CONTEXT AND COMPARISON OF
In reaction to the decadence and corruption so pervasive in the Roman Catholic Church, the Protestant Reformation sought to introduce an asceticism into the artistic world of its followers. Martin Luther, as well as others who followed him, advocated the destruction of art in churches, particularly images of saints, muted color schemes for the artwork that remained, and an emphasis on images either of Jesus or of contemporary leaders and heroes of the movement. Joseph Koerner’s book The Reformation of the Image (2004) compellingly shows how visual art became indispensable to a religious movement built on words. In a time when the bulk of the Lutherans’ target audience remained illiterate, the visual arts provided a necessary communication tool to convey Protestant beliefs and standards through iconography and illustration.
The crucifix was allowed to continue in Lutheran churches, but 'the surrounding witness of saints' was dropped in favor of a Jesus-only piety. Albrecht Dürer’s three engravings, depicting Erasmus of Rotterdam, Frederick the Wise, and Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg, all fall into this category and serve as exemplars of classic Lutheran doctrinal artwork. All three display the unmistakable stamp of Protestant principles in visual format, and serve as object lessons which teach Protestant values through nonverbal means. The visual purity of the works seeks to counter the colorful extravagance of Roman Catholic Church art and statuary, the black and white color configuration mirroring the dour attire of the Lutherans, and the unflattering appearance of the subjects deliberately bringing them firmly to earth compared with the celestial beauty of the Catholic pantheon. These engravings give us a perfect visual record of the Protestant perspective on religious iconography, providing a succinct snapshot of the Protestant doctrine on the visual arts. We find this rationale uniquely expressed by Erasmus of Rotterdam himself in his comments on Dürer’s artwork: “And is it not more wonderful to accomplish without the blandishment of colors what Apelles accomplished with their aid?"
Martin Luther (1483-1546), an unassuming German monk, rocked the European world by posting his famous 95 Theses on the door of his church in 1517. This document attacked the Roman Catholic Church as crooked and out of touch, as well as incapable of offering its followers the salvation it promised in return for the commitment of their very lives. Within months, the Theses swept Europe and sparked the Reformation movement, which offered the only concrete challenge, both then and since, to the power of the Catholic Church worldwide within a framework of Christian dogma. Luther’s translation of the Bible into the vernacular, as opposed to Latin, foreshadowed the reforms of the Vatican Councils, making both scripture and church services, and hence the metaphysical concepts underpinning them, more accessible to poor and uneducated lay people. Lutheranism endorsed a married clergy and a dogma of strict scholarship and fidelity to Biblical law to counteract the elitism and decadence of the Catholic priesthood. Luther also advocated a stricter adherence to Biblical content as the foundation of belief and the source of divine salvation, rather than obedience to Church conventions such as confessions, indulgences, tithes, or the construction of grandiose cathedrals, all of which he saw as enriching the Church at the expense of those people the Church purported to serve. Luther’s reforms, and the movement born from them, met with ferocious criticism from the Church, and followers of the Protestant movement suffered increasing persecution from the hostile Catholic heirarchy. This persecution ultimately took the form of horrific bloodbaths such as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in France in 1572, in which as many as 30,000 French
Calvinists were butchered by order of the King of France over a period of weeks, beginning in Paris, and ranging throughout several cities and the surrounding countryside.
Martin Luther combined two of his criticisms of the Church of his time by directing his ire against Catholic church artwork. The lavish pomp, ostentatious riches, and cynical dedication to profit directly contradicted the Church’s supposed devotion to poverty. At the same time, a religion which claimed the dominion of one God and proscribed kneeling before idols instead hypocritically worshiped in God’s place a panoply of intercessor saints represented by gloriously ornate statuary, paintings, and decorative windows. In response to this, the Protestants developed a signature aesthetic style characterized by simply cut black clothing and roughly built churches with little to no interior ornament besides a crucifix or empty cross. The paintings and other visual art which sprung from their movement focused their viewer’s attention on Biblical scenes and characters. These subjects acted as teaching tools for the illiterate as well as a contrast to other Renaissance artwork many considered decadent and even scandalous.
The German artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) played a crucial role in fostering this style of visual art as a promotional instrument for Protestant ideology. At the University of Wittenburg, Dürer met and became deeply influenced by Martin Luther as well as by the fiery sermons of Luther’s mentor, Johann von Staupitz, who also played a central role in sparking the Reformation. Although the divisions between Catholics and Protestants did not fully radicalize until after Dürer’s death, the concepts of Luther’s doctrine became embedded in Dürer’s work. Although his early work includes many colorful paintings, prints produced from engravings and woodcuts became his stock-in-trade and illustrate the spartan reserve of the Reformer’s ideal. The colorless palette served as a perfect medium to express the austere doctrine of Reformism. Perhaps his most famous work, the deceptively simple Praying Hands, embodies the Lutheran concept of devotion to piety as the key to salvation. As he travelled and matured, Dürer became a devotee of Renaissance humanism, which emphasized learning and intellectual mastery over the widest possible range of subjects and disciplines. Dürer studied mathematics and geometry and, under the influence of the works of Italian artistic masters such as da Vinci, incorporated mathematical principles into the proportions and layout of his own artwork. He mastered these subjects to such an extent that he published the first book of mathematics in German. He also studied medicine and its psychological components.
Albrecht Dürer completed many portraits of famous people, including the Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian I, one of his most important patrons. The three portraits which comprise the subject of the present examination display commonalities of composition and form that indicate the artist’s opinions of the men in question as well as insinuating biographical and political information into the surrounding imagery of the portraits. As discussed previously, the black and white color scheme and the simple line construction of the engravings agrees with the Reformist notion of minimalism and restriction. Even the absence of certain more common features of portraiture contributes to Dürer’s somber message to his viewer; none of the subjects is smiling, for example, or giving any other indication of happiness, nor is any of the images of the men particularly becoming in the aesthetic sense of connoting physical beauty. In addition, the Latin inscriptions common to all three engravings preserves the information contained in them for the educated upper classes, an ironic twist considering the extent of other relevant information contained in the visual image itself, which remains accessible to everyone. Scrutinizing each of these engravings side by side leads to even more salient revelations about the nature of the subjects and those aspects of their characters Dürer considered most noteworthy.
The Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) dedicated his entire career to combating the same corruption and hypocrisy within the Roman Church that Luther attacked. Many of his contemporaries credited him with laying the groundwork and planting the seeds that later grew into Luther’s movement, as he originally suggested and promoted many of the same Church reforms later attributed to Luther.
Erasmus stands as the supreme type of cultivated common sense applied to human affairs. He rescued theology from the pedantries of the Schoolmen, exposed the abuses of the Church, and did more than any other single person to advance the Revival of Learning.
Also, Martin Luther took many of his ideas on the interpretation of the New Testament from Erasmus’s publication and translational critique of it. Erasmus’s first passion, however, remained that of piety and learning, and this commitment ultimately superseded his alignment with either Christian denomination. As a result, both factions proved equally likely to claim his as a hero and to condemn him as an enemy. For Albrecht Dürer, Erasmus’s prestige in scholarship represented the pinnacle of humanist achievement. Compared with Dürer’s other two portraits, his treatment of Erasmus assigns significant importance to his subject’s humanist status; not only is Erasmus depicted standing at his desk, focused intently on the writing for which he gained his fame, but his image appears surrounded by books, some open and in the act of being read, others with visible bookmarks protruding from their pages indicating his superior erudition and his dedication to learning. “The vase of lilies [on the table] probably refers to the purity of his mind” Neither of the other two portraits shows their subjects doing anything at all, let alone anything Dürer would consider a worthy pursuit. The simple wooden desk, the plain black background, and the placid concentration shown on Erasmus’s face all portray a man of unadorned resolution and quiet integrity. These characteristics offer a striking contrast to the other two portraits, which paint diametrically opposed illustrations of contemporary personalities.
Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg (1490-1545) was not a Lutheran, or even one of its supporters or sympathizers, having bitterly opposed the Reformation movement throughout his life. He even made an alliance with Joachim of Brandenburg with the goal of exterminating the new sect. He enjoyed a close relationship with the Pope Leo X, and engaged in a joint enterprise reaping profit from the sale of indulgences, which Martin Luther specifically highlighted as corrupt. As a result of this practice, the Protestants under Cardinal Albrecht’s jurisdiction protested violently. Later, he granted the sect religious freedom in exchange for 500,000 florins, so one gathers he cared more for enriching himself with whatever policy proved politically expedient than for the principles of one denomination over another. In fact, the Cardinal repeatedly fielded criticism from both sides for showing too much favour to the opposition. While he may have, as according to this article, admired and courted Erasmus of Rotterdam, this may have had more to do with his alleged love of artwork and secularism. Reading the biography of him, one assumes Durer undertook this engraving for professional reasons, since the Cardinal commissioned the work from him for “two hundred gold coins and enough luxurious damask cloth to make a coat,” and not, as in the case of Erasmus, as an honorary tribute to one of the movement’s icons.
As with the other two engravings, Dürer uses his image of Cardinal Albrecht to instruct his viewer on Protestant values by embedding detailed information about the subject into his depiction of the Cardinal and the surrounding objects. This man does not occupy himself, as Erasmus does, with the endeavour of scholarship or any other endeavour, leaving the viewer with an undeniable impression that the Cardinal’s support and patronage of the arts and humanities remains a superficial indulgence for him, rather than the committed vocation one might expect from a member of the clergy. Although we cannot see the color or whole configuration of his clothing, we can assume from his cap and the portion covering his shoulders that he wears the habit of a Catholic cardinal. Dürer makes a deliberate effort to overemphasize the Cardinal’s Catholicism and his role as a Catholic priest within the context of Dürer’s Lutheran aesthetic model. The Latin inscription makes another curtsy in the direction of the Church on the Cardinal’s behalf, referring, among the litany of his titles, to the “Divine Mercy the most Holy Roman Church.” The surrounding images in the portrait reinforce the same assumption. Incorporated in the coat of arms in the upper corner of the image, a Cardinal’s hat, the crozier (a stylized shepherd’s crook), and the cross-topped staff, all traditional paraphernalia of the Catholic Mass, reiterate the point to leave no doubt in the viewer’s mind where the Cardinal stands on the question of Catholic versus Lutheran.
Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony (1486-1525), played a crucial role in the Reformation. First, the University of Wittenburg, which Frederick founded, provided Martin Luther with his livelihood by giving him a teaching position there, so that the University became the intellectual heart of the Protestant movement. In fact, it was on the door of Wittenburg Cathedral where Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses. After the Diet of Worms in 1521, at which Luther was banned by the Emperor, Frederick the Wise hid Luther at Wartburg Castle for his own protection from arrest. Beyond this, however, Frederick involved himself very little with either the operation of the University of Wittenburg, with Luther personally, or the movement itself. While he sympathized with Luther’s views and considered his persecution unjust and unfounded, Frederick remained a Catholic all his life.
Much of the information available about Frederick the Wise in these biographies appears reflected in Dürer’s engraved portrait of him. Like the portrait of Cardinal Albrecht, this engraving shows Frederick as a sort of still life, not engaged in any study of his own like Erasmus or actively doing anything else. As he surrounded Cardinal Albrecht with the trappings of Catholicism, Dürer surrounds Frederick with the trappings of luxury and with the shields of aristocracy behind him on both sides of his head. The rich fur around the collar of his coat, signifying his status among the nobility, contrasts the poverty and self-denial of the Lutheran movement, while the crossed swords of the upper left-hand shield indicate a war-like position, in spite of Frederick’s neutrality in matters of political and religious controversy. The inscription, reading “Sacred to Christ. He favoured the word of God with piety, worthy to be revered by posterity forever” can only be giving a slight nod to Frederick’s sympathy and support for Luther and his movement, while acknowledging his patronage of learning and the arts, in view of Frederick’s life-long secularism.
Looking back over these three engravings, the notable absence of any complimentary text in the inscription accompanying Erasmus appears at first glance to contradict the artist’s great admiration for his subject. On closer examination of all three engravings, however, as well as a deeper reflection on the historical context of Dürer’s artwork, the logic behind the omission reveals itself. In the cases of Cardinal Albrecht and Frederick the Wise, Dürer seems to be making a contrived courtesy to the Catholic powers that dominated his contemporary world; indeed, these apparent tributes, buried as they are in Latin text and in an archaic, Roman-Gothic style script, almost negate them from the body of the work, since only a tiny minority of his viewers would be able to read and understand them. Certainly, this minority included the Church clergy, many of whom at the start of the Reformation movement still held the power of life and death over the citizenry. Both Cardinal Albrecht and Frederick the Wise were powerful Catholic authorities in their day, as were Emperor Maximillian I and other patrons of Dürer. That Dürer did not consider such an obeisance necessary in the case of Erasmus pays the man an even greater compliment; the flattery and praise of the engraving remains incorporated into the work itself, where everyone can see it and appreciate its significance. The inscription that Dürer chose to include instead, "This image of Erasmus of Rotterdam was drawn from life by Albrecht Dürer", also reveals his regard for Erasmus, since he freely created this engraving out of his own desire to pay tribute to the man he esteemed so much, unlike Cardinal Albrecht, who paid Dürer to create an engraving of himself.
As an artist dependent primarily on the patronage of wealthy aristocrats and nobility, Albrecht Dürer faced a unique challenge in attempting to promote his political and religious views to the widest possible audience without offending, and instead winning appreciation from, his paying clientele. The disparity between the visual component of his portraits and the textual references in the inscriptions accompanying them provides an excellent vehicle for saying one thing while believing and meaning something quite the opposite. While most of the more famous Renaissance portraiture used luxurious oil paints and rich color palettes to create a very life-like, almost photographic rendition of its subjects, Dürer takes an alternate route in favor of making a statement about his own religious views and his judgment of his subject. The use of engraving to produce a black and white print of spare, clear lines revolutionized the visual art medium to conform to the Lutheran ideologies of frugality and piety. The few token objects seen surrounding the subjects in the background of the portraits are well-chosen and explicit in conveying their message to the viewer. As a result, the wealthy subject patrons would see a flattering portrayal of themselves, while audiences more sympathetic to Protestant attitudes would recognize the implication of Dürer’s choices and appreciate their meaning. This tactic of playing both sides of the fence fits perfectly with Dürer’s historical context; appearing as he did at the very dawn of the nascent Reform movement, Dürer trod a narrow and dangerous path between maintaining his livelihood in a Catholic dominated environment and expressing and promoting his support for the new movement. His subtle dexterity at hiding his opinions in plain sight, visible to his adherents yet invisible to his opponents, shows the hand of a true artistic master.
Sources Cited (in addition to Annotated Bibliography):
- Miranda, Salvador. “(40) 1. BRANDENBURG, Albrecht von (1490-1545).” The Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church: Biographical Dictionary. 1998.
- “Albrecht Dürer: Erasmus of Rotterdam (19.73. 120)” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/19.73.120edu/~mirandas/bios1518.htm.
- Kolde, T. “Albert of Brandenburg.” New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. I: Aachen – Basilians – Christian Classics Ethereal Library. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/encyc01.html?term=Albert%20of%20Brandenburg (accessed May 19, 2013).
- “Portrait of Frederick the Wise.” Web Gallery of Art.
- O’Connor, J J and Robertson, E F. “Albrecht Dürer” University of St. Andrew, Scotland
- Hutchinson, Jane Campbell. Albrecht Durer: A Biography. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.
- Kreis, Steven. “Lectures on Modern European intellectual history; Lecture 5: The Medieval Synthesis Under Attack: Savonarola and the Protestant Reformation.” The History Guide. http://www.historyguide.org/index.html
- “Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg; The Small Cardinal.” Victoria & Albert Museum.
- Diefendorf, Barbara B. The St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre: A Brief History with Documents. Bedford: St. Martin's, 2008.
- Emerton, Ephraim. “Desiderius Erasmus (C. 1466–1536) Dutch scholar; first editor of the Greek New Testament.” Theology Through Technology.