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Art in the Protestant Reformation: Albrecht Durer & Northern European Artists

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  • 0:00 The Protestant Reformation
  • 1:18 Northern European Art…
  • 2:43 Northern Artists
  • 5:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Protestant Reformation introduced some pretty substantial changes into European society. In this lesson, we'll be talking about some of the impacts it had on the art of Northern Europe.

The Protestant Reformation

It has been said that things you should never discuss with people are religion and politics. Well, today, we are going to talk about religion and politics. And art. Definitely art. You see, throughout much of European history, all three of these concepts were basically inseparable. To talk about art was to talk about politics and religion and sometimes those talks could get pretty heated. For a great example of this, let's head back to the 16th century.

See this guy?

In 1517, and Martin Luther nailed a list of complaints against the Catholic Church to the church door. These complaints, called the 95 Theses, claimed that the Catholic Church had become too obsessed with money and power, was too interested in worshiping images, and did not encourage people to live by their faith in Christ. This was the beginning of a division within the Christian church known as the Protestant Reformation. This religious division had some serious impact on politics across Europe and, of course, this meant some major changes in the arts.

Northern European Art in the Reformation

So, here we are in the early 16th century. At this time, the majority of art across Europe is highly religious. It focuses on religious subjects and is displayed publicly in places like churches for congregations to view collectively. However, this sort of mentality is exactly what Martin Luther is protesting. The Protestants, as they come to be called, believe in a more personal, intimate relationship with God, emphasizing individual faith. This meant that people did not need the church to forgive their sins. They could pray directly to God for salvation.

So, all this religious art that emphasized the power of the Catholic Church had to go. The Protestant Reformation was centered in Northern Europe and these artists started focusing less on large-scale public art and more on smaller pieces meant for individual worship at home. This mean that art forms like printmaking, not popular elsewhere in Europe, became very successful in Germany as people flocked to printers for small, inexpensive scenes for personal worship and meditation on the Gospels. The push away from strict religious themes also encouraged northern artists to expand their paintings to secular themes, including personal portraits, images of everyday life, and even landscapes.

Northern Artists

Let's pop into a few of these studios and take a more direct look at how the Protestant Reformation impacted some of these artists. We'll start with one of the most famous. Albrecht Durer was an artist of the early 16th century from Nuremburg. He was sort of the da Vinci of Northern Europe, always experimenting, deeply interested in combining art and science, and slightly reclusive. He was the first to really elevate printmaking a high art form and, around 1520, became attached to Luther's ideas about the church.

In his painting, Four Apostles, painted around 1526, it shows the apostles Peter, John, Mark and Paul in a dimly lit, intimate scene. The colors and lighting are characteristic of the introspective northern style, but what's really interesting are the placement of the figures. Saint Peter, founder of the Catholic Church after the death of Christ, is generally a central figure in religious painting. Here he's in the background, behind John the Evangelist, the apostle who most describes Christ in the Bible in terms of human, relatable characteristics and personal relationships. Just like that, this seemingly simple painting takes on a strong Protestant message.

Altdorfer and Bruegel

Albrecht Durer was the foremost painter of the Northern Renaissance, but he was far from the only one. Oh look, by sheer coincidence, we've got two artists working in the same studio and on similar paintings. How convenient!

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