Illustrating Economic Conditions in 15th-Century Northern European Art

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  • 0:01 Clues in Art
  • 0:45 Clues in Painting
  • 3:12 Clues in Prints
  • 4:30 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 connections between art and the economy in Northern Europe of the 15th century. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Clues in Art

Okay, fellow art historians, grab a magnifying glass and a detective hat because we are looking for clues. Clues to what? Was there a murder? Was something stolen? Nope. We are looking for clues in art. Art is full of clues about the people who made it, and today we are sleuthing out a specific set of clues.

So, here's the job. In the 15th century, Northern Europe was growing in a major way. All of Europe was, in fact. New wealth was pouring in from a series of international trade routes that connected people around the world, from Britain to Japan. In their art, the northern Europeans left clues about their wealth and the economies of their days. Our job is to find those clues.

Clues in Painting

In Northern Europe during the 1500s, painters developed a deep sense of symbolism, emboldened by their ability to create a new level of detail with the increased use of oil paint. Their paintings were full of clues, symbols hidden in plain sight. This is a good place to start: the Arnolfini Portrait, painted by Jan van Eyck in 1434. The painting depicts Italian cloth merchant Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini in his house Bruges, in modern day Belgium. We're assuming that's his wife, most likely a new bride.

The Arnolfini Portrait is full of symbolism
The Arnolfini Portrait

This painting has some obvious clues about wealth. Arnolfini is a cloth merchant, and look at the clothes him and his wife are wearing. That's the finest cloth in Europe. That's no accident. The fine clothes in the painting represent the source of income for this family. That's how they paid for this portrait. But there's more here.

Look at that little dog. Not a hunting dog, obviously, so probably a gift for the missus. Another sign of wealth. And wait, what's that behind Arnolfini? Oranges? Last time I checked, oranges don't grow in Belgium. But you know where they do grow? Italy. The oranges represent Arnolfini's connection to the wealthy silk merchants of Italy, most notably, the powerful Medici family who took the orange as a symbol of their family.

There are some pretty solid clues in there to tell us about economic conditions in northern Europe, a place that was developing lots of wealth through international trade.

Now look at this one. This is the Ghent Altarpiece, a massive decoration for a church altar, also by van Eyck.

Ghent Altarpiece, closed view

The inside of the Ghent Altarpiece
Ghent Altarpiece, internal view

Altarpieces fold open - that's what it looks like when it was open - but for now, let's focus the closed version. Why? There's a clue in here somewhere. I can feel it. Ah, there it is! In the two corners, the two figures that aren't statues. They stand out. Why? Who are they? They're not just your average worshippers, those are the people who commissioned this altarpiece, Joost Vijdt and his wife Lysbette Borluut. Keep in mind - this is a huge altarpiece. Those portraits are life-sized. Why does it matter that they are here? Well, it shows that wealth was so important to people that they wanted to be identified by their wealth. They commissioned this altarpiece to display their faith but also to preserve their legacy.

Clues in Prints

So, we found a lot of clues in painting. But, painting wasn't the only art of Northern Europe. In the early 15th century, printmaking became a major art form, thanks to new inventions like movable type printing. Printing not only allowed for the repeated creation of words, but also images.

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