Tag archives: Albrect Durer

Dürer Redux

by Robert Morrison

June 13, 2013

Source:  National Gallery of ArtIf 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.

Albrecht Dürer Unsequestered

by Robert Morrison

June 10, 2013

I must applaud The New York Times’ review of the Albrecht Dürer exhibit recently offered at Washington’s National Gallery of Art. It is heartening to know that the great Sequestration—about which there has been so much hype and hubbub—did not shut down this amazing exhibit.

Exhibit organizers refer to Dürer’s famed Praying Hands as the most famous painting in the world. Can it be? Can we really say that of this devout artist’s most beloved work?

There is nothing idealized in these hands. They are rough, veined, wrinkled, hard-worked hands. They tell a story in themselves.

The Martyrdom of St. John the Evangelist is a work of the young Dürer (1496-98). It shows the death by boiling oil, supervised by a ruler dressed as a Turkish sultan. No political correctness here. (Or, historical accuracy, either, since these martyrs died centuries before the Ottomans came on the scene.)

Adam and Eve are depicted as ideal human forms, part of Dürer’s lifelong effort to get the human body right. (My theologian friend notes the strategic placement of the leaves, saying that this was chronologically incorrect since Adam and Eve had not yet fallen. Or, Fallen. And thus they had no need to feel shame. But I’m not sure those are fig leaves.)

I especially like the great German artist’s rendering of lions. He drew some of them from the stone lions of Venice, which he had seen on a youthful trek to that fabled republic. But then, in 1521, the mature Dürer sees a real lion for the first time in a Netherlands zoo.

The contrast is startling. One wonders whether we will react the same way when we see the real savior for the first time. Is he safe? Certainly not, but he is good.

I come upon Dürer’s “Head of an African.” The Museum text tells us he probably encountered this young black man during his Venetian sojourn. It’s a powerful portrait, rich in empathy.

You have to think: If all Europeans had seen this drawing could the African Slave Trade ever have existed? Well, all Europeans (and Americans) today have seen incredible pictures of unborn children and yet the abortion traffic still exists.

Albrecht Dürer depicted himself as Jesus in a work titled “Man of Sorrows.” We might think this egotistic, but it was no less a Reformation figure than Martin Luther who said we should each strive to be “little Christs.” Albrecht and Agnes Dürer were childless and they doubtless knew what sorrow was. Dürer announced his sympathy with Luther and grieved when he thought the Bible scholar had been kidnapped and might face the flames of martyrdom.

It is interesting to see Albrecht Dürer as a Medieval figure in his religious sensibilities and also as a bridging figure in his commercial striving and obvious yearning for fame.

By comparison, the great artisans of the High Middle Ages often left us no record of their names. They who carved the statues at the magnificent Chartres Cathedral in France pointedly did not sign their work. It was all done for God, in devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, so why would you need to sign it?

Dürer, faithful as he is, wants the credit. He signs everything. He even makes a signature block print of his initials “AD” and places them where lesser artists might have placed anno domini (in the Year of our Lord).

One Dürer work not included in this exhibit is one I had hoped to see—The Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand. The painting is a vast tableau, an incredibly complex and vivid visual representation of a mass killing dating from the earliest days of Christendom. Dürer has portrayed himself and his friend, Konrad Celtis, in the center of the painting. They are clad in funereal black, as if in mourning, as if they are mere witnesses to the massacre of innocents.

The story of this martyrdom is a part of what is called the Golden Legend, a work familiar to Christians in Dürer’s day, filled with stories of the true cost of discipleship. Ten thousands Roman soldiers converted to Christ are killed in one act of vengeance and persecution. The killers are Persians and local forces aligned with the pagan emperors of Rome and acting upon their direction, just as the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate felt he was remembering Caesar when he sentenced blameless Jesus to death.

Dürer depicts those ordering the killings as Oriental despots, arrayed in Turkish attire. We know from the legend itself they are not Muslim Turks. Still, it makes one wonder if a public display now of Muslim Ottomans killing Christians would be considered too inflammatory to show.

Will future painters dare to depict the martyrdom of the ten thousand Copts? Will artists memorialize the murder of Christians in Pakistan? Or Northern Nigeria? Maybe Drummer Lee Rigby’s beheading in broad daylight on a London street will be the subject of an artist’s heart’s desire to witness to the truth.

We are living in the times of the Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand. We need to witness to these truths, as our ancestors in the Faith did unhesitatingly. Or will these truths be sequestered?

Albrecht Dürer is at once quintessentially German and a wholly universal figure. Like Johann Sebastian Bach, he exemplifies that broad Christian humanism, that caritas that embraces all mankind.