Devotional Influences in 15th-Century Northern European Art

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  • 0:01 Devotional Art
  • 1:08 Function of Devotional Art
  • 3:16 Symbolism in Devotional Art
  • 5:59 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.

In this lesson, you will explore the connection between religion and art in 15th-century Northern Europe and discover how worship defined artistic styles. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Devotional Art

Why do we make art? Seriously, think about it. Does art have a purpose, or is it just pretty, something to decorate hallways in hotels? Yes, art has purpose. It is created for a reason, and the reason it is created determines what the art looks like.

Say you need to make art that makes a political statement in a big way. You'll want a big piece of art, something people notice and probably made from sturdy material so you can place it outside where everyone can see it. The people of Northern Europe in the 15th century loved art, and their art reflected a very specific purpose: devotion, or an attitude of personal religious worship.

The religious attitudes of people in Northern Europe defined their art. To understand this, you are going to need to get an up-close view of life in Northern Europe, which means we are going to make you into a 15th-century Northern European. There we go. Now you need a Northern name-let's call you Jan van der Student. Alright, Jan, let's get going!

Function of Devotional Art

At its most basic, devotional art is meant to inspire or reflect devotion. As a 15th-century Northern European, you are a devout Catholic. This is a very important part of your life and an important part of how other people see you. In today's terms, the more devout you are, the cooler you are. Showing off your devotion is 'in', and that means that the art you commission and buy will reflect that. Thus, in Northern Europe, altarpieces are very popular forms of art. An altarpiece is a series of connected panels meant to decorate an altar, and the richest people in Northern Europe pay for large, ornate altarpieces. These are meant to encourage a humble, pious, and meditative attitude during worship.

Let's say that you are not one of the richest members of society. Sorry, even in a fictional world, you don't get to be a billionaire. But you are wealthy enough to afford a personal altarpiece. These smaller altarpieces, which could be folded up and easily transported, were very popular in Northern Europe. You take it with you, and whenever you are reading your bible or praying, you open it up. It helps you reflect on your prayers and on the word of the gospel. This personal altarpiece is called a triptych, because it has three panels, tri for three, like a tricycle.

Image of diptych

An altarpiece with two panels is called a diptych, such as this one. This is Virgin and Child with Maarten van Niuewenhove, painted by Hans Memling in 1487. It is very typical of devotional art. On one side is the Virgin Mary and Christ child. People in Northern Europe venerated Mary above all other saints, so her image is very common. The other side shows the donor, the person who paid for the diptych. In this image, the donor is seen worshiping Christ, almost as if in a direct conversation. For the donor, this both serves as a reminder that Christ answers prayers and displays his piety for everyone to see.

Symbolism in Devotional Art

So, Jan van der Student, that's the basic function of your devotional art. Did you get some nice souvenirs along the way? A couple triptychs and a diptych or two? Oh, this is a good one.

The Merode Altarpiece by Robert Campin
Image of Meroda Alterpiece

This triptych is called the Merode Altarpiece, painted by Robert Campin around 1430. Look at the details in this painting. Northern European painters achieved a new level of detail due to the fact that they began painting with oil paints, as opposed to the egg-based tempera paints of the rest of Europe. Oil paints allowed them to paint with much more detail and finesse. They became obsessed with the details of a painting and began inserting details with the purpose of increasing the amount of symbolism in their art. In fact, nearly every aspect of these paintings is symbolic in some way or another.

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