A few weeks ago I was reading a book about Albrecht Dürer, one of the most prominent German artists of the Northern Renaissance. I came upon this painting, his self-portrait at age twenty-eight.
I had seen this many times before, but for some reason it totally stopped me this time.
I noticed the fingers, entwined in the fur of his robe, the rich folds in the sleeves, the shining coils of his hair, and the soft texture of his beard. The picture seemed so sensual!
Now, I’ve always thought of this as “that painting Dürer made of himself as Jesus” — the opposite of earthly and sensual — and the text of the art history book bore that out. But the author pointed out that it was not hubris for Dürer to depict himself in the manner of paintings of Jesus of his day, but could be seen rather as a meditation on the incarnation. Also as an expression of every person’s striving for perfection. And that his previous self-portraits seem almost dandified, whereas this one shows a serious study of proportion as well as an intentional symmetry reminiscent of images of the “true Christ”.
All of this brought home to me yet again how much I love to study art and art history. There is the simple enjoyment and appreciation of beautiful images, and then the added fascination of the back story: Who was this artist? What was his or her life like, and how did that life affect how the image was created? What was going on in the artist’s life and environment that might have inspired the work? Where are the similarities to other artists of the time and place, and where are the differences?
Did you know Dürer was initially trained in his father’s trade of goldsmithing? That his father was Hungarian? That he created the first real landscape studies in Western art?
Now why didn’t I realize all this was so interesting back when I majored in English Literature? Darn.