Northern European Art versus Early Renaissance Art

Merode Altarpiece by Robert Campin

The Holy Trinity by Masaccio

The fifteenth century marked the beginning of the Renaissance – a period during which people expressed a revival of interest in classical values. However, this dramatic change did not happen simultaneously across Europe. During the Early Renaissance, while art in Florence showed an apparent return to Classicism, the art of Northern Europe still carried characteristics of the late medieval Gothic Naturalism. Although both schools greatly departed from the stylized vision of earlier medieval art, they emphasized different aesthetic values as well as religious values. While Northern art focused on the naturalistic depiction of objects and tried to bring religious life into daily life, Early Renaissance Florentine art employed classical ideology of universal beauty to symbolize divine reason and Christian content. The differences between the two regional arts are apparent when comparing a Flemish painting – Merode Triptych by Robert Campin, and a Florentine painting – Holy Trinity by Masaccio.

The first noticeable difference between the two artworks is that the Merode Triptych’s colours are very rich and vibrant, while the Holy Trinity’s colours appear to be dull and faded. Those are consequential results of two different painting techniques. During the Early Renaissance period, while fresco painting continued to be used in Italy, new artistic possibilities of oil painting were discovered and employed in the North. With the Merode Triptych, Robert Campin was among the first people who contributed to the development of oil technique. He mixed pigments with translucent oil, a slow drying medium, to produce a variety of effects. Through repeated glazing, he was able to build up various tones needed to create a greater depth for the picture, and the colours will always stay true to their original states. Oil technique also allowed him time to work on intricate details to make them look as real as possible, such as the surface texture of clothing or the way objects responding to light (Davies et al. 290-293). In contrast to Robert Campin, Masaccio used traditional fresco techniques. As a characteristic of fresco painting, the colours fade away with time, and painters have to apply the colours very quickly before the plaster is dry (Kleiner 382).  This resulted in the Holy Trinity appearing discoloured and without any elaborate details.

The second difference between the two paintings is that the Merode Triptych emphasizes on a realistic setting of religious scenes and disguised symbolism, while the Holy Trinity does not. The central panel of the Merode Triptych portrays the Annunciation scene in a fully equipped domestic interior. The right wing shows Joseph at work, and through the windows in his room, we can see the contemporary Flemish town. The holy figures in this painting no longer have halos; they look like contemporary people, and their poses look natural. All these details not only make the painting look more appealing but also convey a new conception formed in the North – “physical world as a mirror of divine truths” (Davies et al. 291). People started to seek a personal relationship with God, and they saw the sacred as a natural part of everyday life. The idea of combining supernatural events with the everyday environment was also enhanced by a method called “disguised symbolism.” Daily objects were given symbolic meanings to convey spiritual messages. For example, in the central panel, Robert Campin used lilies and the water basin to indicate the Virgin’s purity. The curl of smoke from the candle suggests that the material light in the room has been replaced by divine radiance as the annunciation takes place. In the right wing, Joseph is making a mousetrap, implying that Jesus will trap evil with his incarnation (Davies et al. 291). However, the meaning of this painting is not limited to the importance of this sacred event. With the donors in the left wing kneeling and looking at the Annunciation scene in the center, the triptych seems to say that a mystical vision like this will be rewarded to those who show reverence.

In contrast to the Merode Triptych, the Holy Trinity has a completely classical setting and does not use any disguised symbols. Instead of having the natural and elegant trace of Northern art, Masaccio’s Holy Trinity employs strict composition to create harmony, symmetry, and balance. We can easily recognize elements of classical architecture in the painting: two pilasters in the front with an entablature above, while behind them are Ionic columns, a round arch, barrel vaulted chamber, and coffered ceiling. Jesus, God the Father and the Holy Spirit are placed right on the symmetrical axis of the picture. The triangular composition that starts with the two donors and rises to the halo of God suggests the theme of the Holy Trinity and a hope for salvation. The alternating red and blue garments also help balance the painting. All of the figures in the painting look calm and composed, and the focus on accurate interpretation of anatomy appeared again in Jesus’s body. This formal setting of classical art suitably serves to depict the sacred moment of the Crucifixion. However, the more important meaning of this painting lies in the most innovative idea of Early Renaissance art – the use of linear perspective. (Davies et al. 310)

In the Merode Triptych, we cannot find a uniform perspective. For example, although this technique makes them look illogical from the view of perspective, the tabletop and the cobber basin are bent and distorted to show the viewers every tiny detail. But in the Holy Trinity, we can be fooled by the realistic illusion of depth.  Masaccio applied the new scientific perspective developed by Brunelleschi in his painting. The vanishing point is at the foot of the cross. Below that point is a skeleton lying down with the inscription “What I once was, you are; what I am, you will become”. With this point at eye level, when people look down, the skeleton seems to project forward into the church, facing people with the reality that they are all mortal. However, once people move their eyes up, they will face a deep chamber in which God the Father raising the cross of Jesus. This vision leads people from the anguish of death to the hope of resurrection and eternal life through Christ’s crucifixion (Kleiner 434). Thus, linear perspective not only creates an illusionistic three dimensional space but also intensifies the expression of religious theology. The classical idea of using mathematics to represent godly reason was perfected with the introduction of scientific perspective and employed again for the sake of Christian faith.

The Merode Triptych by Robert Campin and the Holy Trinity by Masaccio are great representatives of Northern art and Early Renaissance art. With the Merode Triptych, we can learn about Northern art’s innovations in painting technique, using disguised symbols and reconciling supernatural events with the physical world. Meanwhile, with the Holy Trinity, we can see how Early Renaissance art used classical elements and scientific perspective to serve religious purpose. The innovations they made not only left an enormous impact on the development of art in general but also formed the foundation for the glorious days of High Renaissance to come.

Works Cited

Davies, Penelope J.E., et al. Jason’s Basic History of Western Art. 8th ed.  New Jersey:       Pearson Education, 2009.

Kleiner, Fred S., Gardner’s Art through the Age.  13th ed. Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage  Learning, 2010.


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