Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) is generally regarded as the first northern European artist to develop a Renaissance visual style and as a pivotal figure in the early history of printed graphic art as it rapidly evolved into a medium for complex artistic expression.

The son of a successful Nuremberg goldsmith, Dürer was apprenticed in 1486 to the leading local painter Michael Wolgemut, whose atelier also produced woodcut illustrations for books, some of which, such as Stephan Fridolin’s Schatzbehalter (1491) and Hartmann Schedel’s Liber chronicarum, called the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493), contain significant biblical imagery. Dürer’s early interest in graphic design developed in the context of sudden demand for the new art form from the nascent printing industry of his hometown. His so-called Wanderjahre (1490–1494) took him to the upper Rhineland notably to Basel and Strasbourg, also centers of early printing, and to Colmar to study with the engraver Martin Schongauer, a hope thwarted by Schongauer’s death. After his wedding in Nuremberg to Agnes Frey on 7 July 1494, Dürer traveled to Italy, mainly to Venice, during 1494–1495. In 1505–1507, he returned to Italy (again residing mostly in Venice) as an established artist, renowned primarily because of his graphic art.

His only other known journey, which took him through the Rhineland to the Low Countries in 1520–1521, was something of a grand tour for a revered artist. He was entertained by several courts and city councils and celebrated by many local artists and humanist scholars he encountered. During this sojourn, he attended the coronation of Charles V in Aachen (23 October 1520), and while in Cologne (November 1520) the imperial court renewed an annual stipend Dürer had been receiving from Maximilian I since 1515. He also visited Margaret of Austria, regent of the Low Countries, in Antwerp, and studied Aztec art on display in Brussels. While in Antwerp on 17 May 1521, Dürer recorded a false report that Martin Luther had been murdered after the Diet of Worms and expressed his hope that Erasmus would assume leadership of the evangelical movement (Dürer, 1956, Vol. 1, pp. 170–172).

Although without a university education, Dürer was a prominent member of an elite circle of Nuremberg humanist scholars that included Willibald Pirckheimer and Conrad Celtis. Later in life, he came to know some of the most significant scholars of the era, including the Wittenberg humanist Philipp Melanchthon and the humanist and Bible scholar Desiderius Erasmus, both of whom expressed enthusiastic admiration for his art and writings and both of whom he portrayed in engravings from 1526. Dürer also mentioned Johannes Reuchlin, the founder of Christian Hebrew studies, in a 1520 letter reflecting on the Luther controversy (Dürer, 1956, Vol. 1, p. 86). In 1518, Dürer’s humanist sodality adopted the name “sodalitas Martiniana” in honor of Luther, suddenly famous after posting the Ninety-five Theses (31 October 1517). Although scholarly opinion is divided on some specific aspects, there is no doubt that Dürer was strongly influenced by the Protestant Reformation during the last decade of his life. Christian humanism, the dominant orientation of Nuremberg humanists, informed his reception of the Reformation and provided a wide perspective that enabled him to embrace both Luther and Erasmus.

After Dürer died in Nuremberg on 6 April 1528, his lifelong friend Pirckheimer supervised the publication of one his tracts, Four Books on Human Proportions (Hjerinn sind begriffen vier bücher von menschlicher proportion, 1528), as well as an expanded edition of his 1525 book on geometry, A Course in the Art of Measurement (Underweysung der messung, 1538). Joachim Camerarius, a professor at the new humanist academy in Nuremberg, translated Dürer’s most important publications into Latin, thereby laying the foundation for the extensive European reception of his art manuals.

Representing Biblical Philology: St. Jerome.

Dürer’s art reveals a profound and lifelong interest in the Bible. One of his most frequent subjects was St. Jerome, the creator of the Latin Vulgate Bible, who appears in some 13 compositions in various media. In all of his renderings, Dürer draws on two complementary iconographies of Jerome: the saint as penitent in the wilderness and as biblical scholar in his study. His earliest St. Jerome, which appeared on the title page of a 1492 edition of Jerome’s letters (Epistolare beati hieronymi, 1492), depicts the saint removing a thorn from a lion’s paw and also displays the first verse of the Bible in three versions: the Hebrew Bible, the ancient Greek Septuagint Bible, and Jerome’s own Latin Vulgate translation.

Dürer’s xylographic printing of these texts in their original languages is remarkable, for, as of 1492, Christian printers had yet to produce a Hebrew Bible (although Jewish firms had been printing Hebrew Bible texts since the 1470s, including the first complete Hebrew Bible in 1488), and the first edition of the Septuagint would not appear for some 25 years. Moreover, while biblical scholarship was poised for a dramatic advance, no scholar in 1492 is known to have been undertaking comparative analysis of the Hebrew, Septuagint, and Vulgate texts. Dürer later included Hebrew, Greek, and Latin texts for Psalm 111:10 (“fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom”) in a circa 1501 woodcut bookplate for Pirckheimer (Price, 2003, p. 203).

Among his other images of Jerome, the most frequently studied is the engraving of 1514, a work that is renowned for its use of perspective. In this complex composition, Dürer represented biblical scholarship as being grounded in piety and divine inspiration. The implicit assertion of the inspired status of the Vulgate was typical for the period before Erasmus challenged the Latin Bible’s authority with his 1516 editio princeps of the New Testament in Greek. Nonetheless, by prominently suspending a large gourd from the ceiling, Dürer alludes to a philological controversy between Augustine and Jerome over the translation of the Hebrew word for the plant (kikayon) in Jonah 4:6–10 (Parshall, 1971), thus drawing attention to the inherent difficulty of biblical philology, even if several elements in the composition indicate the inspiring and authorizing presence of the Holy Spirit.

In later compositions, especially in a trenchant drawing of an introspective St. Jerome (ca. 1520; Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Preußischer Kulturbesitz) and an arresting portrait-style painting (1521; Lisbon, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga), Dürer explored the saint’s scholarly and spiritual authority from the perspective of the Renaissance topos of melancholy.

Book of Revelation.

One of Dürer’s most significant early accomplishments was the publication of a partial Bible, the book of Revelation, printed in large folio format with 15 full-page illustrations, a work that is generally credited as being the first book of any kind that was designed, illustrated, and published by an artist. It appeared initially in 1498 in two separate Latin and German editions under the titles Apocalypsis cum figuris and Die heimlich offenbarung iohannis (presswork attributed to Anton Koberger), respectively, and was then republished in Latin only in 1511 (presswork attributed to Hieronymus Höltzel).

The Latin edition of 1498 was an innovation because it is one of the first two instances of a Latin Bible printed with a program of illustration beyond a title page woodcut (the other instance being a Vulgate printed in Venice, also in 1498, with woodcuts recycled from the 1490 Italian Malermi Bible). The German Bible, on the other hand, had been lavishly illustrated in several sumptuous editions during the incunabular age, including the Quentell (1478/79) and Koberger (1483) Bibles, whose illustrations served as Dürer’s model. The thematic substance has direct sources in eight woodcuts from the Quentell-Koberger Bibles, but a distinctive stylistic innovation is that, unlike the colored-in designs of the model, Dürer’s approach supplants color entirely with graphic effects. In 1498, no one—not even the advanced Italian artists—had seen woodcuts as expressive, detailed, complex, or as ambitious as these. The complexity, which paved the way for sixteenth-century designers, rivaled that of the best engravings of the late fifteenth century but did so without contradicting the properties, especially the abstract linearity, of the woodcut medium.

Erwin Panofsky identified an important aesthetic paradox in “the naturalistic rendering of the non-naturalistic mode of presentation” (1955, p. 56), arguing that naturalism in representation of detail and setting is crucial for the intelligible portrayal of supernatural, visionary themes. Dürer’s influence can be detected throughout the history of early modern graphic art, in Cranach, Holbein, and even in much later artists with very different styles, such as Rembrandt. The Cranach workshop’s illustrations in the first edition of Luther’s New Testament, the so-called Septembertestament (1522), are deeply indebted to Dürer.

Humanism and the Bible.

In his biblical art, Dürer explicitly endeavored to synthesize classical and Christian biblical culture. A prime example of this is his Fall of Humanity (engraving, 1504), which, despite its biblical theme, is among the most classical-looking compositions in his oeuvre. The image transposes a Greek ideal of beauty, derived from proportional studies and from Greek statuary, onto a biblical portrayal of prelapsarian human perfection. A precise classical source for the figure of Eve cannot be specified, although the figure is often compared to the Medici Venus, one of several works thought to copy Praxiteles’s Aphrodite of Knidos. Adam was derived from careful study of the Apollo Belvedere, discovered in Rome or its vicinity in the late fifteenth century. In 1507, Dürer created another version of the subject, this time in a painting on two panels (Florence, Uffizi), which, under the influence of Venetian artists, reveals a more sensual interpretation of the human body.

The most common biblical theme in Dürer’s oeuvre is the story of Christ’s life, especially the Passion. Dürer did not distinguish between biblical and postbiblical sources when representing events in the lives of Christ or Mary. Like most theologians and artists before the onset of humanist philology and Protestant biblicism, he conceptualized the gospel as part of a larger discourse that extended beyond the text of the Bible itself. One of the rare biblical scenes in his oeuvre not associated with Christ’s life was his portrayal of Job and his (unnamed) wife (based on Job 2:9) on a wing of the so-called Jabach Altar (Frankfurt am Main, Städelsches Kunstinstitut), a work that nonetheless suggests typological connection with Christ’s Passion.

He represented the Gospel narratives most extensively in his Engraved Passion, a series of 15 engravings (1508–1512), and in his famous triad of books from 1511, each of which includes Benedictus Chelidonius’s humanist poetic paraphrases of biblical and traditional stories of Christ’s life to complement Dürer’s full-page woodcut visualizations. These books are commonly known by the titles The Large Passion, The Small Passion, and The Life of the Virgin (all printed in Nuremberg by Hieronymus Höltzel, but under the imprimatur of the artist). Dürer and Chelidonius anchored their books in the aesthetics of Roman culture. The Large Passion attempts a heroic epic style (with the poetry in dactylic hexameter), and the Life of the Virgin enters the domestic and ecclesiastical (hymnic) realm of the elegy (with the poetry in elegiac distiches), while the Small Passion evokes the intense subjectivity of Horace’s Odes (with the poetry on Christ’s life and passion set in 20 different Horatian lyric meters).

Some scholars have noted anti-Semitic ideology in Dürer’s representation of the Passion. Dürer also published his own German poetic account of the Passion, illustrated with a simple woodcut, which has strongly anti-Jewish elements (Dürer, 1956, Vol. 1, pp. 135–137). Dürer’s poem is based on the medieval hymn “Patris Sapientia,” but it significantly heightens the anti-Jewish fervor of the original Latin poem (Price, 2003, pp. 120–132 and 169–193). Christ among the Doctors (1506; Madrid, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza), a major biblical painting from Dürer’s second residency in Italy, portrays Jesus as a boy in the Temple, based on Luke 2:46–47, and various Jewish reactions to him. While some rabbis appear to be responding favorably, which would accord with the tone in Luke, Dürer portrayed others, perhaps reflecting Leonardoesque caricature, as Christ-haters. Dürer rendered the same scene of Jewish reaction to Christ in a woodcut for the Life of the Virgin largely without anti-Jewish innuendo.

Dürer, Albrecht

Albrecht Dürer's The Four Holy Men (1526). The painting features the biblical writers John, Peter, Paul, and Mark, each of whom is associated with an image of the Bible.

Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany/Bridgeman Images

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Luther’s Bible.

The final period of Dürer’s art shows important influences from the Reformation. In particular, Dürer was impressed by Luther’s creation of a new German Bible, grounded in the new humanist biblical philology, and by the Protestant assertion that the Bible is the sole authority for theological doctrine. Several of Dürer’s compositions have been understood as responses to Luther’s epochal publication of the German translation of the New Testament in September 1522, a Bible usually called the Septembertestament.

In 1523, Dürer completed an innovative woodcut of The Last Supper, which, unlike previous renditions of the event, is based on John 13, the only Gospel account that records the departure of Judas from the table and Christ’s proclamation to the remaining disciples of the New Commandment (John 13:34). In the words of Panofsky, “now—and as far as we know for the first and last time in the history of art—the scene is depicted after the crisis has passed” (1955, p. 223). The unusual composition was probably inspired by Luther’s preface to his 1522 German Bible, in particular by the prominent use in the preface of John 13:34 as the decisive proof text for the status of Christian love (good works) in a theology of justification by faith alone (solafideism): “This is what Christ means when at the last he gave no other commandment than love, by which men were to know who were his disciples and true believers. For where works and love do not break forth, there faith is not right and the gospel has not yet taken hold” (Pelikan and Lehmann, 1955–1986, Vol. 35, p. 353; Price, 1996).

Dürer’s last major painting, The Four Holy Men (1526; Munich, Alte Pinakothek), represents the authority of Luther’s new translation of the Bible. The composition, on two large panels, consists of monumental author portraits of the biblical writers John, Peter, Paul, and Mark, each of whom is associated with an image of the Bible: John and Peter read from the Gospel of John verbatim in the version of Luther; Mark holds a scroll with the title of his Gospel; Paul sternly grasps what we must assume to be a volume of the Bible and his prominent sword, though also a symbol of his martyrdom, is an allusion to Ephesians 6:17: “And take … the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” The arrangement of the figures with the powerful forms of John and Paul in the foreground reflects the hierarchy of scriptures proposed by Luther in the Septembertestament: “Therefore John’s Gospel is the one fine, true, and chief Gospel, and is far, far to be preferred over the other three and be placed high above them. So, too, the epistles of St. Paul and St. Peter far surpass the other three Gospels” (Pelikan and Lehmann, 1955–1986, Vol. 35, p. 362).

The biblical authors literally stand on Luther’s Septembertestament, four excerpts from their writings painted on the bases in elegant calligraphy, taken verbatim from Luther’s rendering. The base of the left panel begins with an address to secular rulers, a reflection of Dürer’s presentation of the paintings to the City Council of Nuremberg in 1526: “In these dangerous times all secular rulers should exercise caution that they do not receive human deception for the Word of God. For God wants nothing added to his Word or taken away from it. Hear therefore these excellent four men, their warning” (Dürer, 1956, Vol. 1, p. 210). The urgency of the inscription heightens the visual tension in the composition since a danger appears to be present, as one must also sense from the severity of Paul’s expression and from the forbidding monumentality of the figures themselves.

Dürer’s admonition is then followed by the four biblical passages written by the authors depicted, all of which deal with aspects of religious crisis: 2 Peter 2:1–3 and 1 John 4:1–3 on the left, and 2 Timothy 3:1–7 and Mark 12:38–40 on the right. The extract from Paul’s 2 Timothy describes the various types of sinners who will come “in the last days” and should be avoided, a general sense of the passage being that protection against antinomianism is necessary. Mark’s verses contain the famous imprecation against scribes in their long robes, a general warning about arrogant and corrupt scholars or clerics in the church. In 2 Peter 2:1–3 can be found a caution against those who will introduce false doctrine and heterodox sects. The passage from 1 John 4:1–3 expresses a similar worry about religious deception and orthodoxy, including one of the five biblical occurrences of the term “anti-Christ” (passages transcribed in Dürer, 1956, Vol. 1, p. 210).

Most scholars have interpreted the composition as a confirmation of Protestant biblicism, specifically the use of the Bible’s authority to legitimate political and theological innovations and probably as an affirmation of the new Protestant regime in Nuremberg against both Catholic and radical Protestant opposition. As Panofsky argued, the work “castigates radicals and Papists alike” (1955, p. 234). Specifically, the composition likely represents an endorsement of the Nuremberg magistracy’s official adoption of Lutheranism, which occurred formally in March 1525, in a turbulent environment.

Dürer even included a veiled tribute to Luther’s Bible in his A Course in the Art of Measurement (1525). As a prelude to an extensive analysis of lettering, he described a technique for sizing inscriptions on the face of tall monuments in order to make the words at different heights appear the same size to a viewer at base level. His woodcut illustration features Luther’s translation of the phrase from 1 Peter 1:25, “The Word of God will last forever” (“Das W[ort] Gotes bleibt ewiglich”), the verse that had become the motto of Lutheran Bible imprints (Dürer, Underweysung der messung [Nuremberg: Andreae, 1525], fol. K 1v).

Dürer’s interest in the Bible and the biblicism of the Reformation may have been reflected in the will of his widow, Agnes Frey Dürer, attested in 1538. She bequeathed a handsome part of their estate to endow a scholarship fund to support sons of Nuremberg artisans who wished to study “holy scripture” at the University of Wittenberg (Dürer, 1956, Vol. 1, p. 234).



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David H. Price