The Northern Renaissance

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  • 0:06 Important Vocabulary
  • 1:46 The Renaissance Spreads North
  • 3:05 The North Lacks…
  • 6:10 Monarchs Influence the…
  • 7:39 Strong Ties to the…
  • 11:01 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will focus on the Northern Renaissance. It will contrast the Renaissance of the North with the Italian Renaissance, exploring these differences in the areas of art, politics, and religion.

Important Vocabulary

In today's lesson we'll be exploring the Northern Renaissance, or quite simply, the Renaissance outside Italy in countries like England, Germany, France, and Spain.

Before we dig into our topic, let's go over some vocab words. First, we have the Renaissance, defined as a period beginning in the late 14th century when people began taking an interest in the learning of earlier times, specifically the cultures of Greece and Rome. As the French word 'renaissance' implies, it was a rebirth in the appreciation of classical times.

Next, we have 'city-state.' A city-state is an independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory. Unlike, say Pennsylvania, which answers to a higher federal law, a city-state stands as its own authority.

We also have the term 'cultural diffusion,' which is the spreading out of ideas from one central point to others.

You'll also hear me use the words 'classics' or 'antiquities.' When I say this, I mean ancient Greece or Rome.

I'll also throw around the word 'patron.' A patron, as in a patron of the arts, is a person who gives financial support to a person, cause, or activity.

Last, we'll have the term 'humanism.' Humanism is simply the belief that man has beauty, worth, and dignity. Humanism also holds that life should be based around reason and humanity, not Church regulations and power.

Now back to our lesson.

Classical antiquity art surrounded the Italians.
Classical Antiquity Art

The Renaissance Spreads North

Italy was the birthplace of the Renaissance, where ruins of ancient Rome stood in almost every city. This link to the cultural past made Italy the perfect place for the Renaissance to begin. Starting in the late 1400s, the Renaissance started spreading to countries like England, France, Germany, and Spain. When Northern merchants, diplomats, and soldiers began visiting the city-states of Italy, they were dazzled by the beauty of Italian art, architecture, and culture. Many returned home, carrying their love of the Renaissance over the Alps to their homelands. In short, the Northern Renaissance was born through cultural diffusion.

With this cultural diffusion came changes to the Renaissance. Although the visitors of Italy wanted to emulate its culture, this proved difficult because their cultures were very different from Italy's. First, the Northern countries lacked inspiration from the cultures of Greece and Rome. Second, the Northern countries had powerful monarchs who ruled over their countries. And third, the Northern cultures were not as willing to give up their ties to the Christian Church.

The North Lacks Classical Culture

Let's take a look at the cultural differences between the Italian and Northern Renaissances in terms of classical culture. Countries north of the Alps lacked the resources of the Italian Renaissance. In Italy, the evidence of classical antiquity was everywhere, affording great inspiration to their artists, architects, and sculptors. However, this link between the present and the past was much weaker in the rest of Europe. For instance, an architect in Germany couldn't simply walk out his door to study the ancient architecture of the Colosseum, nor could a sculptor living in England gaze upon the statues of Trevi Fountain. Also, unlike Italy, the rest of Europe was rural, not urban, affording little opportunity for the spread of new ideas.

Northern artists depicted everyday life in their work.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder Art

Instead of focusing on the statuesque bodies of Greek sculpture, the artists of the North drew from their everyday lives and surroundings. While Italian artists were using frescoes, or paintings done with pigment on wet plaster, to highlight mythology and the antiquities, Northern artists were practicing their craft using oil paints to perfect straight lines, exquisite detail, and realistic landscapes. A great example of this is the work of Van Eyck, one of the first major artists of the Northern Renaissance. Take a look at his painting, The Annunciation. Notice the clean lines of the cathedral walls; they look like they were drawn with a ruler. Also, notice the exquisite detail of the women's attire, the floor, and even the seat cushion! This is an excellent example of the North's propensity toward detail in the entire composition.

The Annunciation by Van Eyck and The Tribute Money by Masaccio
Van Eyck and Masaccio Paintings

Compare this to the Italian Renaissance painting, The Tribute Money by Masaccio. Apart from the human subjects of the painting, this work gives little thought to detail. This is a very classic characteristic of Italian Renaissance art, where the human form was of utmost importance. Notice how the mountains, field, and ground are roughly represented, almost as if they were an afterthought. Both are beautiful pieces of art, but they differ greatly.

Another example of this quest for accuracy comes from Albrecht Durer, a German artist who is considered one of the greatest artists of the Northern Renaissance. Take a look at his painting, Young Hare. Again, Durer's realistic flair makes it look like the rabbit is real, poised to jump off the page at any moment. This is a classic example of how the Northern Renaissance focused on creating pieces that realistically illustrated the natural world.

The Young Hare is an example of Northern Renaissance art.
Young Hare

Monarchs Influence the Renaissance

Another difference in the Northern Renaissance comes in the way of politics. During this time period, the political structure of Northern Europe differed greatly from that of Italy. Unlike Italy, which was a collection of independent city states, the Northern areas of England, France, and Spain were being formed into nations under powerful kings and queens. Germany, like Italy, was divided into several large states, but it was unified by the Holy Roman Empire. Like the princes and rulers of the Italian city-states, the monarchs of Northern Europe supported the Northern Renaissance but they did it on their own terms.

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