Artist’s Biography – Albrecht Dürer
The working life of Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528), who was the greatest artistic figure in Germany before the modern era, spanned the Gothic, Renaissance, and Reformation periods. Trained as a painter and printmaker, in his early twenties Dürer became interested in making prints. Although Dürer traveled to Italy and constantly worked to integrate Renaissance humanist concepts such as perspective, the primacy of antiquity, and the study of the nude into his art, he was principally a religious artist. Dürer worked on the subject of Christ throughout his career, and this print is a testament to both his faith and artistic prowess.
Perhaps the greatest German artist of the Renaissance era, began his career in the Imperial Free City of Nuernberg with his father, a Hungarian goldsmith who had emigrated to Germany in 1455. Despite his goldsmith origins, however, by 1484 Dürer had already begun painting. In 1486 he was apprenticed to the painter and printmaker Michael Wolgumut and began to work with woodcuts and copper engravings as well.
Beginning in 1490 Dürer travelled widely for study, including trips to Italy in 1494 and 1505-7 and to Antwerp and the Low Countries in 1520-1. During his visit to Venice on his second Italian trip Dürer was especially influenced by Giovanni Bellini and Bellini’s brother-in-law Andrea Mantegna, each then near the end of his career. In The Uffizi: A Guide to the Gallery (Venice: Edizione Storti, 1980, p. 57) Umberto Fortis comments that Dürer’s journeys enabled him “to fuse the Gothic traditions of the North with the achievements in perspective, volumetric and plastic handling of forms, and color of the Italians in an original synthesis which was to have great influence with the Italian Mannerists.”
The period between his Italian trips was one of great productivity and artistic growth, characterized by his publication, 1496-8, of a portfolio of woodcuts, The Apocalypse of St. John. Scholars have suggested that the portfolio may have been intended as a veiled expression of support for the Reformation, with Babylon used as a surrogate for Rome.
Over the course of his career, printmaking became as important a medium for him as painting and drawing, and he set new technical and emotive standards for both woodcuts and engravings, infusing traditional subjects like Christ’s Sudarium with a new relevance and immediacy. Working in formats larger than the traditional prints of his era, Dürer was able to work in greater detail and ultimately develop a new pictoral vocabulary for the medium.
Dürer’s Sudarium is serves as a testament to both his faith and this new pictoral vocabulary he developed for his prints. This composition is based on a relic of Christianity that has often been associated with the Shroud of Turin: the Sudarium of Oviedo. The Sudarium is a piece of cloth roughly 84 cm x 53 cm. It has stains on it, but no recognizable features. According to legend, the Sudarium was the facial covering that lay on Jesus’ face under the shroud after crucifixion. It is mentioned in John 20:7, where it was found apparently cast off after Jesus’ resurrection. Webster’s mistakenly notes it as “Veronica’s Veil”, which is an entirely different object and considered by some to be the source for the Shroud’s artist.
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