The High Renaissance in Italy and the North


Michelangelo, David, 1501-04, marble (photo By Jörg Bittner Unna (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

The High Renaissance in Italy was politically a time of tension and turbulence. France and the Holy Roman Empire fought for control of the peninsula for much of the 16th century, or the cinquecento to the Italians. Rome succeeded Florence as the artistic center, mostly because of the power of the popes, especially Julius II, the warrior Pope and Humanist responsible for beginning the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica. Artistically, the period was dominated by a few powerful artists, but there were many working in the new, rational, naturalistic style.

There was a stress on the importance of circular, centrally planned buildings in Renaissance architecture, and their symbolic nature as the navel of the city. This can be seen in a panel painting by an unknown artist from Urbino, and in Donato Bramante’s design for Il Tempietto, a small martyrium meant to mark the supposed place of St. Peter’s martyrdom in Rome. This was Bramante’s first commission from Julius II after coming to Rome from Milan, and he designed a small, circular centrally planned structure within a larger square courtyard (this was never completed). The building has Doric columns on the bottom, said by Vitruvius, the 1st century Roman architect and theorist so influential to High Renaissance architects, to be the masculine order, appropriate for a male saint. The small structure is topped with a dome on a drum, and has scallop shell niches in the top level, symbols of resurrection.


Unknown Artist, Ideal Renaissance City, 16th century

Donato Bramante, Il Tempietto and plan, 1502 (photos By User: Gobbler at wikivoyage shared, CC BY-SA 3.0, and By Original uploader was Sander Dijkhuis at nl.wikipedia – Transferred from nl.wikipedia, Public Domain,

Bramante was also commissioned by Julius II to design the rebuilt Basilica of St. Peter’s at the Vatican. The old Basilica was over 1000 years old at that point, and showing its age. Julius II decided to rebuild the structure to reflect the grandeur of the Christian Church in Rome, and pay for this through the sale of indulgences, among other methods. This meant that clerics fanned out across Europe, selling small pieces of paper that allowed sinners to get into Heaven more quickly for a price. Ultimately, this will also be one of the causes of the Reformation in Northern Europe, but in 1506, the Catholic Church in Rome was the only option still for European Christianity, in Western Europe at least. It was the focus of worship, and the seat of both the Pope, the heir to St. Peter, and an Apostolic See, the sight of the supposed burial of one of Jesus’s Apostles. Rome was also a fabulously wealthy city, since the Church was wealthy, and many bishops, cardinals, and popes flaunted that wealth. These were not Popes as the Pope is today, but were men that gained their power through nepotism, and often had wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, and/or children. They typically elevated family members to coveted posts, often without even ordaining them as priests until after the fact. Bramante designed for this new St. Peter’s a centrally planned church in the form of a Greek cross, over 550 feet long, making it the largest church in Christiandom. The design was based on the Pantheon in Rome, the temple to all gods long since converted to a church. All Bramante completed before his death was the central piers for the dome, which meant that the shape and size of the dome were determined. Raphael took over the rebuilding after Bramante’s death, only to be succeeded by Michelangelo, who completed the dome and the apse, it is said working for free as penance for his sins at the end of his life. The church was ultimately completed by Carlo Maderno in the Late Renaissance, and decorated by Gianlorenzo Bernini in the Baroque. As the church was built and enlarged, the plans changed, with Michelangelo reshaping Bramante’s Greek cross, and Maderno adding a long nave to the front of it, taking away the geometrical simplicity and symmetry originally intended.

Christoforo Foppa Caradossa, Medal commemorating Bramante’s design for St. Peter’s, 1506 (photo By I, Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0, and plans of the Basilica

Michelangelo, Dome and back view of St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican, 1546-1564 (photo By Staselnik (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

There are a few names that dominated art in the High Renaissance period in Italy: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti, and Raffaelo Sanzio di Urbino, better known as Raphael. These men were more than painters or sculptors, but were true “Renaissance Men.” Leonardo da Vinci was an architect, mathematician, engineer, poet, musician, and painter, known for his inventions, some of which have proven viable more recently. Leonardo was the illegitimate son of a notary, Piero da Vinci, and a young woman named Caterina. He was apprenticed to the artist Andrea del Verrocchio, who noticed his talent. The story goes that del Verrocchio had da Vinci paint the angel in front in his work The Baptism of Christ, and after seeing how beautiful this angel was, never painted again. This is probably apocryphal, but certainly tells of the talent of the young artist. This talent can be seen in his Annunciation, another early work. Here, Mary sits in a walled garden, the traditional reference to her virginity, but there is a beautifully rendered perspectival landscape in the background, and the foot of the kneeling angel shows through the drapery. Also, Leonardo painted his religious figures are beautiful and graceful to highlight their spiritual beauty, rendering his bodies with a softness not seen before in art. This tendency towards beauty in his religious figures can also be seen in later works, such as his Virgin and Child with St. Anne, which also shows the development of his use of sfumato. These works have subtle gradations in the values in the background, which go beyond atmospheric perspective, and create a delicate landscape behind his main figures.the_baptism_of_christ_28verrocchio_26_leonardo29

Andrea del Verrocchio with Leonardo da Vinci, The Baptism of Christ, 1470-1475 (photo by Andrea del Verrocchio [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)


Leonardo da Vinci, Annunciation, c. 1473-1475 (photo by Leonardo da Vinci [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)


Leonardo da Vinci, Virgin and Child with St. Anne, c. 1503-1506 (photo by Leonardo da Vinci [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Leonardo also was interested in perfecting his use of linear perspective, and so often created studies for larger works where the grid of his perspective can be seen. He was the grid laid out so that the squares are uniform, and within this, he can add in the figures. When comparing his perspectival study for the Adoration of the Magi with the work itself, left unfinished by da Vinci, a common practice of his, you can see the process of laying out the figures and determining size and depth. His interest in perspectival studies lead to the design of one of the most perspectivally accurate of the Renaissance paintings, the fresco of The Last Supper in the refectory (dining hall) of the monastery of Santa Maria della Grazie outside of Milan. This was a commission from the Duke, Ludovico Sforza, for whom da Vinci was working at the time. The head of Jesus forms the vanishing point, and the windows behind his head form a halo, notice that no one in this piece has a halo. Here, the Apostles are reacting to the declaration by Jesus that one would betray him, and you see in their reactions the personalities of the Apostles. The fact that Jesus is reaching toward the bread and wine, a reference to the Eucharist, although one hand also reaches for the same bowl of Judas, the one Apostle in shadow, who is, for the first time in Christian art history, on the same side of the table as everyone else (compare to that of Andrea del Castango). Jesus also forms a perfect triangle, a reference to the most perfect, stable shape of Renaissance thought, as it was a reference to the Trinity, as are all of the groups of 3 within the painting. (Also, try to imagine it without the door cut in by Napoleon). Now, because Leonardo was also a scientist, and because he was in a hurry, he chose to paint the fresco with a mix of oil and the more traditional fresco paints, which means there was deterioration to the fresco within about 20 years of its completion. The work has been restored multiple times, and Art Historians often argue about how much of da Vinci’s work and vision remains.

Leonardo da Vinci, Adoration of the Magi with perspectival study, c. 1481-1482 (photos by Leonardo da Vinci [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)


Leonardo da Vinci, Last Supper, 1495-1498 (photo By Leonardo da Vinci (File:Última_Cena_-_Da_Vinci_5.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Leonardo also experimented with portraiture, moving beyond the traditional profile view of the sitter to a 3/4 length view, which accentuated the three-dimensionality of the person as well as the depth of the scene behind. But, da Vinci came to this in fits and starts. If you look at an early portrait by him, Lady with an Ermine, the woman, probably Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of the Duke of Milan, stands in a 3/4 pose, but the black background flattens her form. Also, recent x-ray studies of the work show that da Vinci changed the positioning of her hands a number of times, which probably explains the awkward hand that strokes the ermine. Compared with the later Mona Lisa, this work shows an artist who is trying to work through an issue in his painting. Mona Lisa, on the other hand, shows a fully 3 dimensional figure in front of a vast landscape. She sits with her hands on the arm of a chair, on a loggia, or porch, the bases of the columns of which can only slightly be seen. The work was cut down in the 17th or 18th century to fit an existing frame, which is also when the varnish was put on it that darkened the paint, but it can be compared to a recently discovered copy in the collection of the Prado Museum in Madrid, which was probably painted at the same time by Leonardo’s studio assistant. The references to civilized landscape, roads and bridges, and the untamed wilderness behind her may have had some significance in Renaissance thought, but that is now lost.leonardo_da_vinci_-_lady_with_an_ermine

Leonardo da Vinci, Lady with an Ermine, c. 1490 (photo by Leonardo da Vinci [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)


Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa and copy by student, c. 1503 (photo By orginal: Leonardo da Vinci; copy: an anonymous artist ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Leonardo also filled pages of notebooks with sketches, experiments, observations of nature, designs for machines and structures, and anatomical drawings. He was given special permission to practice dissections, and came close to discovering the complete circulatory system about 50 years before it was fully understood. His drawing of a breech fetus shows both the dangers that pregnancy posed to women in a culture that did not practice proper sanitation, and his understanding of the human body. He also was very interested in architecture, although it has yet to be proven as to whether or not any of his structures were built. He expanded on the thoughts of Vitruvius, and the idea of human-centered architecture, perfecting the sketch of the Vitruvian Man, probably with a self-portrait. One of his most interesting pages compares waves in the river with braided female hair, possibly as a nature study or merely a visual pun. Perhaps his most interesting drawing is the map of Tuscany and the Chiana Valley done for Cesare Borgia in about 1502. It is a surprisingly accurate map of the Valley, with the names of rivers carefully recorded, and drawn as if from above, although da Vinci would have had no means to get up so high. It may have had either strategic purposes, or been part of his plan to dam the lake to allow water in the canals in the dry season.

Leonardo da Vinci, Embryo in the Womb, c. 1510 (photo by Leonardo da Vinci [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons) and Vitruvian Man, c. 1485-1490 (photo by Public Domain,

Leonardo da Vinci, Old Man with Water Studies (Self-Portrait?), c. 1513 (photo by Public Domain,


Leonardo da Vinci, Map of Tuscany and the Valley of Chiana, c. 1502 (photo by Leonardo da Vinci [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Another of the leading names is Michelangelo Buonarroti, a sculptor, painter, architect, and poet, who was born outside of Florence to a magistrate. He was apprenticed to the painter Domenico Ghirlandaio, but Ghirlandaio recommended he become a sculptor instead, and sent young Michelangelo to live in the Medici palace, and study in the famous Medici school, which really was the Medici sculpture collection made available to some promising young artists. While there, two small reliefs can be attributed to the teenage sculptor, The Madonna of the Steps and The Battle of the Lapiths and the Centaurs. In both, you can see the beginnings of Michelangelo’s mature style: his interest in the muscular human form; in filling spaces with twisting bodies and architectural spaces; and his attention to detail. You can also see his turn to monumentality from the graceful elegance of da Vinci’s figures.

Michelangelo, Madonna of the Steps, c. 1490 (photo by I, Sailko [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons) and Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs, 1492 (photo By carulmare [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

Michelangelo went to Rome after the death of Lorenzo Il Magnifico and the fall of the Medici family, partially because a powerful cardinal found out he was responsible for a very good fake of a Greco-Roman statue of Cupid. Here, he received his first major commission, the Pietá, which can be translated as either piety or pity. The statue was commissioned for the French Cardinal Jean de Bilhères, and was meant for his funerary monument in St. Peter’s Basilica. Here we see the image of the Virgin Mary holding her dead son, who is draped over her lap. She is a very large figure, and is roughly triangular in shape, again reinforcing the stable form and the idea of Mary as the figure of the Church while Jesus is the figure of the Christian religion. There is a realistic tension in the way her fingers press into his side as she holds him up, but her face is perfectly beautiful and calm, as a means to reinforce her perfect spiritual beauty. This is also the only piece that Michelangelo signed. Giorgio Vasari would have you believe that this is because the work was being attributed to another sculptor, and Michelangelo went in the middle of the night to sign the work across the chest of Mary in a fit of pique. But, I would offer another explanation: Michelangelo was a young sculptor just beginning his career. By signing his first major work, it would guarantee he would gain more commissions, which he desperately needed as he supported his family in Florence. Another instance of Michelangelo’s brilliance comes after his return to Florence in 1501. He takes over the commission to sculpt an image of David out of a 15 foot tall block of marble that had already been worked on by another artist. Michelangelo said that he could look at a block of marble, and see the work within it, and from this block came the David pictured at the top of the page. This David is different from that of Donatello’s Early Renaissance one, not only in terms of materials used. Here, David stands about to move and throw the rock, which he has in one hand with the sling in the other held over his shoulder. He is in the Classical contrapposto stance, and has a heroically nude form. His hands are oversized to both relate to the Biblical story that David was a preteen, and because the piece was originally destined for one of the tribunes of the Cathedral, over 100 feet in the air. Here we can see Michelangelo’s love of the male form, both because of his own homosexuality and because of his Renaissance Christian belief in man as the image of God. It is important to remember that Michelangelo was a devout Catholic for his entire life.SONY DSC

Michelangelo, Pietá, 1498-1500 (photo by Michelangelo [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons)

Michelangelo returned to Rome in 1505 because of a commission from Pope Julius II to design and build his tomb in the new St. Peter’s then also being designed. This was to be a heroic structure, a freestanding, three-level colossus with over 40 statues, including images of Moses and the Humanities mourning the Pope, now called the Slaves. These were the only 3 statues from the original commission completed, and you can see that Moses was completed before Erasmus’s retranslation of the Bible corrected the horns. Michelangelo got as far as those sculptures, and the blocks of Carrara marble for the tomb, which was completed in a much less spectacular form in 1545, and placed in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli. The original design adhered much more to the heroic manner in which the warrior pope saw himself, and would have placed him at the center of his new church in a spectacular fashion.

Michelangelo, Dying Slave, c. 1513-1515 (photo By Jörg Bittner Unna – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,, Moses, c. 1513-1515 (photo By Jörg Bittner Unna – Own work, CC BY 3.0,, and Rebellious Slave, c. 1513-1515 (photo By Jörg Bittner Unna – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,,

Instead of this commission, the Pope asked Michelangelo to complete the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, built original for his uncle, Pope Sixtus IV as the private chapel of the popes, with proportions exactly those of the Temple of Solomon as described in the Bible—twice as high as wide and 3 times as deep. Michelangelo claimed that the Pope allowed him to “do as he liked,” but most art historians argue that the Pope’s confessor, the Augustinian friar and cardinal, Giles of Viterbo, was a consultant for the theological aspect of the work. In any case, the ceiling is a visual guide to the victory of Christianity, and the need of humanity for salvation in the face of sin, primarily using scenes from the Book of Genesis, including Creation, the Fall of Man, and Noah. Along with this, in the lunettes over the windows are people believed to be ancestors of Christ according to christian tradition, alternating with Old Testament prophets and pagan sibyls said to foretell the coming of Jesus. In the spandrels of the corners are 4 more scenes that form typological connections to the New Testament: Moses raising the bronze serpent, the crucifixion of Haman, David slaying Goliath, and Judith slaying Holofernes. Going down the center are the main scenes, with the drunkness of Noah over the entrance (and right in front of Zecheriah) and the division of light from darkness over the altar (and right in front of Jonah, the Old Testament prefiguration of the crucifixion and resurrection). The scenes are broken up by ignudi, nude figures, and clumps of oak leaves and acorns, the insignia of the della Rovere family of both Sixtus IV and Julius II. Michelangelo’s interest in the human form can be seen in his imagining of the Creation of Adam, where God floats on a red cloth, with a women, probably Eve, under his arm. Adam here is a muscular form, the painted version of the David in Florence. His Temptation and Expulsion from the Garden shows the influence of Masaccio’s Brancacci Chapel, one of the sketching destinations of young artists in Florence. It is, though, in figures such as Jeremiah and the Libyan Sibyl that you can see his interest in depicting emotion as well as the human form. Also, the entire ceiling makes clear that Michelangelo was a colorist, interested in using colors that would make the scenes easily readable from below.

Michelangelo, Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and plan, 1508–1512, (photos By Aaron Logan, from & Talmoryair – Own work, CC BY 2.5, and By Sistine Chapel ceiling diagramA1.PNG: TTaylorCAPPELLA SISTINA.jpg: Michelangelo Buonarrotiderivative work: Begoon – This file was derived from:Sistine Chapel ceiling diagramA1.PNG:CAPPELLA SISTINA.jpg:, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Michelangelo, Creation of Adam (photo By Jörg Bittner Unna – Own work, CC BY 3.0, and Temptation and Expulsion from the Garden (photo by By Michelangelo – Web Gallery of Art[1], Public Domain,

Michelangelo, Jeremiah (photo by Michelangelo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons) and Libyan Sibyl (photo by Public Domain,

The last and youngest of these 3 major artists was Raphael, the son of a minor painter from the court of the Duke of Urbino. He is known for his beautiful, graceful forms, and for his connections to Pope Julius II in Rome. It is also known that he did not get along with Michelangelo, and Michelangelo accused him of copying his Sistine Ceiling frescoes in the frescoes Raphael was completing in the Papal apartments. His Madonna del Prato, painted in Florence c. 1505, shows a precocious young artist using many of the forms of his predecessors. Mary is in the foreground here with both Jesus and John the Baptist as infants. She is a large, stable triangle in front of a landscape with a number of flowers the symbolize both her purity and the Passion. The bay represents the Bay of Salvation, aka the Church, aka Mary, which will lead the faithful the the Heavenly City of Jerusalem on the hill in the back.raffaello_sanzio_-_madonna_of_belvedere_28madonna_del_prato29_-_wga18643

Raphael, Madonna del Prato, c. 1505 (photo by Raphael [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Raphael also had a gift for portraiture, which can be seen when you compare his portrait of Julius II with that of Leo X, the son of Lorenzo Il Magnifico de’Medici. Julius, the warrior pope, is shown seated in front of a green cloth of honor, interestingly with the keys of St. Peter painted out, which highlights his red velvet cloak and white watered silk robes. He is show bearded, which points to the portrait being painted after he lost the papal state of Bologna. He has multiple rings on his fingers, and there is an acorn finial on either side at the top of the chair. Leo is shown with his cousin and his nephew, the cardinals Giulio de’ Medici (later Pope Clement VII) and Luigi de’ Rossi, and is reading one of his many precious illuminated manuscripts (remember printing was still a new technology when this was painted). In the finial of his chair is a small reflection of the painter, and Leo’s robes are even more elaborate. Both of these portraits give a sense of the personality of the sitters, with Julius’s dour expression and Leo’s slightly vacant stare in contrast to the almost conniving looks on the faces of his cousins.

Raphael, Julius II, c. 1511-1512 (photo by Raphael [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons) and Leo X, c. 1518-1519 (photo by Raphael [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Julius II commissioned Raphael to paint the frescoes in the papal apartments of the Vatican. The two large ones in the Salla della Segnatura, which served as the papal library until the sack of Rome by the troops of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, in 1527, serve as the counterpoints of High Renaissance Humanism. These are the Disputa (Disputation over the Blessed Sacrament), which represents the emphasis on Christianity and the sacraments of the Catholic Church, and Philosophy (The School of Athens), which represents the influences of Greco-Roman learning. In the Disputa, the composition is divided mainly into 3 bands, with God the Father at the top, Jesus, Mary, John the Baptists, Apostles, and Prophets in the center, and a number of church saints (along with other figures like Julius’s uncle Sixtus IV). In the vertical center of the work is the Trinity, with the sacrament in a monstrance on the altar below. There is a suggestion of a landscape behind, and Bramante off the the side, drawing his plans for the Basilica (he had probably died not long before this was painted, and Raphael had taken over supervision of the construction). Here, the church elders discuss the importance of the Eucharist within the context of Catholic mass. On the opposite wall, within the framing of a structure that looks a lot like the portion of St. Peter’s completed by Bramante, are arranged all of the major figures of Greco-Roman philosophy, including Plato and Aristotle in the center, Socrates, Diogenes, Heraclitus, Euclid, and Ptolemy of Alexandria. The sculptures and reliefs painted on the architecture refer to Minerva, Roman goddess of wisdom and Apollo, Greek god of music and poetry. This shows the importance of these figures to Renaissance learning and Humanism, something a Humanist Pope such as Julius would have appreciated. Raphael also included portraits of some of the leading figures of the day, including da Vinci as Plato (a high complement), Bramante as Euclid, Michelangelo as Heraclitus (sulking against a block of marble as he was said to do while painting the Sistine Ceiling since he wanted to be sculpting the tomb), and himself and his teacher Perugino peering out from the corner.Raffael_078

Raphael, Disputa (The Disputation over the Blessed Sacrament), 1509-1511 (photo By Raphael – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain,


Raphael, Philosophy (The School of Athens), 1509-1511 (photo By Raphael – Stitched together from, Public Domain,

Raphael, details from Philosophy (photos Public Domain,, Raphael [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, and Raphael [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

High Renaissance artists in Venice also continued what had been begun by the artists of the Early Renaissance, although some of the themes found in their work are more obscure. The 2 most important Venetian artists of this period trained together in the studio of Giovanni Bellini, and may have worked together on some pieces. Giorgio da Castelfranco, better known as Giorgione, may have been one of the most original of the Italian Renaissance artists. He died young, c. 1510, probably of the plague, and some of his pieces were completed by his friend, Tiziano Vecellio, better known as Titian. One of Giorgione’s most interesting and enigmatic works, The Tempest, includes a soldier dressed in German armor and a naked woman nursing an infant in a landscape in front of a city as a storm comes in. The interpretation is still up for debate, but it may be a reference to the growing wars between France and the Holy Roman Empire, based in Germany, over the Italian peninsula. Giorgione also painted images of people not generally seen in Renaissance art, such as Col Tiempo, a portrait of an aged woman who points at herself to remind the viewer that they will grow old and lose their teeth and hair as well. Giorgione and Titian seem to have worked together on the Sleeping Venus, which can be read as a metaphor for the fecundity of both women and the earth, but certainly is a sharp contrast to the image of the old woman discussed above. Another interesting piece they worked on together is the Fête Champêtre (Pastoral Symphony), which depicts 2 young musicians in a landscape with 2 nude figures, probably representing muses, acting as their inspiration. One plays with them, and the other dips a clear glass pitcher into the well of inspiration. The most curious part of this piece is the shepherd in the background, who seems to look menacingly at the foreground figures.giorgione2c_the_tempest_01

Giorgione, The Tempest, c. 1505 (photo by Giorgione [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)


Giorgione, Old Woman (Col Tiempo), c. 1510 (photo By Jean-Pierre Dalbéra from Paris, France (“La Vieille” de Giorgione (Accademia, Venise)) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

Giorgione or Titian, Sleeping Venus, c. 1505-1510 (photo by Giorgione [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons) and Fête Champêtre (Pastoral Symphony), c. 1510 (photo by Giorgione [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Titian continued the exploration of light through the use of oil paintings (oil on canvas was a better media in the wet climate of Venice). One of his first major commissions was the large altarpiece of the Assumption of the Virgin painted for the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice. In this large work, the Virgin in directly in the center, ascending to Heaven to meet God at the top, being pushed up on clouds by angels. She is moving from the darkness below, where the Apostles are to the light of Heaven. The Apostles all react to this miraculous scene in different ways, but only Thomas and an angel connect Heaven and Earth. Titian used red to move the eye around and through the scene, and added the golden color in the portion of the painting representing Heaven to make it seem like that portion of the painting is glowing. Part of this effect is gained from his mastery of the medium, a mastery which can also be seen in his painting The Venus of Urbino, probably commissioned by the Duke of Urbino not long after his marriage to remind his wife of her duties in the house and bedroom. Here, Titian used glazes, or oil paints thinned with turpentine, to get the effects of luminous colors and textures that vary from skin, to silk, to fur, flowers, and pearls. The servants in the back are going through cassone, large chests used in this period to hold women’s dowries and household valuables. Venus is coy, and chaste, but could also be read here as the goddess of marriage, ready for her husband on the marital bed.Tizian_041

Titian, Assumption of the Virgin, 1516-1518 (photo By Titian – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain,


Titian, Venus of Urbino, 1538 (photo by Titian [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

In the North, interest in artist biographies increased as their social status grew.
Karel van Mander (1548–1606) of Haarlem, Holland, published Het Schilderboeck (The Painter’s Book) to satisfy this interest. Artists in the North did not have as much access to Greco-Roman art as those in Italy, and in many ways, the Medieval interests continued in this area for some time. But there continued to be an increasing naturalism into the 16th century, especially since the tradition in the North was for artists to take journeys to Italy to view the art and learn the new techniques before beginning their own studios.

One work that exemplifies the move in the North to the High Renaissance is the Isenheim Altarpiece, completed by Matthias Grünewald, with sculptures by Nicholas van Hagenau, in the early 16th century for the monastery at Isenheim. The monks at this monastery treated people suffering from skin diseases, such as leprosy and ergotism, a disease caused by eating fungus on wheat. These diseases were not really treatable in this Medieval and Renaissance periods, and generally led to death. The theme of the altarpiece is twofold with an emphasis on salvation through belief in Christianity and on the life of St. Anthony, a saint associated with skin diseases because he was an Early Christian Hermit saint. The saint shows up on the open altarpiece in the painted wings by Grünewald, with images of his temptation in the desert and meeting with St. Jerome.


Matthias Grünewald, with sculptures by Nicholas van Hagenau, Isenheim Altarpiece, early 16th century, (photo by CC BY-SA 3.0,

Closed, the altarpiece shows the Crucifixion, with St. Anthony again in a side panel and St. Stephen, another saint associated with skin diseases, in the other. The main scene of the Crucifixion, is set against a black background, making the red of most of the figures stand out more. John the Baptist appears here, with the Lamb of God bleeding into a chalice to highlight the salvation inherent in both the sacrifice of Jesus, and the mass. The body of Jesus on the cross is twisted and deformed, and, as on his body in the Lamentation scene in the predella, his body is covered in the same sort of sores the sufferers of the skin diseases would have, connecting the 2 types of suffering together. When the altarpiece is opened for the first time, the theme is focused on the promise of Heaven, with scenes of the Annunciation, choirs of angels, the Nativity, and the Resurrection. Although Grünewald is using the same colors here as on the outer panels, the effect is different because of the lightening of the background behind the scenes.matthias_grc3bcnewald_-_isenheim_altarpiece_28first_view29_-_wga10721

Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, first view, early 16th century (photo by Matthias Grünewald [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)


Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, second view, early 16th century (photo by Matthias Grünewald [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

There was also a strong moralizing tone in Northern art of the period, reflecting the Northern desire for reform of the church. Hieronymus Bosch, who may have been the most important Netherlandish artist at the turn of the sixteenth century, exemplifies this moralistic theme in art. He believed in the pervasiveness of sin, usually of a sensual nature, and depicted this in his works. He was from a family of painters in s’Hertogenbosch, although he seems to have been the most inventive. He married a more wealthy woman, and joined the Catholic Brotherhood of Our Lady. Many of his works expand on this theme of sin and sensuous delight in fantastic ways, such as the painted table top, The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, which has a central circle with Jesus in the middle, surrounded by images of the seven deadly sins being carried out by people that look like middle class contemporaries of Bosch. In the corners are circular tondos with images of an angel and a demon fighting over a miser’s soul, the Last Judgment, Heaven, and Hell, with images of the people from the panels of the sins being punished. A look at the detail of Superbia (Pride) shows Bosch’s attention to detail and strange additions. The woman here stands in a middle class early 16th century Dutch interior adjusting her wimple (head covering) in a mirror being held by demon with a similar wimple. The interior is filled with more expensive items, and has more than one room, a sign of wealth at the time.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, with detail of Superbia (Pride), c. 1500 (photo By Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516) or follower – : Home : Info : Pic, Public Domain, and By Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516) –, Public Domain,

One of his most interesting and unique pieces is the triptych called The Garden of Earthly Delights, probably a commission by Hendrik III, the Count of Nassau-Breda. The closed view shows The Creation of the World happening inside of a glass sphere, possibly referencing alchemy. God is in the corner, separating light from darkness and land from water, and fantastic shapes appear. Bosch painted this portion of the work en grisaille, so that the work of Creation seems more mysterious. When opened, the three panels are full of color and strange creatures. There is some debate as to what is being shown in these images, although many scholars feel that the first panel is the Garden of Eden; the second may be what happened after sin was brought into the world; and the third represents Hell. There are hints that all is not what it seems in the first panel, as the cat has already caught a mouse to eat, but it would seem that God is in the center with Adam and Eve, and the Fountain of Knowledge is in the middle ground. Some of the beasts in the work are certainly fantastic, and this is multiplied in the central panel. In this panel, people are cavorting in all sorts of sexual ways, with each other and with beasts. The scene in the background has been interpreted as the Island of Cuckolds, although everything in the work is up for debate. Bosch seemed to enjoy reusing images of owls and glass spheres, and in the lower right corner the small faces of Adam and Eve peer out disapprovingly from behind a crystal. In the last panel, there seems to be a depiction of Hell, filled with strange images like a knife between 2 ears; a pig in a nun’s habit behind accosted by a demon; a man with his hand nailed to a table; and the lower body of a person being crushed by a lute that has music across the backside. There are 2 details of Hell that stand out: the bird-headed devil constantly eating and excreting people; and the image of the egg-shaped body of a man that is hollow on the inside, and seems to contain a tavern. This figure also has bagpipes on his head, as music seems to be a theme in Hell. The egg is also associated with alchemy, as is the glass sphere, and the figure seems to be a self-portrait of the artist.hieronymus_bosch_-_the_garden_of_earthly_delights_-_the_exterior_28shutters29

Hieronymous Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights (Closed); The Creation of the World, c. 1510-1515 (photo Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)Jheronimus_Bosch_023

Hieronymous Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1510-1515 (photo By Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516) – →This file has been extracted from another file: The Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch High Resolution.jpg, Public Domain,

Details of The Garden of Earthly Delights

A number of Bosch’s images deal directly with the need for reform of the Church, such as The Cure for Folly. In this piece, Bosch is dealing with the belief that mental illness was caused by rocks in the head, and so the quack doctor is cutting the head of the patient. The monk and nun in the image seem unconcerned by the “surgery,” as the monk holds a tankard probably filled with liquor and the nun has a book balanced on her head and a money purse on her hip. The words read “Master, cut the stone out quickly, my name is Lubbert Das.” Instead of the stone, though, it is a flower coming out of the man’s head, implying that people knew that there was no operation to remove the stone of folly from someone’s head. The double meaning of the words goes back to the expression “to cut the stone,” which means to rob or lie to someone, implying that the other 3 lied to and/or robbed the man being operated on. Quinten Massys dealt with similar themes in his painting The Money Changer and His Wife. Here the main 2 figures are much more interested in the money and precious objects than in the prayer book she has open. There is even a gold and crystal monstrance in front of them on the table, which should be used for hold the Eucharist at mass. The figure reflected in the convex mirror seems much less engaged with the wealth being appraised.

Hieronymus Bosch, Cure for Folly, c. 1515 and Quinten Massys, The Money Changer and His Wife, 1514

Out of this interest in moralization, came multiple calls for reform in the North. There were complaints about indulgences, excessive wealth of bishops and cardinals, ignorance of the priests, and orgies in monasteries of both monks and nuns. There had been attempts to reform the Church in the North, such as Jan Hus in the late 14th and early 15th century in Bohemia and John Wycliffe in the 14th century in England, but these had been suppressed. The rise of Humanism in the North, and the invention of the printing press made suppression more difficult now. Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (c. 1466–1536) was a Roman Catholic reformer, and is considered to be one of the Greatest Renaissance humanists in northern Europe. He was the illegitimate son of a priest who went on to become a priest himself. He retranslated the Bible from Greek, discovering that Moses came down from Mount Sinai surrounded by light, not with horns. Erasmus also wrote a number of treatises against the corruption of the Church, including In Praise of Folly and Julius Exclusis (Julius Excluded from Heaven), which earned him an invitation to Rome that he declined, instead going to stay with his friend Sir Thomas More in England. Erasmus did not join Martin Luther in his rebellion from the Church, but remained Catholic. Luther, though, was an Augustinian monk who had once been devoutly devoted to the Catholic Church. There were a few things that changed his mind about this, including a 1512 trip to Rome in which he was horrified by the debauchery he witnessed, and the decision to fund the rebuilding of St. Peter’s through the sale of indulgences. In 1517, these concerns lead him to nail is 95 Thesis to the door of the church in Wittenburg, where he was a lecturer at the university. This was meant to spark a debate about the nature of indulgences, and whether the Pope had the ability to reduce sin in that way, but what happened was that they touched off the Protestant Reformation, reshaping the religious map of Europe, and touching off a few hundred years of religious wars in which people were, to paraphrase Queen Elizabeth I of England, fighting over the same damn book. A number of artists were also caught up in this upheaval, and often seemed unsure about which side they should be on. One of the last paintings he did, and one that he gifted to the city of Nuremberg, was Albrecht Dürer’s Four Apostles. This is a piece on 2 panels, with St. John, holding the Bible, and St. Peter, holding his keys, clearly visible behind him on one panel. St. John is obviously instructing St. Peter, as he holds the Bible open to the phrase “And in the beginning was the Word.” On the other panel is St. Paul, standing in front, holding a book and the sword of his martyrdom, and St. Mark, standing behind him looking out at something beyond the picture plane. Both of these saints appear suspicious. Hans Holbein the Younger painted Madonna of Mercy and the Family of Jacob Meyer for the private family chapel of the Orthodox Catholic Meyer who had once been the Burgermeister, or Mayor, or Basel in Switzerland, but was staunchly Catholic in a Protestant, Calvinist city. This lead to the loss of status of Meyer (although his conviction for taking bribes probably didn’t help either).

Albrecht Durer, Four Apostles, 1526 (photo By Albrecht Dürer – Scanned from book by Immanuel Giel, Public Domain, and Hans Holbein the Younger, The Madonna of Mercy and the Family of Jacob Meyer (Darmstadt Madonna), c. 1526-1528 (photo By Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/1498–1543) – Unknown, Public Domain,

Portraiture in the North also began to change, partially because artists were traveling to Italy  and partially because of increased demand for portraits. Many of the new Protestant sects were iconoclastic, and so religious images were expressly banned and destroyed. Dürer was especially interested in the new style of portraiture, and produced a number of portraits and self-portraits that not only drew on the Italians stylistically, but also proclaimed himself as artist-creator. A comparison of two of these self-portraits, one from 1498 & one from 1500, shows Dürer becoming increasingly comfortable with himself as a wealthy and successful artist. In the first, painted around the time of his marriage, he is in da Vinci’s 3/4  view, with a vast landscape outside of the window. In the second, Dürer faces the viewer straight on, with a post and positioning very reminiscent of images of Jesus, reminding the viewer of the creative nature of art.

Albrecht Dürer, Self-Portrait, 1498 (photo By Albrecht Dürer – The Prado in Google Earth: Home – 7th level of zoom, JPEG compression quality: 9., Public Domain, and Self-Portrait, 1500 (photo By Albrecht Dürer – Photograph: Cybershot800i, Public Domain,

Another artist known for portraiture was Lucas Cranach the Elder, also called the painter of the Reformation because of his ties to Luther. Cranach was also attached to the court of the Electors of Saxony, and painted a number of important people within these court circles. Two of these were Dr. Johannes Cuspinian and his wife Anna. Cuspinian was a humanist, scientist, diplomat, and historian who became the youngest professors at the University in Vienna. They are painted as a diptych, but there may have been a devotional image in between the two. Both art painted in front of a distinctly Saxon landscape, and he holds a book in his hand, while she looks intently to the side. Behind her, in the tree, is a macaw, a possible reference to the voyages to the Americas taking place at that time, and the claiming of the islands of the West Indies and coasts of Central and South America for Spain, ruled by Charles I, Charles V Holy Roman Emperor. A number of the animals, objects, and people forcibly brought back to Europe from the Americas had been toured through the Empire, and some artists, including Cranach and Dürer liked to show off their knowledge of them in their art. This double portrait is in contrast to that of Henry IV the Pious, Duke of Saxony and his wife, Katharina von Mecklenburg. This second portrait depicts the entirety of the bodies of the Duke and Duchess, but is stiff and flattened, especially without the landscape behind. The hunting dog with the Duke, and his hands on his sword, imply his role as a man of action, while the small dog with the Duchess implies fidelity.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Portrait of Dr. Johannes Cuspinian and his wife, Anna Cuspinian, c. 1502-1503 (photo By Lucas Cranach the Elder –, Public Domain, and Portrait of Henry IV, the Pious, Duke of Saxony, and his Wife, Katharina von Mecklenburg, 1514, (photo By Lucas Cranach the Elder – 1. Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork2., Public Domain,

Women were also allowed to be portrait artists, as this was considered the type of art that was acceptable and doable for women. A number of them painted both portraits and self portraits, many of which speak to the education and accomplishments of women in this period. The most popular of these in the North in the mid-16th century was Catarina von Hemessen, who painted herself both painting, holding her maulstick to keep her hand steady, and playing the virginals, a precursor to the piano.

Caterina von Hemessen, Self-Portrait, 1548 (photo By Catharina van Hemessen (circa 1527/1528–after 1560) – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain, and Young Woman Playing the Virginals, 1548 (photo By Catharina van Hemessen (circa 1527/1528–after 1560) – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain,

Possibly the most famous portrait artist, who painted both in England and in Switzerland, was Hans Holbein the Younger, who eventually was made portrait painter to King Henry VIII in England. Holbein was known to both Erasmus and Henry’s Chief Minister, Sir Thomas More, having painted sensitive portraits of these important writers and Humanists. His portraits of both of these men are incredibly realistic, down to stubble on their faces and the fur of their robes. He came to Henry’s attention, though, after his second trip to England, and after he painted The Ambassadors, one of the most powerful works in Northern High Renaissance art. This is a joint portrait of Jean de Dinteville, French Ambassador to England in 1533, and his friend, Georges de Selve, bishop of Lavaur, who often acted as ambassador to the Emperor, the Venetian Republic and the Holy See. They stand on either side of a table, which is set atop an inlaid floor that is a direct copy of the Cosmati (Cosmic Map) pavement before the High Altar at Westminster Abbey. On the top shelf of the table are objects that have to do with navigation, such as the celestial globe, the astrolabe, and a quadrant, as well as a textile with a similar pattern to the floor. On the lower shelf are a terrestrial globe (turned to show the home of Dinteville), a foreshortened lute with a broken string, and a hymn book open to a Lutheran hymn. All the way in the upper right corner, above Dinteville’s head, is an almost hidden crucifix, and in between the figures, above the floor is an anamorphic skull, which acts as a memento mori. Much of this has to do with the increasingly global concerns of Europe at the time, but also with the fact that Dinteville and de Selve were sent to keep an eye on Henry, once a great backer of the Catholic Church, but who was now about to split with that Church and form the Church of England. As can be seen in Holbein’s portrait of this powerful and headstrong man, this was not a man who would take no for an answer well. This was a portrait painted of an aging, unwell king, but one who wanted to equate his physical size with his power.

Hans Holbein the Younger, Desiderius Erasmus, 1523 (photo By Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/1498–1543) – Web Gallery of Art, Public Domain, and Sir Thomas More, 1527 (photo By This file is lacking author information. – WQEnBYMfBeoSdg at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum, Public Domain,


Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533


Hans Holbein the Younger, Henry VIII, c. 1540

Printmaking is a generic term for a number of processes, including engraving and woodcut. These were 2 early methods used in the West, the woodcut coming originally from China, and engraving from jewelry making techniques. Woodblock, or woodcut, prints worked well with the new moveable type of Guttenberg’s printing press, and many artists, such as Dürer exploited this new method. Dürer and others also saw the potential of these prints to appeal to a wider audience. One of the drawbacks to woodblock printing is the fact that the parts being inked are often very small, thin bits of the wood, making them very fragile, especially when run through a press. Engraving, with the co-technique of drypoint, allows for thinner lines, and more detail, as the ink goes into the grooves, but the plates wear out over time. Compare Dürer’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a woodcut, with Knight, Death, and the Devil, an engraving. Notice the differences in the qualities of line, as well as the amount of detail Dürer, a goldsmith’s son, was able to put into the engraving. But, the woodcut is also a virtuoso work, especially considering the detail of the work. This sort of virtuoso work can also be seen in Dürer’s teacher, Martin Schongauer’s engraving of St. Anthony Tormented by Demons.The linework of the print allows for a beautiful expression of torment and anguish. Dürer also used his later prints to explore his studies in linear perspective, texture, and detail, such as St. Jerome in His Study, from 1514.

Albrecht Dürer, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, woodblock, c. 1497-1498 (photo By Albrecht Dürer –, Public Domain, and Knight, Death and the Devil, engraving and drypoint, 1513 (photo By Albrecht Dürer – This image is available from Gallica Digital Library under the digital ID btv1b6951300kThis tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information.English | Français | Magyar | Italiano | Nederlands | Slovenščina | Українська | +/−, Public Domain,

Albrecht Dürer, St. Jerome in His Study, 1514, engraving (photo By Albrecht Dürer –, Public Domain, and Martin Schongauer, St. Anthony Tormented by Demons, c. 1470-75, engraving (photo By Martin Schongauer –; first uploaded to de-Wikipedia by de:Benutzer:Amgervinus, Public Domain,

The High Renaissance was a time of great change in both the North and Italy, and the impacts of the Reformation, as well as the development of printmaking would be felt for a long time.


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