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The durable Dürer

In the Reformation era, Albrecht Dürer used new technology to advance excellent art the way Luther used it to advance biblical theology. Five centuries later, Dürer's art is in a traveling exhibition, and it still soars

Issue: "Four horsemen of the apocalypse," Oct. 4, 2008

As the Internet is changing communication now, so the printing press did half a millennium ago, and not only for writers. Artists until then could paint or sculpt and hope their creation would last in one public place. But soon after Gutenberg's mid-15th-century innovation, artists who devoted themselves to print media could produce multiple copies for private homes.

One artist in particular specialized and excelled in intricate woodcuts, engravings, and etchings: Abrecht Dürer (1471-1528). Art historians view him as the greatest master of the printed image besides Rembrandt, the leading melder of northern European and Renaissance styles, and a true graphic entrepreneur during the first century of the printing press. But he's also interesting theologically, as he became a fan of Martin Luther during the last decade of his life.

Dürer's work is available in books, but I first realized his genius when viewing 100 of his greatest works recently on display at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City. That exhibit is now at The Mobile (Ala.) Museum of Art; in January it will be at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Fla. It's worth visiting, and it's worth learning something about this artist whose father "was very careful of his children to bring them up to honor God."

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That's what the exhibit catalogue shows about Dürer's relationship with his dad, who helped him gain a good apprenticeship and the opportunity to study in Italy. Dürer then opened a shop in his hometown of Nuremberg in 1495 and began producing and selling engravings and woodcuts. Instead of depending upon patrons or church commissions, Dürer hired an agent who sold his prints at fairs throughout Europe.

The cover illustration of this issue, which we playfully tied to politics, is from Dürer's The Apocalypse, the first publication ever (1498) by an artist designing and printing his own book. The book was what today would be called a graphic novel, a sequence of 15 woodcuts with text from Revelation in both a Latin edition and a German one.

The 27-year-old Dürer took artistic license with chapter 6 of Revelation: In the biblical text the four horsemen of the Apocalypse ride separately, but here they form a thundering posse. Three of the four ride on galloping steeds; the fourth, death, rides a rib-showing, hungry nag over the jaws of hell. The book apparently sold so well that a Strasbourg printer latched onto the action with a pirated edition in 1502. Dürer himself released a new edition in 1511.

Three years later he produced a work famous in art history for its technical brilliance, "St. Jerome in His Study." The church father sits at his writing desk at the vanishing point of a central perspective view, with light coming through the bull's-eye glass panes of the tall windows. He is seizing the time, presumably translating the Bible into Latin, while surrounded by objects-like an hourglass and a skull-that show how time flies while we slumber; note the sleeping dog and drowsy lion in the foreground.

Dürer was often on the lookout for subjects that would sell. In 1515 he produced a large print of an animal few in Europe had ever seen, a rhinoceros. Dürer himself never saw it, but relied on written descriptions sent to Nuremberg of a rhino that had arrived in Lisbon from India, a gift to the king of Portugal. Dürer deliberately left no right and left margins, so that the rhino's bulk fills the space and threatens to burst the image's confines.

The teaching of Luther that began the Protestant Reformation in 1517 heavily influenced Dürer. He attended the Augustinian Church in Nuremberg and listened to a sermon series offered by Johann von Staupitz, Luther's mentor, who preached on Christ's atonement rather than our own works as the key to forgiveness from sin. When Luther disappeared after the church council known as the Diet of Worms and few knew whether he was living or dead, Dürer offered a prayer: "O God, if Luther is dead, who will henceforth deliver the Holy Gospel to us with such clarity?"

Dürer wanted to produce a portrait of Luther, whom he called "this Christian man who has helped me out of great distress." He never did draw Luther and never did formally renounce Roman Catholicism, but Dürer's Protestant sympathies must have become evident by the time he wrote in 1524 that "because of our Christian faith we have to stand in scorn and danger, for we are reviled and called heretics."

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