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Friday, June 17, 2011

The Northern Renaissance

When we think of the Renaissance, we inevitably think first of Michelangelo, then perhaps Leonardo, Raphael and a host of lesser forerunners such as Donatello, Verrocchio, Ghiberti, or Ghirlandaio. This is unfortunate, not that these weren't great artists, but that our whole outlook on the Renaissance is so southerly oriented. The Italian Renaissance wasn't the only game in town. Just to the north were Durer, Bosch, Cranach, Grunewald, Van Eyck, Campin, Brueghel, and van der Weyden to name but a few. As in the south, two or three stand out as leaders, Van Eyck and Durer to be sure, with Brueghel and Grunewald not far behind. But in fact, the diverse cast of characters in the North were much more nearly equal in importance than in Italy where the "big three" dominated. However personally, I have a favorite--Roger van der Weyden.

Van der Weyden was a Flemish artist born around 1400, which puts him very early in the Northern Renaissance era. He was a pupil of Jan Van Eyck and also of Robert Campin, which certainly gives him the pedigree of greatness. Though he didn't start painting until his late 20's, his efforts brought him immediate success. Philip the Good, the Duke of Burgundy, also the brother of the Jean Duc de Berry and Charles V, king of France, made van der Weyden his court painter where his incredibly realistic style quickly spread to countries as far away as Spain and Italy. Van der Weyden was able to incorporate the Flemish realism of Van Eyck, marrying it to the stark, emotionalism of Robert Campin, and in so doing, evolved a style imbued with such touching human emotion that his work often moved viewers to tears.

The Deposition (The Descent from the Cross), 1435, Roger van de Weyden
On such painting, perhaps his greatest, was van der Weyden's 1435 Deposition (The Descent from the Cross). The first thing one notices about the painting is its inverted "T" shape. Populated by a tight composition of no less than ten life-size figures, Christ is lovingly removed from the cross as his mother, echoing a pose nearly identical to that of her dead son, collapses into the arms of other mourners. Each figure from that of Christ himself, to Mary Magdalen is so individually portrayed the feeling is one of watching a passion play. The colors are bold and striking, as natural as if we were looking at a modern photograph, while no detail is neglected, and no pose has an artificial or contrived quality. Van der Weyden probes every different kind of grief in the faces and figures of his mourners yet never lets the pathos get out of hand. Given the fact that this was a pieces from the early Northern Renaissance, one might almost get the notion that the Renaissance movement spread southward, though actually it seems to have developed in both areas almost simultaneously.

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