Albrecht Dürer (21 May 1471 – 6 April 1528) was a German printmaker; an innovator and inventor - he produced a number of theoretical treatises on the principles of mathematics, perspective and ideal proportions that were quite revolutionary in their time; an artist; a mathematician; but first and foremost, a mystic.
He was inspired by love of all his fellow human beings and a total belief in the spiritual world.
Dürer as mystic
Albrecht Dürer was the third son of Albrecht Dürer and Barbara Holfer. Albrecht Dürer the Elder, worked hard to support his large family, but he faced many trials and difficulties. Only three of his eighteen children survived to adulthood.
The Dürer family came from Hungary, Albrecht Dürer senior being born there. In 1455, he had moved to Nuremberg from Ajtós, near Gyula in Hungary. The German name "Dürer" is a translation from the Hungarian, "Ajtósi" the family name, which means "door" in Hungarian. When Dürer senior and his brothers came to Germany they initially chose the name Türer which sounds like the German "Tür" meaning door. The name changed to Dürer, but Albrecht Dürer senior always signed himself Türer rather than Dürer. A door is featured in the coat-of-arms the family acquired.
The rather prosaic interpretation put on the family’s name by some biographers is that his forebears must have been doormakers. But ‘door’ is the same as ‘portal’ and more correctly indicates the spiritually gifted – those who can easily pass the portal.
Albrecht Dürer senior was also artistically inclined, he was a goldsmith who had served his apprenticeship with Hieronymus Holfer, and then married Holfer's daughter. Dürer senior became the official assayer of precious metals for Nuremberg. It might be added that workers in metals both literally and figuratively, had links with the alchemists.
Born in Nuremberg, Albrecht Dürer [junior] established his reputation and influence across Europe when he was still in his twenties. He does not fit the average mystic mould, as he died being quite well off and one of the main reasons he was may have been his wife.
On 7 July 1494, Dürer married Agnes Frey, who brought a dowry of 200 florins to the marriage. The match appears to have been a business arrangement between Albrecht's father and Hans Frey, a master craftsman who worked in brass and hammered copper – another alchemist. “Hans Frey had made quite a lot of money through making jewellery, musical instruments, and mechanical devices”. But there is an indication that his wife, Agnes, was Dürer’s greatest support. Although they had no children, she appears to have been an excellent manager of his domestic life and business affairs. It was a marriage which helped raise Dürer's status in Nürnberg, as well as provide him with money which helped him set up his own studio and shop. When Dürer returned to Nuremberg in 1495, from Venice, he opened a shop and immediately began building up a stock of engravings and woodcuts for sale.
This may give the impression that Agnes was simply a source of funds, but nothing could be further from the truth. Albrecht was clearly extremely fond of Agnes, his paintings and drawings of her are done with enormous affection.
Dürer was also no mystic recluse. His reputation as an artist spread throughout Europe and he was on friendly terms and in communication with most of the major artists including Raphael, Giovanni Bellini and — mainly through Lorenzo di Credi — Leonardo da Vinci.
One of the artists that he met in Venice, Giovanni Bellini, had an important influence on Dürer that lasted a lifetime, for:-
... everything that [Venice] could teach him was to be found in Giovanni's paintings. He cultivated the artist's society, therefore, with a devotion both impassioned and deferential, retaining throughout his life, with his whole heart and soul, unbounded feelings of gratitude to the man whose pictures had unveiled so wonderful a world to him.
Innovator and symbolist
Dürer was also very innovative in using new inventions – like the printing press. Print would be used primarily to publish words and it was soon discovered that pictures could also be produced the same way. Dürer hired an agent who could sell his prints in the fairs and markets of Europe.
Dürer did have patrons and some financial support from nobility, for example, from 1512 he was patronized by emperor Maximilian I, but unlike many artists of the day, Dürer was not dependent on patrons who ordered specific works, but was free to create the art of his choosing to sell to the public. Dürer exerted a huge influence on the artists of succeeding generations, especially in printmaking, the medium through which his contemporaries mostly experienced his art, as his paintings were predominantly in private collections located in only a few cities.
Durer was exposed to the work of numerous alchemists in his early years. Furthermore, Dürer's godfather was Anton Koberger. Koberger's most famous publication was the Nuremberg Chronicle, published in 1493 in German and Latin editions and essentially a book of symbols. It contained an unprecedented 1,809 woodcut illustrations by the Wolgemut workshop. Dürer worked on some of these, as the work on the project began while he was with Wolgemut.
As a consequence of all this freedom and all the influences, Dürer’s vast body of work, which includes woodcuts, engravings, altarpieces, portraits and self-portraits, watercolours and books, are full of mystic symbolism. Durer ‘knew’. His well-known engraving the Knight, Death, and the Devil (1513), contains a vast array of symbolism and was probably the basis for Rider Waite’s Tarot card for Death. Melencolia I (1514) is also extraordinarily full of symbols, as well as being an example of the use of sacred mathematics, linked to sacred geography. He even adjusted his appearance to be a symbolic object in his self-portraits.
So a fascinating man. We have provided an explanation of the symbolism he used with the observations for each painting, woodcut or engraving, but we will provide additional explanations in this section and links to the symbol section.
Dürer suffered from both periods of ‘mania’ and ‘melancholia’, and a true ‘sensitive’ prone to all sorts of ills and afflictions. Durer appears to have been ill most of his life.
By the early 1500s, Durer had set up his own printing press while he, or often his wife, sold his works to buyers at local fairs. It was a difficult life and one in which Dürer's health began to deteriorate rapidly, even though he was still in his early ‘30s. In fact he would never regain full health during the rest of his life.
From 1505 to 1507 Dürer made a visit to Italy, spending much time again in Venice. It was a very different visit from his first, made just after he married, with Dürer now more interested in his international fame than in learning about art. He was so conscious of his fame, and so ill he started to believe he posed a threat to local artists, and:-
... he refused invitations to dinner in case someone should try to poison him.
In other words, he had started to become paranoic.
When one of his patrons Maximilian died in 1519, Dürer wrote that he was “losing my sight and freedom of hand".
One can speculate that he was yet another victim of lead poisoning, as many of his symptoms seem to point to heavy metal poisoning of some sort. But unlike poets like Silesius, whose illness through lead poisoning sent him both mad and aggressive, as he became a religious fanatic, Durer kept his gentleness and humanity to the end.
But it was not without its effects as we shall see when we look at his changing religious beliefs.
Religion and beliefs
Dürer was a Catholic and he remained in the Catholic church throughout his life.
My father suffered much and toiled painfully all his life, for he had no resources other than the proceeds of his trade from which to support himself and his wife and family. He led an honest, God-fearing life. His character was gentle and patient. He was friendly towards all and full of gratitude to his Maker. He cared little for society and nothing for worldly amusements. A man of very few words and deeply pious, he paid great attention to the religious education of his children. His most earnest hope was that the high principles he instilled into their minds would render them ever more worthy of divine protection and the sympathy of mankind. He told us every day that we must love God and be honourable in our dealings with our neighbours. [as quoted in Albrecht Dürer : his life and work (1960) by M Brion].
Dürer also believed that all inspiration and wisdom – truth – came from ‘God’ – the spiritual world. He saw human creativity that was spontaneous or inspired as ‘received’, and that the man was simply the channel. Furthermore there was a difference between the art of a man inspired, and one who was simply technically good.
one man may sketch something with his pen on half a sheet of paper in one day, or may cut it into a tiny piece of wood with his little iron, and it turns out to be better and more artistic than another's work at which its author labours with the utmost diligence for a whole year.
Dürer was a fellow German and contemporary of Martin Luther and the sixteenth century Reformation in Europe centered primarily on theology and doctrinal debate. One of Dürer’s earliest portraits was of Friedrich the Wise, Elector of Saxony. Friedrich had founded the University of Wittenberg to encourage a Christian classical education and Martin Luther became professor of theology at the university. Dürer's neighbor in Nuremberg, Lazarus Spengler, was Secretary of the Nuremberg City Council and became a leader of establishing the Reformation in the city. Both Spengler and their mutual friend Pirckheimer were accused as heretics in the 1520 papal bull that demanded Luther's recantation or excommunication.
Gradually, Albrecht Dürer came under Luther's influence. Dürer and several of his friends on the Nuremberg City Council began attending services at the Augustinian Church. In 1525, Nuremberg became a Protestant city. The following year Dürer made a present to the Nuremberg City Council of The Four Holy Men -- Sts. John, Peter, Mark and Paul. Below the painting Dürer wrote,
All worldly rulers in these dangerous times should give good heed that they receive not human misguidance for the Word of God, for God will have nothing added to His Word nor taken away from it. Hear therefore these four excellent men, Peter, John, Paul, and Mark and their warning.
When Friedrich the Wise sent Dürer one of Luther's books in 1520, Dürer wrote the Elector's secretary:
I pray Your Honor to convey my humble gratitude to His Electoral grace, and beg him humbly that he will protect the praiseworthy Dr. Martin Luther for the sake of Christian truth. It matters more than all the riches and power of this world, for with time everything passes away; only the truth is eternal. And if God helps me to come to Dr. Martin Luther, then I will carefully draw his portrait and engrave it in copper for a lasting remembrance of this Christian man who has helped me out of great distress. And I beg your worthiness to send me as my payment anything new that Dr. Martin may write in German.
During an extended business trip to the Netherlands in 1520-1521, Dürer bought several of Luther's works and continued to admire his teachings. When he heard of Luther's kidnapping after the Diet of Worms, not knowing whether he was dead or alive, Dürer offered a prayer: . . .
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?
Unknown to Dürer at the time, Luther was very much alive and had been placed in hiding by his friends to protect him from capture by the imperial or papal forces.
Recognizing his son's talents, Durer’s father sent Albrecht at fifteen to be an apprentice in the shop of Nuremberg painter Michael Wolgemut. Here Albrecht received a basic training in the mixing of colours and drawing inks, the preparation of panels, and the composition of large-scale works. He also learned the art of woodcut design, for Wolgemut was the first German painter to design woodcuts as illustrations for the newly developed art of the printed book. Albrecht's godfather, Anton Koberger, was a printer, and Albrecht became familiar early with the new printing technology.
Durer’s subject matter includes religious themes, metaphysical subjects, portraits, scenes of nature and aids to teaching painting and drawing itself.
Durer recognised that printing and the use of woodcuts opened up avenues for mass tuition. One key avenue was religious themes – parables being the easiest to represent, but also visions and ‘revelations’ that by their very nature offered many opportunities for artistic expression. Durer placed the Biblical scenes in a contemporary setting, helping to make the parables more accessible to those who would be given the books. Many of Durer’s religious works were intended to be teaching aids for use by the clergy.
Scenes of Nature
Durer produced some stunningly beautiful landscapes and paintings of plants and animals.
The detail is extraordinary, the colours subtle and filled with Light; they are a gentle tribute to the beauty of Nature. Dürer believed art was rooted in Nature, and his works gave great attention to detail and realism.
Over the years he became progressively more fascinated with what ‘beauty’ meant. Why we perceive some things as beautiful and others not. Natural things all had their own beauty and he said:
There is no man on earth who can give a final judgment on what the most beautiful shape may be. Only God knows. [quoted in Mathematics, Education and Philosophy: An International Perspective (1994) by Paul Ernest ]
Durer painted or did woodcuts of peasants, the aristocracy, noblemen, emperors and ordinary people.
Peasants - His woodcuts of peasants are caricature like and aim to amuse. They are done with affection much in the same way a cartoonist of today would provide ‘Andy Capp’ like representations to make people smile. They are depicted doing things they might do every day for pleasure, dancing for example.
Nobility - His paintings of the nobility are clearly done to provide the sitter with a portrait that conveys the impression they wish to create in their subjects. All are technically superb and all capture very well the inner and outer man. In 1495, Dürer was still not well known as an artist in the highest circles but news of his skill reached Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, and Dürer was commissioned to paint his portrait. Frederick liked his portrait which Dürer painted in April 1496 when Frederick had visited Nürnberg. Despite Frederick's attempts to persuade Dürer to move to Weimar and become Court painter, the artist did not go.
Ordinary people - But his paintings of ordinary people are done with such gentleness and affection that we know where his heart lay. Each one a distinct character and each one painted to capture with joy the essence of them. They are truly beautiful, the people jump out from their wooden cages and seem to say ‘look, he has captured us, we are still here through him’.
‘How to’ drawing books
Erhard Reuwich, who had spent a brief time in Venice, had learned linear perspective from the Italian artists. Albrecht, realizing he could learn important artistic techniques from the Italians, and shortly after his marriage, went to Venice, to learn from the Italian Renaissance artists. For the first time he became acquainted with classical art and began to study theories of proportion and perspective.
Dürer was encouraged in his artistic studies by two Nuremberg leaders eager to bring the Italian Renaissance ideals to Germany -- Willibald Pirckheimer and Konrad Celtis. Both were interested in the ancient classics and the new scientific learning, dreaming of a German cultural revival; Albrecht Dürer would be an important part of their dream's fulfillment.
It was in Bologna that Dürer was taught (possibly by Luca Pacioli or Bramante) the principles of linear perspective, and evidently became familiar with the 'costruzione legittima' in a written description of these principles found only, at this time, in the unpublished treatise of Piero della Francesca. He was also familiar with the 'abbreviated construction' as described by Alberti and the geometrical construction of shadows, a technique of Leonardo da Vinci. Although Dürer made no innovations in these areas, he is notable as the first Northern European to treat matters of visual representation in a scientific way, and with understanding of Euclidean principles. In addition to these geometrical constructions, Dürer discusses in this last book of Underweysung der Messung an assortment of mechanisms for drawing in perspective from models and provides woodcut illustrations of these methods that are often reproduced in discussions of perspective.
Just like Pythagoras, Durer believed the world to be an essentially mathematical world, a universe constructed from geometric shapes and mathematical formulae.
The new art must be based upon science — in particular, upon mathematics, as the most exact, logical, and graphically constructive of the sciences. [As quoted in Dictionary of Scientific Biography (1970 - 1990) edited by M Steck].
It is important to understand at this point that Durer had received no mathematics training as part of his schooling. His interest in mathematics was inspirational.
Italy was not only a country with new ideas to offer Dürer in art, but it was also leading the world at this time in the revival of mathematics. Thus when Dürer travelled to Venice just after he was married, he not only sketched scenes, visited galleries and churches, and met with the local artists, but he also discussed mathematics with them.
Dürer met Jacopo de Barbari who told him of the mathematical work of Pacioli and its importance to the theory of beauty and art. Dürer did not meet with Leonardo da Vinci on this first visit to Italy, but he learnt of the importance which that artist placed on mathematics. Back in Nürnberg, Dürer began a serious study of mathematics. He read Euclid's Elements and the important treatise De architectura (On Architecture) by Vitruvius (1st century BC), the famous Roman architect and engineer. He also became familiar with the work of Alberti and Pacioli on mathematics and art, in particular work on proportion.
During the ten years after 1496, Dürer went from a relatively unknown artist to someone with a wide reputation as both an artist and a mathematician.
It was not about art that Dürer now wished to learn from the Italians, but rather about mathematics. He visited Bologna to meet with Pacioli whom he considered held the mathematical secrets of art. He also visited Jacopo de Barbari and the great efforts which Dürer made to meet de Barbari shows the importance which Dürer more and more attached to mathematical knowledge. Dürer returned to Nürnberg from this second visit to Italy feeling that he must delve yet more deeply into the study of mathematics.
In about 1508 Dürer began to collect material for a major work on mathematics and its applications to the arts. This work would never be finished, but Dürer did use parts of the material in the later published work - Four Books on Measurement. More details are provided in the observations.
Albrecht Dürer died in Nuremberg on April 6 1528, at the age of 56. He left an estate valued at 6,874 florins—a considerable sum. His large house where his workshop was located and where his widow lived until her death in 1539, remains a prominent Nuremberg landmark. It is now a museum. When Luther heard of his death, he wrote:
It is natural and right to weep for so excellent a man . . . still you should rather think him blessed, as one whom Christ has taken in the fullness of his wisdom and by a happy death from these most troublous times, and perhaps from times even more troublous which are to come, lest one who was worthy to look on nothing but excellence, should be forced to behold things most vile. May he rest in peace. Amen.
before he died Dürer had this to say......
Quoted in Introduction, Conjectures and refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge by Karl Popper
But I shall let the little I have learnt go forth into the day in order that someone better than I may guess the truth, and in his work may prove and rebuke my error. At this I shall rejoice that I was yet a means whereby this truth has come to light.
- Heaton, Mrs. Charles (1881). "The Life of Albrecht Dürer of Nürnberg: With a Translation of His Letters and Journal and an Account of His Works".
- Bartrum, Giulia. Albrecht Dürer and his Legacy. British Museum Press, 2002.
- Dürer, Albrecht (translated by R.T. Nichol from the Latin text), Of the Just Shaping of Letters.
- Dürer, Albrecht "Four Books on Measurement", original version in German with illustrations (Underweysung der messung, mit den zirckel un richtscheyt, in Linien ebnen unnd gantzen corporen), 1525.
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- Dürer, Albrecht - Portraits - 3 portraits
- Dürer, Albrecht - Portraits - Dürer's mother
- Dürer, Albrecht - Portraits - Four Books on Human Proportion
- Dürer, Albrecht - Portraits - Ideal beauty
- Dürer, Albrecht - Portraits - Jakob Muffel
- Dürer, Albrecht - Portraits - Maximilan I
- Dürer, Albrecht - Portraits - Nudes
- Dürer, Albrecht - Portraits - Old men
- Dürer, Albrecht - Portraits - Portrait of a young girl
- Dürer, Albrecht - Portraits - Portrait of a young man 1500
- Dürer, Albrecht - Portraits - Portrait of a young Venezian woman
- Dürer, Albrecht - Portraits - Self portrait
- Dürer, Albrecht - Religious works - Adoration of the Magi
- Dürer, Albrecht - Religious works - Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
- Dürer, Albrecht - Religious works - Praying hands
- Dürer, Albrecht - Religious works - The Prodigal son
- Dürer, Albrecht - Scenes of Nature - Columbines
- Dürer, Albrecht - Scenes of Nature - Little owl and bird's wing
- Dürer, Albrecht - Scenes of Nature - Stag's head
- Dürer, Albrecht - Scenes of Nature - The large piece of turf 1503
- Dürer, Albrecht - Scenes of Nature - Willow mill
- Dürer, Albrecht - Symbolism - Constellations of the northern and southern skies
- Dürer, Albrecht - Symbolism - Knight, Death, and the Devil
- Dürer, Albrecht - Symbolism - Mary with child
- Dürer, Albrecht - Symbolism - Melencolia
- Dürer, Albrecht - Symbolism - Melencolia, the magic square and the polyhedron
- Dürer, Albrecht - Symbolism - Nemesis
- Dürer, Albrecht - Symbolism - Pipe and drum
- Dürer, Albrecht - Symbolism - St Christopher
- Dürer, Albrecht - Symbolism - The bagpiper
- Dürer, Albrecht - Symbolism - The flag wavers
- Dürer, Albrecht - Symbolism - The sea wonders
- Dürer, Albrecht - Symbolism - The small horse
- Dürer, Albrecht - Symbolism - Themis and the Joker
- Dürer, Albrecht - The Art of Measurement - 01
- Dürer, Albrecht - The Art of Measurement - 02
- Dürer, Albrecht - The Four Books on Measurement
- Dürer, Albrecht - Treatise on Proportion - Geometry