North Renaissance Architecture

16 Jun

The Northern Renaissance is the term used to describe the Renaissance in northern Europe, or more broadly in Europe outside Italy. Before 1500 the Italian Renaissance had almost no influence outside Italy. After 1500 Renaissance spread around Europe, but Late Gothic influences remained present until the arrival of Baroque.[1]

In France, King Francis I imported Italian art, commissioned Italian artists (including Leonardo da Vinci), and built grand palaces at great expense, beginning the French Renaissance. Writers such as Rabelais and Pierre de Ronsard also borrowed from the spirit of the Italian Renaissance. From France, the spirit of the age spread to the Low Countries and to the Holy Roman Empire and Scandinavia in the German Renaissance, and finally to Britain by the late 16th century. During the English Renaissance (which overlapped with the Elizabethan era) writers such as William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe composed works of lasting influence. The Renaissance was brought to Poland directly from Italy by artists from Florence, starting the Polish Renaissance.

The Northern Renaissance was distinct from the Italian Renaissance in its centralization of political power. While Italy was dominated by independent city-states, countries in central and western Europe began emerging as nation-states. The Northern Renaissance was also closely linked to the Protestant Reformation and the long series of internal and external conflicts between various Protestant groups and the Roman Catholic Church.


Bartolommeo Berrecci – Wawel, Kraków

Bernardo Morando – Zamosc

Reproduction of Johann Gutenberg-era Press on display at the Printing History Museum in Lyon, France. The development of printing press had great impact on North European Renaissance.

Perhaps even more important than the beginning of the Renaissance in northern Italy was its spread across Europe. In addition, western Europe was far more uniformly under the embrace of feudalism. This economic system had dominated western Europe for a thousand years, but was on the decline at the beginning of the Renaissance. The reasons for this decline include the post-plague environment, the increasing use of money rather than land as a medium of exchange, the growing number of serfs living as freedmen, the formation of nation-states with monarchies interested in reducing the power of feudal lords, the increasing uselessness of feudal armies in the face of new military technology (such as gunpowder) and a general increase in agricultural productivity due to improving farming technology and methods. As in Italy, the decline of feudalism opened the way for the cultural, social, and economic changes associated with the Renaissance in western Europe.

Finally, the Renaissance in western Europe would also be kindled by a weakening of the Roman Catholic Church. The seeming inability of the church to help with the devastating Black Plague and the Western Schism tore Europe apart. The slow demise of feudalism also weakened a long-established policy in which church officials helped keep the population of the manor under control in return for tribute. Consequently, the early 15th century saw the rise of many secular institutions and beliefs. Among the most significant of these, humanism, would lay the philosophical grounds for much of Renaissance art, music, and science. Forms of artistic expression which a century ago would have been banned by the church were now tolerated or even encouraged.

It would be inaccurate to describe the Renaissance as non-religious. Christianity was still a predominant influence across all of Europe and played an important role in the lives of commoners and nobility like. It would be more accurate to describe the Renaissance as a time of increased secularism, wherein people retained their religion but increasingly participated in affairs outside of the church.

The velocity of transmission of the Renaissance throughout Europe can largely be ascribed to the invention of the printing press. The printing press was popularized arrived well after the Renaissance was underway in Italy, but its power to mass-produce printed material dramatically affected the course of the Renaissance in northern Europe. The ability to widely disseminate knowledge enhanced scientific research and helped spread the Renaissance from Italy to other parts of Europe. The introduction of the printing press also led to the introduction of public propaganda, which was used by rulers to strengthen nation states. The creation of the printing press also encouraged authors to write in the local vernacular rather than in the classical languages of Greek and Latin, widening the reading audience and further promoting the spread of Renaissance ideas.

Ultimately, the printing press spurred mass production of the Bible, contributing to the Protestant Reformation.


The Ghent Altarpiece (interior view) by Hubert van Eyck, painted 1432. Cathedral of Saint Bavo, Ghent, Belgium.

As Renaissance art techniques moved to northern Europe, they changed and were adapted to local circumstances. Notable painters of the period include Albrecht Dürer, Hans Dürer, Pieter Bruegel, Hans Holbein, Jean Fouquet, Robert Campin, Jan van Eyck, Stanislaw Samostrzelnik and Rogier van der Weyden. Paintings by these artists retain a Gothic influence; this is perhaps most evident in the works of Hieronymus Bosch. Northern art was more concerned with Christianity than with Greek and Roman, in part a reflection of the turmoil of the Protestant Reformation.

A major difference between the Northern and Italian Renaissances was that of language. While Italy’s humanists turned Latin and Greek, the northerners began to write in the vernacular creating literature that was widely accessible. The greater use and respectability of the vernacular languages played an important role in the formation of the new nation states that were largely defined by language.

Age of Discovery

Perhaps the most important technological development of the Renaissance was the invention of the caravel, the first truly oceangoing ship. This combination of European and Arab ship building technologies for the first time made extensive trade and travel over the Atlantic feasible. While first introduced by the Italian states, and the early captains, such as Christopher Columbus and Giovanni Caboto, who were Italian, the development would end Northern Italy’s role as the trade crossroads of Europe, shifting wealth and power westwards to Spain, Portugal, France, and England. These states all began to conduct extensive trade with Africa and Asia, and in the Americas began extensive colonisation activities. This period of exploration and expansion has become known as the Age of Discovery. Eventually European power, and also Renaissance art and ideals, spread around the globe.anna

^ Janson, H.W.; Anthony F. Janson (1997). History of Art, 5th, rev., New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.. ISBN-0-8109-3442-6.


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