In the orbit of the Hanseatic League, a commercial alliance of cities along the Baltic coast, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe prosper in the early part of the period. But by 1500, with the waning of Hanseatic strength, the growth of nationalism among several groups in the region and hostile conflict between the Kalmar Union, Holstein, and the Hanseatic League cause shifts in the balance of power. Clergymen and rulers, eager to advance their own cultural claims, engage artists to assist them. When the Protestant Reformation arrives in the 1520s, it reinforces the nationalist aspirations of the Swedes, Danes, and Germans along the Baltic and creates new possibilities for art patronage. In 1570, Sweden puts an end to seven years of war with Denmark and stands poised to become a world power.
In the early fifteenth century, the many princes scattered throughout modern Ukraine and Russia rule by patents granted by the nomadic khan of the Golden Horde. But the steady weakening of the Horde fosters the ambitions of more daring princes, most notably the Daniilovichi of Moscow. They come to name and crown their heirs without consulting the khan, but suffer violent dynastic disputes until the reign of Ivan III, which marks the end of internecine war and the beginning of a dramatic territorial expansion. Over the next century, Muscovy annexes principalities to the north, south, and west, and challenges Lithuania and Sweden for control of Baltic ports and lands. By 1547, Russia has grown larger than any contemporary European nation, and Grand Prince Ivan IV is crowned Russia’s first emperor orczar.
The tradition of the Icelandic scriptoria, which produced manuscripts prized throughout Scandinavia in the Middle Ages, has died out. Subject to Danish control, volcanic eruptions, a worsening climate, famine, and disease, Iceland enters an age of artistic decline from which it will not emerge until the nineteenth century.
Three painters of Ukrainian or Belorussian extraction complete a fresco cycle in the Chapel of the Holy Trinity in Lublin Castle, residence of Wladislaw II Jagiello of Poland-Lithuania (r. 1386–1434). The chapel has ribbed vaulting in the Gothic manner, but the artists decorate it, evidently at Wladislaw’s request, with symbols of the Evangelists and an image of Christ Pantocrator, Byzantine iconography devised to adorn domed ceilings. Such hybrids of Eastern and Western artistic traditions are common in Wladislaw’s vast dominion, which stretches from Prussia to Muscovy.
Andrey Rublev (Rublyov; 1360/70–ca. 1430), a painter of many icons and fresco cycles, portrays the Old Testament Trinity in an icon (Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow). Rublev is a monk at the Andronikov Monastery, an early fifteenth-century foundation that remains the oldest stone building in Moscow. Few of Rublev’s works are preserved today, but the Tretiakov example demonstrates the grace of his figural style and the subtlety of his religious insight. The panel depicts three haloed angels, the same who visited Abraham in Genesis, seated around a table with a chalice in the center. Like the Trinity itself, they are three variations on a single theme, each distinguished by placement, gesture, and the color of his garment but alike in body type, size, and facial features.
The expansionist ambitions of Lithuania and Muscovy create constant friction between the two powers. Aiming for advantage against the Muscovites at the eastern fortress of Porkhov, the Lithuanian prince Vitovt engages German military engineers to build an invincible cannon and set it in position. Forty horses are required to pull the tremendous gun, and when it is fired, it destroys its target but also self-destructs and obliterates the corps that constructed it.
The Church of Saint Bridget, a Swedish saint canonized in 1391, is dedicated at Vadstena. The brick building was constructed at Bridget’s monastery to her specifications, of simple design without sculptural ornament or stained glass. Increasing nationalism in Sweden causes the embrace of local saints, including Bridget and Erik, and artists devise new ways to represent them, in both narrative cycles and devotional imagery.
Aristotele Fioravanti comes from Italy to Moscow at the invitation of Ivan III (the Great, r. 1462–1505), who wishes to see the Kremlin, or city fortress, adorned in a manner worthy of a burgeoning capital. Fioravanti has expertise in designing weapons as well as buildings, and under his direction the Kremlin receives a new system of brick fortifications and a new church, the Cathedral of the Dormition, whose blocky proportions, simple facade, and five gilded domes conform to Russian traditions. Other Italian architects in Ivan’s service are Marco Ruffo and Pietro Solario, who design a grand princely residence now known as the Palace of Facets, and Alevisio Novi, whose Cathedral of Saint Michael the Archangel combines the square-in-cross plan and multiple domes typical of Russian churches with the arches, pilasters, and classical massing of Italian Renaissance work. The monumental buildings of the Kremlin form the setting for Ivan’s court, where he gathers the many other princes whose lands he has appropriated by diplomacy and force. These aristocrats compete for Ivan’s favor while they strive to outdo each other by building fashionable city residences and furnishing them in resplendent style.
Erik Axelsson Tott builds a castle at Olofsborg (Olavinlinna) near the border between Finland, then in Swedish hands, and Russian territory. The castle has three fortified towers incorporated into its massive walls and a discrete block inside with separate apartments for soldiers and the family. Olofsborg Castle is representative of the many fortresses constructed throughout the Baltic in the late fifteenth century, when military tensions escalate and war-ready noblemen are eager to strengthen their defenses against firearms, the new weaponry of the age.
The Pecherskaya Monastery in Kiev, devastated by the Mongols in 1240, begins its resurgence. One of the most important centers of pilgrimage in the Ukraine, the monastery is the site of over 100 saints’ tombs and also home to a school of icon painting in the Byzantine tradition. Because icons are supposed to depict Christ, the Virgin, and the saints as truthfully as possible, icon-painters take pains to choose authoritative models, especially works that might be associated with the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. After Constantinople falls to Ottoman armies in 1453 and ceases to be a center for icon production, Ukrainian artists continue to refer to icons painted before then, but they also seek and find inspiration in Central European devotional prints.
Sten Sture, regent of Sweden, and his wife dedicate a magnificent wooden sculptural group in the Storkyrkan (Church of Saint Nicholas) in Stockholm. The image depicts Saint George as a knight in full armor mounted on a richly caparisoned horse and raising a sword above his head in readiness to kill the dragon that writhes beneath his horse’s hooves, while a princess kneels nearby, already thanking God for George’s certain triumph. The work is dedicated in thanks to God and to Saint George for his victory over a Danish army in 1471. The sculptor may have been Bernt Notke, a native of Lübeck, Germany, who executed many Scandinavian commissions, including a wooden altarpiece for the Cathedral of Århus, Denmark, dedicated in 1479.
Sarmatism, a fashionable attitude among the gentry of the Polish kingdom, is first articulated. The nobility of Poland and Lithuania, spread throughout a vast territory, are a heterogeneous class possessing different roots, languages, fortunes, and degrees of education. According to Sarmatism, they all descend from the Sarmatians, an ancient nomadic people known for their talents as warriors and horsemen. Although without basis in fact, the idea forges national feeling and unity among the nobility, who commission spectacles and works of art to celebrate their alleged Sarmatian pedigree.
Under the patronage of Ivan III, grand prince of Muscovy, the first story of a massive stone bell tower is constructed in the center of the Kremlin. Augmented throughout the sixteenth century, the Bell Tower of Ivan the Great long remains the tallest building in Moscow and a symbol of Russian strength.
Claus Berg establishes a workshop at Odense, Denmark. Born in the thriving northern German city of Lübeck, he travels to southern Germany to learn the arts of painting and sculpture. From his studio in Odense, he produces sculpture in stone and wood, as well as paintings that show the influence of prints by such German artists as Martin Schongauer, Albrecht Dürer, and Lucas Cranach the Elder. Among Berg’s most important commissions is the altarpiece for Odense Cathedral completed in 1521, which includes painted panels and an elaborately sculpted frame adorned with portraits of the Danish royal family.
A pupil of Hans Memling in Bruges and court painter to Queen Isabella the Catholic of Spain, the Estonian painter Michel Sittow paints a portrait of the Danish king Christian II, one of the first royal portraits executed in Scandinavia. Like many other artists engaged in Scandinavia, Sittow seems not to have maintained a permanent shop but rather moves from one center of patronage to the next. The king does not employ a court artist and does not seem to think it beneath his dignity to sit for an itinerant foreign painter.
Gustav I Vasa (r. 1523–60), who led Sweden to independence from the Kalmar Union, is crowned king. Gustav preserves the kingdom from periodic revolts within and the constant threat of Danish attack. Political differences with the pope cause him to embrace Lutheran Protestantism in 1527. Pressed to find trustworthy ambassadors and ministers within Sweden, he does much administrative work for himself. In 1542, he sits for the German painter Jacob Binck, whose portrait depicts the monarch in dark courtly dress with plumed hat, holding his gloves and wearing a serene, wise expression. The turbulence of Gustav’s reign prevents him from becoming a major patron of the arts, but by the late sixteenth century, his sons will style themselves Renaissance princes and commission elegant residences decorated by masters from Italy and Flanders.
Albert, grand master of the Teutonic Knights, becomes a Protestant and converts his Catholic realm into a secular state. As Duke Albert of Prussia, he continues to control the lucrative trade in amber through his capital at Königsberg (Kaliningrad) on the Baltic coast, encourages the manufacture and export of amber game-pieces and tableware, and engages artists to adorn the city as a Protestant capital.
Ivan IV (the Terrible, r. 1533–84), who ascended to the throne at the age of three, is crowned at seventeen in a magnificent ceremony. Unlike his predecessors the grand princes, Ivan is named czar, or emperor, a title that expresses Muscovite ambitions to equal the great fallen empires of Rome and Byzantium. In the same year, a devastating fire ravages Moscow, and a suspicious mob threatens violence against the royal family. Ivan emerges from the turmoil shaken but determined and, once he consolidates his power, embarks on a series of military campaigns against the Mongol khanates along the Volga River and the disparate polities of Livonia in modern-day Latvia.
Gustav I Vasa, eager to see Sweden profit from the rich commerce between Russia and the Hanseatic League, founds Helsinki on the eastern shores of his kingdom, and Russian products increasingly flow to western markets through the new port. The settlement has the modest wooden architecture of a trading post and gains the grander structures proper to a city only after it comes under Russian control in 1721.
An assembly of Russian clergymen convene in the council known as the Stoglav (Council of One Hundred Chapters). They discuss ways to purify the Russian church of lingering pagan customs, and devise new instructions for icon painters, urging them to imbue their works with allegory and symbolism and to emulate the style of Andrey Rublev.
To express thanks for his victories over the khanate of Kazan on the Volga River, Ivan IV, czar of the Russian empire, erects a church in Moscow. The initial concept is to build a cluster of chapels, one dedicated to each of the saints on whose feast days the czar had won a battle, but the construction of a single central tower unifies these modular spaces into a single church, the Cathedral of Saint Basil the Blessed.
King Frederick II of Denmark and Norway initiates work on Frederiksborg Castle in Hillerød. Its pointed spires show Gothic inspiration, and the classical ornament of its gables reflect the influence of the architectural pattern books that are in circulation. Among the favorites are those that showcase the designs of the Italian architects Andrea Palladio and Sebastiano Serlio.
In Lutheran Scandinavia, sculpted altarpieces are no longer in demand, and sculptors retool their shops to execute architectural ornament and funerary monuments. Wilhelm Boy, a Flemish architect and sculptor, fashions an alabaster effigy of Princess Isabella of Sweden, who died in childhood eighteen years before. The work, which is still housed in Strängnäs Cathedral, depicts the little girl lying down with her hands clasped over her chest and her eyes closed as though she were asleep.
Christian IV, who ascended to the throne of Denmark in 1588 at the age of eleven, is formally crowned king. Throughout his reign, which lasts until his death in 1648, he shores up fortresses, establishes new towns, and adorns existing ones, most notably Copenhagen. An enthusiastic patron of the arts, he favors dignified classical themes and styles of ornament.
“Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, 1400–1600 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=08®ion=eue (October 2002)