11 Painting around 1400

 

Painting initially used to be on one of the lower rungs in the medieval hierarchy of the fine arts. The most superior art, followed in all other arts, was architecture. The glory of the Gothic cathedrals brought Northern Europe on a par with the South, with Italy and Byzantium, for the first time in history. Sculpture, closely connected with architecture as it is, took up an important, but still serving, place. And just like the sculptor served the architect, the painter served the sculptor. Virtually all wood-engravings and a lot of sculptures were gilded or painted in polychrome. The interior of cathedrals and noblemen's private chapels was painted in bright colours or covered in gold leaf, including pillars and ceilings. Amid all these extravagant decorations paint was usually the cheapest solution, and was only used when there were no other options, physically or financially. When sufficient funds were available, one preferred work in precious metals, stained-glass windows or valuable and high-wrought fabrics (tapestries, banners, canopies).
In Italy as early as the thirteenth and fourteenth century, there had been painters who clearly announced the Renaissance: Giotto, the Lorenzetti Brothers. The most important medium of Italian painting was the mural. Because of the climate, the fresco is not the most ideal art form for Northern Europe. Therefore, in France and the Southern Low Countries, innovations took place on a completely different material: the parchment of the great illuminators. 
Due to the rise of art-dealing, Parisian miniaturists and Italian panel painters became acquainted with each other's work. This gave the European tradition of the High Middle Ages, Gothic, international character, also in the realm of painting. At that moment (ca. 1350), five important developments were ongoing in painting: 1. for the first time, emotions - anger, devotion, fear, pride - became identifiable in painted faces and postures; 2. the figures were brought into their surroundings, they got a background; 3. the search for perspective and depth resulted in the depiction of 'three-dimensional' interiors and architecture; 4. painting became a profane profession, there were more and more secular patrons and non-religious, 'free', subjects quickly gained popularity; 5. originality and individual style were increasingly seen as positive qualities. 
These were five necessary steps towards the eventual goal, the creation of a credible three-dimensional illusion on a flat surface.

In the northern half of the Low Countries (County Holland, Bishopric Utrecht, and Dukedom Gelre) around 1350, there was hardly any independent painting to speak of. A very limited number of anonymous murals and panels from before 1400 is known and these are of more archaeological than artistic importance. Names and biographies of the makers are lacking.
The art of illumination had already reached a higher standard, but was still actively developing. There were limited opportunities for painters to obtain high-quality work. This would now and then be possible in the larger towns, in the Episcopal studios and at the courts of Holland and Gelre. At the same time, there was a large demand for talented and technically schooled artists in the cosmopolitan centres, Cologne, Brussels, Dijon, and Paris. It seems that painters from the Low Countries answered this call from the South en masse. Especially Dijon appeared to absorb all Northern talent like a sponge. In that artist colony from the Low Countries, a number of characteristics were present from the start, which would later develop into a Northern Dutch tradition: professional skill, technical innovation, naturalism, love for detail and everyday things, and the didactic double meanings. The work of the men from Nijmegen in this company certainly met all of these characteristics. Especially Paul van Limburg managed to balance the Italian idealism and the Northern descriptive naturalism.

 

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