In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section German Art

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources
  • Museum Collection Catalogues
  • Historiography and Reception History
  • International Connections
  • Collecting and Patronage
  • Essay Collections
  • Popular and Court Culture
  • Pre-Reformation Art and Religion
  • Reformation and Catholic Reformation

Renaissance and Reformation German Art
Jeffrey Chipps Smith
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0160


German Renaissance art was vibrant, innovative, and at times powerfully emotional. “German,” as used here, refers to a linguistic rather than a political region that encompassed much of the former Holy Roman Empire, including today’s Austria, Germany, and Switzerland as well as parts of the Czech Republic, France, and Poland. The period from c. 1400 to c. 1600 bears multiple and often overlapping names, such as late Gothic, Renaissance, mannerism, early modern, or between Renaissance and Baroque. Albrecht Dürer (b. 1471–d. 1528), the most famous German artist regardless of century, belonged to a generation of exceptionally inventive masters, including Albrecht Altdorfer, Hans Baldung Grien, Hans Burgkmair, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Matthias Grünewald, Hans Holbein the Elder, Hans Holbein the Younger, and Tilman Riemenschneider. Their art embodied a spiritually intense and highly material religiosity. Most responded creatively to the nascent Protestant Reformation’s challenge to the traditional roles of religious art or to the incorporation of new antique-inspired stylistic features in their oeuvres. They represent just one moment in a highly diverse history. Cities such as Augsburg, Nuremberg, and Cologne were important artistic centers throughout this period. Mercantile towns such as Lübeck and Ulm flourished in the 15th century, while Wittenberg, Dresden, and Munich came to prominence only in the 16th century as the power of the rulers of Saxony or Bavaria grew. Johann Gutenberg’s invention of movable type initiated a revolution in how information was presented and disseminated across Europe. The advent of printed books coincides with the earlier development of woodcuts, engravings, and other forms of prints pioneered by German masters. Inexpensive to make and buy, prints reached wider and more socially diverse audiences than paintings or sculptures. The medium encouraged the rise of new subjects and the dissemination of artistic ideas, such as the spread of early Netherlandish art throughout Germany. Although much of their art is lost, goldsmiths in Augsburg, Nuremberg, and other centers were famed for their technical skills and creative designs. Wooden sculptures, from huge altarpieces to masterfully carved statues, filled German churches prior to the Reformation. Masters such as Michael Pacher, Riemenschneider, Veit Stoss, Hans Leinberger, or Master H. L. made wood do seemingly impossible things as they devised complex draperies and expressive figural poses. Later sculptors, responding to the Reformation and then the Catholic Reformation in the last quarter of the 16th century, diversified their production to include portraits, fountains, collectible objects, and sometimes monumental tombs.

General Overviews

Since the mid-19th century, scholars have attempted to write comprehensive histories of German art from 1400 to 1600. Some authors focus on painting largely to the exclusion of other media, which is historically problematic, especially given the preeminence of sculpture throughout much of the 15th century. In English, only Kaufmann 1995 offers sufficient breadth and authority, though discussions are necessarily brief given his expansive geographical and chronological coverage. Von der Osten and Vey 1969 is surprisingly superficial. The surveys Krause 2007 and Rosenauer 2003, for Germany and Austria, respectively, are highly reliable. Warnke 1999 benefits from the thoughtful perspective by its single author. Checa Cremades 2007, while more limited in scope, provides a good introduction to early 16th-century art.

  • Checa Cremades, Fernando, ed. Durero y Cranach: Arte y humanismo en la Alemania del Renacimiento. Madrid: Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, 2007.

    A wide-ranging exhibition on German art in the age of Albrecht Dürer and Lucas Cranach the Elder. The beautifully illustrated catalogue includes lengthy essays on ideas, approaches, and themes in German art; historiography; Nuremberg and Dürer’s humanism; the Reformation’s image controversy; and the sculptor Michael Pacher. Includes English translations.

  • Kaufmann, Thomas DaCosta. Court, Cloister, and City: The Art and Culture of Central Europe, 1450–1800. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

    Broad survey of the artistic and cultural developments across the Holy Roman Empire and large sections of eastern Europe. The first eight chapters thoughtfully address Renaissance art.

  • Krause, Katharina, ed. Geschichte der bildenden Kunst in Deutschland. Vol. 4, Spätgotik und Renaissance. Munich: Prestel, 2007.

    Krause and her superb team of collaborators offer an up-to-date overview of art and architecture in Germany and neighboring lands from around 1430 until the end of the 16th century. Brief essays are supplemented by detailed catalogue entries on individual objects and buildings.

  • Rosenauer, Artur, ed. Spätmittelalter und Renaissance. Geschichte der bildenden Kunst in Österreich 3. Munich: Prestel, 2003.

    Focuses on the history of art and architecture in Austria from 1430 to the late 16th century, though the emphasis is mostly before 1530. Short essays and detailed entries on individual works and buildings provide a coherent overview. Includes some artists from neighboring lands whose creations are in Austria today.

  • von der Osten, Gert, and Horst Vey. Painting and Sculpture in Germany and the Netherlands, 1500–1600. Baltimore: Penguin, 1969.

    Rare English-language survey of 16th-century art that includes sculpture along with paintings, prints, and drawings. Unfortunately, the text does not match the high standard of other volumes in the Pelican History of Art series.

  • Warnke, Martin, ed. Geschichte der deutschen Kunst, Bd. 2 Spätmittelalter und Frühe Neuzeit 1400–1750. Munich: C. H. Beck, 1999.

    Stronger for the 15th and early 16th centuries than for the later Renaissance. Good discussions of architecture.

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