Albrecht Durer is one of the most prominent artists of German and European Renaissance. He became famous for his profound understanding of human nature and naturalistic artworks. Durer’s engraving masterpieces remain unparalleled until now. Despite of his humanistic and even nonconformist artistic approach, which sharply contrasted to gothic manner, recommended by the Church, Durer remained a deep Christian believer, and many of his artworks are dedicated to Evangelic topics.
As he himself explained: “The art of painting is used in the service of the Church to depict the sufferings of Christ and of many other models; it also preserves the countenances of men after their death. ” Durer has many times turned to the passions of Christ as subject of his artworks both in the early and late years of his career. Durer explored three basic ideas: how to imagine Christ as God and a man in one body, how to put his own portrait inside the artwork and how to demonstrate his own view on the scene .
Series of engravings, devoted to passions of Christ, created by Durer, include “the Large”, “the Green”, “the Small”, “the Engraved” and “the Oblong” Passions. In this paper I will try to analyze some aspects of his famous series of the Engraved Passions of Christ, created in 1507-1512 . I will argue, that producing a series of interrelated engraved images, Durer aimed to reflect the Christian idea of salvation through humility and suffering.
On the one hand, Jesus of the Engraved Passions is an example of Christian virtues, on the other hand He shows the way to resurrection and salvation for adepts of Christianity. The “Engraved Passions” were produced by Durer during his life in Nuremberg after his return from Venice and before he moved to the Netherlands. At the time, his techniques have been greatly influenced by Italian painters and especially by Raphael. Durer became interested in Biblical themes, including Adam and Eve, the Virgin and life of Christ, concentrating mostly on engraving.
Durer has chosen to demonstrate spiritual sufferings, rather than physical ones. Perhaps originally the artist was not going to make a series of interrelated artworks since logically he must have first created the “Agony in the Garden”, however this has been produced in 1508, and the first was “Lamentation over Christ” (1507). It looks very much like a trial, due to it’s primitive technique which suffers from Durer’s preoccupation with arrangement of the limbs . Later engravings have been as well produced without precise system, for example, crucifixion went before bearing of the cross.
However, some common plotline may by traced in accordance with biblical chronology, and it is possible to trace the changing role of Christ as the depicted events develop . Surprisingly, Christ in many of Durer’s artworks, including Engraved Passions looks almost like a self-portrait of the artist himself. In the light of this one should consider Durer’s self-portraits and especially the most famous of them, showing Durer wearing fur-coat. He revolutionary used a portrait scheme, which has been previously applied only to icons.
Art historians usually explain, that Durer has been influenced by humanistic idea about central role of man in the Universe, and aimed to demonstrate this idea by comparing a creative activity of an artist with an act of creation by God himself . It can therefore be noticed, that similar facial features of Christ and Durer in the Engraved Passions are not occasional. They are a part of artistic conception, comparing man with God, and showing, that the way of Christ can be walked by anyone. Consequently, at the and of this way, a man can resemble God .
The series logically start with the “Agony in the Garden” – an omen of the following events. A spectator may see the sleeping Apostles and praying Jesus. This image looks like an introduction and prognostic of the later biblical events, depicted by Durer. Nobody else, but Jesus is aware of crucifixion and resurrection. The Apostles are sleeping, symbolizing those, who are not yet ready for faith. This is the beginning of the way of the Christian – raise of faith, which is not yet obvious, but decisive for the future life.
Such faith appears via an individual act of conversation with divine power. In the “Betrayal of Christ” (also called “Judas’s Kiss”) Durer has turned to rarely illustrated fragment Mark 14:51-52 concentrating on dramatic topic of the betrayal . Nothing, even a duel between St Peter and Malchus are important for Christ, who seems to be unconscious about the surrounding and bends His neck to receive a kiss from Judas as if they were alone, while a noose is already brought over His head and in the next second it will enlace His neck.
Although being able to resist, Christ calmly accepts his fate and lets himself be arrested, fulfilling His own commandment about non-resistance to evil. Jesus even seems to embrace Judas, giving example of love to foes. The mentioned noose can be observed on Jesus’s neck in the next two images, showing Christ before Caiaphas and before Pilate. His face is now detached and His thoughts seem to be far away, while eyes off all other characters are turned to Him. It can be admitted, that Durer supposed to contrast the vanity of tormentors and loftiness of Jesus.
Nevertheless, Christ does not look degraded or slimy, as the guards are, who kneel before the Roman Procurator. In the next several engravings, namely in the “Flagellation”, “Christ Crowned with Thorns”, “Ecce Homo”, and “Bearing of the Cross” (all dated 1512) Durer created images of passions of Christ. He, the Son of God and the King of Heaven appears to be a wordly man, suffering pain of torture, humiliated and piteous. Durer’s skill of depicting limbs reaches heights in these engravings and the legs of Jesus seem to be trembling as he stands beaten near a pillar or before a crowd, thirsty for blood.
His face is lowly and prostrated, so it is hardly possible to believe, that a King of Heaven can look so poorly. When looking at these images one can be really assured, that “this is a man”. In “Crucifixion” (1511), “Lamentation” (1507) and “Deposition” (1512) Christ is depicted dead. Nothing but a body is left from Him, so death and evil may triumph. Unlike in the images of passions, here the face of Jesus looks calm and enervated, as if he has already done his duty, and such mood sharply contrasts to the sorrowful faces of His followers.
Under Christian teaching, the life of a man is measured by his death, so the manner of showing His face characterizes life of Christ as rightly. Finally, in the last part of the series, including “Harrowing of Hell” and “Resurrection” (both 1512), Christ reveals his true colors as savior and the Son of God. Nothing is left from pain and torture, as Christ steps out of His tomb, holding flag of peace in His hand. Showing His power He remains merciful as he frees a sinner from eternal punishment. Adam and Eve stand behind His back as allusion to original sin, which Jesus managed to overcome.
In Resurrection Christ is depicted as a tall man with almost ideal proportions. This could not be seen in previous engravings, because his body was covered with clothes. And now Christ stands in His true handsomeness, as a highest spirit, freed from bodily imperfection. Durer has brilliantly embodied the central idea of Christianity – spiritual resurrection through suffering. The famous Italian art historian Vasari called his “Engraved Passion” “the ultimate in perfection and quality attainable in the medium as regards beauty, variety of vestments, and composition. Although Durer created his “Engraved Passions” not in chronological order, moreover, he has sold some of the engravings before the series have been completed, the interrelation between those images is obvious. In case they are placed in accordance with biblical chronology, it is possible to consistently trace how the role and place of Jesus were changing. From a betrayed teacher and suffering man he turns into a Son of God and the King of the World, giving hope on salvation to all Christians. Durer’s message is clear, as he shows a Christian evangelic way from faith via humility, suffering and physical death to spiritual immortality.
1. The Complete Engravings, Etchings and Drypoints of Albrecht Durer, edited by Walter L. Strauss, 2nd. Ed. , Dover Publications, 1972 2. Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Artists, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998 3. Giulia Bartrum, Albrecht Durer and His Legacy: The Graphic Work of a Renaissance Artist, Princeton University Press, 2003 4. Kantor Jordan, Durer’s Passions, New York: Harvard University Art Museum, 2007 5. 31 Mar. 2007 http://www. wga. hu/html/d/durer/2/13/3/ 6. On-line Catholic Encyclopedia, 1 Apr. 2007 http://www. newadvent. org/cathen/11395a. htm