June 10, 2013
I must applaud The New York Times’ review of the Albrecht Dürer exhibit recently offered at Washington’s National Gallery of Art. It is heartening to know that the great Sequestration—about which there has been so much hype and hubbub—did not shut down this amazing exhibit.
Exhibit organizers refer to Dürer’s famed Praying Hands as the most famous painting in the world. Can it be? Can we really say that of this devout artist’s most beloved work?
There is nothing idealized in these hands. They are rough, veined, wrinkled, hard-worked hands. They tell a story in themselves.
The Martyrdom of St. John the Evangelist is a work of the young Dürer (1496-98). It shows the death by boiling oil, supervised by a ruler dressed as a Turkish sultan. No political correctness here. (Or, historical accuracy, either, since these martyrs died centuries before the Ottomans came on the scene.)
Adam and Eve are depicted as ideal human forms, part of Dürer’s lifelong effort to get the human body right. (My theologian friend notes the strategic placement of the leaves, saying that this was chronologically incorrect since Adam and Eve had not yet fallen. Or, Fallen. And thus they had no need to feel shame. But I’m not sure those are fig leaves.)
I especially like the great German artist’s rendering of lions. He drew some of them from the stone lions of Venice, which he had seen on a youthful trek to that fabled republic. But then, in 1521, the mature Dürer sees a real lion for the first time in a Netherlands zoo.
The contrast is startling. One wonders whether we will react the same way when we see the real savior for the first time. Is he safe? Certainly not, but he is good.
I come upon Dürer’s “Head of an African.” The Museum text tells us he probably encountered this young black man during his Venetian sojourn. It’s a powerful portrait, rich in empathy.
You have to think: If all Europeans had seen this drawing could the African Slave Trade ever have existed? Well, all Europeans (and Americans) today have seen incredible pictures of unborn children and yet the abortion traffic still exists.
Albrecht Dürer depicted himself as Jesus in a work titled “Man of Sorrows.” We might think this egotistic, but it was no less a Reformation figure than Martin Luther who said we should each strive to be “little Christs.” Albrecht and Agnes Dürer were childless and they doubtless knew what sorrow was. Dürer announced his sympathy with Luther and grieved when he thought the Bible scholar had been kidnapped and might face the flames of martyrdom.
It is interesting to see Albrecht Dürer as a Medieval figure in his religious sensibilities and also as a bridging figure in his commercial striving and obvious yearning for fame.
By comparison, the great artisans of the High Middle Ages often left us no record of their names. They who carved the statues at the magnificent Chartres Cathedral in France pointedly did not sign their work. It was all done for God, in devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, so why would you need to sign it?
Dürer, faithful as he is, wants the credit. He signs everything. He even makes a signature block print of his initials “AD” and places them where lesser artists might have placed anno domini (in the Year of our Lord).
One Dürer work not included in this exhibit is one I had hoped to see—The Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand. The painting is a vast tableau, an incredibly complex and vivid visual representation of a mass killing dating from the earliest days of Christendom. Dürer has portrayed himself and his friend, Konrad Celtis, in the center of the painting. They are clad in funereal black, as if in mourning, as if they are mere witnesses to the massacre of innocents.
The story of this martyrdom is a part of what is called the Golden Legend, a work familiar to Christians in Dürer’s day, filled with stories of the true cost of discipleship. Ten thousands Roman soldiers converted to Christ are killed in one act of vengeance and persecution. The killers are Persians and local forces aligned with the pagan emperors of Rome and acting upon their direction, just as the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate felt he was remembering Caesar when he sentenced blameless Jesus to death.
Dürer depicts those ordering the killings as Oriental despots, arrayed in Turkish attire. We know from the legend itself they are not Muslim Turks. Still, it makes one wonder if a public display now of Muslim Ottomans killing Christians would be considered too inflammatory to show.
Will future painters dare to depict the martyrdom of the ten thousand Copts? Will artists memorialize the murder of Christians in Pakistan? Or Northern Nigeria? Maybe Drummer Lee Rigby’s beheading in broad daylight on a London street will be the subject of an artist’s heart’s desire to witness to the truth.
We are living in the times of the Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand. We need to witness to these truths, as our ancestors in the Faith did unhesitatingly. Or will these truths be sequestered?
Albrecht Dürer is at once quintessentially German and a wholly universal figure. Like Johann Sebastian Bach, he exemplifies that broad Christian humanism, that caritas that embraces all mankind.