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The patronage of visual arts during the Northern Renaissance before and after the Reformation

The patronage of visual arts during the Northern Renaissance before and after the Reformation

The changes and continuities in patronage of artworks during the Northern Renaissance period can be broken into three stages. The first stage was the patronage of artworks before the early sixteenth century. The second was during the start of the Reformation to the mid sixteenth century. The final stage of change was near the end of the sixteenth century. The Catholic Church, rulers of the society, merchants and the wealthy people were the patrons of art during the whole Northern Renaissance. The themes of the artworks were mainly sacred and Old Testament gospels. The artists depicted scenes from the life of Christ, the life of Virgin and the Saints, though, mythological scenes and history paintings were also common. During the Reformation, the themes of the paintings were used as a didactic tool to the mass.[1] After the Reformation, the artists gradually felt less interest in the sacred and mythological paintings.[2] The changes from sacred themes to genre painting will be discussed in the essay.

Artworks and patronage before the Reformation

Fouquet Jean, Melun Diptych: Virgin and Child Surrounded
by Angels
, c. 1450. Wood, 93 x 85 cm.
Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp

Before the Protestant Reformation, the artworks in the lower countries were religious in both subject and function.[3] The primary patronage of art was the Catholic Church and their followers, rich bankers, businessmen and the statesmen. The subject matters of the artworks were full of the themes from Old Testament gospels. Among these sacred themes, the various stages of the life of Christ occupied a significant portion.

The renowned Medici Family had an interest in northern art, and had their own agents to collect artworks from the cities of Flanders.[4] They had 142 collections of paintings and tapestries and nearly one third of them were Flemish, which indicates the demand of the Northern Renaissance artworks.[5] Their collections were enlightened by Jan van Eyck, Petrus Christus, Dieric Bouts and other prominent artists of the lower countries.[6] The bankers of Medici Bank, were also the wealthiest patrons of art. They were interested in religious art, as well as history and portraiture.[7] As an example, Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait was commissioned by the prominent banker of Medici Bank, Lucchese merchant Arnolfini.[8] Another wealthy family was de Villa family of Piedmont, who patronized the Brussels workshop of Rogier van der Weyden[9].

Altarpieces were also used for personal devotion by the elites, which can be seen in The Crucifixion Triptych (Figure 2), painted by Rogier van der Weyden. In this painting, Jesus is in the central panel. The Virgin is embracing the cross, swooning beneath Christ’s feet. Saint John is in red robe at her left. The city of Jerusalem is in the background.[10] In the left panel, Mary Magdalene is present with the jar of ointment in her hands.[11]  At the right panel, Saint Veronica is showing Christ’s imprinted face in her veil.[12] The most important thing to be discussed is the commissioner of the triptych and his wife kneeling to Christ.[13] They are depicted as if they were really present at the scene, but actually they are present in thought and devotion only. Though, this pseudo placement of the patron or their favourite one was not uncommon in Northern Renaissance. For example, the Melun Diptych (Figure 3), by Jean Fouquet, patronage by the French treasurer, Etienne Chevalier, was depicted the King’s departed mistress, Agnes Sorel as the Virgin.[14] The bare and sexy breast of the Virgin suggests nudity was accepted inside a sacred altarpiece before the fanatic Reformation. The Melun Diptych was hanged at the Collegiate Church, where the patron and his wife buried once.[15] Though, Sorel is bare breast here, but from the angels behind it is clear she is no earthly female. In the left panel, St. Stephen is watching the Christ with his attributed stone.[16] The patron’s devotion is clearly seen in his gesture.

The Portinari Altarpiece (Figure 1), by Hugo van der Goes, commissioned by Tommaso Portinari, the Bruges branch manager of Medici Bank, can be discussed here as a perfect example of devotion in pro-Protestantism artwork.[17] If the Altarpiece is opened, the main panel, The Adoration of the Shepherds, can be viewed. In the central panel, Jesus is lying nude, encircled by a golden halo, surrounded by shepherds, angels and patrons. The purple lilies and white irises represent the purity and presence of the Virgin and the Christ.[18] The use of shadow and perspective creates a sense of depth in the composition. The wheat sheaf represents the divinity and bread of the Eucharistic reference.[19] [20] The patron and his wife, along with their three children are kneeling towards the holy scene. This was the patron and his family’s personal devotional painting, where the wealthy owner of the altarpiece is present with the Christ, or sometimes with the Holy Family. It is a sacred painting, as well as an aristocratic altarpiece. The images of the owners family is a symbol of the patron’s power, wealth and social status. It depicts the patron has the sufficient money to expose himself with the Christ. The altarpiece was well admired by the contemporaries. It was so praised that Ghirlandaio adopted this technique in his own painting of The Adoration of the Shepherds, in the Sassetti chapel.[21] Though, the Portinari Altarpiece was well praised by the contemporaries, but it was not really educational for the masses, and not expressing Christ’s sacrifice. In the left wing, the Flight to Egypt is present at top-left in a very small scale, which is very difficult to understand without an educated eye. In the foreground, the scarlet lily, the white irises, and the wheat sheaf are meaningless to the people who are unaware of the symbols.[22] Thus, the iconographies were meaningful for a connoisseur’s eye, but not for a peasant.

Before the Reformation, art was a medium for the elite social class. The art was painted for the Kings, Dukes, merchants, bankers, and for the Catholic Churches. During the Reformation, the chaos was increasing about the artistic value and the use of artworks in the Churches. Some argued, paintings and altarpieces should be banned from the churches completely, while others proclaimed to use art as a pedagogy medium. The masses were linked and educated by the art. 

Patronage of art prints and its impacts over the Protestants

Prints had the same impact in Northern Renaissance, like the images and altarpieces hanged on the Church walls, before the Reformation.[23] 

Figure 4:Albrecht Durer, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,
c. 1497-98. Woodcut, 39.2 x 27.9 cm. Kupferstichkabinett,
Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe

This time, both images and words were printed together, which was easier to the viewer to understand. Prints were relatively cheaper than paintings. Artworks were patronage only by the social elites, but the prints were patronage by the merchants, shop owners and tradesmen.[24] The rulers and elites also commissioned prints to show their power and conveyed messages to the masses.[25] Prints added a new way of art patronage in the Renaissance. Many people bought the prints from the marketplace and took to their households. With the ease of printmaking techniques, more and more translations of Bible in vernacular were available, along with high quality prints by the leading artists including Lucas Cranach the Elder, Hans Burgkmair, and Virgil Solis.[26] The more and more people were seen the prints, they questioned more about the Christendom, which led to the Protestant Reformation, especially in Germany.[27]

The Reformations in Germany and Switzerland were nearly contemporary when the famous Apocalypse series were drawn by Albrecht Durer. This was a time of political instability and religious turmoil. The people were already acknowledged by the Catholic Church about the angry God’s desire to punish the sinners. During the Reformation era, many people could not read, but were interested to know more about the stories of the Bible and the true life of Christ. After watching Durer’s woodcuts, The Apocalypse was a great hit among the people,[28] and they were started to believe, the sin of mankind was the reason of the unwanted things. Durer’s Apocalypse was a powerful depiction of the above. The printed copies of the Apocalypse series reached to a vast level of people, from the aristocrat art lovers to the middle class.

            In the woodcut of Albrecht Durer’s The Four Horsemen (Figure 4), one of the woodcuts in Apocalypse series, the horses are running fast and bringing death, war, famine, and epidemic.[29] The viewer can feel the speed and almost hear the sounds of the hooves of the galloping horses. Though the woodcut is black and white, Durer depicted the speed through curved parallel lines and crosshatching that brings the painting lively. The cloaks and tails of the horses are flying through the air. Long parallel lines behind the horses and the lining of the clouds besides the parallel lines made the engraving dynamic. The energy can be felt in the galloping feet of the horses. The hooves of the horses are going down among the horizontal parallel lines, which make the image more dynamic and energetic.

            In the other woodcuts of the Apocalypse series, Durer depicted heroes and villains, angels, galloping horses, demons, dragons, harlot women, and hailstorms. In The Apocalyptic Woman and The Whore of Babylon, the dragons are seven headed. The Four Avenging Angels of Euphrates depicts the grievance of the sinners and motion of the angels. In The Opening of the Fifth and Sixth Seal, the hailstorm of fire over the crowds assumed a divine punishment. The black and white lines were clear and understandable by all levels of people. These woodcuts had another impact over the Reformation.

Artworks and patronage during the Reformation era

Martin Luther was the pioneer of the Protestant Reformation.[30] He was an Augustinian monk and a professor of Wittenberg University.[31] He was a critic of the Catholic Church and Pope Leo X. As a result, Pope Leo excommunicated him.[32] In 1517, Luther criticized the Indulgences, by publishing his Ninety-Five Theses at the door of the Wittenberg Church, and accused the Church for selling the Indulgence. [33] The Indulgence was the root cause of Protestant Reformation.[34] Though, Luther believed religious art did not help people in worship, but saw the value of art as an educational tool for different levels of people. Luther did not believe in the power of imageries to worship, but he viewed artworks as a didactic tool. He wrote, “Whether I want to or not, when I hear the word Christ, there delineates itself in my heart the picture of a man who hangs on the cross.”[35] A new Lutheran supported art were born. ‘Sacrifice of Christ’ was the central theme of the doctrine.

Luther’s tenet greatly influenced Lucas Cranach the Elder.[36] Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) was a follower of Luther, as well as a friend of him.[37] Both of them worked together to tell people about the wrongdoings of the churches. In his painting of The Schneeberg Altarpiece (Figure 5), Luther’s influence on Cranach is visible clearly. Cranach tried in his woodcuts and paintings to describe the New Testament incidents.[38] One of Cranach’s woodcuts Christ drives the money-changers from the temple was an example of depicting the pope as Antichrist. The empty table of the money changers, and the table full of coins in front of the Pope, can be helpful to the beholder to realize the true lessons of Christ. Protestants soon discovered the power of imagery to educate people in their views. [39] Printed images and paintings had an advantage over texts.[40] It was also used readings and printed songs to attract people on their side. Prints could be used to show the real life of Christ, even to the illiterates.

Figure 5. Lucas Cranach, The Schneeberg Altarpiece (first opening), c. 1539.
Oil on Limewood, 389 x 395 cm, St. Wolfgangskirche, Schneeberg.

To preach Lutheran doctrine, Cranach painted The Schneeberg Altarpiece, in 1539, where Christ’s crucifixion was the central theme. It was the first altarpiece to show the Lutheran doctrine.[41] The Schneeberg Altarpiece was commissioned by the openly Protestant, John Frederick.[42] The painting is divided into two main parts: the left two panels illustrated the Old Testament ways showing the hell and punishment scenes by the devil and the skeleton. A poor loincloth worn man followed by the two devils. In front of the man, the inferno is blazing with no hope. The hell is already full by the suffered sinners. The viewer of the painting could realize nowhere to run. This was an old proto Renaissance concept to get fear among people by God. The right side of the skeleton represents Moses and other biblical figures talking among themselves. They are not much worried about the fate of the unfortunate man. A dead tree is standing over them is a symbol of the old fruitless ways of Biblical learning. Top-left of the panel, Adam and Eve is present in the Garden of Eden, but the heaven is very far from the helpless man chased by the devils.

On the contrary, the right two wings are depicted in the Lutheran way of showing God with sacrifice and love. In the second panel from the right, Saint John is pointing his figure to the same man, showing him the sacrifice of God. The man can see now the sacrifice and love by the Christ without fear. Jesus is shown here in three-quarter view. The branch of the tree on the top-left is now full of green leaves represents the liveliness of the new Protestantism way of learning religion. This love and sacrifice goes directly with Luther’s theses number forty three, among ninety five, declares, “He who gives to the poor man, or lends to a needy, does better than if he bought pardons,[43]” is related with this painting.

The iconographies of The Schneeberg Altarpiece are simple and easy to understand. The panels were not flamboyant, if compared with The Portinari Triptych. There were no powerful presences of the affluent patronages, unlike The Crucifixion Triptych. It did not contain any personal devotion, which was a common practice in altarpieces and prayer books before the Reformation.[44] Also, it consists of no nudity if compared with The Melun Diptych.

Artworks and patronage after the Reformation

Figure 6. Pieter Aertsen, Meat Stall, c. 1551. Oil on wood panel, 123 x 167 cm.
Museum Gustavianum, Uppsala

Protestants were divided in many sects and each of them had its own view on using religious art in the Churches.[45] Some of them were very radical, like the Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli[46], and the French fanatic theologian Jean Calvin.[47] Ulrich criticized the use of religious imagery inside the Church and his followers removed every artworks even the Crucifix inside churches.[48] The others were flexible and gave their opinion on behalf of religious images. The Protestantism soon turned to iconoclasm.[49] From 1523 to 1566, churches and paintings in northern European towns had been destroyed and looted.[50] The fanatic followers of Calvin destroyed artworks inside the Churches all over the Northern European cities.[51] Calvinism was soon identified as the hallmark of iconoclasm.[52] They destroyed imageries and looted Churches in France, Scotland, the Netherlands, and England.[53] In 1566, the Calvinists destroyed religious images and attacked the Catholic clergy.[54] In Scotland, the Calvinists not only destroyed religious imagery, but also attacked the Church as a whole.[55] In Flanders, they sacked four hundred Churches in two weeks.[56] There was chaos everywhere and fierce resistance as well. The King of Spain Philip II, sent 10,000 soldiers to punish the anarchists, but as a result, the Dutch started a war for freedom.[57]

The avarice of the Catholic Churches was one of the causes of the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation was the cause of iconoclasm and religious wars. The barbarism in the religious wars had significant impact on art and artists. Several artists including Lucas Cranach the Elder, Lucas Cranach the Younger, Durer, and Altdolfer were influenced by the religious Reformation. After the Reformation, there was a massive bent in art history. The new artists were less interested in religious art. The artists, like Pieter Aertsen and Pieter Bruegel the Elder, turned their face from both Catholic and Protestantism and painted a new type of art. They painted everyday life, still life, secular images, and environmental scenes.

During the mid-sixteenth century, both the patronage and the audience of art were changing to genre paintings.[58] The patronages were not limited to the noble and elites only, but to the urban tradesmen and the new bourgeois.[59] There was a rising demand in secular images including landscapes, proverbs and market scenes.[60] The painting of Pieter Aertsen’s The Meat Stall in 1551 (Figure 6), is an example of the new secular everyday life. In the foreground, the viewer can see the open eye of a dead bull’s head accusing him for its cause of death. The head of a pig is hanging from the top, and a side of beef and ham also catches the viewer’s eyes. These are the examples of still life. The Flight into Egypt can be assumed at the top-left corner, where the Virgin is sitting on the donkey and Joseph is leading the team.[61] The Virgin is giving alms to the poor.[62] The beholder can watch the religious seen between the ham and beef. This is a symbol of the waning power of religion over the earthly necessities in the sixteenth century. The painting depicts the conflict between material and spiritual values. The Meat Stall expressed the change of taste from sacred to secular themes.

The Antwerp artist, Pieter Bruegel the Elder was famous for his genre and landscapes.[63] He had seen the times of Reformation and Catholic

Figure 7. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Peasant Wedding, c. 1567.
Oil on wood, 114 x 164 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Reformation.[64] Bruegel’s The Netherlandish Proverbs painted in 1559 is an example of his love in genre paintings, where he described human folly with more than hundreds of Netherlandish proverbs.[65] Another example of his attraction to the daily secular image is the Peasant Wedding (Figure 7), in 1567. Bruegel’s peasant paintings were so famous that he was called the ‘peasant Bruegel’.[66] If anyone looks closely to the Peasant Wedding, it is noticeable, the simplicity of the wedding. In the foreground, the two waiters are carrying the pudding for the guests. The peasants are drinking beer, which was a part of their everyday life.[67] The bride with a very common face is sitting modestly. The theme of the painting was changed to the working class people rather than Kings, Dukes, aristocrats, or landlords. This was a subject that begins to be painted in the mid-sixteenth century, after the Protestant Reformation.[68]

In conclusion, it can be said, the theme of the artworks was changed before and after the Reformation. Before the Reformation, the artworks were mainly sacred and historical. It was patronage by the Catholic Church and the heads of the society. The main beneficiaries were also the Church and the wealthy people. The Portinari Altarpiece, and the Melun Diptych shows that art was for the aristocrats, and the poor were absent in the images. During the Reformation, artists tried to convey the Protestant values to their works. The changes were in the education in religion.  This was discussed in The Schneeberg Altarpiece. At last, after the end of the Reformation, the patronage turned into genre painting and the art of everyday life, which was discussed in the Meat Stall, and The Peasant Wedding.


[1] Stephanie Porras, Art of the Northern Renaissance: Courts, Commerce and Devotion (London: Laurance King Publishing Ltd, 2018), 158-62.

[2] Laurie Schneider Adams, A History of Western Art (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011), 322-4.

[3] Jeffrey Smith, The Northern Renaissance (London: Phaidon, 2004), 121.

[4] Susie Nash, Northern Renaissance Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 101-106.

[5] Nash, Northern Renaissance Art, 101.

[6] Nash, Northern Renaissance Art, 101.

[7] Nash, Northern Renaissance Art, 101-106.

[8] Porras, ‘Art of’, 110-11.

[9] Porras, ‘Art of’, 110-11.

[10] Stephan Kemperdick, Rogier van der Weyden (Cologne: Konemann Verlagsgesellschaft mbH, 1999), 46.

[11] James Hall, Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols of Art (Philadelphia:  Westview Press, 2008), 87, 208-9.

[12] Hall, ‘Dictionary of’, 274-75, 331.

[13] Kemperdick, ‘Rogier van’, 46-50.


[14] Porras, Art of, 86-9.

[15] Porras, Art of, 86.

[16] Hall, ‘Dictionary of’, 299-300.

[17] Nash, Northern Renaissance Art, 101-3.

[18] Hall, ‘Dictionary of’, 198-99, 333-5.

[19] Porras, ‘Art of’, 110-11.

[20] Hall, ‘Dictionary of’, 211.

[21] Porras, Art of, 152-9.

[22] Nash, Northern Renaissance Art, 101-7.

[23] Jennifer Spinks and Charles Zika, “The Four Horsemen: An Introduction.” In The Four Horsemen: Apocalypse, Death & Disaster, eds. Cathy Leahy, Jennifer Spinks and Charles Zika (National Gallery of Victoria: Melbourne, 2012), 8.

[24] Spinks and Zika, “The Four Horsemen”, 6.

[25] Spinks and Zika, “The Four Horsemen”, 6.

[26] Spinks and Zika, “The Four Horsemen”, 6.

[27] Spinks and Zika, “The Four Horsemen”, 6.

[28] Spinks and Zika, “The Four Horsemen”, 6.

[29] Porras, Art of, 132-33.

[30] Adams, ‘A History of’, 319.

[31] Peter Marshall, The Oxford Illustrated History of the Reformation, edited. Peter Marshall (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 42-5.

[32] Porras, ‘Art of’, 154.

[33] Marshall, ‘The Oxford Illustrated History of’, 42-5.

[34] Porras, ‘Art of’, 152-3.

[35] Porras, ‘Art of’, 161.

[36] Porras, ‘Art of’, 152-3.

[37] Adams, ‘A History of’, 331.

[38] Porras, ‘Art of’, 154.

[39] Porras, Art of, 153-6.

[40] Porras, Art of, 156-57.

[41] Porras, Art of, 160-1.

[42] Porras, Art of, 161.

[43] Laurie Adams, ‘A History of’, 319.

[44] Smith, The Northern Renaissance, 121-3, 134-7.

[45] Porras, ‘Art of’, 159-61.

[46] Porras, ‘Art of’, 160-61.

[47] Marshall, ‘The Oxford Illustrated History of’, 98-99.

[48] Porras, ‘Art of’, 161.

[49] Porras, ‘Art of’, 158-60.

[50] Porras, ‘Art of’, 160.

[51] Marshall, ‘The Oxford Illustrated History of’, 98-99.

[52] Marshall, ‘The Oxford Illustrated History of’, 98.

[53] Marshall, ‘The Oxford Illustrated History of’, 98.

[54] Marshall, ‘The Oxford Illustrated History of’, 99.

[55] Marshall, ‘The Oxford Illustrated History of’, 99.

[56] Marshall, ‘The Oxford Illustrated History of’, 99.

[57] Marshall, ‘The Oxford Illustrated History of’, 99.

[58] Porras, ‘Art of’, 202.

[59] Porras, ‘Art of’, 202.

[60] Porras, ‘Art of’, 202.

[61] Hall, Dictionary of, 128-29.

[62] Porras, ‘Art of’, 205.

[63] Laurie Adams, ‘A History of’, 322-4.

[64] Laurie Adams, ‘A History of’, 324.

[65] Laurie Adams, ‘A History of’, 322-4.

[66] https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/renaissance-reformation/northern/antwerp-bruges/v/bruegel-peasant-wedding

[67] https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/renaissance-reformation/northern/antwerp-bruges/v/bruegel-peasant-wedding

[68] https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/renaissance-reformation/northern/antwerp-bruges/v/bruegel-peasant-wedding

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Mustafa Ahmed Khan 10Mar 2021