Albrecht Durer: History and Analysis

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Albrecht Durer

Albrecht Durer lived as a German painter, Printmaker and theorist from Nuremberg. His still-famous artworks include the Apocalypse woodcuts, Knight, Death, and the Devil, Saint Jerome in his study and Melencolia I, which has been the topic of broad analysis and interpretation. Durer’s watercolors mark him as the first European landscape artists, while his ambitious woodcuts revolutionized the potential of the medium. His presentation of classic themes into Northern art, through his knowledge of Italian artists and German humanists, have ensured his reputation as one of the most significant figures of the northern renaissance. This is reinforced by his theoretical treatise which involve rules of mathematics, position and ideal dimensions.

There’s no evidence to suggest Durer saw saint Jerome in his study, Melencolia I, and knight, Death, and the Devil as companion bits, but modern art experts group these artworks because of their technological similarities. Each was made from copper printing plates. They are alike in size and function of contrast, and as you’d expect of pieces called meisterstiche, each is densely detailed with expert attention.   Durer’s ability to draw and paint realistic images was the greatest. He was able to give tiny detail with extreme clearness, such as the famous Young Hare and his famous self-portrait from 1500. His crowning action of accomplishing something challenging was The Four Apostles.

Durer’s Melencolia I has reduced its dark lines deeply into this modern vision. It demonstrates a winged woman who sits in apparent dejection, surrounded by unused objects giving a couple of dividers as she broods. Her face is a mask of dark, but her shining eyes glare, exposing a sharpness of psyche that contrasts with her exhausted pose. In 16th century portraits, the head lying on hand pose was to get universal picture of the person afflicted by sad ideas- as in Moretto da Brescia’s portrait of a Young Man in London’s National Gallery. The influence of Durer’s prints exist everywhere in Renaissance Europe. But what is as awesome is the ability of this 1514 study to captivate us today, as when Gunter Grass uses Durer’s Print ponder on modern politics in his 1973 book from the Diary of a Snail.

Durer’s work is so appealing because it is a diagnosis. It describes a feeling in a way a doctor may list symptoms. Melancholy is sitting down, head in her hand, and face a bit shadowy. The identification of the disease that Durer offers comes from old medicine. According to the idea of the “humours”, sadness was caused by an excess of black liquid – that’s the reason for her darkened face and the appropriate black ink. But Durer offers something else not found in the old almost science – a sense of soul weighed down by its own thinking ability. In fact, the roots of his greatest work lies in Renaissance Italy, which he had visited and whose artists he knew well.

Durer knew what he was doing when he created Melencolia I. He knew and saw a sense of darkness in the Melancholy. It was a curse for one of the greatest artists in the world whose art he had studied: Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo suffered from an affliction that kept him from completing his paintings. For years he worried about a statue of a horse that he never made and started a painting battle that he left as a sketch on a wall in Florence. Does Melencolia I portray a portrait of the creative paralysis of da Vinci who Durer aspired to imitate – flaws included? If so this would be the first attempt to understand Leonardo, including Goethe’s essay on the Last Supper, and Sigmund Freud’s book Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood.

 Albrecht Durer

 Melencolia I

 Engraving, 1514

 Durer’s Knight, Death, and the Devil was originally named The Rider in 1513. When he created this masterpiece, it was inspired by a scripture in the bible Psalm 23: “Though I walk in the valley of the shadow of the death, I will fear no evil”. Durer was trying to get viewers to see that there are three enemies that we all must face; the devil, the flesh, and the world. Durer in creating this piece had feared death lingering around him ever since he was a little boy. Being a sibling of 17 he was the only one that made it to adulthood. Death was a constant threat for Durer as he writes “anyone who is among us may die tomorrow, and always seek grace as if you may die at any moment”.

 As viewers take a look at the engraving they can see that it is filled with many symbols. For instance, the knights armor symbolizes his Christian faith. The hourglass in deaths hand signifies mans mortality. The foxtail speared on the knights lance kept behind him represents lies, and the dog running alongside him represents loyalty and veracity. The lizard who is scurrying signifies danger come towards them and the skull at the bottom signifies death coming ahead of them. Because of the personal attachment to the engraving and the knights bravery in facing death and damnation, Durer got a lot of admiration for creating this masterpiece.

 There was even a writer named Jorge Luis Borges who wrote two poems about this piece. Durer got so much praise for his work that some would say that this is an artwork that is responsible for making him famous. Observers could find his work in every museum in America. It was a piece that was often talked about and because of his creation he was the most demanded artist in Northern Europe. He even received many job offers but turned them down and dismissed some artists as “parasites”. Instead of continuing with painting Durer went on to do printmaking.

 Albrecht Durer

 Knight, Death, and the Devil

 Engraving, 1513

 Just like Melencolia I and Knight, Death, and the Devil, Saint Jerome also became one of Durer’s greatest masterpieces. St. Jerome was a church father who translated the bible in Latin and revised the translations. Jerome is often depicted with a lion because of a legend of him extracting a thorn from the lions paw who befriended him. As a young boy Jerome learned Latin and Greek. Little is known about his childhood other than knowing that his parents were Christians and despite their efforts to raise him up right, Jerome behaved as he chose.

 At the age of 12 Jerome traveled Rome and studied grammar, philosophy, and rhetoric. He took up a career in law but soon lost his morals. Jerome pursued women in the time not spent studying knowing that it was wrong. To cleanse himself of his sins he would visit the crypts in Rome and imagine himself in hell. He did this every Sunday even though he wasn’t a Christian. Meanwhile, he succeeded in frightening himself but did not succeed in changing his ways. He had a companion named Bonosus who was a Christian influence. He initially helped Jerome better his ways and led him to Christianity.

 Jerome was a hard worker and spent time writing to defend Mary’s virginity. He was easily upset and engaged in debates with other heresies including his old friend Rufinus. Jerome even exchanged words with St. Augustine but eventually they repaired their relationship and became friends and colleagues. Considering all the things that made Jerome famous nothing compared to his translation of the bible. He was under Pope Damasus as he was working in Rome spending his whole life translating scriptures from Hebrew and old Latin. Later it became hard for him to finish his work due to the violence that occurred in Bethlehem. Of Durer’s three masterpieces his interpretation of Saint Jerome seems pretty straightforward.

 In this print Jerome is depicted in the corner of his study with his body hunched over his writing stand. There is a halo on top of his head as it is bent over emitting a source of light. A pen is clutched in his right hand as he writes his thoughts on paper and a well-lit-table is before him which is quite bare, considering the exception of the ink quill and the small crucifix in the right corner. When observing the print observers can see that there are various utensils on the wall behind him; an hourglass, and a cardinals hat as well. The room is filled with mottled sunlight streaming through two windows to the left of the composition where you can also spot a gourd hanging from the cross beam on the wooded ceiling. Where the closet windowsill is lies a human skull where there is a bench pushed up underneath it against the wall covered with books and cushions. In the foreground there is a dog sleeping in front of slippers, and next to that dog lies a tranquil lion alert of their surroundings. To the right of the lions tail viewers can also see where Durer placed his signature that is kept inside a placard which seems to have fallen off the nearest wall.

 Saint Jerome really grabbed Durer’s attention. He was the only saint that appeared in Durer’s works. Durer chose to depict Jerome because he is a scholarly and engaged man who needed to suppress his thoughts in a secluded room for pray and contemplation. The room is heavily filled with metaphorical and allegorical imagery. The lion in the print is taken from an allegorical stand point due the fact that Jerome saved it from pulling a thorn out of its paw and in return the lion became his companion and showed him respect and loyalty. In the prints Knight, Death, and the Devil, and Melencolia I the hourglass and the human skull also appear representing time passing by. if viewers were to observe the three prints they would see that death symbolized by the hourglass doesn’t give Jerome any fear because of his spiritual contemplation in knowing that he will have a foretaste to eternity.

 Saint Jerome was Durer’s one of three masterpieces; others include the Knight, Death, and the Devil, and Melencolia I. Historians Paul Weber and Erwin Panofsky tried to put these three masterpieces together. They thought that Saint Jerome and the Knight resembled religious piety, which involved them dedicating their lives to Christ. Jerome did this by dedicating to his sacred contemplation and the Knight by committing to his faithfulness through his heroic dedication in action. But, in opposed to these two characters, Melencolia I symbolizes an opposed opposition into dedicating her services to God due to her lack of purpose and fulfillment.

 Albrecht Durer

 Saint Jerome in his study

 Engraving on paper, 1514

Bibliography

  • Balus Wojciech, Durer’s Melencolia I: Melancholy and the Undecided (IRSA s.c., 15, no. 30, 1994): 9-21.
  • Parshall Peter, Graphic Knowledge: Albrecht Durer and the Imagination (The Art Bulletin, vol. 95, no. 3, Sept. 2013): 393-410.
  • Smith David, Guenther Liz, Realism and Invention in the Prints of Albrecht Durer (1995): 1-78.
  • Wolf Norbert, Albrecht Durer (Prestel, 2017): 1-299.

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