During this period, central Europe is a seat of religious upheaval, intellectual activity, and technical innovation. Holy Roman Emperors struggle with increasing difficulty to control their territorial holdings—the boundaries of which continue to expand until the late sixteenth century—in the face of opposition from local princes and foreign threats, especially France and the Ottoman Turks. By the sixteenth century, humanist ideas from Italy—chiefly a renewed interest in classical scholarship—take root in central Europe, where they are promoted at centers of learning such as the University of Wittenberg, founded in 1505. It is here that professor of theology Martin Luther sets in motion the events leading to the Protestant Reformation, rejecting the authority of a corrupt clergy and asserting that of the Scriptures themselves.
Of great importance is the rise of printmaking in the fifteenth century, of which the works of Martin Schongauer (1445–1491) and Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) are the crowning achievements. An unprecedented demand for sculpture in all materials leads to radical innovations in southern Germany. Easel painting flourishes throughout the period; the iconoclastic movement that accompanies the Reformation is a significant setback for religious painting, whereas secular subject matter rises in popularity.
The Central European variant of the International Gothic, known as the Weicher Stil(Soft Style), is characterized by a luminous palette, an abundant use of gold, and a curvilinear elegance in the figures. The foremost practitioners of the style are the Westphalian Conrad von Soest (ca. 1360–1422), the Cologne Veronica Master, and the Upper Rhenish Master of the Paradiesgärtlein (named after a Virgin among Virgins in the Enclosed Garden, Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt am Main, on loan from the Historisches Museum, Frankfurt).
The sermons of Czech cleric and scholar Jan Hus (ca. 1369–1415) call for reform within the Roman Catholic Church and denounce the authority of corrupt church officials. Following his execution as a heretic in 1415, his followers, known as Hussites, lead a series of rebellions in Bohemia that last until mid-century. Hus’s beliefs anticipate the Reformation of the next century.
The Hanseatic League of German merchants and towns, established in the mid-twelfth century, is the most successful trading company in Europe, monopolizing trade in the North and Baltic seas.
The earliest dated woodcut, an image of Saint Christopher (Rylands Library, Manchester), is issued. Often hand-colored, early woodcuts function as inexpensive, portable images for private devotion. Although produced in large numbers, very few survive, as they were often attached to the wall of homes, glued to the inside of boxes, and in general were used rather than treasured.
Five artists active over a wide geographic area spell out new challenges for painting: Lukas Moser of Weil near Pforzheim (his only extant work, the Magdalene altarpiece, Pfarrkirche, Tiefenbronn, is dated 1432), Hans Multscher of Ulm (active, mostly as a sculptor, 1427–68), Konrad Witz of Basel (ca. 1400–1445/47), Stefan Lochner of Cologne (ca. 1400–1451), and the Master of the Karlsruhe Passion, possibly Hans Hirtz of Strasbourg (ca. 1400–1463). They paint figures standing convincingly in space, they have an appetite for the rendering of the real world, and they develop narrative structures and new ways to unite the world of the viewer with that of the painting. Konrad Witz’s Miraculous Draught of Fishes, dated 1444, is one the earliest accurate renderings of an actual landscape: the event depicted in the work is set at the eastern tip of Lake Geneva, the city for which Witz painted his altarpiece (Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva).
The council held at Basel, gridlocked over the issue of its primacy over the pope, does much to weaken papal authority, which, in turn, prepares the terrain for the Reformation in the sixteenth century.
The death of Emperor Sigismund marks the end of Luxembourg rule. Frederick of Habsburg, duke of Styria, is elected emperor in 1440. Frederick III’s long rule is a continuous struggle to check the growing autonomy of princes of the empire. This shift of power will also contribute to the success of the Reformation.
German printer Johannes Gutenberg (ca. 1397–1468) produces the Mazarin Bible (named for its later owner, Cardinal Mazarin; Bibliothèque Mazarine, Paris), possibly the earliest book printed with movable type. Though Gutenberg may not have invented this printing method, his influence is far-reaching and establishes Mainz, the city in which he works, as the foremost printing center in Europe. The rise of printing is crucial to humanist activities of the Renaissance, as it makes both classical and contemporary texts more readily available.
Matthias Corvinus is king of Hungary. He assembles a powerful army and, with it, safeguards his country against Turkish invaders. Scholarship and the arts flourish at his court in Buda, where he establishes a celebrated library.
An engraver marks an ambitious devotional image, commissioned by the Swiss monastery of Einsiedeln to celebrate its quincentenary jubilee, with the initials ES. This is the earliest print to bear the signature of its author.
After one year (1465) at the university of Leipzig and a presumed stay in the Low Countries, Martin Schongauer (ca. 1435/50–1491) settles in his birthplace Colmar. The refinement of his rare paintings suggests an apprenticeship with an artist such as Dirk Bouts (ca. 1420–1475) in Leuven. His 116 engravings reveal his debt to the restrained elegance and formal pathos of Rogier van der Weyden (1399/1400–1464). The son of a goldsmith, Schongauer takes the medium of engraving to unprecedented heights. Sold as far afield as Spain and Poland, his prints serve as models to countless painters, sculptors, glaziers, and goldsmiths. The young Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) admires Schongauer enough to travel to Colmar in 1492, only to be told that the master died the previous year.
These decades mark the golden age of late medieval German sculpture, with the advent of the carved retable (Schnitzaltar). Niclaus Gerhaert von Leiden (ca. 1420–1473?), active in Strasbourg and Vienna, develops a new sense of movement that engages the viewer, while Michel Erhart (1440/45–1522) of Ulm carves complex, elegiac images. The Tyrolean Michael Pacher (1430/35–1498), equally gifted as a painter and a sculptor, produces altarpieces that borrow from both the Germanic vernacular and the inventions of northern Italian artists. In an era when aesthetic sensibilities are so much shaped by the black-and-white images of Schongauer and Dürer, Tilman Riemenschneider (1460–1531) in Würzburg and Veit Stoss (1437/38–1533) in Nuremberg are among the first to abandon gilding and paint on occasion, and explore the medium of monochrome sculpture.
German king Maximilian I (r. 1486–1519) succeeds his father Frederick III as Holy Roman Emperor. While his reign is marked by largely unresolved conflict within the empire, Maximilian succeeds in establishing the Habsburg family as a major international power. His marriage to Mary of Burgundy in 1477 secures for the Habsburgs a claim to Burgundian territories, including the present-day Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and portions of France. By 1491, he has recovered Austria and claimed the thrones of Hungary and Bohemia (upon the death of Hungarian king Matthias Corvinus). Additionally, he arranges a marriage between his son Philip (later Philip I) and Joanna, daughter of Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, extending Habsburg rule into Spain.
Anton Koberger issues Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle (also called the Liber Chronicarum [Chronicle of the World]), the most ambitious publishing venture of its time. An account of the world from its origins to the present, it includes hundreds of woodblock illustrations and numerous accurate views of cities. Koberger’s godson, the young Dürer, is said to have contributed to the project.
Sebastian Brant of Strasbourg (ca. 1458–1521) publishes his Narrenschiff (The Ship of Fools), which aims, through satire, at morally improving his fellow men, the church, and the empire. Considered the most important German literary work of the fifteenth century, the text is illustrated with woodcuts, some of which are ascribed to Dürer.
Painter, printmaker, and theoretician Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) leaves his native Nuremberg for the first of two journeys to Italy, where he admires works of classical antiquity as well as that of contemporary masters such as Andrea Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini. Dürer’s sensitivity to Italianate form, his attention to classical proportion and perspective, and his prolific output as both a painter and graphic artist make him the most influential German artist of his time. An intimate of humanist scholars and court painter to emperors Maximilian I and Charles V, Dürer plays a vital role in the dissemination of Italian Renaissance ideas in central Europe, and advances the notion of the artist as creator rather than mere artisan.
Out of 12 million Germans, only 1.5 million live in cities. With 50,000 inhabitants, Augsburg is the largest city, followed by Cologne (40,000) and Nuremberg (30,000). In Free Imperial Cities (Freie Reichstädte) such as Basel, corporations (Zünfte) are represented on municipal councils, along with members of patrician families (Geschlechter).
Swiss physician Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus (ca. 1493–1541) rejects the prevalent medical belief of his time that physical illnesses are caused by an imbalance of the body’s four “humors” (melancholic, choleric, sanguine, and phlegmatic). He proposes instead that the body is weakened by external conditions and toxic agents, and may be treated with a number of chemical remedies. Although influenced by contemporary mysticism and the occult, Paracelsus’ medical observations lay the foundation for modern diagnostic methods.
Merchants and bankers Ulrich and Jakob Fugger, among the wealthiest men in Europe, sign an agreement with the Carmelites of Augsburg for the construction of a funerary chapel for themselves and their deceased brother Georg in the convent church of Saint Anna. Often in Venice for business, they wish to emulate the example of Italian merchant dynasties. Jakob Fugger insists on the consistent application of Italianate forms and ornaments. Although the Fuggers have every means to award the ambitious project to a Venetian master, they ask Dürer to design the tombs and entrust the execution to an Augsburg workshop, presumably the Daucher firm. Completed in 1517, the Fugger chapel is the earliest and purest example of German Renaissance architecture; the Fuggers’ status ensures that its influence resonates immediately throughout the empire.
Matthias Grünewald (1475/80–1528) paints a double set of wings for a large shrine, delivered by Strasbourg sculptor Niclaus of Haguenau before 1505, for the high altar of the chapel of the Antonines at Isenheim in Alsace (Musée d’Unterlinden, Colmar). At this time, the Antonines run a hospital for plague victims and sufferers of ergotism, a disease with plaguelike symptoms, who are probably able to identify with the imagery of this altarpiece. On the closed wings of the polyptych, they may see a parallel for their ailments in the tortured, already decomposing Christ towering over a barren landscape and a night sky in one of the most disturbing renderings of the Crucifixion. On Sundays, the shutters are opened to reveal the Nativity accompanied by an angelic concert, with the Annunciation on the left and the Resurrection on the right. With strident chromatic contrasts, the interior is as luminous as the exterior is dark. On high feast days, a second set of wings with scenes from the life of Saint Anthony flanks his carved effigy.
Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) develops the heliocentric theory of planetary motion, proposing that the earth and other planets move in orbit around a stationary sun. This opposes Ptolemaic theory—widely accepted through the sixteenth century and incorporated into church doctrine—in which Earth is the fixed center of the universe. Copernicus provides a catalyst for the surge of astronomical study and discovery that begins in the sixteenth century; his ideas are taken up by Galileo in Italy, and by the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe and his assistant Johannes Kepler, who further define the laws of planetary movement.
Martin Luther (1483–1546), professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg, posts his 95 theses regarding corruption within the Roman Catholic Church. Convinced on studying Saint Paul that salvation is achieved through faith alone, he questions the validity of an organized church and is particularly enraged at the sale of indulgences (the temporal remission of punishment in Purgatory). This act precipitates the Reformation in Germany, and for it Luther is excommunicated in a papal bull of 1520. He takes refuge at the Wartburg, castle of Elector Frederick III the Wise of Saxony, where he completes a German translation of the New Testament. During Luther’s exile, Philipp Melanchthon (1497–1560) prepares the Augsburg Confession—a statement of Lutheran belief—for the Diet of Augsburg in 1530. Emperor Charles V rejects the Confession, and tensions between the Catholic emperor and Protestant princes persist until a temporary settlement is reached in 1555. The Peace of Augsburg of that year establishes that the religion of each state of the Holy Roman Empire is to be determined by its ruler.
Charles V is Holy Roman Emperor (also king of Spain as Charles I, r. 1516–56). His reign is beset by religious and political turmoil, including peasant uprisings (1524–26), Ottoman assaults on Austria and Hungary, and the Habsburg-Valois Wars, an ongoing struggle with French king François I for possession of several Italian states. Although François relinquishes his claims in Italy, in 1526 he organizes an anti-imperial alliance with various Italian states, leading to the invasion of Italy and the sacking of Rome (1527) by an imperial army. Charles is then crowned in Bologna in 1530. He summons the celebrated Venetian painter Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) (ca. 1485/90–1576) to Augsburg in 1548, where the artist executes numerous portraits of the emperor and members of the nobility.
Desiderius Erasmus (ca. 1466–1536) settles in the Swiss town of Basel. An influential scholar and author, Erasmus at first supports the church reforms called for by Luther, later dismissing them as too radical. Erasmus’ works of the 1520s reflect the broad scope of his intellectual interests and lifelong concern with the advancement of scholarship, and include treatises on the education of children, the reshaping of classical form in modern dialogue, and the art of letter writing.
Considering religious images idolatrous, Protestants stir a wave of iconoclasm that persists until the Counter-Reformation at the century’s end; thousands of artworks are destroyed.
Hans Holbein the Younger (ca. 1497/98–1543) paints his last and most complex religious work before leaving Basel for England: the Virgin with the Family of Jakob Meyer(Schlossmuseum, Darmstadt). In a decade when Basel adopts the Reformation and iconoclasts destroy much religious art in the city, Burgomaster Meyer remains staunchly Catholic. The altarpiece is intended for his private chapel on his estate outside Basel, where it would be seen by very few, a matter of great concern to both patron and artist. The Virgin’s mantle stretches to cover Meyer’s shoulders, following the traditional iconography of the Virgin of Mercy. The altarpiece, however, reflects the degree to which Holbein has assimilated the lessons of the High Renaissance, either through a hypothetical journey to Italy or through Italian works of art north of the Alps: its pyramidal composition derives from Raphael, the chiaroscuro in the faces owes much to Leonardo, and the gesture of the Christ Child, reaching out toward the viewer, is borrowed from Michelangelo. The painting, which appears to be a continuation of the viewer’s world (the younger Meyer child nearly falls in our direction), would have offered justification and comfort to Meyer in his attachment to the Catholic faith.
Charles V resigns the imperial crown, formally abdicating in 1558. He divides the empire between his son Philip, to whom he gives the Spanish kingship, Naples, and Sicily, and his brother Ferdinand, who receives the Austrian territories and succeeds Charles as Emperor Ferdinand I (r. 1558–64). Ferdinand resides at the Hofburg in Vienna, the traditional home of the Habsburgs. Having suffered a severe fire in 1525 and Ottoman siege in 1529, the city benefits greatly from imperial patronage under Ferdinand and his son and successor, Maximilian II (r. 1564–76). Ferdinand encourages a flourishing of Italian art at his court, and Maximilian commissions a summer palace, the Neugebäude, that sets the precedent for a surge of construction at mid-century.
Rudolf II, son of Emperor Maximilian II (r. 1564–76), king of Hungary from 1572 and Bohemia from 1575, is elected Holy Roman Emperor (died 1612). He establishes his court in Prague, which becomes a center of Mannerism. Rudolf surrounds himself with painters such as Bartholomeus Spranger (1546–1611), Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527–1593), Hans von Aachen (1552–1615), and the Dutch sculptor Adriaen de Vries (1545/46–1626).
“Central Europe (including Germany), 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=euwc (October 2002)