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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY FIFTY THREE Albrecht Durer

We were up at almost first light this morning. Today is our last day in Nuremberg and there is so much to see. Though 90% of the medieval quarter is reconstruction, the quality allows one to suspend disbelief. And this morning, empty and quiet, it was beautiful. Among the survivors is a corner house that belonged to Albrecht Dürer: now a museum showing his workshop and small gallery of prints.

We will go to Durer's worksop after I publish this post and we finish our cheese breakfast at the Literaturhaus. But our first port of call was to fulfil a request by Marcus Rees Roberts, also an etcher and our finest, to pay his respects at Durer's grave. Durer is laid to rest in possibly the most romantic graveyard in Germany, the Johannisfriedhof, where angled stones lie flat over the graves.

Marcus Rees Roberts: Self Portrait, 2020

Marcus has a particular interest in Durer's work and the Race Marshal rather cleverly induced him to write a guest post about this great German artist. Here it is:

"Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528) was the most important of the German Renaissance artists. He was a painter, and printmaker of woodcuts and engravings. Although from his early twenties he travelled in Italy and northern Europe - keeping diaries and writing letters, noting whom he had met, to whom he had sold prints and for how much – Nuremberg was his home throughout his life; he was born there and he died there.

Durer's portrait of Michael Wolgemut (c)wikicommons

After apprenticeships in the workshops of his goldsmith father and the wonderful early Renaissance artist Michael Wolgemut, Dürer began his travels. In the late 1490s he went to study in Italy. It was there that he realised that Italian artists were revered - and paid - not as artisans as they were north of the Alps, but as esteemed gentlemen. His self-portrait of 1498 is very revealing. In a gentleman’s finery, he sits in front of a window high above the landscape beyond, which is of mountains and rivers - not his native Nuremberg. He is not, he suggests, a parochial artisan, but a young man of the world, perhaps even elevated above it.

Durer's 1498 Self Portrait (c)prado museum

But most significant are his hands: they are hidden in expensive gloves. He is denying the role of his hands in his craft. He is also succumbing to the myth, current in Italy at that time, that the artist is someone who is close to the divine; a blessed conduit through whom the visions of God are transferred mysteriously and effortlessly onto the panel, mural, paper, or parchment. The hand of the craftsman, with its cuts and stains and blisters is disavowed: it plays no part. In his next self-portrait of 1500, this has become explicit. So sure is he of his divine status, he paints himself as if he is Jesus.

His new approach to printmaking embraced one of the principal expectations of the Renaissance: that the medium should be transparent; that is, the eye should be drawn effortlessly through the surface into the depicted space beyond. The miraculously skilled woodcutters in Nuremburg around 1500 could respond to this demand. And in his engravings on copper, Dürer could go even further in the project of transparency. He developed a system of dots and ticks and dashes that could represent the bark of a silver birch as opposed to that of a larch; the hair of a dog as opposed to that of a horse; silk as opposed to velvet. But, importantly, each mark is made in order to become invisible.

This was far beyond the capabilities of the German woodcutters who preceded him, the artisans who sold their crude images of saints and martyrs in the market squares of Germany. But Dürer was also far removed from their aesthetic purpose. For them, the depiction of a saint, however crude, becomes the saint. It therefore does not matter that a nose, mouth, and eyes are little more than dots; hands and beards are a few lines, as are trees and hills. The depiction is schematic and the space is flat.

Dürer developed systems by which he could depict three dimensional space. Now the scene was no longer a flat tableau seen from front on: it was an event that took place somewhere in particular, and this added to the emotional force of the narrative. Previously, a tree had been indicated by a stick with branches; an inverted V stood for a hill. Now, Dürer could set his narrative in a crumbling stable with a broken roof hung with weeds; a craggy lane overshadowed by dead trees; a gloomy study with shafts of sunlight filtering through the glass windows. The specificity added to the expressive meaning of the image.

It is also interesting that in order to avoid any mark that might interfere with the illusion of space, after about 1500 he placed his famous AD signature not on the picture surface, but within the represented scene: on a milestone, say, or a plaque hanging from a tree.

Dürer also created characters, people with their own distinctive clothes, hair, tired eyes, or stoop. He suggests an inner life of those he portrayed and the viewer could identify with them as people they might know. It is no accident that the development of Dürer’s prints coincided with the gradual demise of the miracle play and the rise of dramatic forms that explored the inner lives and dilemmas of recognisable characters.

Knight, Death, and the Devil (1513: engraving on copper 25 x 19 cm)

[an engraving is made by cutting needle-fine marks into a copper plate with a tool called a burin. The deeper the mark, the darker it is when it is printed; unlike an etching, no acid is used.]

The meaning of this print has been disputed for centuries. Some people believe that, together with Dürer‘s two other so-called masterworks – Melencolia 1 and Saint Jerome in his Study – it is part of a projected cycle depicting the four temperaments or humours. This would have represented Sanguinity. Or, perhaps, it is the portrait of a ruthless mercenary whose perennial companions are death and evil. Or is the Knight a portrait of Christian fortitude, whose faith will protect him through the valley of death and temptation and lead him to the castle of heaven?

Much of Dürer’s work displays his interest not only in perspective, proportion and

mathematics, but also the humanism and rationalism emerging from the Renaissance. But this print, made in 1513, when Dürer was at the height of his powers as an engraver, is something of an anomaly. It is stranger, more angular, darker in mood than much of his mature work. Indeed, in terms of imagery, the figure of the devil and Death holding an hourglass owe more to the fading twilight of the Gothic era than to the sunlit dawn of the Renaissance.

This plate is large for an engraving and it’s an example of Dürer’s mesmerising virtuosity: Vasari decided ‘nothing finer can be achieved.’ There is a range of tones and textures - far more than the more open warp and weft of 18th century engraving - and the observation and depiction of steel, horse hair, dog fur, weeds, rock and dead branches is remarkable. And, like the orchestration of the horses’ legs, the devil’s cloven feet and the those of the dog, all is arranged so effortlessly. The eerie spikes of the dead trees silhouetted against the sky are a perfect example of how Dürer used the particularity of things to give expressive power to the image.

It is all held together by the composition. One of Dürer’s techniques for establishing space was to create overlapping shapes of different tones. Here, in the foreground, is the inverted ​V of the knight in half tone; behind him is the M of the rocks in dark tone; and behind both is another inverted V of the distant castle in a shimmering, silvery light tone.

Dürer produced many other fine engravings, particularly his two other 'masterworks’ - Melencolia 1 and Saint Jerome in his Study - and the Engraved Passion. The 16th century saw many other wonderful engravings by, among others, Dürer’s great contemporaries Lucas van Leyden and Lucas Cranach the Elder, and even more by the Italians; but nothing, in my view, surpasses this print of the enigmatic, haunted Knight.

Even in his lifetime, Dürer enjoyed widespread recognition. Vasari mentioned his work admiringly in his Lives, and his great Italian contemporary, Mercantonio Raimondi copied his work to sell. It is interesting that Raimondi, every bit as committed as Dürer to the project of transparency of the medium, used his incredible skill to imitate not nature but the paintings and prints of others. Thus was born the tradition, which reached its apex in the 19th century,of engraving being used simply to imitate another medium.

Durer's House in Nuremberg

Dürer died in his handsome house in Nuremberg at the age of 57. As an artist, he was renowned throughout Europe; he was rich and well-connected. It is perhaps sobering in these times of fragile mortality that he felt he was not quite rich enough, nor quite as well-connected as he might be."

Thank you, Marcus.

If you need more on Durer, here is the episode from the BBC's Northern Renaissance series -

This is an hour's drift through 629 of Durer's prints -

A 15 minute drift through Durer's paintings -

And a period piece - Monty Python's film on Durer -

The complete works of Michael Wolgemut in 4 minutes 30 seconds with an inappropriate sound track -

A performance by ye tribute band Wolgemut - worth watching in one viewer's opinion: 'Sweet! Love the Davul player. He's rocking out' -

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