The art of the late Gothic era was shaped by wide-ranging technical, formal and thematic innovations. Painting, sculpture and graphic arts were so intricately interwoven in these developments that innovations quickly spread across all art forms.
Inspired by Early Netherlandish painting, the artistic means of expression employed by German painters underwent a transformation: light and shadow, body and space came to be depicted with increasing realism. We find a prime example in the panels of the Wurzach Altarpiece, which were produced in the workshop of Hans Multscher in Ulm. This novel use of light and shadow is evident in the depiction of hard shadow and the rendering of metallic, reflective surfaces.
The new modes of painting can also be seen in the work of Konrad Witz. The room depicted in his 1440 painting of the Annunciation is not just filled with light and shade. This composition is much more unusual than it might seem to our contemporary eyes. An entirely unfurnished chamber, without so much as a cushion or prieu-dieu for the Virgin, was almost unique at the time. Instead, the artist indulges in painterly effects that he conjures on the variously lit surfaces.
Works like the Karlsruhe Passion paved the way for a development which just a few decades later would lead to landscape painting proper. Around the year 1490, Albrecht Dürer painted his Wire Drawing Mill, depicting a handful of buildings on the banks of the River Pegnitz, just outside of Nuremberg. The high level of detail distinguishes the work from a sketch. In this work, the landscape no longer serves as a motif within a larger composition, but is made the subject of a standalone work.
Detached, Yet Still Human
Figures like Gerhaert’s Virgin and Child came to be depicted as real bodies. They no longer appear weightless, as if hovering in mid-air, but have both feet firmly on the ground. The drapery, though, which is sculpted with the utmost skill, prevents a feeling of excessive intimacy: as sacred beings, the figures are detached from the here and now, yet still retain their human nature.