In the Middle Ages, Cologne was one of the largest citics in Europe, with a population of around 42.000, and was also very wealthy because of its nodal position for traffic and its flourishing trade. Toll revenues, the right to mint coinage and special exemptions contributed to a constantly growing economy, while its international connections, as a member of the Hanseatic League, meant that Cologne's wares were distributed all over Europe. With numerous churches, monasteries, charitable foundations, chapels and hospitals, the 'holy city of Cologne' became known in medieval times as the 'Rome of the North'.
The views of the city preserved in Gothic painting (for example, in the work by the Master of the Assumption), show many towers on the skyline and a strong wall round the city. Thus a secure and wealthy Cologne provided fruitful conditions for the development of art during the early Middle Ages, as its increasing number of monasteries, churches and chapels all sought to decorate their altars. From about 1300 the city began to develop its own tradition in painting, one which lasted until around 1550. Cologne was therefore one of the most long-standing centres of art production in Europe.
In the fourteenth century painted altarpieces came to be preferred to the gilt statuary and mural painting hitherto in vogue, and some very interesting examples have survived. One of the most remarkable is a miniature altarpiece with wings depicting the Life of Christ which dates probably from the very bcginning of painting in Cologne. Fragments of frescos with saints' heads from the town hall's Hansa chamber, the altar of the Clares (c. 1360-70) in Cologne cathedral, and the panels of the Misericordia altar illustrate its development during the fourteenth century. During the International Gothic period from around 1395 to around 1425, Cologne was one of the leading centres of European painting, taking its artistic inspiration from the French court. Besides the workshop of the internationally important Master of St Veronica, there were numerous other successful shops in the city. Stefan Lochner, the most famous artist of medieval Cologne, probably came to the city from Lake Constance. After studying in the Netherlands he was influenced by the 'soft' or International Gothic style but then developed his own style of realism mixed with idealism, which he passed on to a wide circle of pupils and followers.
From the middle of the fifteenth century, painting in Cologne came under the influence of Netherlandish art, which was spread by migrating artists and by the dissemination of portable works, and by the presence of key Netherlandish works in Cologne, including Rogier van der Weyden's Columba altar of about 1460, today in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich. The Master of the Life of the Virgin and his circle, the Master of the Holy Kinship, the Master of St Bartholomew Altar, the Master of St Severin and the Master of the Ursula Legend may all have trained in different ateliers, but their works nevertheless consistently reflect the art of Rogier van der Weyden and Dieric Bouts. Characteristic of this phase is the increase in narrative painting, of realistic landscapes, towns and skies, as well as of portraits of individuals. With the arrival in Cologne in 1512 of Bartholomäus Bruyn the Elder from the Lower Rhine the Renaissance began, and is manifest particularly in portraiture.