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Today’s review by Waldemar Januszcak of the Northern Renaissance exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace.

by Holbein c.1540-43.

The idea of a Northern Renaissance has been doubted, but this reviewer says, Yes!

“Reader, if you encounter one of these naysayers anywhere near Buckingham Palace, grab them by the ear, yank them to the Queen’s Gallery and instruct them to open their eyes. Anyone who cannot spot the presence here of a distinct aesthetic needs to sit their GSCE in art all over again.”

The exhibition covers Durer to Holbein, and raises the issue of a north-south divide in Europe, with a contrast in themes and sensibilities between protestant and catholic.

Januszczack reckons the really interesting question is: what came first, the tone or the religion? He goes too far by saying this is a difference in genetics, and has a laugh in awarding Durer’s illustration of the Book of Revelation, “some sort of Oscar for horribleness”.

The Tudor connection, of course, is Hans Holbein the younger – the review marvels at his realism:

“Great indeed was the day when Henry VIII made Holbein his court artist. Totally convincing faces. Totally convincing textures. Real pyschological presences. No half-timbered stiffness. No stubborn medievalism. It’s as if the entire Tudor age has been put on pause, while another age, playing at another speed, has started up in the same time span. What a contrast. What a mismatch.”

The conclusion is that Henry VIII did more for British art than any other monarch. For the Tudor age I agree (forgiving the British anachronism), but Holbein’s art was so much more sophisticated than what followed: the mismatch continued far too long. If the idea of the Northern Renaissance is good, why does the rest of the Tudor century pale in comparison to this great artist?

The collection at the Queen’s Gallery is not just about painting. Here’s a bronze sculpture by the Dutch Adriaen de Vries, made in about 1600:

[Click here to play with the image. Commentary on the sculpture (and the helpful stalk between the legs) here.]

My first impression is of Cellini-style delight … and later in the collection is the Cellini shield, which contains four episodes from the life of Julius Caesar, a big subject with the Tudors. Although the style suggests Cellini, the shield was done by the Dutch Eliseus Libaerts in the 1560s.

So both sculpture and shield are examples of the spread of Renaissance influence from Italy to the north, but not beyond the channel, because no artist in England was doing this kind of work. The idea of a Northern Renaissance may be good for Germany and the Netherlands, but Holbein looks like an offshoot that withered.

Janusczek also mentions items from the armory of Henry VIII inscribed with episodes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Ovid was an important poet in the Renaissance – “change is my subject” – and his ancient texts were a favourite for translation in the revival of Greek and Roman learning. The Renaissance twist added an increasingly complex appreciation of the mutability of life.

Back to Julius Caesar, perhaps the greatest of the ancients – at least if you accept Plutarchs’s brilliant account of the dictator’s life. That account was translated in 1579 by Thomas North, and the second edition in 1595 was a source for Shakespeare’s brilliant play, first staged in 1599. So that’s how it changed in England: the Tudors kept on the move, but Holbein wasn’t their leader – literature was the way.

From Arthur Golding’s translation of the Metamorphoses (1567):

Then sprang up first the golden age, which of itself maintained
The truth and right of everything, unforced and unconstrained.

It’s a modern theme too.


p.s. Here’s a scholarly article (2010) rejecting the concept of a Northern Renaissance, even in the Netherlands.