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Albrecht Durer

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The High Renaissance & Mannerism
 
 
 
 
 
Durer - life and works
 
 
 
Nuremberg, 1507-1520
 
 
 

The Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand
1508
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna



The Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand (detail)
1508
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna



The Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand (detail)
1508
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna



The Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand (detail)
1508
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna


 

The Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand

Durer executed the painting in 1508 for Frederick the Wise, directly following his return from Italy. He was compensated 280 Rhineland florins. In 1549, on orders from Emperor Charles V, it was sent to Antwerp and given to Nicolas Perrenot, his chancellor. It then passed from his son, Cardinal Granvella, to his grandson, the count of Cantecroy, who sold it to Emperor Rudolph 11 for 13,000 talers in 1600. In 1617, the painting was still in Prague, where Carel van Mander saw and described it. Since 1619, it has been in Vienna, where Joachim van Sandrart described it in 1675.
Frederick the Wise had gathered an enormous quantity of relics in the Stiftskirche of Wittenberg, among which many were of the legendary martyrdom of the ten thousand of Bitinia, particularly those of the Saints Achatius and Hermolaus (Anzelewsky, 1991). This fact explains why he chose, for the painting commissioned to Durer, an episode so removed from the common iconographical theme. The legend that it refers to probably arrived in Europe during the Crusades; however, it did not appear earlier than the twelfth century (Schutz, 1994). It narrates the story of Emperor Adrian, who recruited for a military campaign in Asia the pagan Prince Achatius, with nine thousand soldiers. During the advances against the enemy, who outnumbered them, an angel appeared to Achatius and promised him a victory despite the menacing superiority of the adversaries. After the victorious battle, the angel reappeared, directing him toward Mount Ararat; here, the prince and his soldiers converted to Christianity. The emperor, enraged, decided to slaughter them all and employed the Persian king Sapor II, along with other Eastern princes, for the massacre. Meanwhile, in addition to Achatius's nine thousand soldiers, the thousand Eastern soldiers were baptized; and after having been tortured and having suffered atrocious torments, they were all killed (Anzelewsky, 1991). The same legend, in a different contest, had already been illustrated by Durer ten years earlier in a woodcut. The character lavishly attired, seated on horseback, with an enormous turban and a scepter, who looks at the observer, represents in all likelihood King Sapor of Persia. In front of him, in the foreground, in white clothes, a white turban, and an azure cloak, another high-ranking Easterner is imparting the orders for the tortures and killings, which are readily carried out before his very eyes with clubs and axes. The representation of the violence of the torturers and the various positions of their victims, on their knees and lying on the ground, demonstrates the wide knowledge Durer had acquired about the human form and laws of perspective. Notice, in particular, the figure whose head is about to be smashed: the artist had apparently studied classical sculpture and Italian painting modeled on classical art. An incredible display of knowledge of human physiognomy is evident in the head cut off from the man beside the first. A refined psychological sensibility and pictorial mastery characterize almost all the figures of this tragic scene: for example, the almost cinematographic sequence of the people who are made to fall from the cliff in the top left (Panofsky, 1955), or the highly dramatic representation in perspective of the crucifixions and the various fragments of crosses on the ground. The Bellinian precepts are revealed in the color scheme of the sunset; even the child who plays with the dog, in the corner on the bottom right, has Italian echoes.
The bishop of Nicomedia, Hermolaus (Anzelewsky, 1991, with a bibliography) has been identified in the figure in the center of the painting. He is being accused by a man with pointed gestures in front of an Eastern figure, who, then indicates the pathway of martyrdom. Achatius, on the other hand, is probably represented in the figure with the crown of thorns who moves in front of the crucifixions in the foreground.
In the visual center of the painting, it is clear that Diirer, as usual, looks toward the spectator. This time, he is not wearing rich and gaudy costumes; his black attire expresses his mourning for the recent death of his friend Konrad Celtis, poeta laureatus, professor of poetics at the University of Vienna and well known to Frederick the Wise as well (Panofsky, 1955). In the painting, Celtis stands beside him and with his right hand, looking out to the observer, he indicates sadly the scene of the martyrdom.
The painting, impressive also chromatically, is not an altarpiece but a devotional image; the particular care that Durer devoted to it makes it a piece of exquisite quality, a classic collector's piece. A copy of a preparatory drawing for the painting exists in Vienna as well, in which is sketched a horizontal development of the martyrdom scene; even from the point of view of content, the definitive version presents various modifications.






The Adoration of the Holy Trinity (Landauer Altar)
1511
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

 


The Adoration of the Holy Trinity
1511
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna


The Adoration of the Holy Trinity (detail)
1511
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna


The Adoration of the Holy Trinity (detail)
1511
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna


The Adoration of the Trinity

(Landauer Altar
)

This panel is one of the few works by Durer whose frame, designed by the artist himself and carved by Ludwig Krug of Nuremberg, has been preserved. The actual frame of the painting is a copy made in 1880-81, and the original is preserved in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum of Nuremberg. The inscription of the frame reads: "Mathes Landauer hat entlich vollbracht das gotteshaus der szwelf bruder samt der Stiftung und dieser thafell nach christi geburd 1511 jor." (Matthaus Landauer has brought to conclusion the Chapel of the Twelve Brothers and the Rest Home and this panel in the year 1511 after the birth of Christ). In 1585, the panel, without the frame, was acquired by Rudolph II for 700 florins. It was mentioned as being present in the Kunstkammer of Prague in 1617 by Carel van Mander and in 1675, by Joachim van Sandrart. It passed to the Geistliche Schatzkammer of Vienna in 1 758, and finally, in 1780 it was set up in the Gemaldegalerie. Matthaus Landauer, a wealthy merchant and a proprietor of foundries (Schutz, 1994), had the rest home built with a chapel attached for the twelve artisans, indigent Nuremberg citizens. He spent the last years of his life in this house that he founded and managed. The chapel is dedicated to the Holy Trinity and to all saints; in the center of the works dedicated to them was placed Durer's altarpiece.
Already in 1508, when the House of the Twelve was still under construction— probably at the moment of the conclusion of the contract with Landauer— Durer presented the patron with a pen drawing in watercolor that showed the very detailed program of the entire work, including the frame. As soon as he had finished the Heller Altar, in 1511, he began to paint, while the carver worked on the frame. Once finished, the painting presented some differences with respect to the original program, in form and content. The most important of these concerns not only the portraits of the patrons but the outline of the altarpiece, which in the definitive version appears cambered in the upper portion. The corners, with a black background today, were covered in the decorative designs of the frame in his time. The ornately carved frame has two lateral columns covered, for the most part, in vine shoots. The "deeis" is represented in the tympanum, that is, Christ as judge of the universe, seated on a rainbow with his feet resting of the globe of the earth. To either side, the Madonna and Saint John the Baptist have intercessory roles. At the top, to the left and right of the tympanum, two angels trumpeting announce the Last Judgment. The angel with the cross, foreseen in the preparatory drawing and still present in a relatively recent photograph (Zampa, 1968), is missing today.
The blessed souls, who are brought to heaven, radiant with sun, are represented on one side of the architrave. On the other, the souls of the damned are pushed toward the obscurity of hell. The general disposition follows a typically Italian outline that was widely diffused at this time. In fact, according to Leon Battista Alberti's book Delia Pittura, it gives the illusion of seeing the painting as if through a window—in this case, through a portal.
At the top of the painting, above the clouds, the three symbols of the Trinity are found: the Eternal Father with the imperial crown, the crucified Christ—a piece of an anatomical study par excellence— and the dove of the Holy Spirit. Angels surround them, carrying the symbols of the martyrdom and holding the cloak of the Eternal Father from behind the crucifix. Above everyone, a flock of cherubs extends into the endless sky. Following the description of the Civitas Dei formulated by Saint Augustine (Panofsky, 1955), Durer represents the glory of the Trinity, encircled in the upper zone by a score of blessed souls: to the left, the female saints, led by the Virgin Mary; to the right, the male saints, prophets, and sibyls, led by Saint John the Baptist. The Christian community hovers beneath these, in the sky between the clouds: the ecclesiastics to the left, led by two popes, viewed from behind; to the right, laymen of all ranks— the king, two emperors, and the peasant with his flail.
Among the ecclesiastics, in an impressively realistic portrait, kneels Matthaus Landauer, portrayed in prayer. He is sponsored and accompanied by a cardinal. To the right is another figure, easily identifiable from his armor, as Landauer's son-in-law, Wilhelm Haller, a mercenary captain. In the lower part of the painting, almost to contrast the suspended scores of saints and men and women, Durer offers us, from a slightly raised perspective, the vision of a landscape passage. This one, even more than the one in the Heller Altar, disappears into an infinite background, illuminated by a most gentle evening light that also shimmers against the clouds, in this deserted terrestrial kingdom, Durer painted himself, the only human being. He is set apart toward the right margin, dressed as usual in a rich fur cloak, and indicative of an ancient styled tablet with the inscription. In the painting, populated by a great quantity and a variety of personages and figures, some details stand out for their true pictorial excellence: the flock of cherubs that encircle the dove of the Holy Spirit; the stupendous cloak of gold brocade of the Pope nearest the spectator; different portraits, the fashion of various clothing; the refined, veiled woman, or the one that alluringly looks out from behind someone else's back; the trimming of the clothes that hang over the clouds in the sky; or in the center, the boot with the spur in front of the clouds that rise above the landscape. Beside this preciosity, however, great uncertainty of proportion is also evident. See, for example, Saint John the Baptist or the legs of Durer himself. The Adoration of the Trinity is the last great altarpiece painted by Durer.

 
 
 
 
 



Portrait of Michael Wolgemut
1516
Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg

Portrait of Michael Wolgemut

This painting was originally part of the Praun collection in Nuremberg. In 1809, the antique collector Frauenholz sold it for 300 ducats to the heir-apparent prince of Bavaria. It came to the Germanisches Nationalmuseum between 1909 and 1928 (Anzelewsky, 1991). Durer was not painting on commission, but independently chose to depict his master Michael Wolgemut (1434-November 30, 1519, whose workshop he had apprenticed in from 1486. This fact can explain the unusual, impressive adherence to realism that he kept in reproducing, without embellishment, his features, against an intense green background. It is a realism that Durer had previously experimented with two years earlier, in a charcoal-drawing portrait of his mother, which is in Berlin. In Gothic letters, the inscription reads: Daz hat albrecht durer abconterfet noch siene Lermeister Michell Wolgemut jn jor 1516. Durer later added (Rupprich, 1956-69): vnd er was 82 vnd hat gelet pis das man felet 1519 Jor: do ist er ferschiden an sant Endres dag frv, ee dy sun awff gyng. ("This is the portrait that Albrecht Durer made of his master Michell Wolgemut." The addition: "He was 82 years old and lived until the year 1519; he passed away the day of Saint Andrew, in the morning, before the sun came out.") Another portrait on parchment, monogrammed and dated 1516—which until 1992 (sold at Sotheby's auction, in London, 9 December) was found in the Georg Schafer collection in Schweinfurt— Winkler judges as the first version of the small work (Anzelewsky, 1991).


Portrait of the Artist's Mother
1514
Charcoal drawing on paper
Staatliche Museen, Berlin


The Apostle Philip

It is said that Emperor Ferdinand II (1637-57) gave this painting, along with the following one, to the grand duke of Tuscany, Ferdinand II (1610-70), on the occasion of the latter's visit to Vienna. On both works, an excellent, fine painting of the very delicate canvas bears witness to Diurer's mastery, whether of the detailed depiction of the faces or, above all, of the imposing beards of the two figures.


The Apostle Philip
1516
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence




Saint James the Great, the Apostle

Saint Philip, the Apostle. The notion that Durer had intended to paint a complete series of all the apostles is well supported.


The Apostle James the Elder
1516
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florenc
e


Portrait of a Cleric

In 1 778, this painting was, along with the Wolgemut portrait, the Saint Onofrius, and the Death of Crescentia Pirckheimer, in the Paul von Praun collection. He must have acquired it from the goldsmith Wenzil Jamnitzer of Nuremberg, who, in turn, would have received it from Endres, Albrecht Durer's brother. In 1801, the painting went to Count Rudolf Czernin, from whom Samuel H. Kress acquired it, and he subsequently donated it to the National Gallery (Anzelewsky, 1991). The painting was considered in Nuremberg (1778) to be of Johann Dorsch, an Augustinian friar who had converted quite early on to Lutheranism. This identification, however, was challenged by various critics, since Dorsch became the parish priest of Saint John's in Nuremberg in 1528. Some have hypothesized that it was a portrait by Huldrych Zwingli, the great Swiss reformer; but only side profile portraits of him exist, which, according to Anzelewsky, do not give rise to a fair comparison or to a reliable attribution. Anzelewsky would opt for the former identification, also because, according to more recent studies, the meeting between Zwingli and Diirer could not have occurred before 1519, on the occasion of a mission in Zurich in which he participated with his friend Pirckheimer and Martin Tucher (Rupprich, 1956-69). As in the Portrait of Wolgemut, Durer succeeds in effectively expressing the vigorous personality of the subject, modeling the head with a slight rotation leftward, toward the light, and framing it with a severe black attire against a green background. The fine brush strokes, especially for the hair and eyelashes, are well preserved.


Portrait of a Cleric
1516
National Gallery of Art, Washington



The Virgin Mary in Prayer

Wilhem von Bode acquired the panel in Venice in 1894 in an auction of the Morosini-Gatterburg collection, and then donated it to the Berlin art gallery. The Virgin Mary in Prayer was part of a diptych (Winkler, 1928) whose matching pair was probably a representation of an "Ecce Homo" (Anzelewsky, 1991).



The Virgin Mary in Prayer
1518
Staatliche Museen, Berlin



Jakob Fugger the Wealthy

The presence of this portrait is documerited, in the eighteenth century, in the gallery of the elector of Bavaria. Because of successive restorations, the top layer of color is missing.
During the Diet of Augsburg, in 1518, Durer portrayed Jakob Fugger in a charcoal drawing (W 571). The final painting, on canvas, differs from the drawing in the wealthier clothing of the subject, and, above all, in the framing: a half-bust in the drawing, a half-length in the painting.
Jakob Fugger of Augsburg (1459-1525), the wealthiest merchant of his day, learned the art of commerce in Venice. He possessed a network of business agencies throughout Europe. His was the most important banking institution in Europe, and he had the monopoly of silver and copper mines. He obtained the right to mint the coins of the Vatican from Julius 11, Leo X, and Adrian VI, and he had an important role in the system of tax collection and payment of indulgences from the Vatican coffers. He heavily financed the political and military undertakings of Maximilian I and Charles V: just for the election of the latter, he contributed 300,000 florins. In 1508, Maximilian I conferred him a noble title, and Leo X nominated him Count Palatine of the Lateran. In 1519, he established in Augsburg the "Fuggerei," a small city within the city, consisting of 106 small houses intended for the most needy citizens.
The outer edges of his garments and fur coat, crossing and overlapping, create an ascendant pyramid effect, which solidly sets off the portrait. At the same time, his garments sharply contrast with his face, hard and severe, atop a bull neck. Only the clear complexion of the flesh, painted with extremely fine brush strokes, which is detached from a delicate blue background, attenuates his dynamism and severity. The position of the head denotes firmness and self-assurance, and the eyes look away, possibly to indicate a farsightedness. The wide forehead, lined with a simply-fashioned gold beret, and the thin, pressed lips, give him the look of a man who—at least according to Diir-er's interpretation—has a strong personality and no need of decoration to assert himself.
This impressive characterization, if somewhat idealized, along with the one of Durer's father of 1497, is in my opinion one of the most significant of portraiture in that era in Europe.


Jakob Fugger, the Wealthy
1518-20
Staatsgalerie, Augsburg




St Anne with the Virgin and Child
1519
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Saint Anne, Virgin and Christ Child (Anna Seldbritt)

This is a devotional image that Leonhard Tucher commissioned from Durer. In 1628, it was offered by Gabriel III Tucher to Maximilian of Bavaria, who did not consider it to be an original. After having passed from collection to collection, it was acquired in 1910 by Benjamin Altmann, who donated it in 1913 to the museum in New York.
After having formerly been considered at times a copy, today the panel is generally held to be an original work of Durer. The theme treated is often found in the altarpieces in Nuremberg, which are obviously of different scales and are solemn and monumental. Here the close and more familiar rapport the patron had with the requested painting led Durer to prefer a more intimate interpretation. The outline of Saint Anne's head is even based on a portrait drawing of his wife, Agnes, carried out the same year (W 574). The Virgin's head seems an actual portrait of a girl, so little does she resemble the contemporary iconography of the Madonna. Saint Anne, who, as in all the depictions of this sort, rests her hand on the shoulder of her daughter, has an almost reassuring, consoling character here. Very little space is left for the child because of the small dimensions of the painting.
Saint Anne's knowing gaze looks into the distance; the young Virgin's is lowered and smiling in the act of adoration of her child: both imbue the small work with a melancholic tone. This melancholy is explained by the presence of the white cloth placed under the sleeping child's lovely head. It is a sad allusion to the Passion
and death that await him.
This is obviously a work intended for meditation.






Emperor Maximilian I
1519
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna



Emperor Maximilian I
1519
Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg

Portrait of Maximilian I

For some time, this painting has belonged to the emperors of Austria; from the end of the 1800s, it has been in the museum in Vienna. In 1518, Durer went to the Diet of Augsburg following a delegation of dignitaries from Nuremberg. On that occasion, he did the Portrait of Jakob Fugger and also one in a half-bust of the emperor, then fifty-nine. It is a pencil drawing (W 567) carried out on 28 June (as indicated by the inscription on the same paper). Shortly thereafter, probably still during his sojourn in Augsburg (Anzelewsky, 1991), he did a second portrait, still in a half-bust, but this time painted on canvas: Durer probably preferred canvas to panel because it simplified the execution, for the painting as well as for the transportation. This painting, now in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg, did not have the inscription on parchment, which was added only after the emperor's death on 12 January 1519. The inscription is in German. It was transcribed, translated in Latin, in capital letters on the third panel portrait, now in Vienna.
It is this last painting that is the "true" portrait of the emperor, with even the Halsburg coat of arms. Maximilian is depicted clad in silk and cloaked by a precious, rich fur.
The pomegranate, which in the preceding portrait he held in both hands, now is held by one hand alone. It is probably a symbol of abundance, or perhaps of the conquest of Granada. The Gold Toson does not hang from his chest, but is now hanging around the imperial coat of arms.
Selecting and refining the details from one portrait to another, Durer came to create a truly imposing and clearly humanist regal portrait—posthumous, as his blank stare surely alludes to his recent death. In both portraits, the head is traced from the first drawing.

 
 
 

 
 
 
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