The 15th and 16th centuries saw the rise of capitalism and a growing middle class, the creation of modern nation states, and the upheaval of the Protestant Reformation. For artists, an innovation of evenly far-reaching importance was the perfection of oil paints in the Low Countries, which allowed northern painters to depict the world with unprecedented precision.
At the end of the middle Ages, some of the liveliest centers of painting were in the Netherlands, also known as the Low Countries, an area comprising present-day Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, and part of France. Artists here rival even well- known Italian masters. Rich patrons, leading among them the ruling house of Burgundy but also religious orders and private citizens of the prosperous towns of Ghent, Bruges, Brussels, and Tournai, commissioned paintings, sculpture, tapestries, vessels of precious metal, jewelry, and illuminated books.
One of the most famous Netherlandish artists, Jan van Eyck, revolutionized painting by substituting the oil medium for tempera. He was court painter to the duke of Burgundy, but his spiritual subjects and portraits were also in great demand among the merchants and bankers of Bruges. Painters such as Robert Campin and Rogier van der Weyden continued to produce works rich in detail and representation as foreign artists flocked to the region, eager to learn the new oil-painting technique. In the sixteenth century, Antwerp slowly took over from Bruges to become the leading art center and the wealthiest city of all Europe, attracting talented painters such as Gerard David and Jan Gossaert.
Most Netherlandish artists showed big respect for tradition. Hieronymus Bosch was exceptional for his strange independence and flights of imagination. Pieter Bruegel the Elder later incorporated many of Bosch’s fantasies into his work, some of which reflected the political conflict and religious troubles of his own day.
Given Germany’s large size and—during history—its territorial and political divisions, it is no wonder that German art is marked by strong regionalism. During the second half of the fourteenth century, a major school of art developed in Bohemia, centered in the university city of Prague and patronized by King Charles IV (1316–1378). This style, as seen in the diptych The Death of Saint Clare, shares many traits with the International Gothic style imported by French and Italian artists.
The sixteenth century was a heroic age of German art; the best known and debatably the greatest German artist, Albrecht Dürer, was born in Nuremberg in 1471. His trips to Italy, where he became acquainted with Giovanni Bellini and with theories of perspective and proportion, were of great importance for the history of northern European art.
The intensity of religious sentiment that preceded the Protestant Reformation, as well as the upheaval of the Reformation itself, had a important impact upon German life. The Small Crucifixion is a tangible expression of the faith of Matthias Grünewald, an artist known for religion and genius as a colorist. Lucas Cranach the Elder was a close friend of Martin Luther, and The Crucifixion with the Converted Centurion, alluding to recovery by faith alone, may be considered a Protestant subject. Hans Holbein the Younger was one painter who did not thrive in post-Reformation Germany; he left for England in 1526 and finally became portraitist to King Henry VIII.