Pillaging of churches by Calvinists, engraving by Frans Hogenberg, 1585. Musée national du château de Pau
Pillaging of churches by Calvinists, engraving by Frans Hogenberg, 1585. Musée national du château de Pau

The Protestant Reformation spread throughout Northern Europe in the 16th Century and brought an end to Catholic domination in Europe.  The impact on art was profound. Religious images were banned, since Protestant leaders denounced the use of religious images as a form of idolatry (the worship of images), while many existing images were destroyed.  Deprived of lucrative religious commissions, artists were therefore forced to find new subjects.

Matthias Grünewald, The Isenheim Altarpiece, c. 1510-15

Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece is a complex multi-paneled altarpiece that was painted before the Protestant Reformation, and so it reflects Catholic doctrine.  When opened, it depicts a gruesome image of the Crucifixion, flanked by Saint Saint Anthony and Saint Sebastian.  The crucifixion is set in a darkened landscape, with Mary, John, and Mary Magdalene expressing their sorrow through exaggerated postures and gestures.  Similar to Mannerism, this use of exaggeration and distortion is called “expressionism,” because the emphasis is on the expression of emotions, rather than realism.

The image of Christ’s body, mortally wounded and bleeding into a chalice, was placed above the altar, and was meant to reaffirm one of the central doctrines of Catholicism, which had been challenged by Protestants:

“The focal point of most Christian churches, past and present, is the altar, where the sacrament of the Eucharist, or Mass, is performed. It is a central tenet of Christianity that through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross humanity was cleansed of original sin and salvation made possible. During the Eucharist, that sacrifice is reenacted through the offering of bread and wine. In the pre-Reformation period, it was undisputed Church doctrine that the bread and wine literally became the body and blood of Christ when consecrated . . . . On the ground beside the sacrificial lamb, we see a chalice that would have echoed the actual cup used to hold the wine—the blood of Christ—during the Mass. Meanwhile, the crucified body of Christ, held up in offering, would have paralleled the raising of the sacramental bread or wafer.”
Isenheim Altarpiece, Art Through Time:  A Global View (Annenberg Learner)

Christ’s body is lacerated and bleeding, inviting intense identification with his pain.  The altarpiece was made for a hospital that specialized in skin diseases such as leprosy and “St. Anthony’s Fire,” which probably accounts for its unusual focus on bodily pain. The graphic nature of the imagery was probably meant to resonate with patients at the hospital, since many of them suffered from equally painful conditions.

When opened, the altarpiece reveals a joyous scene of the Annunciation and the Resurrection, shot through with heavenly light.  This image of heavenly splendor and light contrasts dramatically with the darkened landscape and intense pain of the closed panel, and was no doubt intended to give hope and comfort to hospital patients awaiting relief from their miseries.

When opened again, a carved shrine is flanked by panels depicting the Meeting of Saints Anthony and Paul, and The Temptation of Saint Anthony.

GolumHere, Grünewald’s imagination really takes flight.  The hideous monsters that torment the Saints are rendered with the kind of imaginative genius and spectacular realism we expect from animated movies made by Disney and Pixar.  One figure is shown with horrific boils all over his body (probably derived from the skin diseases suffered by patients at the hospital), and bears a remarkable likeness to Golum, from the Lord of the Rings.  Combining the realism of Flemish painting (based on the observation of nature), with the imaginative flair of Medieval images of the Last Judgment, Grünewald’s painting represents one of the most memorable images of hell ever painted!

Page from Albrecht Dürer’s Treatise on Mensuration

Albrecht Dürer
Albrecht Dürer was one of the first Northern artists to travel to Italy to study Italian Renaissance art.  He forged a synthesis of Northern realism, and the Italian emphasis on measure, proportion, and science.  Dürer published several treatises on perspective and proportions, and he was also a master printmaker.  The emergence of printmaking coincided with the invention of the printing press, and Dürer was responsible for making it a major art from.

Learn more about printmaking from this interactive site hosted by the Museum of Modern Art:

What is a Print? 

Albrecht Dürer, Great Piece of Turf, 1503

Like the Flemish painters that preceded him, Dürer was fascinated by nature.  This watercolor reflects his belief that all things in nature, no matter how humble and insignificant, are made by God, and are therefore deserving of attention.  The painting is so precise that botanists can identify the specific types of plants depicted (there is dandelion, yarrow, meadow grass, and grass rush).  The painting is like a scientific illustration, that records observed reality with meticulous precision.

Durer’s The Large Piece of Turf (Khan Academy)

Albrecht Dürer, Fall of Man (Adam and Eve), 1504
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

This woodblock print exemplifies Dürer’s fusion of Northern and Italian influences.  The figures of Adam and Eve are both derived from Durer’s study of classical sculpture, so the figures have a monumentality that contrasts with the more diminutive figures that were common in Northern art.  The figures are also informed by Dürer’s studies of ideal proportions.

Albrecht Dürer, study of human proportions from the Four Books on Human Proportion 1532, 1534
Marcantonio Raimondi engraving of the Apollo Belevedere

“Under the influence of Italian theory, Dürer became increasingly drawn to the idea that the perfect human form corresponded to a system of proportion and measurements. Near the end of his life, he wrote several books codifying his theories: the Underweysung der Messung (Manual of measurement), published in 1525, and Vier Bücher von menschlichen Proportion (Four books of human proportion), published in 1528, just after his death. Dürer’s fascination with ideal form is manifest in Adam and Eve. The first man and woman are shown in nearly symmetrical idealized poses: each with the weight on one leg, the other leg bent, and each with one arm angled slightly upward from the elbow and somewhat away from the body. The figure of Adam is reminiscent of the Hellenistic Apollo Belvedere, excavated in Italy late in the fifteenth century.”
Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History , Metropolitan Museum

Yet the setting of the picture is distincitvely Northern in its attention to minute detail.  The dense forest with its foliage and menagerie of wild animals is rendered with such exactitude it is as if we are seeing it under a magnifying glass.  So Dürer has fused Northern and Italian art by placing his idealized, classically-inspired figures in a realistic, Northern setting.

Another Northern characteristic is the inclusion of disguised symbolism:  the cat, elk, rabbit, and ox are symbols of the “four humors” believed to influence personality, according to Medieval medical science.

Adam and Eve, Albrecht Dürer (Clark Art Institute)

Albrecht Dürer, The Four Apostles, 1523-26

Dürer presented these panels to the city of Nuremburg, which had declared Lutheranism as the official religion the year before.  They were originally planned as wings of an altarpiece with an image of the Madonna and Child in the center, but Dürer abandoned this project because of the rising tide of Protestant iconoclasm.

Dürer expressed his sympathies with Martin Luther’s views in the panels.  In the left panel Peter (the first pope) is overshadowed by John, Luther’s favorite evangelist, and in the right panel Paul, who was also favored by Protestants, stands in front of Mark.

Peter and John read from the Gospel of John, opened to the page that reads:  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  This emphasis on “the word” reflects Luther’s teachings:  Luther argued that every Christian should read the bible for themselves, and to facilitate this he translated the bible into the vernacular (the native German language).  Luther’s translations, combined with the invention of the printing press, made it possible for the first time in history for the common man to have direct access to “the word of god.”

Albrecht Dürer, Four Apostles (Khan Academy) 

Learn more:

Albrecht Dürer, Virtuoso Printmaker, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Albrecht Dürer, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Northern Renaissance, Smarthistory

Hans Holbein the Younger, The French Ambassadors, 1533
National Gallery, London

The leading German artist in the next generation after Dürer was Hans Holbein the Younger.  He began his career in Basel, but left Germany during the religious civil wars to work for Henry XVIII of England.

This painting represents two young ambassadors who were sent to England to discourage Henry VIII from breaking away from the church of Rome.  The man on the left is Jean de Dinteville, a wealthy aristocrat, and the man on the right is Georges de Selves, a Bishop.

The two men lean against a table covered with an expensive imported carpet, and the objects assembled on the table reflect the men’s worldliness and learning.   Referencing the new “age of exploration,” the objects represent the latest scientific instruments that were used to measure time, map the stars, and navigate the globe.  They include a sun dial, a compass, and celestial and terrestrial globes.

The objects on the lower part of the table allude to the spiritual turmoil of the age.  A lute with a broken string refers to the religious “discord” of the Protestant Reformation, while an open hymn book is opened to Luther’s translation of the Ten Commandments, and a hymn to God.

With all of this focus on worldly objects,  it is easy to miss the tiny crucifix in the upper left corner of the picture.  Just a century ago, Jesus Christ would have been the focus of the composition, while the mortal men who now take center stage would have been relegated to the side panels in humble poses of prayer.  But at this moment in history, “worldliness” was taking precedence over religion, and Holbein’s painting seems to be a warning against the consequences of this shift in priorities.

The “key” to the picture is the strange shape floating in the foreground.  It is an anamorphic skull, distorted so that it can only be seen with a cylindrical mirror, or if viewed at an extremely oblique angle.  Traditionally interpreted as a momento mori (reminder of death), the skull serves as a reminder of the “vanity” of all earthly possessions.  Seen in conjunction with the scientific objects on the table, the skull would also seem to comment on the limits of human vision and understanding.  Despite our learning and “science” (symbolized by all the “gadgets” on the table), we can never “see” all things the way God can, nor can we ever escape the coming Judgment Day.

Holbein’s The Ambassadors (Khan Academy)

Learn more:

Symbolism in Holbein’s Ambassadors, National Gallery, London

Learn more about the iconography of the painting: 

See also Dr. Allen Farber’s detailed iconographic analysis of the painting:


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