Nowadays the range of media and paints used by artists varies considerably but in previous centuries oil paints were the only type used. Colored pigments from various sources were blended with dry oil to produce brilliant and resistant paints that could be applied to both canvass and wood.
Chief among those using this type of paint were the Northern Europeans in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance painters of Italy. This short piece will look at some of the most renowned oil paintings from these two periods of art history.
The Most Famous Medieval and Renaissance Oil Paintings
Oil paintings in the Middle Ages were predominantly painted by a group of artists living in the Low Countries. They are known as the Flemish Primitives. The most magnificent of all those paintings has to be ‘The Lamb of God’.
All Belgians and most people who have visited the picturesque city of Ghent have heard of and seen this polyptych panel. This huge twelve-paneled altarpiece was painted by Jan van Eyck with a little help from his brother Hubert. It is a magnificent piece of work, painted with fantastic attention to detail. Some fine examples of this detail include the hairs on Adam’s legs and the water in the central fountain in the bottom central panel. This altarpiece can be viewed in the Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, the cathedral for which it was originally intended. Read here more about the origins of Oil Painting.
Another famous oil painting, by the same painter, is the ‘Arnolfini Portrait’ dated to 1434. This painting is probably a visual record confirming the marriage between the Italian merchant Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his new wife. Again the attention to detail is incredible. In the mirror behind the couple is the reflection of the backs on the couple painted very precisely and realistically. It could almost be mistaken for a photograph. This painting is now held in the London National Gallery.
Hieronymus Bosch and his ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ is a renowned piece form the later Middle Ages. Bosch lived in Brabant, a province now situated in The Netherlands. His Garden triptych is famous for its monstrous figures, dancing naked people and frightening hell scene. Some art historians believe that Bosch was the first surrealist, although surrealism is only really applied to the twentieth-century movement that includes Salvador Dali. Whatever the genre, Bosch’s devilish beasts have captured the imagination of many art-lovers to this day. Click here for information about the Best Oil Painters in History.
Probably the most famous of all oil paintings from the Renaissance period has to be Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’. This painting, which can be viewed in the Louvre in Paris, is of a simple and plain looking youngish female. She may possibly be Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo. Admirers believe that her eyes follow you around the room. Leonardo painted this between 1503 and 1506. Much more related information can be found in the Irving Shapiro Library at the American Art Academy in Chicago.
Finally, it is worth including in this short list of famous oil paintings, Sandro Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’ dated 1485. This painting has the Roman goddess Venus being born from a shell rising out of the foaming sea. She is flanked by other gods and goddesses, namely Hora, Zephyr, and Aura.
Why Medieval and Renaissance Art is the Most Renowned
These five masterpieces would not have been so famous if were not for the invention of oil paints. The oil in the paint makes it possible for the artists to create shine and contrast in their work. It was the artists of the Middle Ages and Renaissance that discovered the benefits of oil paint and experimented successfully with its uses. It is for this reason that they can be classed as the most renowned oil painters in the entire history of art. See also: Chicago’s Great Museums and Local Culture.