As the Middle Ages ended, an educated and prosperous urban middle class grew in size and influence. As art patrons, they exhibited a taste for vivid and painstaking naturalism, for oil paintings on panel that are precisely detailed and “still astonish viewers by their close approximation to optical reality.” As lay piety grew, religious scenes were shown in contemporary, worldly settings, surrounded by familiar and commonplace (though often symbolic) objects. Simultaneously, the everyday was sanctified, and the sacred was made everyday. The aristocracy, however, favored the swaying figures and courtly grace of the International Gothic (Gothic at its most sumptuous, refined and elegant), and continued to collect precious objects, illuminated manuscripts, and tapestries. Flemish panel painting was exported to Italy, and its influence spread to France and Spain.
The printing press spread knowledge. Printed books were often illustrated with woodcuts, which might also be pinned to the walls of middle-class households. At first, these prints were often hand-colored in imitation of illuminated manuscripts, but soon developed into an independent medium with its own standards.