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COURSE NAME: "Northern Renaissance Art"
SEMESTER & YEAR: Fall 2020

INSTRUCTOR: Carolyn Smyth
EMAIL: [email protected]
HOURS: TTH 4:40-6:00 PM

This course focuses on the major artistic centers in Flanders, France, Germany and Holland in the 15th and 16th centuries. Special emphasis is given to the works of Van Eyck, Van der Weyden, and Campin in the 15th century, and to those of Dürer, Bosch, Grünewald, and Bruegel in the 16th. Particular attention is paid to the impact of the growing exchange of artistic ideas between Northern Europe and Italy.

            It is difficult to look at a picture by Jan van Eyck, and not to exclaim: “It’s so Real!” Even one of the most sophisticated (and engaging) books on his art, Craig Harbison’s, is subtitled “The Play of Realism.” But while we are seduced into delighted admiration of the fine-brushed details, light effects, and depicted particularities of Flemish people, interiors, and landscape, we also need to seek out the motives of this very attachment to the look of material things, and to explore van Eyck’s ambience and society, its economics and spirituality. Flemish art of this period of the Renaissance is both persuasive in its illusion, and deliberately constructed in its artifice. 


            For the hospital-monastery of Isenheim, near Colmar in the Alsace, the German artist Gruenewald (Matthias Gothart Neithart) created one of the most remarkable altarpieces in the entire Renaissance, for its embodiment of bodily suffering and sheer joy, at once. Here is a distortion of normal appearance, in variant directions of horror and glory. The Isenheim Altarpiece, representative of another current of Northern European Renaissance art, addresses the real-life atrophy of the body through disease, and confirms the hope of redemption in Christ, for the victims and healers who prayed before it. Through exaggeration of form, imaginative color, shocking conjunctions of fantasy and observation, Grunewald sweeps us into an experience that plunges into life’s depths and elevates us to its possibilities, with a sensual madness and keen realization of how art can work wonders.


            These contrasting currents of “realism” and “expressionism” – neither quite adequate as definitions – is only one example of the kind of issues we will explore. We will approach the works and contexts of other artists such as Rogier van der Weyden, Albrecht Duerer, Hans Holbein, Hieronymus Bosch, and Pieter Bruegel, to examine several crucial art-historical controversies. 

The richness and variety of devotional and secular visual production in the Netherlands, Germany, France and England demands consideration of such topics as, for example: “disguised symbolism” vs. socio-historical interpretation; the shift of patronage from the courts to the wealthy middle class; the intersection of Northern art and Italy; forms of portraiture and the presentation of the individual; artistic response to the “devotio moderno” and new modes of prayer and meditation; the rise of landscape painting; movement and viewer engagement; the art market, trade and dissemination; iconoclasm, dispersal and destruction; art and the Reformation. In our investigation, we will look closely at selected works, and also read scholarly interpretations, to enter into study of an art conceived for an audience quite different from the modern viewer.


While the emphasis will be on painting, other media such as sculpture, metalwork, and manuscripts will be examined. Printmaking, born as a vital means of communication in the 15C, and its development, technique, diffusion, reception, and role in society and religious reform will be of special interest. The course will investigate not only individual masters, but particularly the modulations and ruptures at play in this complex culture within which the artists and their patrons lived, on the cusp between the Late Medieval and Early Modern periods.


Required Textbook:


-      James Snyder, Northern Renaissance Art: Painting, Sculpture, the Graphic Arts from 1350 to 1575, NY: Abrams (1985), 2nded. 2005 (purchase for the course; first edition is OK)


Frequent Required Readings (purchase optional):

I will be checking to see if we can add these as eBooks to the JCU library, for accessibility – TBA


-      Jeffrey Chipps Smith, The Northern Renaissance, London and NY: Phaidon, 2004. RES: N6370.S565


-      Craig Harbison, The Art of the Northern Renaissance, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1995. RES: N6370.H950


-      Craig Harbison, The Mirror of the Artist; Northern Renaissance Art in its Historical ContextLondon: Laurence King/ Prentice Hall, 1995.  REF: N6370.H26


-      Susie Nash, Northern Renaissance Art(Oxford History of Art): Oxford UP, 2008 (order eBook)




See “Schedule of Classes” for a Select Bibliography




            Students will be expected to develop, in the course of the semester, the following:


-       A familiarity with period and individual styles of Northern Renaissance art through a study of major works. Ready recognition of selected works, and knowledge of relevant factual information. 

 -      Command of problems of interpretation in relation to the study of selected works; basic familiarity with subject matter and iconography,

function, patronage and purpose.

-       An understanding of different art historical methodologies and views of the period through selected readings by major scholars in the field 

-       A familiarity with some contemporary sources and writings on Northern Renaissance art. 

-       A basic understanding of the historical, political and social context in which this art was produced and in which artists were formed.

-       Development of critical thinking about art and art history through course readings, assignments and class discussion.

-      Improved research skills through use of not simply the JCU library (and ideally, others in Rome), Jstor, and use of bibliographical sources, published and electronic.

-      Furthering of writing skills: declaration and development of a clearly stated theme, organization, discussion of distinctive views and approaches, written expression and structure.

-      Furthering of oral communication skills, through class discussion.


Book TitleAuthorPublisherISBN numberLibrary Call NumberCommentsFormatLocal BookstoreOnline Purchase
Northern Renaissance ArtJames SnyderPearson Prentice HallXXXXX     
Book TitleAuthorPublisherISBN numberLibrary Call NumberComments
Please seethe Select Bibliographyattached to the"Schedule" above  

Book TitleAuthorPublisherISBN numberLibrary Call NumberComments
Please seethe Selected Bibliographyin the Schedule section.XXXXXXX  
Midterm ExaminationAn in-class examination with slides: five identifications, two comparisons (essays), and one "unknown" (essay) to analyze and attribute. A "Monument List" and guidelines will be provided.15%
Final ExaminationExamination (to be scheduled during the Examination Period) - the format will be the same as the Midterm, with the addition of an hour essay (choice of one of three to four questions). Except for Part I, the five identifications (selected from post-midterm material), the Final Examination is cumulative. A "Monument List" and Guidelines will be provided.20%
JournalA handwritten notebook with visual analysis of three works of art relevant to the course topic (Northern Renaissance art, 15-16C). Guidelines will be provided.15%
Critical ReviewA one-two page summary and analysis of a significant scholarly article; guidelines and suggested texts will be provided.10%
Short (5-6 page) Paper A short but well-organized, efficiently and clearly-written paper, with a concise but accurate description of the work, and discussion of relevant issues and controversies. This paper must demonstrate considered visual examination, a careful reading of scholarly findings and interpretations, and a sensitivity to historical context. Reference to at least four articles, books, or book chapters - besides the textbooks - is part of this assignment. No general on-line sources (Wikipedia, etc.) are permitted. Guidelines will be provided.20%
Short in-class presentationA ten minute oral presentation to the class on one work of art; suggested topics and Guidelines will be provided.10%
ParticipationEngagement in class discussion (not simply attendance).10%

AWork of this quality directly addresses the question or problem raised and provides a coherent argument displaying an extensive knowledge of relevant information or content. This type of work demonstrates the ability to critically evaluate concepts and theory and has an element of novelty and originality. There is clear evidence of a significant amount of reading beyond that required for the course.
BThis is highly competent level of performance and directly addresses the question or problem raised.There is a demonstration of some ability to critically evaluatetheory and concepts and relate them to practice. Discussions reflect the student’s own arguments and are not simply a repetition of standard lecture andreference material. The work does not suffer from any major errors or omissions and provides evidence of reading beyond the required assignments.
CThis is an acceptable level of performance and provides answers that are clear but limited, reflecting the information offered in the lectures and reference readings.
DThis level of performances demonstrates that the student lacks a coherent grasp of the material.Important information is omitted and irrelevant points included.In effect, the student has barely done enough to persuade the instructor that s/he should not fail.
FThis work fails to show any knowledge or understanding of the issues raised in the question. Most of the material in the answer is irrelevant.

Attendance is of course required. Undocumented absence for more than two lessons may affect your grade. Please do not get up in the middle of the class without serious motive and notification to the instructor previous to the lesson. 
As stated in the university catalog, any student who commits an act of academic dishonesty will receive a failing grade on the work in which the dishonesty occurred. In addition, acts of academic dishonesty, irrespective of the weight of the assignment, may result in the student receiving a failing grade in the course. Instances of academic dishonesty will be reported to the Dean of Academic Affairs. A student who is reported twice for academic dishonesty is subject to summary dismissal from the University. In such a case, the Academic Council will then make a recommendation to the President, who will make the final decision.
John Cabot University does not discriminate on the basis of disability or handicap. Students with approved accommodations must inform their professors at the beginning of the term. Please see the website for the complete policy.


The Schedule for the course is forthcoming. Please see the Course description for several topics and issues; exact lessons and readings, as well as due-dates for assignments, will arrive soon!


Selected Bibliography

Due to restrictions on the use of Reserve Readings (for handling in the Covid-Virus ambience), parts of some of these texts will be scanned to the Moodle site for the course.

Selected Bibliography:

-       Charles Cuttler, Northern Painting from Pucelle to Breugel, NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968. RES: ND454. C8

-       Susan Jones, Van Eyck to Gossaert; Towards a Northern Renaissance, (National Gallery, London), London and New Haven, Yale UP, 2011

-       Marina Belozerskaya, Rethinking the Renaisssance; Burgundian Arts across Europe, Cambridge, 2002 (order)

-       Erwin Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting; Its Origins and Character, Cambridge MA: Harvard UP, 1953. eBook

-       Susan Foister, Sue Jones and Delphine Cool, eds., Investigating Jan van Eyck(Jan van Eyck Symposium, National Gallery London, 1998), Turnhout: Brepols, 2000 (order)

-       Craig Harbison, Jan van Eyck: The Play of Realism, London: Reaktion Books, 1991. eBook 2015 and RES: NC673.E9H37 

-       Lotte B. Phillips, The Ghent Altarpiece and the Art of Jan van Eyck, Princeton UP, 1971. ND673. E87 P5

-       Linda Seidel, Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait. Stories of an Icon, Cambridge UP, 1993. RES: ND1329.E93 W44

-       Felix Thürlemann, Robert Campin, Munich and NU: Prestel, 2002. RES: ND673.C274. T48

-       Alfred Acres, Compositions of Time in the Art of Rogier van der Weyden, Ph.D., UPenn, 1992. RES: ND73.W4 A25

-       Alfred Acres, Renaissance Invention and the Haunted Infancy, London and Turnhout: Harvey Miller, 2013.  RES: N7862. A37 2013

-       Till Holger Bonchert, et al., Hans Memling and the Art of Portraiture(exh. cat., Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid; Groeningenmuseum, Bruges; Frick Collection, NY), London: Thames and Hudson, 2005 RES: ND673.M5 B67

-       Andrée Hayum, The Isenheim Altarpiece: God’s Medicine and the Painter’s Vision, Princeton UP, 1993.  eBook and N6888.G75 A65

-       Ruth Mellinkoff, The Devil at Isenheim, Berkeley, U of Ca Press. RES: ND588.G7 A645

-       Erwin Panofsky, The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer, Princeton UP, 1955. RES: ND588.D9 P46

-       David Price. Albrecht Dürer’s Renaissance: Humanism, Reformation, and the Art of Faith, Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Press, 2003. REF: N6888.D8 P75

-       Jeffrey Chipps Smith and Larry Silver, eds., The Essential Dürer, Philadelphia: U of Penn Press, 2010 eBook

-       Jeffrey Chipps Smith, Nuremburg, a Renaissance City 1500-1618

-       Joseph Koerner, The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art, Chicago UP, 1993. REF: ND588.D9 K82

-       Larry Silver, Hieronymous Bosch, NY: Abbeville Press, 2006.  REF: ND653.B65 S55 2006

-       Hieronymous Bosch, The 5thCentenary Exhibition, (exh. cat., Prado, Madrid), NY and London: Thames and Hudson, 2017.  RES: ND653.B65 M37 2017