National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: 15th and Early 16th-Century Germany
Overview

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The changes experienced in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries were nowhere more strongly felt than in German-speaking lands. There the revolutions of printing and the Protestant Reformation were first unleashed. And it was a German artist, Albrecht Dürer, who introduced the art of Renaissance Italy to northern Europe. As France, England, and Spain coalesced around strong dynasties into powerful nations, Germany remained a political mosaic of small, independent states under the aegis of the Holy Roman Emperor. Yet it sustained a strong sense of national identity, and this was reflected in the distinctive character of German art.

At the beginning of the fifteenth century, German artists, like those all across Europe, created delicate courtly art in what is now known as the International Style. This was marked by long graceful figures, richly patterned surfaces, gold decoration, and a preference for abstract ornamentation over realism. By about 1450, influenced by painting in the Netherlands, German artists adopted a more naturalistic style. In general, however, their work remained more expressive than their neighbor's. German painters tended to emphasize line and pattern over three-dimensional form. They juxtaposed strong contrasts of color and continued to use gold backgrounds long after they became old fashioned elsewhere. German altarpieces often included painted and gilded sculpture, increasing the theatricality of the sacred scenes. All these qualities pitched art to a high emotional key, one well suited to the German religious experience, which had been heavily influenced by the mysticism of such preachers as Meister Eckehart beginning in the 1300s.

The Reformation and the Graphic Arts

In 1517 Martin Luther launched the Protestant revolt when he posted his Ninety-five Theses complaining of greed and corruption in the church. Long before, German mysticism and other changes in late medieval piety had begun to "democratize" religion. An emphasis on direct, emotional experience of God shifted spiritual focus -- and authority -- to private devotion. In addition, political realignments had increased the power of secular rulers at the expense of the church, and growing nationalism made prosperous northern cities increasingly reluctant to share their wealth with Rome.

The Reformation swept through Germany and into the Low Countries in the 1520s. Its success was aided by religious propaganda broadcast through the new media of printed books and graphic arts. Perhaps because so many German artists had emphasized line over form, they were particularly attracted to woodblocks and engraving. The wide availability of prints, especially those by Albrecht Dürer, also helped to spread the style and theory of Italian Renaissance art, leading northern painters to model their figures with greater three-dimensionality. In areas affected by the Reformation, artists turned more frequently to secular subjects, especially portraiture, and in religious works they focused on the life of Christ, paying less attention to the saints whose role as intermediaries for mankind was denied by Protestant theologians.

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