Germany Figurative Arts – Renaissance
Renaissance and Reformation in Germany, are the main forces of an era which, spiritually prepared already before, begins around the beginning of the sixteenth century to get lost during the following century in a new period of transition. As for the other forms of spiritual life, also for art they were decisive in a positive and negative sense: positively because, through close participation in a great European spiritual current and through a deepening of religious sentiment, they increased their activity. artistic, also prompted by new models; negatively, because the great preponderance of the Italian Renaissance tore German art from the national and social environment that was its natural condition of life, while the Reformation, limiting the whole activity of the spirit to intimate religiosity, took away its main basis from figurative art. As a consequence of this double cause the incomparable enrichment of German art in the first two decades of the century. XVI was followed by an almost total collapse. Just as, under the impulse of French Gothic art, German art had reached its most powerfully original expressions and soon after it had become sterile, so in the German Renaissance, Italian art, at its peak, excited artists to express their creative forces fully, but immediately after the spread of the fashion almost extinguished any national spirit of art. The conflict between the national spirit and foreign currents culminates in Alberto Dürer (v.), Rightly considered as the most genuine representative of German art. In him the transition from the craftsman to the artist takes place, from the severe law of the Middle Ages to the freedom of the Renaissance; in him the typically German research of highly characteristic expressions and the predilection for decorative forms, with the need, learned from Italy, of formal beauty and rigorous structure come together. In the synthesis of these two antithetical qualities, as well as in the domain of all the means of drawing and color, Dürer represents an unsurpassable peak. His antagonist is Matthias Grünewald (v.), Who, upon contact with foreign art, reacted by deepening the spiritual heritage of his race more and more, so that, placed alongside Dürer, the typical representative of the spirit of his time, appears doubly anachronistic; i.e. like a late gothic artist, that excessive maturity has pushed to the extreme limits of his art, or as an artist of the Baroque era, which is a prelude to later developments. At the opposite pole of Dürer we find Hans Holbein the Younger (v.), Born twenty-six years later, who effortlessly welcomed within himself the spirit of the Italian Renaissance through which he expressed his skills as an attentive and acute observer. He is not an Italian, although one cannot imagine him, as he is, without the help of Italian art; frankly German, it closes (1542) a golden age, which had begun in 1490 with the advent of Dürer (born in 1471).
Dürer, M. Grünewald and H. Holbein are three peaks in the history of German Renaissance painting: their features are reflected in numerous other artists of their time, to varying degrees; but while they rise to a magnitude before which belonging to a particular school no longer has great importance, the other artists remain more closely linked to the individual local schools. In the Upper Rhine the dominant personality is Hans Baldung (v.), Called Grien; in Bavaria the dominance is divided between Albrecht Altdorfer from Regensburg and Wolf Huber from Passau, whose beginnings were strongly influenced by Luca Cranach (v.), a young painter from Franconia, who later, as a painter at the court of Saxony, took a completely different direction, giving a note of its own to the art of the Reformation and the Renaissance. In Augusta where Hans Holbein the Elder, although belonging to the previous generation, continued his activity until the late Renaissance, Jörg Breu and Hans Burgkmair (v.) were industrious; and the latter with its decorative tendencies profoundly influenced engraving and the minor arts. In Lower Germany the master of the altar of St. Bartholomew, a native of Upper Germany, kept German traditions alive. But Bartolomeo Bruyn, a little younger, came completely under the Dutch influence; and another of the main painters of Cologne, the master of the Death of Mary, is even identified with Joos van Cleve the Elder of Antwerp.
In sculpture we find an equally rich development of provincial schools, without however that personalities of undisputed value manage to rise to absolute heights. The Vischer workshop in Nuremberg, handed down to his children by P. Vischer the Elder, can be considered representative of the development of sculpture from the late Gothic to the Renaissance. But for all the rest, the workshops of the sculptors, who are increasingly influenced by painting and are often reduced to a purely industrial activity, generally have no other importance than that given by their great technical ability. In Augusta, in the place of Gregory Erhart who came from Ulm, Adolfo Daucher takes over, who can be called the Burgkmair of sculpture. Next to him Loy Hering works at intervals, coming from Kaufbeuren and later moving to Eichstätt, who developed an extraordinary fruitfulness as the author of funerary sculptures. In Bavaria Hans Leinberger from Landshut represents the style – half village and half mannerist – which corresponds in painting to the so-called “Danubian style” of Altdorfer and Huber. A similar excess in the search for pictorial effects and expression is observed in the Upper Rhine in the masters who worked on the altar at Isenheim and Breisach, and, in the Middle Rhine, in Hans Backofen. In Lower Germany, some stonecutters ‘and wood carvers’ shops (the Beldensnyder in Münster, Claus Berg in Lübeck, Hans Brüggemann from Lüneburg) continue to operate in a style which, if in detail follows the forms of the Renaissance transmitted from Flanders, in the spirit basically always continues the gothic style of the latest way, decorative and narrative.
The very abundance of production, which we have only hinted at, suggests how much it must fall towards the level of the products of industrial art; and as much as this was fecundated, the major arts were equally damaged by turning to a purely external skill. Unlike the craftsmanship of the late Gothic period, the Renaissance craftsmanship, marked by an academic spirit, has its roots in the spiritual need no longer of an entire people, but only of a higher caste, educated humanistically. Gradually the furrow that divides the nation and separates art from the people more and more widens. It first manifests itself in the works of engravers intent on developing new iconographic and ornamental repertoires (the so-called “Kleinmeister”), such as HS and B. Beham, Germany Pencz, H. Aldegrever, J. Binck; then continues in the pompous illustrative style and glass painting of Virgilio Solis, J. Amman, T. Stimmer and Cristoforo Maurer; and finally ends in the complete mannerism of Rudolf’s painters (so called because they were mostly industrious at the court of Emperor Rudolf II), such as Hans of Aachen, Joseph Heinz, Bartolomeo Spranger. Adamo Elsheimer from Frankfurt stands out, the only German painter who is part of the European artistic development, but who spent his entire life outside Germany, in Rome. The development of sculpture was healthier, which could rely on the tradition of the minor arts. In the art of the medal Hans Schwarz, Federico Hagenauer, Cristoforo Weiditz and others distinguished themselves; in minute plastic work Pietro Flötner, Hans Daucher, Benedetto Wurzelbauer and others, also producing good decorations. Meanwhile, in the larger and more monumental works, especially in the courts, Flemish and Italian artists of great technical skill were increasingly imposed.
In the early decades of the sixteenth century, architecture was of secondary importance compared to the figurative arts, both for reaction to the overabundant production of late Gothic art, and for the Reformation, which hampered the development of sacred architecture, or even for the difficulty of assimilating models of the Italian Renaissance. From the beginning of the Renaissance the decorations and ornamental motifs were copied almost exclusively; the understanding of his new concepts of structure and space which is found in the so-called “beautiful” church of Santa Maria in Regensburg is exceptional. From about 1530 onwards, secular architecture developed more strongly, in direct relationship with the increased power of the bourgeoisie and princes. Examples of the first are the municipalities of Altenburg (v.), Schweinfurt, Brieg, of Rotenburg, the Tucher house and the Hirschvogel house in Nuremberg; of the second, the Hartenfels castle near Torgau, the castles of Liegnitz, of Güstrow, the oldest parts of the royal palaces in Dresden, Munich, Berlin and above all the wing of Otto Henry of the castle of Heidelberg, where the general conception it is Italian, but the details are German. The last phase of the German Renaissance, which begins around 1580, is characterized by an accentuation of the two elements which then operated simultaneously: the local one, which, after a broader assimilation of the forms of the Italian Renaissance, develops with greater independence and freedom; and the European one which, thanks to the Counter-Reformation, grows in importance above all in southern Germany and still leans more directly on the contemporary Italian art, in the meantime already headed towards the Baroque. The most prominent personalities in this period of the German Renaissance are Giorgio Beer and Enrico Schickhardt in Stuttgart, Elias Holl in Augusta, who built the new town hall there, Giacomo Wolff in Nuremberg. Instead in Munich, which thanks to the Counter-Reformation and the building activity of the Wittelsbach dynasty now becomes an artistic center, an international style of import prevails. In central Germany, Aschaffenburg Castle, built to designs by Giorgio Riedinger, was a model for many similar buildings. In northern Germany, the cities of Brunswick (with Paolo Francke), Münster, Lüneburg (town hall, work by Lüder v. Bentheim), Gdansk (civic architect Antonio da Obbergen) became centers of Renaissance architecture.
While in profane constructions the Italian prototypes were more or less translated into Nordic forms, the sacred buildings of the Catholics were openly inspired by Roman models: thus the church of San Michele, built in Munich for the Jesuits (the mark of the counter-offensive launched by the Counter-Reformation), prepares the Italianate current of the Baroque.
Baroque age. – The attempts to give a national character to the Renaissance style, which are observed in some buildings, especially in those of Elias Holl, did not come to maturity. There was a halt in development, which is usually explained as a natural consequence of the catastrophe of the Thirty Years’ War, the political and economic effects of which were fatal for Germany. But war does not explain everything. Politically, the increase in absolutism had an influence, the external forms of which were modeled on those elaborated in France and Spain, while the impoverished bourgeoisie indistinctly re-attached itself to the ancient national traditions. To this political and social split is added the religious one. While the spirit of the Counter-Reformation came from Latin countries (Italy, Spain) together with part of the artistic ideas linked to the Catholic program, Protestantism maintained its denial in the face of art or at least deprived it of all opportunities, preventing its union with the liturgy and divine service, and, in opposition to tendencies of Catholics, he turned to the models offered by Holland. The reciprocal play of these forces produces and favors opposing tendencies, which unfold in parallel, without any compromise.
Above all, in places far from cultural centers, a late Gothic survives, lacking in vigor and with a popular imprint and unable to produce important works. Out of these secondary currents, art that wants to be modern gathers where the presence of a princely house can favor it: it becomes stately and takes on an Italian or French-Dutch orientation, depending on the political orientation of the individual courts. The most popular artists are mostly foreigners; and almost all secondary artists. The German imitators of these more able than worthy foreigners – for example the painter Joachim von Sandrart – are certainly not superior to them. A large part of the artistic production of that time was regulated by purely practical purposes; Protestantism in ecclesiastical architecture, in accordance with his principles, he emphasizes that concept of art and Catholicism, in countries where the struggle continues, is also forced to lock itself up in spiritual severity. Thus in this period between 1630 and 1680 the German Baroque mainly gives an impression of stasis and subjugation to foreign art.
But from the undercurrents of the post-Gothic style and under new vivifying external influences an original German art was to be reborn.