A perfect storm has been raging for so long that it’s hard to remember what smooth sailing is like. The backstory induces nightmares.
The hourglass showing time running out. The unbalanced scale. The despondent winged figure of genius. These details of the famous allegorical engraving by Albrecht Dürer perfectly capture my state of mind, especially between November 17, 2017 and February 11, 2018.
I missed Albrecht Dürer: The Age of Reformation and Renaissance, the Cincinnati Museum of Art’s recent tribute to the great German Renaissance printmaker and the impact of the Reformation. But I did my homework. And I’ve been to Dürer’s home in Nuremberg. Twice. So I’m going to write about him anyway, because I think he and his work are extraordinary.
Determined to raise northern European printmaking to the level of Italian art, Dürer (1471-1528) achieved fame that reached far beyond his native Nuremberg. To ensure that his work would be instantly recognized as his, he developed a distinctive monogram, signature and artistic style.
He produced at least a dozen self-portraits, many with a striking similarity to Jesus Christ. He wrote theoretical treatises on the artistic applications of geometry; building fortifications; symmetry and the proportions of the human body; and an unpublished one on art. He was so venerated that the German Federal Bank reproduced his work on Deutschmark bank notes until the 1990s.
At first, Dürer followed in his father’s footsteps, training as a goldsmith. Learning how to handle the tools of that trade prepared him for printmaking, since he could use the same techniques to engrave on a copper plate as for ornamenting precious metals. Then, he apprenticed with Michael Wolgemut, a Nuremberg artist who created the frontispiece for the Nuremberg Chronicle, the history of the world famous for its unprecedented number of woodcut illustrations that was published by Anton Koberger, Dürer’s godfather.
The young Dürer spent his Wanderjahre in Italy. He recorded his journey through the Alps in a series of watercolors, important because they are considered to be the earliest landscape studies in the history of western art. He made costume studies in Venice. He also traveled through the Netherlands and the Alsace, where he visited the celebrated painter Martin Schongauer. He stopped in Basel, Switzerland, where he executed woodcuts for The Ship of Fools, the famous German satirical allegory.
When Dürer returned to Nuremberg, he opened his workshop and started selling prints from woodcuts that were beautifully executed, with intricate details, subtle gradations of light and shade through cross-hatchings, and contrasts in texture so stunning and dramatic that they were far superior to anything else.
He concentrated on subjects with popular appeal, such as a series of costume studies depicting Nuremberg women dressed for staying at home, going to church and going to a dance. Many of his works reached iconic status, like his study for the praying hands of an Apostle, as well as his depictions of St. Jerome in his study, the Passion, the Prodigal Son, the life of the Virgin Mary, and the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. His famous nature works are of a young hare and of a rhinoceros, inspired by a description he read of the exotic animal.
During his career, Dürer produced over 1,100 drawings, over 30 watercolors, over 100 copperplate engravings and etchings, almost 200 paintings, and still more woodcuts. His work was so admired that it was collected, copied by engravers, and imitated by other artists, including Lucas Cranach the Elder, the German painter and printmaker who was a close friend of Martin Luther’s.
Dürer became as legendary as his home city. In Dürer’s day, Nuremberg was one of the largest, most prosperous cities in Europe. Situated on the river Pegnitz, and protected by a castle and a circle of walls, the capital of the Franconian region of Germany was a major center for art, culture, publishing and trade. Bombs heavily damaged the city during World War II, but many of its main Gothic attractions still stand.
For example, the St. Lorenzkirche (Church of St. Lorenz) is famous for its spectacular Annunciation, a sculpture Viet Stoss completed in 1519 that is suspended from the ceiling above the altar in the main nave of the church.
The Heilig-Geist-Spital (The Hospital of the Holy Spirit), founded in 1332, stands on the banks of the Pegnitz in the center of town. Once, it housed lepers; now, it’s a restaurant where I ordered Schnitzel.
The Hauptmarkt’s Schöner Brunnen (Beautiful Fountain), an octagonal pool with a 62-feet-high spire carved with statues of city and religious heroes standing at its center, is surrounded by a Renaissance-era iron grille with a famous golden ring. It’s said that if you turn the ring three times, your wishes will come true.
But it is the Albrecht-Dürer-Haus that has become as recognizable as its owner’s works. Engravings, etchings and lithographs of it helped it become a pilgrimage destination. Today, it is a public museum with a particular interest in the history of Dürer veneration.
Dürer purchased the large timber-framed dwelling on the Tiergärtnertor, in the Zistelgasse, in 1509. He and his wife, Agnes Frey, lived there for the rest of their lives. The home is situated so close to Nuremberg’s castle that Dürer included it in the background of several works, rendering its details so precisely that they have aided research on the castle architecture.
There, on a printing press dating from Dürer’s time, I made a print from St. Sebald on the Column, a circa-1501 woodcut Dürer designed for a broadside that featured an ode to the patron saint of Nuremberg written by the poet Konrad Celtis on the saint’s feast day, August 19. In his left hand, St. Sebald holds a model of the church dedicated to him in Nuremberg, where his relics are enshrined — and where Dürer was baptized.
For more on Albrecht Dürer. read Albrecht Dürer and His Legacy: The Graphic Work of a Renaissance Artist, by Giulia Bartrum; The Early Dürer, edited by Daniel Hess and Thomas Eser; Albrecht Dürer: The Genius of the German Renaissance, by Norbert Wolf; and Dürer: Master Draftsman of the Renaissance – His Life in Paintings, by Stefano Zuffi. The Relic Master, a novel by Christopher Buckley about a relics dealer whose best friend was Dürer, was one of the books the Cincinnati Art Museum’s “See the Story” bimonthly book club read in connection with the Dürer exhibition.