Artists of Northern Europe, Flemish primitives, Renaissance, The Hapsburgs

The influence of Renaissance learning on the visual arts

When undertaking a study of both European history and art history, it is essential to understand the way people of that period thought.  It is one of the first things you are taught at university and for this you do need to delve into the classical texts and understand the various major events that affected all the countries in Europe. 

After the fall of the Roman empire it is not until the ninth century when Emperor Charlemagne (748-814) unites Europe into a loose affiliation of states.  Crowned king of the Franks in 768, he went on to become king of the Romans in 774 and finally was crowned emperor of the Romans in St Peter’s, Rome on Christmas Day 800 AD by Pope Leo III.  Under the rule of Charlemagne there is a rise in intellectual endeavour known as the Carolingian Renaissance.  English medievalists study the very early writers such as Bede (672/3-735 AD) who wrote he first history of England and Alcuin of York (735-804), a cleric, writer and poet. 

The exploration of classical texts had begun in the Swiss monastery at St Gallen founded in the 8th century which housed an extensive library of classical texts.   Thinkers such as Dante and Petrarch writing in the 13th and 14th centuries focused their study on these surviving Roman texts.  

Dante proposed that for war to be avoided there was a requirement for a universal monarchy.   Dante’s fourth book of the Convito contains the following quotation:

“In order to prevent wars and to remove the cause of them through all the earth . . . there must of necessity be Monarchy, that is to say one sole principality; and there must be one Prince, who, possessing all, and not being able to desire more, holds the kings content within the limits of the kingdoms, so that peace may be between them . . . and in this love … men can live happily, which is the end for which man was born.”

It was this concept of empire that became the centre of policy for Charlemagne’s namesake, the Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-1558).

Prior to the Black Death of 1348 the Church was the centre of people’s lives and the focus for everyone was to ensure that when they died they spent as little time as possible in purgatory.  This led to the sale of indulgences by senior members of the Catholic clergy to those who could afford them, which in turn led to corruption of the clergy eventually leading to the Reformation.  The scholar Desiderus Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) had hoped that a reformed Church could be brought about from within, but it was Luther who brought about the great change we know as the Reformation.  

More generally, the date of 1350 is understood as the start of the Renaissance, because this is when Europe began recovering from the ravages of the plague of 1348 that had reduced the population by an average of 25%. Because of the massive loss of life, many began to question the teachings of the Church.  

The influence of the 13th and 14th century texts by Dante, Petrarch and others becomes more apparent at the beginning of the 15thcentury, as life across Europe returned to relative normality.  Other writers had begun to create a concept for a new education for the ruling classes based on history, moral philosophy, rhetoric, grammar and poetry. This new education was based on studying the classical texts of Cicero, Catullus, Tacitus, Livy, Virgil, Ovid, Homer, Thucydides – the list is very long. 

This humanist thinking did not reach northern Europe until Emperor Frederick III (1415-1493), the first Hapsburg emperor, and Pope Pius II who had spent time at the imperial court long before he became pope.  The intellectual focus of the lands north of the Alps was not on translating the Latin and Greek texts of the classical authors, but focused on the interpretations of the Old and New Testaments. 

At the beginning of the 16th century, the humanist scholar Desiderus Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) returned to the original Hebrew, Latin and Greek texts of the Bible and produced a fresh translation of the New Testament.  His intention was to eradicate the errors made by centuries of scribes laboriously copying the original Vulgate bible texts by hand.  Erasmus’s work was first printed by the publisher Johannes Froben in 1516 and then again in 1519 when the first edition had been polished.  Unlike the philosophers, mathematicians and thinkers south of the Alps, no one in the north was interested in the works of classical writers until much later than when Dante and his ilk were composing their works in the 13th and 14th centuries.

In addition to the study of Roman and Greek texts, in 15th century Florence, the centre of the Italian Renaissance, the philosophers Marsilius Ficino (1433-1499) and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) wrote extensively on humanism, Aristotelian philosophy that included his thoughts on science, Neoplatonism, Neo-Pythagoreanism and explored the Judaic Kabbalah, numerology, mathematics, natural philosophy and metaphysics.  

An explanation of Neo-Pythagoreanism is best described by this entry in the Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy: 

“Neo-Pythagoreanism is a term used by modern scholars to refer to the revival of Pythagorean philosophy and way of life in the first century bc. It coincides with the redevelopment of Platonic thought known as Middle Platonism. Neo-Pythagoreans elaborated a mathematical metaphysics in which the highest level of being was occupied by a transcendent principle, equated with ‘the One’ or ‘the Monad’ and regarded as the source of all reality. Neo-Pythagorean anthropology reaffirmed the ancient Pythagorean belief in the immortality of the soul. Although Neo-Pythagoreanism is often indistinguishable from Middle Platonism, it is characterized by a tendency to see Pythagoras as the father of all true philosophers, including Plato. In the third century ad Neo-Pythagoreanism was absorbed into Neoplatonism.”

Ficino and della Mirandola included the study of medieval thinkers such as the Franciscan friar, Ramon Lull (1232-131315). Lull was a mathematician, logician, composer of songs, linguist, missionary.  In all, what we would call a polymath.  His writings were studied by Philip II of Spain (1527-1598), but the Church were conflicted and did not know whether to regard Lull as a saint, or a heretic.  Lull was a contemporary of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), John Scotus (1266-1308), and William of Ockham (1286-1347), a further three major intellectuals influencing medieval thought.  Like Lull, John Scotus and William of Ockham were both Franciscans, while Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican.  

Ficino is considered to be the most influential of the Neoplatonists and introduced the concept of the occult into his philosophy based on his study of the original Greek texts known as the Hermetic books into Latin.  Ficino’s belief was that although these ‘books’ were pagan, “they partook of absolute truth” through divine revelation”. Their writings are considered to have formed the key part of Neoplatonic thinking, which led to the influential writings of Henricus Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535) and the Italian Giordano Bruno (1548-1600).  In England the most notable explorer of this element of humanist learning was John Dee (1527-1609).  In the 20th century Dame Frances Yates (1899-1981) wrote extensively on this aspect of Renaissance philosophy and it is not something that is taken into account by many of those studying the visual arts, but should be since many paintings were coded.  Bruno and Dee were both mathematicians, as was Pythagoras. The concept of Neoplatonism is key to the humanist thinking and perhaps the easiest way to access the Renaissance mind regarding the metaphysical is to read Yates’s books.

When looking at the 15th century art of northern Europe, the richest and most sophisticated court was that of the Dukes of Burgundy.  From Robert Campin (1375-144) and Jan van Eyck (1390/5 -1441) onwards, art and artists became an overtly political tool.  Van Eyck undertook various trips on behalf of Duke Philip the Good (1396-1467) and it is generally accepted these were of a diplomatic nature.  Jean Mabuse (1478-1528) was another painter who was sent to Rome by Philip of Burgundy (1464-1524) an illegitimate son of Philip the Good.  

The legitimate heir to the duchy was Charles (1433-1477), seen here as a boy standing next to his father in this illumination by Rogier van der Weyden (1399/1400-1464) showing the chronicler Jean Wauquelin (d1452) presenting his Chroniques de Hainaut to Duke Philip the Good. The manuscript is kept in the Museum royale de Belgique.

But the influence of patronage was about to change. With the death of Charles the Bold in January 1477, the legitimate Burgundian male line came to an end.  

Charles’s daughter, Mary (1457-1482) was heiress to the domains held by the Dukes of Burgundy in the Low Countries, the free County of Burgundy and various areas of France.  Her titles were Duchess of Brabant, Limburg, Lothier, Luxemburg and Guelders; Margravine of Namur; Countess Palatine of Burgundy; Countess of Artois, Flanders, Charolais, Hainaut, Holland, Zeeland and Zutphen.  In short, she was the major marital prize of Europe.

On Mary’s succession, there was an attempt to ally the duchy of Burgundy with France through a possible marriage to the son of Louis XI, the future Charles VIII of France.  The French terms for this betrothal were not acceptable and in August of 1477 Mary was married to Maximilian, Archduke of Austria (1459-1519) and son of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III (1415-1493), thus combining the Hapsburg domains with those of Burgundy making the Hapsburgs the most powerful family in Europe.

From the 16th century onwards, the Hapsburg regents of the Low Countries, the Holy Roman emperors and kings of Spain would commission some of the world’s greatest works of art from major artists such as Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Titian (1490-1576), El Greco (1541-1614); Rubens (1577-1640), Velasquez (1599-1660) : illuminators of manuscripts such as Gerard Horenbout (d1541) and the great Simon Bening (1484-1561). 

Importantly for those interested in the Great Mistresses of art, Philip II valued the talent of Sofonisba Anguissola (1535-1625), the second woman to be appointed as an official court artist, the first being Levina Teerlinc (née Bening) (1520-1576) who was appointed as replacement illuminator to the Tudor court in 1546 after the death of Lucas Horenbout in 1544.

Towards the end of the 16th century Emperor Rudolph II engaged the Italian Guiseppe Archimboldo (1526-1593) who painted the curious portraits of the emperor and others using vegetables for the features of the emperor, fish for those of the admiral, and books for an unknown librarian in 1566.  Rudolph also engaged the Flemish artist Roelant Savery (1576-1639) who created landscapes containing the various birds and animals in the emperor’s menagerie, including his dodo.

Three Dodo Birds c1626. Roeland Savery. Crocker Art Museum.

Native to the islands of Mauritius and Reunion in the Indian Ocean, the dodo was extinct by the mid 17th century having been killed off by the European explorers en route to the Spice Islands in the Banda Sea.  Whether Rudolph II had three dodos, or Savery amalgamated sketches of a single exhibit would require a trawl of the surviving imperial inventories.

The poems of Virgil and the work of Ovid inspired the poesie created for Philip II by Titian in the 16thcentury in the same way as it had inspired the Italian masters of the 15th.

Actaeon coming upon the Goddess Diana & her ladies at their ablutions. 1556. Titian. National Gallery of Scotland.

Much of the art of this period includes hidden symbolism within the use of visual metaphor and allegory.  To do be able to use these classical texts and understand the metaphysical elements of the writings of Ficino, della Mirandola, Agrippa, Bruni, Dee and others, it is clear that the artists had to understand them.  We know that an artistic apprenticeship included training in the grinding and mixing of pigments, the use of perspective – both single and multipoint, and how to compose a pleasing image.  What we do not know is whether their training included their having to read the classical sources.  They would have known the biblical stories that included the Old Testament stories such as the murder of General Holofernes by Judith of Bethulia (see the work of Caravaggio (1571-1610) now in the Palazzo Barberini, Rome and the version by that other Great Mistress, Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653?) for the most dramatic rendition of this story.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

The various art collections in the Prado and elsewhere; the architecture of the Escorial and other buildings built by Philip II; the imperial collection in Vienna and the inventories detailing the huge collection of Rudolph II which had been inspired by the collections amassed by Emperor Charles V and Philip II, demonstrates the influence the various members of Hapsburg family had on the world of art during the 16th and 17th centuries, and beyond.

            For those wishing to understand the portrayal of Greek and Roman myths and legends, the works of Homer, Virgil and Ovid as well asthat of orators such as Cicero, these are widely available in various translations.  It would, however, take a dedicated student to take on board the elegance of the numerological symbolism of the Jewish and Christian Kabbalah hidden in the various altarpieces and panel paintings created by the painters of the northern Renaissance.

MVT January 2020.

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