The 15th century was a watershed in the cultural advance of Northern Europe. Its social order was changing under the impact of new progressive forces and the medieval world was beginning to crumble. This process, characteristic of the Renaissance in Italy, was underway in the lands to the North of the Alps – the Netherlands, Germany, France – which led to the culture of these trans-alpine countries being referred to as the Northern Renaissance.
In the 15th century Germany consisted of a patchwork of separate territorial entities – princedoms, bishoprics, "Imperial" and "Free" cities. Their geographical location in Central Europe served to consolidate economic and cultural links between the German states and neighbouring countries. The invention of the printing press by Johann Gutenberg around 1445 promoted education and the spread of scientific and technical knowledge.
The Catholic Church exerted tremendous power within this fragmented state. Its wealth and policies and the behaviour of its priests gave rise to protest, which found expression in the spread of religious movements calling upon the people to return to the "true faith" of the Early Christians. The growing number of humanist thinkers in Germany directed their main efforts against the all-pervading power of the Church. Forces began to rally within the country which eventually, at the beginning of the 16th century, brought about the Reformation (1517-1555),
In the 14th century new forms of carved sculpture and easel-painting were becoming popular in Germany, as found in the decorated altarpieces of the day. They were like monumental versions of hinged icons which were placed in the apse of a church behind the altar. Depictions on the carved or painted altar-pieces were linked with the liturgy and made possible more immediate and direct illustration for the service: in addition, the congregation would also be able to bow down before holy images.
The altarpieces consisted of three parts (triptyches) or more (polyptyches). The main depiction would be in the central part of the altarpiece – an image of Christ or the Mother of God - and in the side sections there would be scenes from the Gospels or images of Saints. On weekdays altarpieces of this kind would be closed and for this reason there would also be depictions on the outer surfaces of the side sections. In Germany – a land rich in forests – altarpieces were originally mainly of the carved variety and the figures on them would be painted in bright colours. Later, painted altarpieces came to be used.
In subsequent centuries, as a result of wars of religion and the transfer of Church possessions and also the closing of monasteries, altarpieces were sold and often their component sections would become separated from each other in the process. Parts of altarpieces might often resurface in different collections, those belonging to either museums or private individuals. The art of the 15th century which developed within the realms of the German emperors is represented, in the main, precisely by such scattered parts of altarpieces. Most of the works of the 15th century which have come down to us are by unknown masters. The name of the owner of a painter's workshop would figure in the contract drawn up with him. The artist himself, for a variety of considerations, including pious ones, would not sign his work. The head artist would determine the nature of the overall composition and would often be responsible for the faces of the main figures. Artists would often specialize in particular elements of altarpieces and be able to paint with virtuoso skill costumes, specific objects and pieces of jewellery or landscape features. At the same time, however, a creation by any workshop would be recognizable thanks to its own particular style, which would be distinctive and constant. This enables scholars, using stylistic analysis and other research techniques, to link together works stemming originally from one and the same workshop. A range of such works can be brought together under an arbitrary heading, drawn from the name of the most important work by the said master or the place where the work was kept or perhaps echoing a specific painterly technique.
The impact of a flowering of artistic creativity in the Netherlands was to prove still greater and more enduring. The "Low Countries", as the Netherlands were also known, were on the coast of the North Sea and incorporated the lower reaches of the Scheldt, Maas and Rhine rivers (the territory of modern Belgium, Luxembourg and part of north-eastern France as well as the Netherlands of today). They were a part of Europe where towns were expanding apace, as were crafts and commerce, and where manufacturing industry was beginning to develop. The most impressive achievements in the Netherlands were those in the early-16th century when, after the discovery of America, key trading routes shifted northwards.
Yet political life in the Netherlands at that period turned out to be extraordinarily tense. In 1516 the country became part of the empire of the Hapsburgs, who ruled Spain. This foreign oppression proved disastrous for the popular masses. The struggle against their feudal rulers gave rise to Protestant movements and in the 1660s open armed conflict broke out.
The art of the Netherlands is represented in our Museum mainly by works dating from the 16th century. In the 15th century painting was to become the main art form in the Netherlands. The traditions of the great masters of that century were still deep-rooted at the beginning of the 16th century. Loyal devotion to their precepts was cultivated by the painters who came together in the patriarchal city of Brugge. Artistic life was more diverse in the city of Antwerp, a major centre for commerce and crafts, where people of different nationalities and artistic tastes came together, where humanist ideas were widespread and where printing was developing rapidly. Experimental searching was much more intense in Antwerp and there was a keener awareness of how outdated traditions were stagnating. The third centre of artistic activity in this part of Europe was Brussels – the "Princely Capital".
Apart from religious compositions, in the art of the Netherlands in the 16th century portraits had come to occupy an important place and landscapes were no longer providing just background but were emerging as an artistic genre of their own.
In the 16th-century art of the Netherlands two distinct trends are to be observed. One adheres to national traditions while the second is, to a large extent, focused on Italian art of the same period. This second trend came to be known as Romanism (from the Latin word Roma). In the second half of the 16th century, when the Netherlands became the scene of tempestuous events linked with the war of liberation against Spanish oppression, the Italy-focused trend ceased to occupy the foreground. Art which turned to national themes and the image of the people was more in tune with the times. It was at this stage that new genres of painting began to emerge – landscapes, still lifes and domestic scenes drawn from everyday life.