Albrecht Dürer is not simply the artist who created The Young Hare, The Great Piece of Turf or the Study of Hands, symbols of medieval art that have almost degenerated into kitsch. Among the artists of medieval Germany, Albrecht Dürer is without doubt one of the most outstanding figures. He was not only a painter, graphic artist, woodcarver and copper engraver; he was also notable because of his mathematical examinations of the theoretical foundations of art, in the field of geometry in particular, where the transition from the late Gothic style to the Renaissance became the most apparent.
Dürer’s continuous efforts to achieve perfection, together with the then common search for forms, rules and mathematical laws, in order to be able to transform these ideas onto paper and canvas, is reflected in his writings from the second half of his industrious life. He published in 1525 the Instructions on Measurement. There were Latin editions also, published in the years 1532, 1535 and 1605. Among many other items were the first instructions, written in German, on the construction of sundials. The astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) and the mathematician Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) relied on Dürer’s ideas. In the year of Dürer’s death saw the publication of his four books on human movement: Here are four books on human proportions, discovered and described by Albrecht Dürer of Nuremberg for use by all lovers of this art. In the first three volumes Dürer described and examined types of human bodies, and in the fourth volume he occupied himself with the study of motion.
In contrast to the other artists of this epoch, an unusual amount of information is available on Dürer’s life, his development and the impact of his work. As a contemporary of the reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546), he stands between the two great Christian persuasions, presenting the Catholics with the Life of Mary (1503-1504), Saint Jerome in his Study (1514) and The Knight, Death, and the Devil, and Melanchthon (1526). Dürer could never limit the abundance of his ideas.
In addition, there exists a Self-Portrait (1484) by the thirteen-year-old Dürer. As his self-portraits from the years 1492, 1493, 1498 and 1500 show, Dürer occasionally portrayed himself in drawing using the silver pen technique and adding a monogram later by hand, which therefore did not enable later corrections.
As a twenty-year-old, he wrote of his ideas in several books on woodcutting (which later were rarely attributed to him). By the age of twenty- four Dürer had produced not only his woodcuts of the Ship of Fools from the year 1494, but also the first copper engravings. In his later years Dürer was involved, sometimes reluctantly, in secondary art production, mainly serving the crown by portraying his powerful Emperor. Dürer’s models were the masters of Italian art, and he adopted aspects of their work without ever becoming an “imitator” or copier of other artists’ work. His works reflect reason, and were mainly created using the intellect.
This is in contrast to Mathias Grünewald (c. 1470/1480-1528), who occasionally exhausted himself completing a single piece of work; or Hans Holbein the elder (c. 1465-1524); or even the audacious Hans Baldung (1484/1485-1545), whose works often engaged their souls. The subjects of Dürer’s The Wire Drawing Mill, Young Hare and Rhinoceros were drawn only according to descriptions by third parties in 1515, and were never seen by him. His depictions of large armour-plates, or a female body worn out by life, for example, come from his experience and his thoughts independent of other influences.
During the turbulent transition from the fifteenth to the sixteenth century, when America was (re) discovered, and the Greek classics were printed for the first time and social issues were to become relevant, the plastic artists were the only people able to articulate themselves in observance with the period. Because the new language created by Luther in an almost peaceful way could not yet be used and music only reached a few people, there were only limited forms of expression available at that time.
One reward for Dürer’s constant struggle for perfection was his closeness to the great personalities of his time. The Basle printing masters, the brothers of Martin Schongauer (c. 1450-1491), and in his hometown, the council member Pirckheimer (1470-1530) took the son of a craftsman under their wing. His friends among the Italian masters were primarily Bellini (1430-1516), Giorgione (c. 1478-1510) and Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560). The elector of Saxony was also no stranger to him. Dürer was considered a kind, affable and sensible man and, as someone who had travelled quite extensively within Europe, was made welcome in these circles.
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