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Dutch Renaissance Architecture

The Renaissance in the Netherlands coincides with a very turbulent period in the region. In 1500 the Seventeen Provinces were in a personal union under the Burgundian Dukes, and with the Flemish cities as centers of gravity, culturally and economically formed one of the richest parts of Europe. The union with Spain under Charles V, Humanism and Reformation led to a rebellion against the Spanish rule and a devastating religious war. A century later the Southern Netherlands were ruined and the balance shifted to the north, leading to the Dutch Golden Age. Astonishingly, this religious and political strife did not have a devastating effect on the arts[1].

Geo-political situation and background

Desiderius Erasmus in 1523

Two factors have determined the fate of the region in the 16th century. The first was the union with the kingdom of Spain through the 1496 marriage of Philip the Handsome of Burgundy and Juana of Castile. Their son, Charles V, born in Ghent, would inherit the largest empire in the world, and the Netherlands, although a prominent part of the empire, became dependent on a large foreign power.

The second factor were the religious developments. With the devout Middle Ages left behind, developments in the Catholic Church received more and more criticism. The Humanists, of which Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam was one of the leading thinkers, were critical but remained loyal to the church. The Protestant Reformation, started by Martin Luther in 1517, was no longer loyal, and after the Council of Trent the differences rose to a level of outright war.

Reformation quickly gained support in the Netherlands while the ideas never took hold in Spain[2], resulting in severe repression (see Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, Duke of Alba), followed by rebellion, generations of war and the independence of the northern provinces.

Influence of the Italian Renaissance
Trade in the port of Bruges and the textile industry, mostly in Ghent, turned Flanders into the wealthiest part of Northern Europe at the end of the 15th century. The Burgundian court dwelled mostly in Bruges, Ghent and Brussels. The nobles and rich traders were able to commission artists, creating a class of highly skilled painters and musicians who were admired and requested around the continent[3].

This led to frequent exchanges between the Netherlands and Northern Italy. Examples are Italian architects Tommaso Vincidor and Alessandro Pasqualini, who worked in the Netherlands for most of their careers, Flemish painter Jan Gossaert, whose visit to Italy in 1508 in the company of Philip the Handsome left a deep impression[1], musician Adrian Willaert who made Venice into the most important musical centre of its time[3] (see Venetian School) and Giambologna, a Flemish sculptor who spent his most productive years in Florence.

Before 1500, the Italian Renaissance had little or no influence above the Alps. After this we begin to see Renaissance influences, but unlike the Italian Renaissance, the Northern Renaissance does not completely abandon religion and truth in favour of beauty and appearance. Gothic elements remain important. The revival of the classical period is also not a central theme like in Italy, the "rebirth" shows itself more as a return to nature and earthly beauty[3].


Mercator map of Europe

The new age presents itself in science as well. Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius's life typically shows both the new possibilities and the troubles that came with them. He delivered ground-breaking work in rediscovering the human body, after centuries of disregard for it. This earned him great respect from some, but also caused several enquiries into his methods (dissection of the human body) and the religious implications of his work.

While Vesalius performed ground-breaking work in rediscovering the human body, Gerardus Mercator, as one of the leading cartographers of his time, did the same for rediscovering the outside world. Mercator too came into trouble with the Church because of his beliefs, and spent several months in jail after a conviction for heresy.

Both scientists' lives show how the Renaissance scientist is not afraid of challenging what has been taken for granted for centuries, and how this leads to problems with the all-powerful catholic church.

Tielman Susato brings the first press to the Netherlands, in Antwerp, which by then is taking over the role of Ghent and Bruges as cultural center. Susato and Christopher Plantin in Antwerp and Pierre Phalèse in Leuven turn the Netherlands into a regional center of publishing[4].

Renaissance art in the Netherlands


Hell, the right panel from the triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch

15th century painting in the Netherlands still showed strong religious influences, contrary to the Italian painting. Even after 1500, when Renaissance influences begin to show, the influence of the masters from the previous century leads to a largely religious and narrative style of painting.

The first painter showing the marks of the new era is Hieronymus Bosch. His work is strange and full of seemingly irrational imagery, making it difficult to interpret[1]. Most of all it seems surprisingly modern, introducing a world of dreams that highly contrasts with the traditional style of the Flemish masters of his day.

After 1550 the Flemish and Dutch painters begin to show more interest in nature and in beauty an sich, leading to a style that incorporates Renaissance elements, but remains very far from the elegant lightness of Italian Renaissance art[3], and directly leads to the themes of the great Flemish and Dutch Baroque painters: landscapes, still lifes and genre painting - scenes from everyday life[1].

The Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

This evolution is seen in the works of Joachim Patinir and Pieter Aertsen, but the true genius among these painters was Pieter Brueghel the Elder, well known for his depictions of nature and everyday life, showing a preference for the natural condition of man, choosing to depict the peasant instead of the prince.

The Fall of Icarus painting combines several elements of northern Renaissance painting. It hints at the renewed interest for antiquity (the Icarus legend), but the hero Icarus is hidden away in the background. The main actors in the painting are nature itself and, most prominently, the peasant, who does not even look up from his plough when Icarus falls. Brueghel shows man as an anti-hero, comical and sometimes grotesque[3].

Architecture and sculpture

Antwerp City Hall (finished in 1564)

As in painting, Renaissance architecture took some time to reach the Netherlands and did not entirely supplant the Gothic elements. The most important sculptor in the Southern Netherlands was Giambologna, who spent most of his career in Italy. An architect directly influenced by the Italian masters was Cornelis Floris de Vriendt, who designed the city hall of Antwerp, finished in 1564.

Amsterdam Renaissance

In the early 17th century Dutch Republic, Hendrick de Keyser plays an important role in developing the Amsterdam Renaissance style, not slavishly following the classical style but incorporating many decorative elements, giving a result that could also be categorized as Mannerism. Hans Vredeman de Vries was another important name, primarily as a garden architect.

Music: the Dutch School

Orlande de Lassus leading a chamber ensemble, painted by Hans Mielich

While in painting, the Netherlands were leading Northern Europe, in music the "Franco-Flemish" or "Dutch School" dominated all of Europe. In the early Renaissance, polyphonic musicians and composers from the Low Countries were working at all the European courts and churches. Educated in the church and cathedral schools of their own region, they spread out and bring their style to the whole continent, so that by the late renaissance a unified musical style emerged throughout Europe.

Although there is no reference to antiquity, there is a clear Flemish "Renaissance consciousness", as indicated by the words of Flemish theorist Johannes Tinctoris, who said of these composers: "Although it is beyond belief, nothing worth listening to had been composed before their time.".

Renaissance elements in the music are the return from the "divine origin" of music to earthly beauty and sensory joy. The music becomes more structured, balanced and melodic. Whereas in the Middle Ages the choice of instruments was free, composers now start to organize instruments into homogenous groups, and write music specifically for certain arrangements.

Josquin Desprez was the most celebrated composer during the High Renaissance, and during his career enjoyed the patronage of three popes. Equally at ease in secular and religious music, he can be considered the first musical genius we know of.

Other important composers from the Netherlands were Guillaume Dufay, Johannes Ockeghem, Jacob Clemens non Papa and Adrian Willaert. Orlande de Lassus, a Fleming who had lived in Italy as a youth and spent most of his career in Munich, was the leading composer of the late Renaissance.


In the middle of the 16th century, a group of rhetoricians (see Medieval Dutch literature) in Brabant and Flanders attempted to put new life into the stereotyped forms of the preceding age by introducing in original composition the new-found branches of Latin and Greek poetry. The leader of these men was Johan Baptista Houwaert, who was led by an unbounded love of classical and mythological fancy.

The most important genre was music publishing, especially psalms. The Souterliedekens publication is one of the most important sources for the reconstruction of Renaissance folksongs. Later publishing was heavily influenced by the rebellion against the Spanish: heroic battle songs and political ballads ridiculing the Spanish occupants.

Best remembered of the writers is Philips van Marnix, lord of Sint-Aldegonde, who was one of the leading spirits in the war of Dutch independence. He wrote a satire on the Roman Catholic Churche, started to work on a Bible translation and allegedly wrote the lyrics to the Dutch national anthem.

Other important names are Dirck Volckertszoon Coornhert, Hendrick Laurensz. Spieghel and Roemer Visscher. Inevitably, their works and career were very much determined by the struggle between Reformation and the Catholic Church.

^ a b c d e f Janson, H.W.; Janson, Anthony F. (1997). History of Art, 5th, rev., New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.. ISBN 0-8109-3442-6.
^ Kamen, Henry (2005). Spain, 1469–1714, A Society of Conflict, 3rd, Harlow, United Kingdom: Pearson Education Ltd.. ISBN 0-582-78464-6.
^ a b c d e f g Heughebaert, H.; Defoort, A., Van Der Donck, R. (1998). Artistieke opvoeding. Wommelgem, Belgium: Den Gulden Engel bvba.. ISBN 90-5035-222-7.
^ a b This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
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Categories: Wikipedia articles incorporating text from the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica | Renaissance | Flanders | History of the Netherlands