The Northern Renaissance: The Arts in an Age of Uncertainty, ca. 1520–1600





The course examines the arts of northern and Central Europe during a century of profound and often violent cultural redefinition. The rise of Protestantism, the emergence of an urban capitalist ethos tied to a secular humanist philosophy and morality, the opening up of the wider world of the Americas and Indies—all contributed to new forms of knowledge, and to a new understanding of the world. The course examines how the applied arts of the period both embodied and exemplified these far-reaching social and cultural transformations. It considers how, in the wake of the Reformation, the domestic realm took over certain functions of the Church; how craft—expressed through domestic decoration—became a vehicle of moral and ethical instruction. The spectacular development of secular glass, metalwork, tapestry, and cabinetmaking in this period testifies to a transfer of creative energies from monumental religious art to applied forms of art for the home. Theory of 16th-century northern ornament and its applications is closely studied through contemporary architecture manuals and pattern books. The course also traces the development of a distinctive craft epistemology, one that placed a hierarchy of symbolic and associative meanings upon the raw materials of art and, at the highest levels of creation, pitted human ingenuity and skill against wondrous works of nature. Such works, by providing a lesson in the transformative power of craft, connected the world of the craftsman’s workshop with that of the scholar’s study, of speculative knowledge, learning, and science. 3 credits.