This is a post taken from current teaching on northern renaissance art. It’s a spot of penance for not posting for nearly 5 weeks. Sorry- pressure of work, and all that. Every image used in this lecture can be seen on my SkyDrive gallery here.
“The Alternative Convention.”
“Looking at a group of naked figures in a Gothic painting or miniature we experience the same sensation. The bulb-like women and root-like men seem to have been dragged out of the protective darkness in which the human body had lain muffled for a thousand years. Given my distinction between the nude and the naked, it may be asked why the Gothic body is included in this book at all. The answer is that since nakedness was required in certain subjects of Christian iconography, the body had to be given a memorable shape, and in the end the Gothic artists evolved a new ideal. We may call this the alternative convention.”
The mainspring of the Gothic nude is shame, because it was only after the Fall that Adam and Eve noticed they were naked; their realization and consequent disgrace is the main idea connected with the representation of the body in northern Europe. As Clark notes, the moment of the expulsion from Eden marks the Christian “consciousness of the body.” However, there were other factors influencing the evolution of the body. Classical gods and goddesses were generally shown naked with the result that Christians associated the body with the profane. After paganism fell, the belief persisted that spiritual things were degraded by taking on corporal form, a residue of neo-platonic philosophy which maintained there was an ideal world beyond the material realm. This became an acute problem with Christian theologians who had to reconcile their complex arguments with the representation of the nude body in images like the Last Judgement. Medieval theologians like Peter Lombard debated intriguing topics concerning the resurrection of the body. What age, height, or sex would we have in the resurrected body? Would the bodies of the damned as well as the blessed have their defects repaired after resurrection? Augustine believed that God would obligingly reconstitute the body at the sound of the last trumpet, thus thwarting those doctors who had anatomized the body into fragments.
Though such debates seem bizarre to us, it demonstrates how seriously the middle ages thought of the body and its relation to Christian ideas. Having said that, the palpable terror on the faces of the damned in Rogier’s painting needs no theological gloss on the condition of the body; it is all too real to those bodies tumbling into the vertiginous pit of Hell.
Styling the Gothic Body.
When did the “alternative convention” first appear in Western art? Clark places it squarely within the movement known as the “International Style.” The interaction between Eve and God in the Tres Riches Heures miniature suits the climate of shame inhabited by Christians; though interestingly, the Limburgs turned to classical, Hellenistic models for the kneeling Adam and standing Eve: a statue of a kneeling Gaul for the former and the Venus Pudica for the latter. This suggests that that the Limburgs, despite the theme of original sin, were unwilling to relinquish classical ideals associated with the art of the ancient world. Yet, they departed from the classical blueprint by changing the shape of Eve, whose pelvis is wider, chest higher, waist narrower, and above all whose stomach is bulbous, and whose curve is accentuated rather than the curve of her hip. These physical characteristics are what Clark identifies as the stylistic hallmarks of the feminine Gothic nude, whose form becomes both “organic” and “realistic.” Realism comes to the fore with Van Eyck’s treatment of Eve where the curve of the stomach is more even more prominent; it is seen again in such emulators of Van Eyck such as Hugo van der Goes whose original sinners seem close cousins of the pair in the Ghent altarpiece, though according to Clark their origin lies in the eleventh-century sculpture of Hildesheim Cathedral.
The Male Body in Northern Europe.
“The male nude remained the basis of art training- in a sense, of art itself- from the fifteenth-century almost to the present day. Renaissance artists often used male models for their female figures; even those later artists whose sole interest was in women or animals or landscape had to begin their studies with the male nude. By the nineteenth-century, more progressive artists began to question this whole tradition of academic drawing as boring and irrelevant. But it would hardly have survived so long if it had not answered some real psychological need in the- male artists.”
Kenneth Clark’s chapter on the “alternative convention” concentrates exclusively on the female nude, despite the fact that the male nude was visible during our period. It is only after the nineteenth-century that “the male nude is a forgotten subject” rarely regarded as a concept in our times, although a current exhibition at the Leopold Museum in Vienna is a sign that attitudes are changing towards the male nude as a subject. In her book The Nude Male, Margaret Walters discusses how the male and female nudes stood respectively for the active and passive, which can be seen in such images as Apollo and Diana in the art of northern artists like Dürer and Cranach. Walters maintains that the male nude became “feminized” and “passive” thanks to Christianity’s rejection of the assertive male body found in the ancient world.
The Nude and the Judgement of Paris.
“And it would be going too far to see these images of the Judgement of Paris as alluding to the three types of life, active, contemplative, and voluptuous.. It bears repeating here that nothing- either in terms of aesthetics, ethics, or even symbolism- allows us to differentiate visually between the three goddesses, who come across as less than rivals than as a renewed image of the three Graces. In the end, the moral of Cranach’s pictorial fables, beginning with his images of the Judgement of Paris, has more to do with the relations between men and women in Lutheran reformation circles than with lessons and exercises originating in Italian humanist ones..” 
Though the nude might be viewed as a completely different genre to that of landscape, they do fuse together in the art of the northern artists, especially Lucas Cranach. Cranach was almost certainly influenced by the humanist scholars in Wittenberg who had links with Italian scholars interested in iconography that fused the female body and the natural world. Hans Brosamer’s Venus and Cupid on a Snail may have grown out of this confluence of German and Italian humanist traditions.  Because of this, Cranach may have been aware of works by Italian masters like Franco Francia from Bologna, and more famously Giorgione from Venice. Although Giorgione and Titian’s nudes in landscape settings have been connected with Cranach, it is likely that he evolved this type through study of engravings after Italian art, as well as the body in Dürer. The body is most visible in Cranach’s paintings of the Judgement of Paris, and the various other works associated with it, like the Three Graces. With his many versions of the Judgement of Paris, Cranach has left us, as Hubert Damisch says, an “essay” on the subject, which unlike the traditional theme of competition amongst the goddesses, implies the relations between the sexes and religious ideas such as original sin, which returns us to the relationship of the male and female nude in northern renaissance art. However, there is a different attitude towards the nude presented here. Cranach’s nudes are interchangeable, which Damisch considers not a meditation on three forms of life- represented by the three goddesses- but a unity that doesn’t link back to the classical Golden Age, but to the Garden of Eden. Before we dismiss Damisch’s Judeo- Christian emphasis, we should remember that Cranach was a friend of Luther, and that his mythological paintings might be social critiques, perhaps of such ideas as chivalry, which became linked with the Judgment of Paris through works like Darius Phrygius’s Bellum Troianum, published in Wittenberg in 1502, and known to the humanists there. Yet, Cranach may have painted this subject, not for a humanist circle of scholars, but for “a northern courtly milieu” which assimilated its humanism in a completely different way to Dürer who was thoroughly immersed in Italian renaissance culture which taught him how to represent the nude in a different mode.  Something of the overlap between German treatments of the nude and the humanism inherent in the Judgement of Paris might be seen in Dürer’s baffling engraving known as “Four Witches” until it was recently re-baptized “Discordia”, a clear reference to the outcome of Paris’s choice. Italian humanism also leaves its mark on the Judgement of Paris as painted by Durer’s contemporary Nikolaus Manuel Deutsch whose version may be influenced by the German humanist scholar and poet, Conrad Celtes. There is also Altdorfer’s intriguing engraving where the three goddesses appear to Paris in a dream, an idea taken from Colonna’s Historia destructionis Trojae, published in Strasbourg in 1489.
 Kenneth Clark, The Nude: A Study of Ideal Art ( Penguin, London, 1956, rep. 1964), 300-301.
 Ibid, 303.
 Caroline Walker Bynum, “Material Continuity, Personal Survival, and the Resurrection of the Body: A Scholastic Discussion in Its Medieval and Modern Contexts,” History of Religions, Vol. 30, No. 1, The Body (Aug., 1990), pp. 51-85, 55.
 Clark, The Nude, 312.
 Margaret Walter, The Nude Male: A New Perspective (Penguin, London, 1978), 7.
 Margaret Walter, The Nude Male, 7.
 Hubert Damisch, The Judgement of Paris, University of Chicago Press, 1992), 203-4.
 See Mark Evans “Lucas Cranach and the Art of Humanism” in Cranach, exh cat (Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2008), 49-60.
 Lehmann Drawings, No. 17,
 Hubert Damisch, The Judgement of Paris, 180.
 Cranach, no. 101.
 Damisch, The Judgement of Paris, 203.
 Guilia Bartrum, German Renaissance Prints 1490-1550, exh. cat, (British Museum, 1995), no. 189.