Regional Differences Between Italian and Flemish Renaissance Art

There is significant variation in Italian and Flemish Renaissance art due in part to differences in patronage, religious beliefs, and customs. In today's post, I will attempt to compare and contrast art from these two places noting these specific causes for variation.

Private Devotional Images: Religion's Role in Every Day Life

As discussed in the last post, Italian art patrons were primarily the Church, Guilds, or wealthy families (like the Medici).  Artwork was often commissioned for public view to promote dominance and authority.  In 15th century Northern Europe, however, the rise in wealth from trade in turn gave rise to individuals commissioning artwork.  Many of these Flemish patrons commissioned work for private devotion. 

Take, for example, the small Merode Altarpiece made for household prayer.  In this work, the artist shows biblical scenes taking place in a Flemish home.  The donors, Peter Inghelbrecht, a wealthy merchant, and his wife, Margarete Scrynmakers, are shown kneeling in the garden as they witness the Annunciation.  The archangel Gabriel is situated in a domestic setting with Mary, who sits reading at a table inside a well-kept home.   The patrons are portrayed witnessing this biblical event from the garden through an open door.  This underlines the deep personal connection the Flemish patron or viewer felt with biblical figures, and demonstrates how deeply integrated secular life was with religious life.

 Robert Campin,  Merode Altarpiece  (open), ca. 1425-1428.  Oil on wood, center panel 2'1 3/8" x 2' 7/8", each wing 2' 1 3/8" x 10 7/8", Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Robert Campin, Merode Altarpiece (open), ca. 1425-1428.  Oil on wood, center panel 2'1 3/8" x 2' 7/8", each wing 2' 1 3/8" x 10 7/8", Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

A secular portrait and marriage document

The next artwork we will consider is purely a secular portrait, and may serve as a kind of legal document.  It reflects the changing practices from Medieval marriage customs to 15th century marriage customs.  To be married, the couple merely had to exchange vows before a witness.  This painting bears witness to the union between Arnolfini and his wife.  Here, we see the presence of four people: husband and wife, and the witnesses to the union in the reflection of the mirror. 

 Jan van Eyck,  Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife,  1434.  Oil on wood, 2'9" x 1' 10 1/2" National Gallery, London

Jan van Eyck, Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife, 1434.  Oil on wood, 2'9" x 1' 10 1/2" National Gallery, London

Objects as Symbols

Another trademark of 15th century Flemish art is the use of everday objects as symbols.  In the Merode Altarpiece objects like the book, candle, and lilies all symbolize the Virgin's purity.  The ax and saw painted in the foreground of Joseph's workshop are carpenter's tools.  In Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife, the clogs show that this event is taking place on holy ground.  The dog symbolizes fidelity.  Use of such symbols was prevalent in traditional Flemish customs, and is thus a trademark of paintings from this time and region.

 

Kleiner, Fred. “Late Medieval and Early Renaissance Northern Europe.” Gardener's Art through the Ages, Senior Development Editor: Sharon Adams Poore, 14th Edition, Boston*, Clark Baxter, 2013, pp.535-556.