How Albrecht Durer's self-portrait caused scandal and discontent in the art world
How Albrecht Durer's self-portrait caused scandal and discontent in the art world

It is difficult to understand what the intentions of this or that artist were when he created his works. That is why scientists, historians and art critics have been trying to unravel this mystery for many years. In the case of Albrecht Dürer, there was a lot of controversy about the exact intention of the artist with his famous self-portrait of 1500, around which passions still persist.

Albrecht was born in 1471 in the German city of Nuremberg. From the age of eleven, he worked as an apprentice for his father, a jeweler, who taught him the invaluable skills of drawing and engraving, which later played a decisive role in his career as an artist. Albrecht's talent and fame at an early age was also the result of considerable luck. The support of his godfather, Anton Koberger, one of the most successful publishers of the time in Germany, meant his immediate and easy recognition as a writer and printer. Moreover, Dürer's teaching was nothing short of extraordinary. His three-year apprenticeship at the age of fifteen, under the guidance of Nuremberg's leading painter and printmaker Michael Wolgemuth, introduced him to the art of woodcutting, in which he later excelled.

Self-portrait by Albrecht Durer, 1498. \ Photo:

Naturally, all this luck, experience and education led the young Albrecht to instant artistic success. After extensive travels to some of the cultural capitals of the world, Dürer began to truly hone his skills. In particular, his trip to Italy and the Netherlands in the early 1490s introduced the artist to exciting innovations and new forms of artistic expression that influenced his creative practice. At the time when Albrecht triumphantly returned to Nuremberg with his fiancée Agnes Frey, he was already a fairly well-known artist and independent engraver.

Self-portrait with a thistle, 1493. \ Photo:

The return to Nuremberg also marked the opening of Albrecht Dürer's own workshop, where he concentrated on producing woodcuts. It is generally believed that he focused more on prints than oil paintings, because making prints was much easier and much more profitable. This practice allowed him to solidify his name as an exceptional artist across the continent, because his prints were of a much higher quality than those that were circulated in Germany. In addition, engravings could have become widespread, unlike oil paintings.

Sketch for a self-portrait, Albrecht Durer. \ Photo:

Dürer was well aware that paintings are a one-off thing: in most cases they are intended to be sold and admired by one person. Therefore, he naturally gravitated towards the production and sale of his prints. As it turned out, this was an extremely profitable decision, as he regularly received orders and even completed projects for the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I.

Self-portrait, study of a hand and a pillow, Albrecht Durer, 1493. \ Photo:

However, Albrecht did not completely abandon painting. On the contrary, deeply influenced by the various innovations of artists that he encountered during his travels, he began to experiment with different compositional elements: color, body position, lighting and brush strokes. These compositional experiments led to the production of a small series of self-portraits, which began in 1493 and ended with his last part of the original self-portrait in 1500. In this piece, Dürer seems to portray himself in a very familiar image, usually recognizable in religious iconography.

Four horsemen from the Apocalypse of Albrecht Durer, 1498. \ Photo:

The artistic prowess and religious elements of the 1500 Self-Portrait are undeniable. Yet Dürer's work is historically recognized as something less pious. Interestingly, the work received relatively little attention during the portrait's initial release. Surprisingly, Albrecht and his portrait were branded as blasphemous three hundred years later. What could have changed during this time? Basically his interpretation.

Many, if not most, of the interpretations that the viewer holds in relation to works of art come to us from the field of art history and art history. These disciplines typically emerged in the second half of the 18th century and were established in public discourse as academic fields during the 19th and 20th centuries. Understanding this concept is critical because the first order of business for any would-be art historian or critic, regardless of their historical context, is to observe.

Altar of the Paumgartners: Birth of Christ, Albrecht Durer, circa 1500. \ Photo:

When art historians looked at Albrecht Durer's 1500 self-portrait, they all saw a fake late northern medieval depiction of Jesus Christ. More specifically, Dürer can be seen looking straight from the canvas at the viewer, facing forward, from the waist up and in perfect symmetry towards the canvas. In addition, he wears long and slightly curly hair that is golden brown, a shade different from his own natural pigment. His right arm is curved in an intriguing gesture, while his left is holding his collar. Finally, the gold lettering on the plain background carries a unique message:.

The Four Apostles, Albrecht Durer, 1526. \ Photo:

All of these compositional elements deliberately indicate the image of the Savior. There is no controversy surrounding the fact that Dürer painted his portrait in one of the most recognizable stylistic traditions reserved for the figure of Jesus Christ. This stylistic tradition is referred to as Christ Pantokrator and is considered one of the most recognizable artistic styles in Christian iconography. This method of religious imagery was fairly widespread in the Middle Ages and can be found in many frescoes and mosaics, as well as in most depictions of Christ in the Greek and Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition.

The very scandalous self-portrait, Albrecht Durer, 1500. \ Photo:

In Albrecht's time, it was believed that there was written evidence of the figure of Christ. As expected, Dürer stylized himself in the image described in the description, changing, for example, the shade of his blond hair to the color of a ripe walnut.

The question remains, why Albrecht deliberately portrayed himself in a manner intended exclusively for a religious figure. The public will certainly take such a step as a manifestation of outright arrogance. Surprisingly, during the release of the portrait there was not so much disturbance and noise as it might seem at first glance. This suggests that Dürer painted his portrait as a form of exercise for personal gain and to further explore the artistic innovations of his time. Nevertheless, most of his contemporaries regarded Albrecht's work as an exercise of the godly person creating an image in the very widespread tradition of "Imitation of Christ": the religious practice of following in the footsteps of Christ.

Details from a self-portrait by Albrecht Durer, 1500. \ Photo:

However, when art historians of the early 19th century such as Moritz Thosing analyzed the work, they found that instead of Dürer imitating the image of Christ, every image of Christ after Dürer was copied from his own image. This means that Albrecht's Self-Portrait was so respected and influential at the time that it became the basis for any subsequent depictions of religious figures. It was a colossal feat and a kind of success.However, when viewers from the Christian Renaissance movement revisited this image in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they found that it had nothing to do with the divine power that Christ had. The famous art historian Erwin Panofsky even called Albrecht's self-portrait "blasphemous."

Left to right: Salvator Mundi, Leonardo da Vinci, circa 1500. \ Christ Pantokrator from St. Catherine's Monastery on Mount Sinai, around the middle of the 6th century. \ Photo:

Unfortunately, the viewer is unlikely to ever know how accurate the statements and conclusions of 19th and 20th century art historians were, as their work remains largely speculative. However, based on some well-known facts about the life of Albrecht Dürer and the compositional elements of the painting, one can try to make an educated guess. The overarching narrative we can draw from 1500's Self-Portrait is that of a self-confident artist.

Self-portrait with bandage, Albrecht Durer, 1492. \ Photo:

As stated by Dürer himself, he completed work on the work before reaching the age of twenty-nine and has worked for many years as a respected artist in his home country and other art centers throughout Europe. It is also safe to assume that it takes a special talent to influence an entire stylistic tradition, as was the case with Dürer and his portrait.

Self-portrait of a Man of Sorrow, Albrecht Durer. \ Photo:

What can be learned from Dürer's work is how art history influences the storytelling of the artwork and its acceptance by the public. Despite the existence or absence of any symbolic elements or attempts to undermine religious beliefs and iconography, Albrecht Dürer's Self-Portrait is a work of undeniable artistic skill and superb compositional beauty.

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