Gothic Era


(Gothic and Early Renaissance)

European Painting from the 13th to the 15 th Century



Gothic Art Map
Exploration: Revelations (Art of the Apocalypse)
Exploration: Gothic Era  (Gothic and Early Renaissance)
 M. of the Glatz Madonna Masaccio Starnina Taddeo di Bartolo
 M. Theodoric Masolino M. Westphalian Marco Zoppo
 Torriti Jacopo Hans Memling M. of Schloss Altar Holbein the Younger
 Stefan Lochner Rogier van der Weyden M. Norwegian Andrea Mantegna
 Bonaventura Berlinghieri Hugo van der Goes Derick Baegert Cosme Tura
 M. Bertram of Munden Gerard David Lukas Moser Holbein the Elder
 M. of Kaufmann Crucifixion  Antonello da Messina M. of Albrecht Altar M. of Book of Hours
 M. of Wittingau Piero della Francesca Frances Nicolas M. of Alkmaar
 Lippo Memmi Pedro Berruguete Master E.S. M. Francke
 M. of Narbonne Parament M. of Westminster Altar Martin Schongauer M. of the Gothic Art
 Malouel Jean M. of Psalter of de Lisle Israhel van Meckenem Bernat Martorell
 M. of Wilton Dyptych M. of Cologne Workshop Bartolome Bermejo Michael Pacher
 Borrassa Lluis Sassetta Fernando Gallego Quentin Massys
 Pisanello Jaume Huguet Hans Multscher Nuno Goncalves
 Konrad of Soest Nicolas Froment Colantonio Martinus Opifex
 M. of the Ortenberg Altar M. of St. Veronica  Lluis Dalmau Juan de Levi
 Filippo Brunelleschi M. of the Paradise Garden Barthelemy d'Eyck Saxon Workshop
 Joos van Gent Limburg brothers M. of Life of the Virgin Lorenzo Monaco
 Bartolo di Fredi Robert Campin M. of St. Bartholomew Jean Fouquet
 Hubert & Jan van Eyck Konrad Witz Dieric Bouts Jacopo Bellini 

Albrecht Durer

Westphalian Master

Master of the Schloss Tirol Altar

Norwegian Master

See also collection:

Derick Baegert



The perfection of technique

Landscape was just one of the temptations drawing collectors to buy Netherlandish art and painters to imitate it. Another was the quality of execution distinguishing its panel paintings, whose standard was never to be equalled. The very wood itself was chosen with particular care. While artists in Italy generally made do with local poplar, and in Spain with pine, in the Netherlands virtually everyone opted for Baltic oak, which was shipped in from far afield. The panels were cut out of the trunk in radial wedges, like slices of cake, in order to prevent any later warping. The softer outermost layers were rejected, so as to forestall any unnecessary extra risk of attack by insects. As a further means of protection, the panels were given solid frames and only then primed, usually on both sides. The wood was thus sealed all round.
As a consequence, the practice of covering the panel with a layer of material, still very common in the 14th century and seen, for example, in the earlier Soest picture, the Kaufmann Crucifixion and the Schloss Tirol Altar, could be largely dropped. On top of the primed panel, whose white ground was intended to shine through the colours laid over it and thereby heighten their luminosity, there was often then executed a detailed preliminary drawing. Only after weeks of preparation, and years even since the original tree had been felled, could painting actually begin. This, too, was an extremely laborious and lengthy process. By no means was the final colour applied straight away (alla prima). Rather, the paint was laid down in several transparent layers (glazes), moving from darker to lighter shades, allowing the underlying layers to shine through. This alone would ensure the tremendous luminosity, durability and exquisite enamel-like sheen of Early Netherlandish panel paintings. Towards the end of the century the number of glazes was gradually reduced, and on occasions in the early 16th century, the white ground or the preliminary drawing was deliberately allowed to shine through.
The paints themselves were naturally not available readymixed. Workshop duties in the late Middle Ages included not just painting, but also grinding the pigments. The degree of fineness of the powder thereby influenced the colour it produced. Thus azurire, the most commonly-used blue pigment of the day, only gave a blue effect if it was not ground too finely. A second, important blue pigment was ultramarine. While it offered a greater and more gem-like luminosity, it was obtained from lapis lazuli, which had to be imported from the Orient, from modern-day Afghanistan, and was thus more expensive than gold. Significantly, it was employed with great regularity by the first generation of Early Netherlandish artists, but only extremely sporadically by the technically less ambitious German artists of the day.
Other than in Cologne or even Italy, the Netherlandish artists had almost entirely dispensed with gold, seeking instead to heighten the illusion of reality with a permanently blue sky over a white haze. Areas of gilding, whether grounds, haloes or drapery details, involved a variety of complex procedures. For example, where they were to be given an additional relief pattern by means of pouncing, in other words the hammering of small indentations into the metal, the layer of primer beneath them had to be considerably thicker. Also required was an intermediary bole ground, usually reddish in colour, to which the wafer-thin leaves of precious metal would adhere.
According to the author of the best-known treatise on artist's materials of his day, the painter Cennino Cennini (c. 1370— c. 1440), pupil of a son of Taddeo Gaddi and thus a "great-grandpupil" of Giotto, one Florentine gold coin yielded a hundred sheets of gold leaf barely the size of the palm of a hand. After the leaf had been laid, it was burnished with a gemstone or a tooth in order to bring out its fascinating sheen. To avoid unnecessary expense, the inclusion of gilded areas within a painting had to be carefully planned in advance. Since the gilding was carried out first, before any actual painting began, the artist had to decide exactly where on his panel the costly material was to go. As a rule, no further gold leaf would then be applied to the remainder of the composition.
Lastly, too, there was the choice of the right binding agent. Since the claim was first made by the art historians of the 16th century, Jan van Eyck has long been credited with the invention of oil painting. The reality is much more complicated. Binders containing oil were known as early as the 13th century, even if they were not yet being deployed with their later sophistication. The fact that they can be found in English and Norwegian (Norwegian Master) paintings in particular suggests that artists were already taking into account external factors such as a damp climate. On the other hand, painters in the Netherlands continued to employ egg tempera long after the van Eyck were dead, not least because some pigments failed to mix well with oily binders, which reduced their luminosity.
At the same time, mixed techniques played a far greater role than is generally assumed today. Finally, artists also had to weigh up the characteristics of the individual binders and in particular the oils they employed, since some of them had major implications for the actual painting process. Oils derived from different plants and in different ways dried at different speeds, which meant that in some cases an artist might have to wait many days before the next layer of paint could be applied. This drying process could be speeded up with the help of specific substances.
The artists of the late Middle Ages, and in particular artists in the Netherlands, thus worked within a time frame which, for a public which has grown up with the notion of the artist genius, is almost impossible to grasp. They possessed a detailed knowledge of natural science which, in the following generations and centuries, would increasingly become the sphere of specialist technicians and today the modern chemical industry. Simple, practical calculations were at this stage far more important than the finer points of style, content or even art theory which interest critics and viewers today. Mechanical tasks such as grinding pigments, mixing up paints or burnishing gold grounds took up a large part of their working day. It is only when we take all this into consideration that we start to appreciate why artist apprenticeships in the late Middle Ages generally lasted four years, with the apprentice simply assisting with general tasks at the beginning.
Pictures of St Luke, the patron saint of artists, painting the Virgin provided numerous 15th-century artists with a welcome opportunity to portray the activities of a contemporary artist's workshop. In these we occasionally see an assistant in the background grinding paints. In the painting by Derick Baegert (c. 1440—1515), an angel is lending the Evangelist a hand.
The techniques and training described above guaranteed the enduringly high standards and astonishing homogeneity of Early Netherlandish painting which continue to captivate the viewer today. Towards 1500, these same qualities also led it to become a major export not just to Italy, but also to Spain, Portugal and Scandinavia. Mass production, however, inevitably brought about a decline in the rigorous standards of execution which had originally made the school so popular.



Westphalian Master
Trial, Crucifixion and Resurrection
c. 1230-1240
(Crucifixion retable from the Wiesenkirche church in Soest)
Gemaldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Berlin


Westphalian Master (detail)
c. 1230-1240
(Crucifixion retable from the Wiesenkirche church in Soest)
Gemaldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Berlin



Westphalian Master
THrone of Grace with Mary and St John
c. 1260-1270
(From the Wiesenkirche church in Soest)
Gemaldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Berlin



Master of the Schloss Tirol Altar
c. 1370-1372
Tiroler Landesmuseum Ferdinandeum, Innsbruck



Norwegian Master
Antependium from the church in Odda (Hardanger)
c. 1350
Historisk Museum, Bergen



Norwegian Master
St Olaf Antependium
Trondheim, Cathedral


See also collection:

Derick Baegert


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