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Better Late Than Never: Northern Renaissance

As the calendar approached the sixteenth century, the Renaissance spirit moved northward from Italy to the rest of Europe. People began to see the relevance of the ideals of past civilizations to their own lives and to contemporary events and issues. However, as the Renaissance sprawled across Europe it did not manifest itself in the same way it did in Italy.

Renaissance with a Twist

The Northern Renaissance, as the movement was known, moved across the rest of Europe in the late fifteenth century and lasted perhaps until the turn of the seventeenth century. While Europe did experience a rebirth of sorts, as had Italy, the Renaissance took a different form and was colored by Christianity rather than by the secular spirit of Italy.

This Christian spin on the Renaissance has come to be called Christian humanism. While the idea of humanism colored by Christianity may seem oxymoronic, it makes a great deal of sense. In Italy, intellectuals used humanism to improve education and politics. The intellectuals sought classical models to copy so as to improve politics and the educational curriculum. Christian humanism also was characterized by an interest in the classics. However, Christian humanism sought to use the primary source texts to come to a better understanding of the early Church and of man’s understanding of God. Christian humanism tried to use the model of Christianity taken from the classical texts to improve not only the modern Church and modern Christianity but also modern society. To go a step further, Christian humanism advocated the study of classical languages in order to better understand what the classical authors truly intended the scriptures to say.

The Christian Humanists

The best examples of Christian humanism are found in the lives of Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) and Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) of England and Rotterdam, respectively. Sir Thomas More most often is remembered for his work Utopia, a book about an ideal society. More’s book was an indirect slam on the current state of politics and society in both England and the rest of Europe. He worked closely with King Henry VIII of England and actually never really had the chance to put into practice the ideas he set forth in Utopia. More wanted to create a better world by combining elements of humanism and Christianity. He was also an idealist. When Henry VIII broke away from the papacy and the Church, More refused to recognize the king as the head of the new Anglican Church. For his stubbornness, Henry rewarded More with a prison sentence and beheading.

Define Your Terms

While the term utopia has come to be synonymous with a perfect place or a paradise, the original translation of the word from Greek means “no place." More's Utopia described an ideal society. Could it be that by saying the ideal society was in Utopia, More was actually saying that the ideal society did not exist?

While More worked in public service, one of the virtues that dated back to the days of antiquity, Erasmus avoided politics and public service. Once confined to a monastery, he devoted his life to using classical texts to promote his platform: the education of Christians. Erasmus believed that the way to improve society was to educate society. What better texts for use in education existed than the classical texts of Christianity? Erasmus taught what he called the “philosophy of Christ.” He hoped to instill in people the true nature of Christianity, and that, he believed, was found not in some deep theology but in the example and actions of Christ. By combining these Christian principles with the classical virtues, Erasmus formed a message that he hoped would keep society on the straight and narrow.

Art in the North

There was a Renaissance in art in northern Europe, but it was of a different sort than what took place in Italy. Italian artists had the luxury of Roman art and ruins all around them to study. Much of the Italians’ attention to lifelike detail came as a result of their study of classical examples. Since other Europeans did not have the same luxury, they painted objects and people as they appeared. Using the innovative oil-on-canvas techniques that Italians used, artists of the Northern Renaissance created bold, vivid, nearly three-dimensional paintings that awed the viewer. In fact, some portraits were so realistic that princes occasionally chose brides based on their appearance in portraits. Northern artists also perfected the technique of giving far- off objects a hazy, blurred appearance.

One interesting way that Northern Renaissance art differed from its Italian counterpart was the artists’ attention to detail. While Italian artists used detail to conform to mythic standards of beauty for their subjects, Northern Renaissance artists were much more, well, honest. For example, an unattractive person would have been painted as-is by northern artists; they would not have been made to look like a hero, god, or goddess. Also, many artists of the Northern Renaissance, such as Jan van Eyck (1390-1441) painted many domestic scenes; Italian artists used very formal settings instead.

The Least You Need to Know

• The Renaissance, or rebirth, began in Italy because Italy was the major trade and banking center, and eventually the cultural center, of Europe.

• Renaissance ideals of humanism, secularism, and individualism were evident in the art, philosophy, and general culture of the Renaissance era.

Renaissance art differed from the art of the Middle Ages because Renaissance artists used new techniques like perspective and light and shadow and new mediums like canvas.

The printing press made books more affordable and more available for Europeans. Literacy rates rose and ideas spread faster than ever before.

The Northern Renaissance differed from the Italian Renaissance in that it centered on Christian humanism, an ideological movement that sought to better society through a combination of humanist interest in the classics and principles of Christianity.

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