Debate continues as to whether the concept of the Renaissance considered valid for Italy may be properly applied to the art of northern Europe prior to the year 1500.
Fifteenth-century northern artists did not intensively cultivate classical sources, nor did they show the predilection for abstract and theoretical systems of representation that characterized Italian art. Nonetheless, the radical transformation of northern artistic traditions that took place during the 15th and 16th centuries, although by no means parallel to Italian developments, can be appropriately described as a Renaissance.
Jan van EYCK, the supreme master of the Netherlandish school, is recognized as having been the first to exploit the full potential of the new medium of oil painting. In his masterwork, the Ghent Altarpiece (1432; Church of Saint Bavo, Ghent), and in portraits such as the wedding portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife (1534; National Gallery, London), this technique is used with the utmost refinement to render minute detail, delicate textures, and the luminous effects of light.
The enigmatic Master of Flémalle made an equally important contribution to the vivid, miniaturizing realism of Netherlandish painting. In his two most famous works, the Dijon Nativity (c.1420; Musee des Beaux-Arts, Dijon) and the Merode Altarpiece (c.1426; The Cloisters, New York City), the Master of Flémalle, like van Eyck, combined his direct, fresh observation of nature with elaborate symbolic structures that lend a profound dimension to mundane objects within his religious scenes.
Rogier van der Weyden, famous for portraits and altarpieces such as the Descent from the Cross (1439-43; Prado, Madrid), worked in a more idealistic vein, instilling his compositions with unprecedented monumentality and emotional intensity. With the rising importance of new schools of painting in the cities of Brussels, Louvain, and Haarlem, which came to rival that of Bruges, painting continued to flourish in the Netherlands during the mid- and late 15th century. Van der Weyden, an intriguing and idiosyncratic genius, exercised a dominant influence on many later figures including Dirk Bouts. Other notable artists were the short-lived painter GEERTGEN TOT SINT JANS, who specialized in tender, nocturnal scenes that demonstrate a superb feeling for light effects; Hans Memling, whose style is characterized by a languid, delicate air; and Gerard David, whose works were more severe and monumental in quality.
The hallucinatory paintings of the Flemish Hieronymus Bosch seem out of place in a period when artists were intent on portraying the beauty and nobility of humankind. More in keeping with the Renaissance spirit are the works of Hugo van der Goes, who was active in Ghent and Bruges. His Portinari Altarpiece (1474-76; Uffizi Gallery, Florence) is a work of crucial importance. Executed for the Florentine church of San Egidio, it introduced Italian artists to the earthy and lively realism of Neatherlandish oil painting technique.