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B. N. Ryzhov THE PSYCHOLOGICAL AGE OF CIVILIZATION: the XV century, the North Renaissance

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B. N. Ryzhov, THE PSYCHOLOGICAL AGE OF CIVILIZATION: the XV century, the North Renaissance

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the XV century, the North Renaissance


B. N. Ryzhov,

MCU, Moscow


The present article is the continuation of research devoted to system periodization of development of modern European civilization and the comparison of the stages of civilization development to the corresponding periods of a person’s life. The beginning of this research published in № 14, 15, 17, 19 of the journal «Systems Psychology and Sociology» includes the description of analogies in the psychological development of a child from birth up to the age of 13–14, and of the development of European civilization from the fifth century to the beginning of the fifteenth century. The present part of the work is devoted to the subsequent stage of ontogenetic and phylogenetic development with a view to describing the analogy between the psychological aspects of early adolescence and the particular qualities of art and culture of the early Northern Renaissance in Flanders, which at that time was the hub of the northern centre of European civilization.

In this connection the characteristic features of emotional and personal development at the age of 15–16 are given, including the emergence of the sense of beauty and the discovery of one’s own self — which in this period acquires a holistic tone and certain features of realism. While admitting the revolutionary character of these changes — indicating the end of the epoch of childhood and the advent of the epoch of adolescence — the author notes the basic similarity of revolutionary processes taking place in the Flemish painting of XV century whose artistic manifesto became the famous Ghent Altarpiece.

For the first time in the art of Western Europe admiration of the beauty of one group of images and interest to the sensuous reality of the other, characteristic of adolescent perception, were embodied in full effect.

At the same time, youthful aspiration for truthfulness and self-knowledge found its reflection in the genre of the realistic portrait originating in the first half of XV century. Just over the period of several decades portrait art went from the first paintings of Jan van Eyck seeking to depict the texture and the social status of the model photographically accurately — to the works of Rogier van der Weyden, in the best of which an attempt is already present to portray the characteristics of the inner psychological world of a person pictured. Finally, the juxtaposition of cognitive activity rising sharply in early adolescence and Information Revolution following the invention of book printing in the middle of XV century serves as additional confirmation of psychological congruence of the considered epochs — that of a human life and — civilization.


Keywords: system periodization of development; systems psychology; psychological age of civilization; early adolescence; centers of European civilization; early adolescence; Jan van Eyck; Rogier van der Weyden; book printing.


For citation: Ryzhov B. N. The psychological age of civilization: the XV century, the North Renaissance // Systems psychology and sociology. 2018. № 4 (28). P. 76–83.


Psychological Characteristics of Early Adolescence


The era of early adolescence coming after teenage crisis is similar to first brighter days of spring. The emotional background of a young man’s life is being clarified. Interests — not long ago muddled, chaotically alternating — are gradually gaining stability and a hierarchical structure. New passions, in which the emerging motivational core of personality is manifested more explicitly, are developing on their basis.

plicitly, are developing on their basis. Emotions in this period lose the exclusively subject orientation. For the first time a young person discovers the world of generalized feelings, including the sense of beauty, the tragic, the sense of humor etc. [16]. All of a sudden a young man finds in himself a way to experience delight at the sight of coherent and proportionate continuity of natural phenomena, to experience emotional upheaval from the impact of music or poetry.

The awakening aesthetic feeling escalates attention to appearance, clothing and living conditions of others and oneself. The expected result of such attention is changing the way to dress and behave in society subject to the stereotypes of youth environment; this change can sometimes seem strange and even defiant, due to its demonstrative independence from the established “adult” stereotypes.

In adolescence, the need for autonomy and freedom of decision-making is growing. The young person aspires to self-affirmation, often assuming grotesque features; however, no less acutely he or she needs social belonging. At the same time, friendship acquires particular importance. Still ongoing confrontation with the world of adults requires not just the loyal and reliable allies. It requires young man to become part of a stronger whole. In this situation, as Igor S. Kon correctly notes, a friend — always ready to help — becomes his “complement up to the whole”, his alter ego [9; 10].

However, early adolescence is the time when the reproductive motivation more and more powerfully declares itself. The biological maturation of the organism inevitably leads to the increased interest in the human body, its anatomy and physiological functions, especially reproductive, and after that — erotic experiences, autogenital activity and a dream of sexual contacts (and sometimes even passionate search for them).

At the same time, it is the age of the germ of teenage romance. Almost always ardent and uncompromising, yet not infrequently equally selfish, because at this age the motivation for personal development and the related desire for emotional contact and understanding of one’s interests on behalf of the sweet one often prevail over the desire to understand his or her interests and feelings. Moreover, immature youthful love does not tend to create a strong family relationship or progeny. In fact, it is a very serious, but still game of love. Its true meaning in most cases consists in emotional training necessary for the normal emotional life of an adult — “L’éducation sentimentale”, as Gustave Flaubert1 entitled his famous novel.

Having met with mutuality in love, boy and girl grow in their own eyes, because for them it is a clear evidence of belonging to the world of adults. However, similarly to the feelings of the main character of Flaubert’s novel, youthful love is often characterized by ambivalence. The object of love, as shown by numerous modern studies [10; 11], can be surrounded by an aura of admiration, without causing a strong erotic desire. At the same time, on the contrary, expressed sexual attraction can be directed towards somebody who is indifferent as a person, but whose easy accessibility looks attractive.

Simultaneously with the world of feelings and passions in early youth the cognitive sphere continues to develop. The attention span is increasing — same as the skill of switching and long-term concentration. The complexity of mental actions is growing. The tendency to systematization of presented material and, as Igor S. Kon points out, the concern about its credibility [10] — these are the results of changes in the cognitive sphere.

However, the most significant psychological acquisition of changes in the cognitive sphere, of early adolescence, according to Lev S. Vygotsky, is the discovery of one’s own self — the development of self-consciousness, which in this period acquires a holistic character and some features of realism [4]. For the first time the young man senses his social and national identity. He gets the opportunity to experience pride at the sight of national triumph — and pain, in the case of national defeat (young fans of football teams in the days of major events can serve as an example).

At this age the overcoming of children’s reliance on external evaluation of their actions by a significant adult is going on. Instead, self-evaluation of one’s actions is becoming an increasingly important regulator of a young person’s behavior. The result of this reorientation is the rapid emergence of self-concept [11] — the main psychological characteristic which the system psychology calls the motivational core of the human personality [12].


The Growth of National Consciousness as a Historical Background of Civilisation’s Early Adolescence


Something similar, but on a historical scale, occurred in Europe in XV century. It was a period of realization by various peoples of their national identity, their national “self”. Before this, as early as XIV century, the ideas of national identity appeared in the geographical centers of the northern and southern cradles of European civilization — in Flanders and in Florence. Dante wrote in Italian — and perceived himself as an Italian (or rather, an Italic, Italicus). He was echoed by many Italian humanists, although at that time the question regarding state unification of Italy was not at issue

At the same time, the awakened national consciousness of Flanders was manifested in a great deal more cruel manner: during the memorable “Brugse Metten” (“Le Matins de Bruges”) insurgent citizens, knowing how difficult it was for the Latins to pronounce words in the local dialect of the German language, took out the soldiers of the captured garrison one by one and required them to pronounce the Flemish words “schildenvriend” (“shield and friend”). Those who did not cope with the task, and among them were not only considered enemies — the French, but other foreigners as well, all in all more than four thousand people, were ruthlessly killed [8].

In XV century national consciousness became a reality in many regions of Europe, far beyond the centers of civilization. In 1429 in France, Joan of Arc became the symbol of national liberation movement of the French against the foreign invaders, and King Louis XI, who ruled from 1461 to 1483, completed the unification of the main part of the French lands into a single national state. A contemporary of these events, Philippe de Commines, in his famous memoirs, came to the idea that the cause of endless wars and strifes, in which he took part as well, is a natural confrontation of countries and peoples, each of which has its own alternative. At the heart of this confrontation, he saw the difference in character and temperament of peoples caused by climate differences [7].

At the same time, in 1469, the marriage of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon led to the creation of the united Spanish kingdom and the formation of a single Spanish nation, which served as an ethnic basis for one of the most powerful world monarchies after the end of Reconquista in 1492.

The awareness of one’s national identity was coming to replace the former feudal thinking in other countries as well. In 1485, England ended the era of the dynastic Wars of the Roses. With the beginning of the Tudors’ reign, the country — same as its competitors on the continent — is rapidly transforming into a strong national state, capturing new positions on the world stage. Similar processes can be seen even in Germany, which for many centuries will remain divided into dozens of independent cities and principalities as part of the existing, since 962, Holy Roman Empire. Nevertheless, national consciousness will manifest itself here as well. At the end of XV century, an amorphous empire for the first time finds its highest representative organ of government, the Reichstag, and the emperors very symbolically start being named emperors of the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation [3].

So much has changed. More recently, in the era of the Crusades (and their idea was still very relevant in XIV century), “big” homeland for the Europeans was the entire civilizationspace, united by common Christian values and the spiritual authority of Rome. Borders within this space were not perceived as something inviolable, as they were constantly reshaped by wars, dynastic marriages and discords between crowned relatives. Now a much more sustainable establishment came to the fore — the nation. Then, following Hegel’s dialectical triad — universal / particular / individual — the psychological development of civilization inevitably had to take the next step and focus on the specific person and everything that will be related to him / her and the unique features of his / her personality.

These processes were first manifested in Flanders and Tuscany where the ideas of national identity cropped up a century earlier. It was there, in the first half of XV century, that the psychological maturation of civilization found its expression at the beginning of the so far unprecedented revolution in fine art.


The Ghent Alterpiece


Rich Flanders less than other countries was affected by the crisis of “adolescence of civilization”. Philip the Bold (1342–1404), the first Duke of Burgundy to reign Flanders, was a man not only brave, but also quite loyal to a luxurious lifestyle. He arranged magnificent jousting tournaments and spent off-work time in gallant entertainment. For almost a century the Burgundy court became a recognized trendsetter and the most brilliant court in Europe; not only did it attract the admiring and envious attention of all European rulers, but it also, what was important, provided Duke’s subjects with permanent jobs — Flemish cloth makers, gunsmiths, jewelers, as well as artists who were members of a professional association — the Guild of St. Luke.

No less striking figures were the successors of Philip the Bold — John the Fearless, Philip the Good, Charles the Bold. Their nicknames speak for themselves. The unprecedented economic prosperity of the country in the “Golden” period of Burgundy forced to quickly forget the ongoing conflicts of cities with the Duke’s power and smoothed out the contradictions of the poor and rich segments of society within the cities, forcing both of them to be proud of their well-being, which made such a contrast with neighboring France caught in the mire of the Hundred Years’ War.

Thanks to this happy coincidence, it was in Flanders that the first shoots of a new era in painting emerged, fully reflecting the beginning of the early adolescence of civilization. It was called the Northern Renaissance, the era began with the “uprising” against the conventions of the Gothic art2 , which was replaced by an adolescent desire for truthfulness of the portrayed nature.

We should not forget that motherland is a world, where a person felt his belonging to it and where he felt that he is a part of the whole, for most people of that time ended at the gate of their city, and certainly did not spread outside of the small, by our standards, territory, which included several neighboring towns and villages [15].The limitation of space increased attention to its parts and details. One of the very first images of this world can be found in the so-called van Merode family altar, created around 1427 and now stored in a branch of the Metropolitan Museum in New York [23]. Its author is considered to be the founder of the Northern Renaissance, the Flemish painter Robert Campin (1378–1444). A relatively small triptych (the size of the side panels is 65 × 27 cm) surprises with its realism, causing the desire to examine each detail more closely (for example, see the work of Robert Campin. St. Joseph. The right panel of the Merode Altarpiece, a fragment, 1427–1428. The Cloisters, New York, the USA).

On the central panel of the triptych the Annunciation is presented; however, the right panel with the figure of St. Joseph is especially memorable. In contrast to the childlike primitive style of depiction typical of most works of Gothic painting, there is no trace of conventionalism — or, rather, the conventionalism was only in the identity of the man in a blue turban to the biblical character. The image itself is extremely realistic. An elderly carpenter, one of a thousand of those artisans whose work ensured the well-being of Flanders, is brought before the viewer. He is slowly manufacturing an object resembling a base for the mousetrap. The tools of his craft, portrayed with love — a hammer, a saw, a knife and drills — are lying all around. Behind the open window with a view of the city square, on a side table there stands a completed mousetrap — apparently designed for sale. An urban landscape, painted with the same love and accuracy, forms the background. Even six centuries later the tower of the Romanesque Church of St. Croix in Liege can be easily recognized.

To an even greater extent the psychological traits of early adolescence can be found in the Ghent Altarpiece, the recognized masterpiece of Jan van Eyck (1385–1441) created just five years later (as in the work of Jan van Eyck: the Ghent Altarpiece (three fragments), 1432, St. Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium).

Huge, more than five meters in length, multi-tiered polyptych has a mesmerizing impact. None of the previously created paintings in Europe causes such a psychological effect, elevating the Ghent Altarpiece to the greatest peaks of the world’s culture [5; 6]. It can only be guessed what pious contemporaries of van Eyck felt in front of it in XV century, if nowadays the altar makes an indelible impression on the people who are often quite far from religious experiences [14; 21]. However, art critics only state the fact of aesthetic influence without revealing its psychological mechanisms [6; 19; 22]. A systematic analysis of the psychological age of civilization depicted in a work of art allows to explain the reasons for such an effect.

The awakening of the sense of beauty is characteristic of early adolescence. To the full extent, it found its embodiment in the majestic and wise appearance of Christ in Glory3 depicted in the central part of the altar. Equally powerful impression gives the splendor of the red, blue and green garments in which the Lord — and Holy Mother and John the Baptist, surrounding him, are clothed. The gentle faces of singing 3 Jesus Christ (some researchers see in this image God the father) is crowned with the papal triple tiara as a symbol of the Church headed by him; at his feet there is a precious crown — the symbol of earthly power. angels, framed with golden-red curls, and their gold-embroidered robes are beautiful. Equally beautiful are the young knights in the left wing of the altar’s lower register. They are attentive and calm, their faces resemble the faces of the angels depicted on the upper panels of the altar.

But, perhaps, the most striking manifestation of the psychological characteristics of early adolescence is the contrast between these beautiful images — and the figures of the ancestors of mankind at the edges of the altar. The latter clearly reflected the age-specific interest in the anatomical features of the human body and, at the same time — more than in other parts of the polyptych — revealed the desire for passing on the vigor and veracity of rendered details. Many naturalistic details in the figures of completely naked people look especially unusual in the altar picture, intended for being put over the Communion Table, the most sacred part of the Catholic Church which is also in close proximity to the solemn images of saints and God himself. At the same time Adam and Eve are the only of more than two hundred human figures of the Ghent Altarpiece that are devoid of external “beauty”. Adam’s thin and pale body is far from the ancient proportions, his tanned face, neck and hands stand out clearly, which, of course, is quite natural for the sitter, but is absolutely incredible for the ancestor of mankind who did not have clothes in earthly Paradise. The pronouncedly naturalistic image of Eve, whose forms indicate a possible pregnancy4 , is also far from the ideals of classical beauty — and equally far from the primitive chaste samples of medieval art.

And yet it is the combination of solemn grandeur and hard naturalism which is the reason for the special psychological impact of the Ghent Altarpiece. For a teenager and a young man, van Eyck’s masterpiece becomes an important means of enculturation, the embodiment of his own experiences in the form created by civilization. For an adult, it allows to experience the youthful acuity of feelings once again — the acuity which inevitably dulls over time, but, being experienced again, gives the effect of catharsis, psychologically freeing a person from the burden of years passed. This cathartic effect acquires a special value during the crisis periods of life, allowing to escape from the existential deadlock absorbing a person.


The Birth of a Realistic Portrait and a Printed Book


Jan van Eyck occupies a very special place in the history of civilization. We owe him the invention of modern oil painting techniques, which soon became widely available. He also laid the foundation of the art of realistic portrait painting, in which, along with the quest for the truth of the form, one of the most characteristic psychological features of early adolescence — the discovery of self — was clearly reflected.

When the art of realistic portrayal of human nature took the first small steps, it was not yet so subordinate to a customer’s tastes as it would be in subsequent times, and therefore largely kept traces of the artist’s personal attitude to the model depicted in the portrait. One of the first known realistic portraits is the depiction of Cardinal Niccolo Albergati who was entrusted with particularly important missions of the Holy See, and was extraordinarily respected in all European countries (as in the work of Jan van Eyck: male portraits — the portrait of Cardinal Niccolo Albergati, fragment, 1432, Art Museum, Vienna, Austria). In the near future, following the instructions of Pope Eugene IV, he would become the organizer of the famous Council of Florence (1438), later transferred to Ferrara to avoid the plague; the Council made the first attempt to reunify the Catholic and Orthodox churches. In 1431, 58-year-old Niccolo Albergati passed through Ghent; thus, van Eyck had a rare opportunity to sketch his portrait. The portrait was painted in the following year (1432), at the time when the great craftsman had just finished working on his great altar [17].

A few years later, several more portraits would be painted, among them a portrait of Baldwin of Lannoy (1435), Chamberlain of the Duke of Burgundy, a famous military leader and one of the first chevaliers of the order of the Golden Fleece whose sign is depicted on his chest (as in the work of Jan van Eyck. Male portraits. The portrait of Baldwin of Lannoy, fragment, 1435, State Museum, Berlin, Germany). Van Eyck got acquainted with this warrior and diplomat in 1427 while visiting Portugal as a member of Burgundy diplomatic mission headed by Lannoy. The series includes the portrait of a well-known goldsmith from Bruges Jan de Leeuw, painted in 1436 (as in the work of Jan van Eyck: male portraits — the portrait of Jan de Leeuw, fragment, 1436, Art Museum, Vienna, Austria).

These images do not offer even a glimpse of either the Western European paintings of XIII and XIV centuries with their naive conditionalities, or the best examples of Flemish miniatures of the first two decades of XV century, including the works of famous brothers Limburg (a good example is the image of the Duke Jean of Berry which brothers Limburg created around 1412, in the so-called “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry”, now kept in the French castle of Chantilly). In contrast to the painting of the earlier time, the characters of van Eyck convince us with their realism. The veracity of the features of their appearance, costume details and even the usual facial expressions does not cast any doubt upon the viewers. All of his characters possess an undeniable individuality. At the same time, however, their images are strongly linked to social stereotypes. It is exactly how an elderly envoy of the Pope, who had seen a lot in his life, should look like; a stern knight who had fought in many battles should have exactly such a relentless gaze; and it is exactly how the eyes of a good jeweler, capable of noticing the tiniest details, should be staring at people.

The main difference between these images and the traditional realistic portraits of the following centuries is that no attempt was made to analyze the inner psychological world of the hero. We see only an anatomically accurate “mould” of a person and his status-showing expression, considerate of the character’s social position. And here a question is bound to arise: what about passing on feelings, experiences, character and the spiritual life of a model? They are not to be found. Moreover, these things cannot be demanded from the artist who looks at the world through the eyes of his century — the eyes of a fifteen-year-old boy. These eyes perfectly distinguish the thickening of wrinkles on the face of Cardinal Albergati (see the work of Jan van Eyck: the enlarged fragment of the portrait of Cardinal Niccolo Albergati, 1432), but they are not yet capable of discerning the soul of their owner. Very soon, this restriction of perception, directly related to the psychological age of civilization, would start to be overcome in the works of masters of subsequent generations.

The first cautious attempt to reveal the emotional world of his model belongs to a compatriot and a younger contemporary of van Eyck, almost equal to him in talent, Rogier van der Weyden (1399–1464). At first glance, the portraits created by this master have much in common with the creations of his senior colleague. Their models are also well known to the artist [18]. Many of the portraits also depict historical figures — the Dukes of Burgundy and other influential personalities, whose high status is invariably indicated by expensive clothes, jewelry and the proud posture of portrayed characters. However, it is possible to observe slightly less monumental stillness — and a bit more emotion in their features (see the work of Rogier van der Weyden: the portrait of a young lady, circa 1440, State Museum, Berlin, in Germany. And the portrait of Antoine of Burgundy, circa 1455, Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Brussels, Belgium).

The image of a young lady who is traditionally considered to be the artist’s wife, Elizabeth Goffaert, is filled with grace. The girl with a faint smile is looking at a viewer, and in this smile you may notice a slight share of coquetry. The same feeling of honesty and candor emanates from the portrait of Antoine of Burgundy, created some 10–15 years later; Antoine of Burgundy was half-brother of the famous Duke-knight Charles the Bold (Fr. Charles le Téméraire). Courage, sensuality and refinement come out in the appearance of a young man holding an arrow. His elegance is emphasized by the delicate open-work chain of the Order of the Golden Fleece, reminiscent of his relationship with one of the most powerful European dynasties. The features of the personality of the model in this portrait are revealed much more convincingly than in van Eyck’s works. Moreover, in this work, the artist managed to capture — better than the others — the typical character of his time, in which the youth had not yet managed to overcome the adolescent unrestraint. To a certain extent, this is the nature of the era, its valuegiving and sense-bearing core, which remains unchanged both in young men and adults. The evidence of this is the long and stormy life of the man depicted in the portrait. The hero of many battles, a brilliant diplomat, the patron of the arts and the collector of art book miniatures, he was severely reprimanded by the Chapter of the Order of the Golden Fleece for his unruly amorous character; and yet in spirit he forever remained a gallant and desperate youth, as he was depicted in his famous portrait.

Van der Weyden had numerous disciples and followers who continued his art of realistic portrait. The most talented of them, Hugo van der Goes (1420–1482), created a new line in the subject painting which also testified to the age development of civilization. However, the progress of fine arts — as well as the genuine information revolution which began in the middle of XV century — bore evidence to the extraordinarily rapid maturity of Europe.

According to the system theory of development, early adolescence, as well as youth in general, is an era, which focuses mainly on the formation of human personality [13]. At the same time, cognitive motivation acquires the primary role in the motivational sphere. It certainly played a crucial role before, especially in the early school years. However, throughout the entire period of childhood, the social significance of a child’s personality development, and, consequently, of cognitive motivation ensuring this development, is, nevertheless, inferior to the paramount importance of the physical development of the body and vital motivation which supports it. Only after passing puberty, confirming the completion of the formation of the basic biological functions of the body and its fundamental readiness for adulthood, the social significance of cognitive motivation firmly occupies a leading place [13].

In this regard, the invention of printing by Johannes Gutenberg, just a few years after the creation of the Ghent Altarpiece by van Eyck5 , serves as an indicative fact that once again confirms the validity of the use of the term “early adolescence of civilization” in relation to the era of XV century. It is noteworthy that the place where the first printed book in Europe was created — the famous Gutenberg Bible — became the master’s hometown, Mainz, located in close proximity to the conditional border of the Northern hearth of civilization. The advent of printed books played a crucial role in the spread of education. At the beginning of the second half of XV century printing houses appeared in almost all countries of Western and Southern Europe [1; 20]. Until the turn of the century, several million copies of books were published and more than a thousand printing houses were created. Among them were small, movable print shops, and the famous Venetian “master” printing house of Aldus Manutius — a humanist, an educator and a founder of the Aldine Press. Not only did his printing house produce books of all kinds, from sumptuous folios to cheap editions of the usual format, but it also became a kind of “a refugee camp” for educated Greeks, who fled to Venice after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. Soon the price of the books dropped several times, and their mass production has allowed not only to satisfy the hunger for information in schools and universities, but also gave birth to a catch phrase “printing is the sister of the muses” [2].

Thus, by the end of XV century, there appeared conditions for the accelerated development of civilization in the approaching era of its “classic” adolescence, correlated with the age of 17 to 19 in human life.




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