The paintings by northern European artists in this gallery represent a broad geographical area, including modern-day Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands, as well as Britain, where the German-born Holbein spent a portion of his career.
With the exception of the large religious painting of the Deposition of Christ by Gerard David, the works in this room are intimate in their format—are smaller in scale and invite close looking at minute details—and they all share the general characteristic of highly naturalistic precision for which northern European art of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries is traditionally celebrated. But beyond such common stylistic features, their subjects and functions are diverse, ranging from Memling’s and Holbein’s portraits of contemporary sitters to Van Eyck’s and David’s sacred subjects to Bruegel’s sinewy soldiers painted in grisaille, possibly as a model for a printmaker.
Henry Clay Frick brought together in his collection two portraits of mortal enemies: Holbein’s portraits in vivid detail of Sir Thomas More and Sir Thomas Cromwell, who was largely responsible for the execution of Thomas More. Holbein’s portraits, like most portraits do, capture these men at the height of their power, a power that was not to last. Both men were ultimately beheaded by order of their king, Henry VIII.
At the heart of these conflicts was the question of religion—the Christian faith here represented by David’s Deposition and Van Eyck’s enthroned Virgin and Christ Child. In them, the divine beings are presented with the same illusion of tangible reality as the mere mortals in this room.