Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Susie Nash, Northern Renaissance Art (Oxford University Press, 2008)

Reviewed by Andreas Dahlem

Susie Nash, Northern Renaissance Art. Oxford History of Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. ISBN: 978-0-19-284269-5. 384 pp. Pbk. £14.99

[1]  Susie Nash’s Northern Renaissance Art examines the artistic production outside Italy from the late-fourteenth to the early-sixteenth centuries. This approach encompasses a vast geographic area spanning from Krakow in the East and Stockholm in the North to Zaragoza in the South (4-5). However, her study focuses for the most part on the Burgundian Netherlands. From 1420, this region was the centre of  luxury goods production in Europe. The patronage of wealthy Burgundian dukes, aristocrats, and merchants provided a model for their peers throughout Europe and was highly regarded in Italy. In addition to the developments in the Burgundian domains, Nash discusses printmaking in Southern Germany and the Rhineland as well as the works of South German sculptors. In order to present such a wealth of artistic production, the book is organised in thematic chapters.

[2]  In Chapter 2, Nash contemplates a central but easily neglected issue: the impact of the loss of works of art on art-historical studies, and the manner in which this has subsequently coloured our perception of this period. She argues that the tremendous loss of northern art in the past five centuries, partly caused by iconoclasms that raged in the Netherlands and beyond, has distorted the present understanding of the Northern Renaissance and supported the dominance of the Italian Renaissance that was promulgated as early as the publication of Giorgio Vasari’s Le Vite de più eccellenti pittori, scultori ed architetti (1550). Nash systematically explores both the potential and the limitations of various contemporary sources (i.e. inventories, contracts, guild regulations), as well as the analytic methods of restorers (chapters 3-5) in order to give shape to this lost renaissance of the north. This material complements Nash’s stylistic analyses of material that has in fact survived, and allows her to expand into discussions of the social aspects of artistic production: the process of commissioning, creating, viewing and appreciating art (chapters 6-18).

[3]  Nash is to be commended for her comprehensive and reappraising approach to Northern Renaissance art, still an understudied field of art history. She also introduces her readers to a wide range of interpretative materials, drawing from recent critical discourses such as gender studies (in reference to female artists, 77-78), and Marina Belozerskaya’s reassessment of the status of artistic media. Nash reinforces Belozerskaya’s argument (as expressed in Rethinking the Renaissance. Burgundian Arts across Europe, 2002), by establishing that, contrary to twentieth- and twenty-first-century conceptions, painting was not valued as highly as works of art in other media like metalwork, stained glass, and especially tapestries (6, 41-42, 87).

[4]  Nash problematises the potentially conflicting terminology (‘Northern Renaissance’, ‘Late Gothic’,) often employed to describe fourteenth-, fifteenth- and sixteenth-century art and architecture in the north. These terms suggest artificial fissures that disrupt continuities. It can be assumed that Nash chose the designation ‘Northern Renaissance’ for similar reasons to Jeffrey Chipps Smith, in whose opinion ‘the term, however imperfect, still conveys the richness and diversity of these two centuries better than competing labels such as “Late Gothic” or “Early Modern”‘ (The Northern Renaissance, 2004: 12). A sense of continuity, not rupture, is most important  for further criticism of Northern Renaissance ideas.

[5]  Detailed as it is with regard to the technical and social aspects of art, Nash’s study appears isolated at times since it does not comprehensively explore the exchange between the South and the North, and the Northern Renaissance developments in the later sixteenth century. The author discusses the popularity of Netherlandish paintings with Italian artists and patrons (i.e. Domenico Ghirlandaio, 101-105), and in this context it would have been interesting to examine, for instance, northern works like Michael Pacher’s St Wolfgang Altarpiece (1471-81), which reflects a knowledge of Andrea Mantegna’s paintings. Can Pacher’s altarpiece be regarded as less representative of the Northern Renaissance because of his adoption of Italian notions and techniques? Such questions remain, as yet, unanswered.

[6]  Nicola Coldstream, author of Medieval Architecture (2002) in the same Oxford History of Art series, describes the results of the collision, or rather convergence, of the Late Gothic and the Renaissance in architecture. Even though Nash does not discuss architecture and  intends to redress the perception of Northern art, especially in the context of the Italian Renaissance’s dominance, she could have provided a similar brief outlook on the developments that occurred when the princes, aristocrats and patricians outside Italy began to demand works in the Renaissance style. For example, the courts in Prague, Saxony, the Palatinate, and Bavaria, as well as the patricians in Augsburg and Nuremberg, commissioned artists like Albrecht Dürer, Albrecht Altdorfer and Lucas Cranach to produce works of art in the guise of the Italian Renaissance, but with distinct northern qualities.

[7]  Nash’s study is a good introduction for students who seek an overview of the key art historical discourses, and the works of the period’s prominent artists working in various media. It features numerous excellent reproductions that also show details of the works of art and illustrate the discussions of the technical examination methods.  Nash’s own photos especially represent her notions very well (228). However, since the book is mostly aimed at those readers in need of an introduction to Northern Renaissance art, it would have benefitted from the inclusion of a glossary. Nevertheless, this well-written study can be recommended without reservation.

University of Glasgow, March 2009

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