Art of the here and now

The extraordinary art of the Reformation was underpinned by a new certainty
October 17, 2012


From left: Cranach's Apollo and Diana (c. 1526), Dürer's St Jerome in his study (1514)

The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein

Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, 2nd November to 14th April 2013

In a church in the German city of Weimar hangs Europe’s most uncompromising painting. An altarpiece by Lucas Cranach the Elder, completed in the mid-1550s by his son, it is a stunningly realised, turbulent allegory of Christian salvation. A jet of blood arches from the torso wound of a crucified Jesus on to the head of Cranach himself. Next to him, holding open a Bible, stands Martin Luther.

The picture is pregnant with meaning. The Reformation, launched in Wittenberg by Luther in 1517, is here in Europe to stay, it states. By the time the triptych was finished, the continent’s theological alignments were altering forever. The south, which included German-speaking Bavaria and Austria, had chosen to side with the Vatican, accepting age-old papal absolutism and the tenets of a literal Christianity. Switzerland and most of the northwest—France didn’t “reform”— were galloping away from religious symbolism towards individualism, the secular nation state and the primacy of trade.

The allegorical altarpiece is strikingly realistic—Cranach and Luther surely looked like that in old age and were close friends—and remarkably certain. If it weren’t so exquisitely painted, it would almost be crude propaganda. Such certainty, arrived at in the mid-16th century after the Protestant split, underpins a new exhibition opening in November at the Queen’s Gallery.

The show brings together German, Netherlandish and French paintings, prints, drawings and other objets from the late 15th to the late 16th centuries. Never before has the Royal Collection been mined to narrate such a compelling combination of processes: the end of Catholic hegemony north of the Alps, and, in art there, a shift from required representations of the conventionally sacred to super-detailed delineations of the human and the real.

Though there’s nothing in this show as extreme as the Weimar altarpiece, Cranach the Elder’s mastery can be seen in a vivid 1548 woodcut of Luther and three major paintings. Of these, Apollo and Diana (c.1526) is particularly arresting. The shimmering curls of Diana’s hair, the pearly luminescence of her skin and Apollo’s sinuous, unidealised body show an artist intent on painting humans as they are. The work is as fresh as the day it was painted, and as sexy.

Albrecht Dürer, not an avowed Lutheran like Cranach, aimed to depict the real, the here and now, even if his topics were often biblical. Born in Nuremberg a year before Cranach, in 1471, Dürer had huge artistic influence in northern Europe. He was a driven printmaker and he knew how to market his images right across the Holy Roman Empire—hence his renown: he was effectively an artist-merchant.

Dürer’s famous woodcuts, such as A Knight, Death and the Devil (1513) and St Jerome in his Study (1514), are the equivalent of late medieval photography, dense with the paraphernalia of legend, but also busy with topographical detail and revelling in the ordinary. Look, in St Jerome, at the scissors, slippers, and a dog contentedly asleep—next to a lion. Dürer’s advanced sense of form and texture through line alone was revolutionary at the time, but he was a brilliant painter too, as his 1506 portrait Burkhard of Speyer demonstrates. With his nuanced melancholy, uneven features and unostentatious apparel, Burkhard seems both new and utterly settled in the world—a post-religious man.

Despite the “northern” tag in the exhibition’s title, it would be nonsensical to try and assess these productions without looking south, to Italy. Dürer painted Burkhard in Venice, where he evidently drank in the city’s subtle contours and light, and no northern painter of the period could plausibly have been unaffected by the Italian Renaissance. But while the word “Renaissance” might semantically tug us southwards, the imagery of this northern art is darker, more interior and more forensic than anything found in the Quattrocento.

Of the painters on display at the Queen’s Gallery, perhaps the most celebrated, in Britain at least, is Augsburg-born Hans Holbein the Younger. Though the detail of his biography is patchy, he probably spent 1518 in Italy and was clearly influenced by Renaissance fresco painters there. He was to become one of the greatest ever portraitists by, later, being in the right place at the right time: 1520s and 1530s Tudor London. An opulent, aggressive court craved images of itself and Holbein became its chronicler. He had painted many religious scenes but in his full maturity left such preoccupations behind, catching key figures from Erasmus to Mary Tudor with previously unparalleled sophistication.

This exhibition is especially rich in Holbeins. In painting after painting, chalk drawing after chalk drawing, his drive for immaculate verisimilitude reveals itself as something of a miracle. Portraits of Derich Born (1533) and William Reskimer (1532-3) in particular display the material determination of the new humanism at its most confident. Holbein identified these men’s power not in what an institution—the church, say, or a king—thought they should be, but in who they knew they were.

The Reformation was of course fraught with violence. Destruction of religious art across Protestant Europe was widespread; a need for images was, under the new thinking, considered fetishistic, an impediment to Luther’s call for “faith alone.” Iconoclasm in the late 1520s in reforming Basel, for a time Erasmus’s and Holbein’s adoptive city, was echoed in Henry VIII’s suppression in the 1530s of the English monasteries, during which vast quantities of ecclesiastical treasures were lost: statuary, paintings, stained glass. Radical departure from the old religion came, everywhere, with much vandalism. Over the summer of 1566 in the Netherlands, the destruction was called the “Beeldenstorm” or “image storm.”

Countless masterpieces and artefacts nonetheless survived. Beautiful works by the lesser-known Netherlandish Joos van Cleve and Jan Gossaert and the Frenchman François Clouet, among many others, adorn this exhibition. There are also silver cups, miniatures, armour and two glorious tapestries from 1500.

It was an intensely creative, image-making age, but deeply disputatious. Of the 140 exhibits here perhaps the oddest is a theological book, Henry VIII’s original Assertio septem sacramentorum, printed in 1521. Henry founded the Royal Collection. He ignited the English Reformation. But he actually remained a Catholic. His text? A refutation of Luther. The paradox is delightful, as is this entire astonishing show.