Comparing Northern 16th-Century and High Renaissance Painting

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  • 0:01 Comparing Art
  • 0:40 High Renaissance Painting
  • 3:10 Northern Painting in…
  • 5:55 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.

What was the difference between art of Northern Europe and the High Renaissance in the 16th century? Discover the techniques, styles, and goals of each artistic movement, and test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Comparing Painting

You know that game where you put up two images side by side and try to spot the differences between them. Well, we are going to play a round of that game. Ready for the images? Here you go. Try and spot the differences. Take your time.

Two paintings on a board

If you looked at the one on the left and immediately thought, 'Well, that's from the High Renaissance', then looked at the one on the right on thought, 'Definitely 16th-century Northern Europe', good for you. But if not, don't feel bad. Yeah, they're different images, but not all of the differences are easy to spot. And that's where this lesson comes in handy.

High Renaissance Painting

Although the Italian Renaissance had been in full swing really since the early 1400s, the culture, style, and techniques of this movement reached their full maturity from roughly 1495-1520, a period called the High Renaissance. The level of genius operating in Italy at this time was unparalleled and really captured in the personalities and artwork of three men: Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo.

High Renaissance painting perfected the goals of the Renaissance in every way. Painters mastered Classical proportioning, creating figures that were defined by geometric symmetry. They achieved the highest levels of illusion with compositions of accurate spatial depth. They demonstrated their knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman culture. They pushed their scientific understanding of the world, studied and experimented, and sought to present the most perfect, rational, carefully-planned composition possible that was accurate in every detail. So, what were the masters of the High Renaissance striving for? In a word - perfection.

The Last Supper
Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci

Let's look at a few major works. Here's the famous Last Supper, painted by Leonardo da Vinci around 1498. The figures are all modeled in Classical beauty and together form a wide triangle, leading the eye upwards and inwards to Christ. That's what we mean when we say that these were geometrically organized.

The Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel
Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

Moving on to the most famous painting of Michelangelo, the Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, we see some similar trends. But we also see many nude figures, which both connected Michelangelo to ancient Greek and Roman traditions in art and let him show off his skill in representing an ideal human body.

The School of Athens
School of Athens

Finally, let's look at one of the many masterpieces of Raphael. Here we have the School of Athens, considered by many to be the best example of the High Renaissance. Completed around 1511, it has idealized figures and perfect spatial illusions of depth but also has an important theme. The dozens of men here are the philosophers, engineers, and intellectuals of ancient Greece and Rome. By painting this in the Pope's apartment, which is where it was painted, Raphael demonstrated that a Christian society could look back on a pagan past for knowledge without being hypocritical. The techniques, styles, beliefs, ideas, and goals of the Renaissance are all perfectly captured in this masterpiece.

Northern Painting in the 16th Century

So, how was the painting in Italy different from that in Northern Europe? For one, the artists of Northern Europe in the 16th century came from a slightly different set of experiences. Northern artists greatly admired and respected Italian Renaissance artists but also developed their own styles and techniques.

One of the notable differences was oil paint, first majorly used in the 15th century by painters in the Netherlands. Oil paint made all the difference. It dries evenly and the colors don't bleed, making it perfect for intricate details. By the 16th century, most Italians were using oil paints, too, but it never quite meant the same thing to them as it did to the Northern Europeans. You see, those intricate details were the hallmark of Northern painting. They weren't as concerned with perfect, ideal figures or mathematical illusions of spatial depth, but they were obsessed with presenting objects with unbelievable accuracy.

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