Artist Profile: Albrecht Durer

In a world of celebrity pastors, it’s easy for people who aren’t called to be pastors to feel either marginalized or off-the-hook, depending on how much they desire to serve God. Feelings like, “I don’t make the rules around here, I’m just the drummer for the worship team,” have been heard too often in the halls of the church. Many pastors who think they are being forward or modern will allow an artist or a dancer to create something for a service, but only if it’s short and doesn’t cut into the sermon time.

Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) lived during the height of the Northern Renaissance, and he saw art as necessary for the church and important in helping people worship and understand the teachings of the Bible. He was born into a family with a talented goldsmith father, an immigrant to Germany from Hungary, who was happy to see his young son interested in the arts. Out of eighteen children born to his mother and father, only three survived to adulthood. Durer’s godfather was a printer who owned twenty-four printing presses and published the Nuremburg Chronicle, which contained 1,809 woodcut illustrations. Growing up with such influences on his life, young Albrecht was destined to become an artist, and it is no wonder that some of his most famous works are woodcuts.

As a young man, Durer worked in his father’s goldsmith shop and was apprenticed at fifteen years old to Michael Wohlgemut, a painter who was sought after for book cover design. Wohlgemut taught Durer how to do masterful woodcuts, and the apprentice’s skill at the art is apparent; even now, 500 years later, good impressions can still be made from Durer’s original woodcuts. He used a burin, a steel cutting tool for engraving, to make his woodcuts.

Durer married Agnes Frey in 1494 in an arranged marriage that seemed like a business deal between their respective fathers. Shortly after his marriage, Durer traveled to Venice to learn from Italian Renaissance artists. He studied proportion and perspective, topics that would become some of his life’s passion in art.

But, they weren’t his only passions in life. In 1495, he returned to Nuremburg and worked on a series of large prints called “The Apocalypse.” It became a series of fifteen woodcuts in which Durer illustrated the events described in the book of Revelation (a few are shown below).

It seemed that much of Europe was stricken with “End of the World fever,” since the year 1500 was fast approaching. Every report of a flood, earthquake, or even a military leader was met with dread that the Antichrist might be within the world’s midst. However, many of the citizens were still illiterate and, with the Catholic masses spoken in Latin, a language unintelligible to the run-of-the-mill European, Durer wanted to create works that taught the world what the Bible actually said about the subject of the Apocalypse. His blocks were made of hardwood and large; they took up a full-sized piece of paper when printed. On the reverse side, Durer had the pertinent Bible verses printed. Europeans were so ready to “hear” Durer’s message that this project brought him widespread fame.

He followed the Apocalypse with a series on the life of Mary and another on the Passion of Christ. Both of these series were meant to be used by Bible teachers and clergy as they taught the public about the Bible.

Not all of his works were sacred in nature. He painted many pictures and made woodblocks of nature scenes. His woodcut of a rhinoceros, though not very true-to-life as it was based upon someone else’s report, was still being used in publications two centuries after Durer created it. He also made a number of portraits, which tended to bring in the bulk of an artist’s income as wealthy patrons wanted good artists to memorialize them.

In 1508, a wealthy merchant commissioned Durer to paint a new triptych altarpiece for a church in Frankfurt. The piece was later destroyed by fire, but copies exist that were made by art students in the 1600’s before the fire. A copy of the reproduction is below. Notice the circle (added by me) on the left panel of the triptych.

Now, look at Durer’s famous Praying Hands of an Apostle (below), a study he made for this particular altarpiece.

These hands have been reproduced in sculptures, tattoos, religious medallions, and today are one of the most recognized Christian symbols, next to the cross. While the actual painting on the altarpiece was destroyed and we only know it through students’ copies, the commonly seen sketches of the praying hands are Durer originals.

Durer was on friendly terms with some of the most powerful people in Germany, such as Frederick the Wise and Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, who commissioned Durer to paint a portrait. The emperor eventually gave Durer an annual pension so that he could continue to create great art. Durer’s posthumous portrait of Maximilian I is below. The inscription at the top is in Latin, and a translation reads, “"The most powerful, the greatest, and most invincible Emperor Maximilian, who surpassed all the kings and princes of his time in justice, wisdom, magnanimity, [and] generosity, but especially in martial glory and strength of courage. He was born in the year of human salvation 1459, on the day of March 9. He lived 59 years and 9 months, 25 days. He died, however, in the year 1519, in the month of January, on the 12th day. Whom God the Best and Greatest may wish to restore to the number of the living.”

In addition to these religious images and portraits, Durer sometimes worked on art with social themes, such as his woodcut Allegory of Justice, and he printed world maps and star charts which were based on Ptolemy’s catalog. Some of the symbols on his maps below are inaccurate because the knowledge of the globe was evolving. Remember that Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, so Durer and Columbus were contemporaries. Durer was also fascinated with mathematics and both studied and taught it. He once wrote, “And since geometry is the right foundation of all painting, I have decided to teach its rudiments and principles to all youngsters eager for art.” His abilities in math have been celebrated, and scientists actually named a crater on the planet Mercury after Durer.

Still, it was the Bible that gave Durer his inspiration for many of his pieces. Below is a study of hands resting on a Bible, a well-loved book of Durer’s. Martin Luther was another contemporary of Durer, and their geographic proximity made it easy for Frederick the Wise to send Durer one of Luther’s books in 1520. There is no evidence the two ever met, but Durer once said that he would like to meet Luther and engrave a portrait “as a lasting memorial of the man who has helped me out of great anxiety.” Later, when Durer heard of Martin Luther’s kidnapping, he wrote a prayer that said, “… if we have lost this man, who has written more clearly than any that has lived for 140 years, and to whom Thou hast given such a spirit of the Gospel, we pray Thee, O Heavenly Father, that Thou wouldst again give Thy Holy Spirit to another . . . O God, if Luther is dead, who will henceforth deliver the Holy Gospel to us with such clearness?” Durer did not know when he wrote this prayer that Luther was completely safe and had been kidnapped by his supporters to protect him from papal forces.

Hand Study with Bible

Adam and Eve

Samson killing the lion

Durer knew his gift was from God and was for God’s people. He used his art not only to help people understand Biblical stories, but to convey the emotion behind the stories. He knew where he stood within the Body of Christ. He understood what Paul was talking about in 1 Corinthians 14:26, “What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.”

In fact, Durer was fascinated with bodies and even wrote four books on the subject of human body proportions, which weren’t published until after his death. He got his data from measuring scores of people from one point on the body to another (elbow to wrist, for example) and averaging the measurements. He made detailed grids of the human body, including both the proportions of men and women, as well as fat people and lanky people.

Albrecht Durer seemed to understand physically and spiritually the important things about a body. He knew his place in the Body of Christ and was able to use his tremendous gifts to build up the Body.

1 Corinthians 12:14-26 (The Message)

I want you to think about how all this makes you more significant, not less. A body isn't just a single part blown up into something huge. It's all the different-but-similar parts arranged and functioning together. If Foot said, "I'm not elegant like Hand, embellished with rings; I guess I don't belong to this body," would that make it so? If Ear said, "I'm not beautiful like Eye, limpid and expressive; I don't deserve a place on the head," would you want to remove it from the body? If the body was all eye, how could it hear? If all ear, how could it smell? As it is, we see that God has carefully placed each part of the body right where he wanted it.
19-24But I also want you to think about how this keeps your significance from getting blown up into self-importance. For no matter how significant you are, it is only because of what you are a part of. An enormous eye or a gigantic hand wouldn't be a body, but a monster. What we have is one body with many parts, each its proper size and in its proper place. No part is important on its own. Can you imagine Eye telling Hand, "Get lost; I don't need you"? Or, Head telling Foot, "You're fired; your job has been phased out"? As a matter of fact, in practice it works the other way—the "lower" the part, the more basic, and therefore necessary. You can live without an eye, for instance, but not without a stomach. When it's a part of your own body you are concerned with, it makes no difference whether the part is visible or clothed, higher or lower. You give it dignity and honor just as it is, without comparisons. If anything, you have more concern for the lower parts than the higher. If you had to choose, wouldn't you prefer good digestion to full-bodied hair?
25-26The way God designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church: every part dependent on every other part, the parts we mention and the parts we don't, the parts we see and the parts we don't. If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance.

(Note: for the detail-oriented of you out there, we know that there should be an umlaut over the “u” in Durer’s surname. We have omitted the umlaut for the simple reason that, despite amazing advances in internet technology, not every computer can properly translate every character in every font. We did not want people wondering who in the world “D&,nbsp^rer” was just because their browser couldn’t handle the umlaut.)

Here are links to our prior artist profiles:

Rev. Howard Finster
Sam Maloof
Thomas Blackshear
Dr. He Qi
Sandra Bowden
Laura Kramer (Psalm 23 Jewelry)
Chris Schlarb John Newton
Vincent van Gogh

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