I am not fond of the artists of the "High Renaissance." I confess that Michelangelo, da Vinci, Titian, and Raphael leave me cold. Instead, I prefer the artists of the early- to mid-15th century, when the influence of the Middle Ages was still present. Thus, in Italy, I favor Fra Angelico (c. 1395-1455) and Benozzo Gozzoli (c. 1421-1497) -- in particular, Fra Angelico's frescoes in San Marco and Gozzoli's frescoes in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi.
But the best painting of the 15th century lies, in my humble opinion, not in Italy, but in the Burgundian Netherlands (the various duchies and fiefdoms ruled by the House of Valois-Burgundy). The art is sometimes designated as "early Netherlandish painting" or "late Gothic painting," and the artists (for instance, Robert Campin, Jan van Eyck, and Rogier van der Weyden) are sometimes identified as "the Flemish Primitives." But the labels are irrelevant. In fact, as soon as I typed them, I got a queasy feeling -- I do not wish to enter the land of art-critical jargon.
Instead, we are better off just looking. Here is a detail from a painting by one of the best artists of the time. For now, I will not identify the artist, because I do not want a name to get in the way of looking. I intend to re-visit the painting in a subsequent post, where all will be revealed.
Of course, there is much that can be said, starting with the colors, the textures, the movement, the "minute particulars" . . . but I get that queasy feeling again. However, the painting does prompt me to say this (and thus sound like a reactionary): the idea that civilization progresses over time is, to quote the title of a poem by C. S. Lewis, "a vulgar error." Here are two stanzas from the poem:
If, then, our present arts, laws, houses, food
All set us hankering after yesterday,
Need this be only an archaising mood?
Why, any man whose purse has been let blood
By sharpers, when he finds all drained away
Must compare how he stands with how he stood.