Albrecht Dürer, a Humanist Messiah


German painter Albrecht Dürer’s arresting, haunting, and vaguely nefarious “Self-Portrait at Twenty Eight” (1500), accomplished at the last millennium’s exact halfway point, now hangs at the Alte Pinakothek museum in München, Germany. There are any number of details that attract the viewer’s attention, from the subject’s piercing russet-eyed gaze to his ambiguous expression. But it’s the immaculately rendered hands that are most human. In his self-portrait, Dürer stares uncannily forward in the same position as a medieval Christ, his cascading blond ringlets splayed down his shoulders. The first two digits of his right hand seem to play with the brown fur of his jacket, though they also spread open as if in the gesture of benediction. His fingers are long, tapered, elegant.  

No painter — either before or after — has been quite as talented in the depiction of that notoriously difficult subject which is the anatomy of the hand as was Dürer. Consider his iconic 1508 blue-tinged sketch “Study of the Hands of an Apostle,” stored at the Albertina museum in Vienna, Austria — intended merely to be a rough draft for the Heller Altarpiece in Frankfurt, it has become the most widely reproduced representation of prayer in the Western world, from religious posters to album covers to tattoos. Rendered in pen and ink, muscular, vein-crossed hands are pressed together above the merest indication of ruffled sleeves. When Dürer depicts hands, there is no clumsiness, no anatomical awkwardness — every knuckle, fingertip, and nail appears real, as if the hand itself could be grasped by your own. 

Medieval and early modern folklore maintained that when the Devil came disguised in human form, he was unable to properly simulate hands and feet (not unlike modern generative AI’s similar inability). The hand, therefore, came to symbolize the human. Appropriate, then, for Dürer, who wasn’t just among the greatest German artists of the 16th century, but an indispensable theorist of humanism during the Northern Renaissance as well. The role that Dürer would perform would be as a portraitist of the most shocking verisimilitude, of the creative artist as a god. Within that self-portrait are self-created digits: hands that could hold, hands that could grasp, hands that could create. 

Dürer’s life straddles the two great Northern European movements of the 16th century: first, the Renaissance, which had then been recently imported to those colder climes; and second, the Reformation, which was then beginning to erupt among the dissatisfied principalities of Germany. This was a period that Patrick Wyman describes in The Verge: Reformation, Renaissance, and Forty Years that Shook the World as the single most important “critical juncture” in recent Western history. The Reformation, Wyman writes, was “an age of transition, a time of extraordinary shifts in European life and society with far-reaching implications for the future of the world.” It was also a period that maps perfectly onto the career of Dürer.

Eight years before Columbus claimed to have reached India in 1492, Dürer perfectly rendered his own portrait in silverpoint at the age of 13 (also housed at the Albertina). A year after the Santa María sailed in warm Caribbean waters, the artist made another self-portrait — now in the Louvre — with that same uncanny, all-penetrating stare. In 1514, three years before Martin Luther’s hammer hit the church door in Wittenberg, Dürer made his landmark engraving of the Vulgate translator, “St. Jermone in his Study” (1514), copies of which are held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Royal Collection Trust, London; Princeton University Art Museum, and more. And in 1526, a year after the Peasants Rebellion was violently suppressed, Dürer painted “Tufts of Cowslips,” a watercolor of cowslips with such startling realism that a viewer standing before it at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, can almost feel the plant’s veins beneath their fingertips. 

Arguably the first superstar artist of the Northern Renaissance, Dürer’s paintings were featured in the Hapsburg galleries of Emperor Rudolf II in Prague or that of his patron Maximillian I in Frankfurt. But it was his woodprints and engravings, including the gothic “Knight, Death and the Devil (1513); his comical picture of the Indian rhinoceros Ulysses (1515); and his occult masterwork “Melencolia I” (1514) with its alchemical symbols and crying angelall of which were printed in his Nuremberg workshop and currently held at numerous museums around the world — that were sold to thousands of upwardly mobile burghers throughout Germany, establishing his reputation for genius. 

And genius, as with Renaissance humanists on both sides of the Alps, was Dürer’s great subject. Not genius in the prosaic sense which signals mere intellectual aptitude, talent, and skill, but in terms of the apotheosis of the human, of our individual ability to ascend into divine realms of knowledge. “I hold that the perfect of form and beauty is contained in the sum of all men,” he writes in his 1528 Four Books on Human Proportions. “Nature holds the beautiful, for the artist who has the insight to extract it.” 

But the connections between the coming Reformation and the Renaissance were complicated. Unlike Dürer’s intellectual hero, Erasmus, who countenanced reform in the Church but ultimately rejected the Reformation itself, the artist was taken with Luther — initially. Drawn to Protestantism for the same reasons he was attracted to humanism, Dürer gushed over the nascent movement in valedictory terms. Perhaps he sensed in Luther’s “priesthood of all believers,” as he put it in his 1517 Theses, some of the same calls for spiritual freedom and dignity implied by the Renaissance. Indeed, he described Luther in a 1520 diary entry as a “Christian man who helped me overcome so many difficulties.” 

By 1525, however, the peasants of Germany had taken the calls about the priesthood of all believers to their logical conclusion, launching a massive rebellion for dignity and equality. This rebellion was violently quelled by the princes of the Holy Roman Empire at the cost of 100,000 lives — all at the urging of Luther. Dürer watched all of this wearily, writing in a 1530 letter that “I confessed that in the beginning I believed in Luther … but as anyone can see, the situation has gotten worse.”

If once the Reformation had seemed in step with humanism at its best, then by that point, it began to seem more like a Counter-Renaissance. The year the rebellion was finally pacified, Dürer designed a never-built monument to the massacred revolutionaries which was capped with a carving of a peasant, stabbed with a sword in the back.  

There are figures during the period who indicate the possibility of there being a different sort of Reformation: the liberal writings of Erasmus, or the joyful Heptameron of Marguerite de Navarre, for instance. Dürer is but one such refugee from this parallel universe where Renaissance and Reformation were fused as one. This would be a Reformation that’s not ascetic, stern, and austere, but jovial and playful; a Reformation based not in hierarchy, but in the human; a rebellion on behalf of human accomplishment, dignity, and possibility. Where the priesthood of all believers implied an embrace of human flourishing and self-fashioning.

That alternate Reformation can be seen in the eyes of that self-portrait Dürer painted 17 years before the actual Reformation began. Notable is that exquisitely rendered hand, offering the viewer a benediction, for the painting telegraphs clearly that Dürer has rendered himself as Christ. The painter looks forward in the characteristic Salvator Mundi pose of the Messiah, the long ringlets of hair and his beard evoking the prototypical appearance of Jesus. The subject is somehow more than human. “One interpretation of his Christ-like self portrait,” writes art critic Jonathon Jones in The Guardian, “is that it champions the artist as demiurge, possessing divine power to create worlds.” That is certainly in keeping with Dürer’s interests in Renaissance humanism and occultism. But in the Reformation, he perhaps prayed for something equally radical — not a priesthood of all believers, but a divinity of all believers. 

“The rational soul in a certain manner possesses the excellence of infinity and eternity,” wrote Marsilo Ficino, one of the most influential humanist philosophers of the Renaissance. If such an axiom were promulgated through the vocabulary of faith, there could be a recognition of a multitude of messiahs, of Christs, of gods, all ascending that angelic ladder towards heaven. There could be a rebirth of faith, a rebirth of the individual. The result was instead a miscarriage: a betrayal of the Reformation’s promise by the very men who were supposed to have led it. As it is, Dürer as messiah stares out of the undifferentiated eternal darkness of his portrait from a place seemingly beyond history.



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