by Robert Morrison
June 13, 2013
If ever a subject deserved two blogposts in quick succession, it is Albrecht Dürer’s recent exhibit at the National Gallery of Art. How can we not marvel at a man of God who can give us this remarkable likeness of a rhinoceros when he had never laid eyes on one?
“Dürer can paint anything,” wrote the great Renaissance scholar, Erasmus. To prove it, we have only to see his “Great Piece of Turf.” When you see this amazing work up close the detail staggers the mind. My first thought, perhaps a somewhat irreverent one, is that if we had had any more Dürers, we might never have had photography. He is just that good. View Dürer’s cricket view of this clump of earth and ask yourself if it’s so improbable that His eye is on the sparrow.
My good friend and FRC colleague, Stephan Hilbelink, read my earlier blog post and sent me some excellent comments about Dürer that he had learned studying art. I must share them.
One of eighteen children, Albrecht early in his life knew he was talented.
“Why has God given me such magnificent talent? It is a curse as well as a great blessing.”
So many great artists seem to share that sentiment. They do not want to waste a minute. The collection of works at exhibited at the National Gallery of Art recently is so vast, and each one so detailed, that it challenges us to imagine how Dürer could have accomplished so much in his fifty-seven years.
My college students, I recall, were amazed that William Pitt the Younger was Prime Minister of England at age twenty-one. I assured them that you could accomplish a lot in those days because they hadn’t yet invented “teenagers.”
Stephan shares this Albrecht quote: “Help us to recognize your voice, help us not to be allured by the madness of the world, so that we may never fall away from you, O Lord Jesus Christ.”
What? They had “madness of this world” even back in 1500? Who knew? And Dürer’s Knight, Death and the Devil is so grimly realistic it might have been taken from this morning’s world news on CNN. And his signature block “AD” 1513 on this work is surmounted by a death’s head. The vision of death-in-life is ever before him.
Stephan informs me that the “AD” on Albrecht’s work is not only a badge of honor, but it also was prized by those who had the judgment and the means to commission a work by the great Dürer. Think of it as Northern Renaissance Bling.
Stephan Hilbelink adds:
Albrecht, I believe, made his religious stance in his final work, the Four Apostles, given to Reformation-friendly Nuremberg as a present. Dürer deviated from the [artistic canons of his day] by painting John, Peter, Mark and Paul. All four are the central writers in Luther’s reforms with John being Luther’s favorite (“The one fine, true and chief Gospel”). Dürer also added Revelation 22:18, 2 Peter 2:1-2, 1 John 4:1-3, Mark 12:38-40 and Timothy 3:1-7, the Luther’s 1522 Bible versions, along with the following:
“All worldly rulers in this threatening time, beware not to take human delusion for the Word of God. For God wishes nothing added to his Words, nor taken from it. Take heed of the admonition of these four excellent men, Peter, John, Paul, and Mark.”
In turn, at hearing about Dürer’s death, Luther response was:
“It is natural and right to weep for so excellent a man…still you should rather think him blessed, as one whom Christ has taken in the fullness of his wisdom and by a happy death from these most troublous times, and perhaps from times even more troublous which are to come, lest one who was worthy to look on nothing but excellence, should be forced to behold things most vile. May he rest in peace. Amen.”
Does anyone wonder why we are so passionately committed to the sanctity of human life? Here is Dürer, son of a goldsmith, one of eighteen children. He is praised by Erasmus of Rotterdam, one of the great geniuses of the age, and himself born out of wedlock.
Most of all, these great men and women of faith of past ages give us the inspiration to face the knights, deaths, and devils of our time. Rulers then and now were foolish and sometimes dangerous. We see our own worldly rulers in these threatening times who “evolve” on fundamental questions of our existence and survival. They daily show themselves to be foolish through their ever-changing words. It all depends on what the definition of “is” is. And we are required to suffer them gladly.
C.S. Lewis famously wrote that his faith was like the sun. It was not just that he saw it, but by it he saw everything. So may it be with us.
We are daily told that this or that wrenching and ungodly change in our country and our world is “inevitable.” We can look to Dürer and know that One Thing is unchanging. As he would have said it: Gottes Wort Bleibt in Ewigkeit (“God’s Word Stands Forever.”) Our opponents in this great cultural clash claim to be the party of what’s happening now. And perhaps they are. But we are the party of forever.