning circles, as well as extending his influence and communicating his piety. This can be observed by the fact that he signs his name, and not just a mark or logo which some guild members had done in the past, so one must conclude that his own unique touch was important to him and his representation of his ideas through art. He wanted to be recognized independently and not just as a brand, giving the notion conveyance importance within his work. Borreman’s son Jan also worked as a sculptor and produced one of his definitive works in 1520, which was the Passion Altarpiece for Gustrow Parish Church. Jan Borreman the Younger did also sign his name on the sword of one of the soldiers confronting Christ while he was carrying the cross. These acts of signature placements cannot be considered as a result of convenience, or dismissed as mere coincidence, because bearing in mind how meticulously detailed and well planned these pieces are, how hard and for how long the master sculptor would have worked in order to bring the project into fruition, then no detail can be attributed to chance or thoughtlessness. There was a reason for including your name as an artist on a piece, and granted that could be attributed to the brand name, market creation, and self promotion; however choosing to place your own name in the most difficult, the most sensitive, the most sinful of all places, must have had a repentant quality to it. It is the artist saying he is not above sin, he is not the all mighty creator, he is a mere mortal who would have to one day face his maker and ask for forgiveness.  Pasquier Borreman has also been documented as being active around 1537 and he is believed to be the brother of Jan the Younger and the second son of Borreman the elder. Pasquier along with his brother Jan are said to be responsible for carving the Saint Crispin and Saint Crispinian altarpiece from the church of Herenthals in Antwerp in 1520, and Pasquier is said to have signed his name on two figures in this altarpiece, so the question must be asked why did he sign his name twice? If the purpose of the signature were solely recognition of the artist by the patrons, then it would seem redundant to emphasis this mark more than once. Can the signatures signify where the artists saw himself within the narrative of the work? Can the place where the artist stands within the work bring a broader meaning for people who would have observed the altarpiece then and in the future, and the artist being aware of the life of an artwork lasting longer than his, tried to make his name synonymous with the question of immortality? Here I remain?


The master artist’s hand given so much importance through contract terms, brings to surface the notion of style, simply because not all artists of the time signed, monogramed or include themselves within their work, so identifying their unique touch would have required a more subtle observation. Imitation and forgeries were becoming a common place as the fairs and markets took a more prevalent place within cities like Antwerp by the 16th century. Indeed Durer’s prints were subject of a dispute between the artist and a forger, and an official ruled that the perpetrator could carryon producing copies of Durer’s print however omitting the artist’s famous A D monogram. Skill of the master painter or sculptor, it seems, could be imitated, and this would have had created endless problems for those artists who were looking to escape the abyss of anonymity. One way that sculptors approached the notion of touch, and is indeed a way of identifying or attributing certain pieces to certain artists today, is the way ornamentation was applied to pieces, and in the style they were fashioned. Ornament, far from being excess, was a statement that solidified the hand of the artist within a piece, be it print, tomb, carved altarpiece or sculpture. Israhel van Meckenem was a prominent German print maker most noted for his ornamentally rendered prints, later examples of which he did in fact sign. Colijn de Nole active in Utrecht in the early to mid 16th century, has come to be seen as a competent sculpture, and ornamentation very much played a paramount role in the identification of his work. It has been said of de Nole, that he was influenced by the Mannerist’s work carried out at Chateau of Fontainebleau during the reign of Francis the first. It is unclear whether he had ever been to Fontainebleau or whether he was aware of the work done there through the prints available, however the statements that de Nole was also inspired by the prints of Cornelis Bos, leads one to conclude that the sculptor was aware of prints and especially the ornament stylizations which featured heavily in these woodcut productions. Indeed it was said that no artist could bring to life Bos’ prints quite like de Nole, and this could have been only said of the sculptural style and manner in which he included his hand within his work. The notion of vision and touch had a correlation within the Northern societies at the time, and it was understood that through vision one could be touched by the divine power. This gave tremendous importance to the images of the saints and holy figures, and even can be observed by patrons and nobility commissioning artists to depict them in direct observation distance from the saints and angels. These images were thought to have the power to divulge the ultimate truth, and to some became magical, which might very well be the reason behind the destruction of carved faces during the notorious Northern iconoclasm of 1560s. Here artists by including and emphasising their own hand and style on a piece, would have been fully aware and even hoped that the result would be admired and seen as sacred by the viewers, and so they could have beheld it as their duty to be mindful of connotations their creation brought to surface, and thus strived to make their work in line with the church’s teachings. If they were to convey a message, if they were going to act as bearers of knowledge, then they must above all else be aware of their position as humble mortals who were seeking to immortalize the divine light, and this could be the reason why they positioned themselves as sinners. The inward contemplation was the result of the artist becoming self aware, and realizing the position he holds within the realm of communication with his fellow man. If the art was indeed seen as a mirror of the world, then how are we to rationalize the self-portraits that had become popular during the time, other than converging the viewer and artist as one looking at himself for answers, and thus conveying that eternal message “man, know thyself”.


Further Thoughts          


One thought has come to preoccupy man most than any other for as long as he has been self-conscious, and that is the thought of death. The powerlessness that man feels when confronted with his own mortality has caused him to search endlessly for an ultimate truth. Philosophy and religion doctrines have sought to bring us closer to this truth, however at every turn, it becomes clearer that the ultimate truth cannot be reached, envisaged nor realised without man facing that overriding limit imposed on life. Certainly these factors were not revelationary to the Northern cultures of the time, and the popularity of stories like the fountain of youth can be seen as an indication of how obsessed people were with old age and death. There were fears that the turn of the century and the emergence of the year 1500 would bring about the end of the world, and the four horsemen of the apocalypse became a popular subject for artists of the time. Hours of Death found in most Books of Hours, and also the popularity of Visions of Tondal which all revolved around the notion that death is inevitable, and has dire consequences for the sinful, were seen as a way of forcing those who joined in wicked deeds to repent. It is fair to say that death, above all else, was a subject of much debate and contemplation by the society in which the Netherlandish artist operated in, and one can only assume that artist having found new status and standing within society, were looking to make their own contribution to the debate. The artists became self aware not just through gaining rank and position, but also contemplating themselves and digging deeper to find common grounds with human side of their art. The consequences of this self awareness for some was their sense of duty to enlighten, and inspire others to consider a more virtuous life, and the only way to convey this message was through their art. It was clear to them that they were not going to survive death, however their pieces might remain to inspire others, and if this was to be the case then they hoped to make their contribution stand out as their own unique take, and not just as anonymous involvement. Whether this search for individuality was in itself destructive to the notion of ethics and human integrities in the long run, remains to be answered, however what the artists of the time achieved was the allowing of the non nobility and clergy to inspire and ignite devotion, faith and excitement within the public, through their art, and that is very much in accordance with what one associates with moral virtue, and lasting grace. 

[1] In light of Sherry C. M. Lindquist piece “The Will of a Princely Patron” and Artists at the Burgundian Court


[2] According to Henk van Os and Jan Piet Filedt Kok in Netherlandish Art 1400-1600


[3] Based on Margaret Lendia Koster paper on the Van Eyck painting


[4] According to Martin Warnke “The Court Artists: On the Ancestry of the Modern Artist”





Further Reading



·      S.J.Campbell, “Artists at Court: Image Making and Identity 1300-1550” University of Chicago Press 2002



·      W. Th. Kloek, W. Halsema-Kubes, R. J. Baarsen, “Art before the iconoclasm: Northern Netherlandish Art 1525-1580, Rijks Museum 1986



·      Jeffrey Chipps Smith, “The Northern Renaissance”, Phaidon 2004.



·      Henk van Os, Jan Piet Filedt Kok, Ger Luijten, Frits Scholten “Netherlandish Art 1400-1600” Waanders Publishers, 2000.