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Sacred Icon or Secular Portrait?

Part 2:

Although the Renaissance in Italy was in full swing by this time, the art of the Netherlands was still (if you judge it by the principles of the Italian Renaissance, which although illogical and unfair, is done all the time) rooted in Late Gothic traditions. The paradigmatic view of Northern versus Renaissance art at the time is that Renaissance artists were concerned with imparting a sense of three-dimensionality to their figures based on the example and ideal of antique sculpture, and locating their figures within spaces that were constructed using the laws of scientific perspective (and often featuring classically-inspired architecture). Northern art, in contrast, was still largely Gothic, emphasising detailed ornamental surface decoration (particularly in meticulously rendering the folds in drapery) at the expense of sculptural mass and volume - flat, decorative and angular as opposed to rounded, solid and sculptural. Further, Italian artists were painting the nude human figure, and scenes from classical mythology and ancient history - things that were unheard of in the North.

Gossaert’s discovery of antique and Renaissance art was too sudden for him to be able to immediately digest and integrate all of its principles, and when he returned to the Netherlands he had few opportunities to make use of these new ideas because most of his commissions were for religious rather than secular pictures and there was still little demand for paintings of nude figures and classical subjects. He continued to experiment with them, however, and the years after his return from Italy was a period of intense artistic exploration and development for him.

Interestingly, although he was experimenting with nudes and other elements from Italian Renaissance art, he was at the same time cultivating the founding traditions of Netherlandish art, dating back a century: he was copying figures from compositions by Jan van Eyck (c1390-1441), who is credited for inventing the technique of painting in oils and is considered to be the founding father of Netherlandish painting. Gossaert cultivated to perfection the painstaking Netherlandish technique of layering transparent glazes to produce the exquisitely luminous, jewel-like surfaces that characterise Netherlandish paintings.

In the years after his return from Italy, Gossaert adopted the habit of combining Italian and Late Gothic elements into one and the same painting. Then, in 1515, Philip commissioned him to decorate his castle near Middelburg. Philip wanted to make his castle a sort of Renaissance hub in the Netherlands; he himself was passionate about ancient art and literature and wanted to decorate his palace with Italianate scenes from classical mythology with life-sized nude figures. The project had a decisive effect on Gossaert’s development - he now had ample opportunity to exploit his ability for painting large-scale nudes and classically-inspired architecture in pictures with scientifically-constructed perspective. For Gossaert, this was a positive manifesto of the new style.

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