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Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist at the National Gallery, London

21 January 2022

Nicholas Cranfield sees the Dürer exhibition at the National Gallery

© Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Albrecht Dürer, Christ among the Doctors (1506), Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid (1934.38)

Albrecht Dürer, Christ among the Doctors (1506), Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid (1934.38)

IN MAY 1520, the 20-year-old King Charles I of Spain, the newly elected Holy Roman Emperor, joined his aunt and uncle, Katherine of Aragon and Henry VIII, on pilgrimage to Canterbury (Arts, 11 June 2021).

What neither of the English sovereigns could have known was that their four-year-old daughter, Mary Tudor, would become the wife of Charles’s son, Philip (born 1527), later King of England by virtue of that marriage (1554).

After his progress through Kent, Charles returned to the Low Countries and made a triumphant entry into Antwerp in September 1520 on his way to his coronation at Aachen on 23 October, watched by the artist Albrecht Dürer.

The 500th anniversary of the coronation occasioned an exhibition in Aachen that also celebrated the retirement of Dr Peter van den Brink as the director there, and, on the back of that, the National Gallery has expanded the present exhibition; both were slightly postponed for all too obvious reasons.

The exhibition follows Dürer’s extended travels, not just to the imperial court, in an unashamed attempt to ensure that his pension, suspended at the death of the previous Emperor Maximilian (January 1519), was restored, but includes his earlier jaunts into Italy.

Albrecht Dürer was born in 1571 and had established his own business both as a journeyman painter and engraver in the 1490s after first training as a goldsmith in his father’s workshop. Susan Foister has brought nearly seven dozen of his works together in the National Gallery, with altarpieces, paintings, sketches, watercolours, and his own letters.

© Instituto Portugues de Museus, Minstero da Cultura, LisbonAlbrecht Dürer, Saint Jerome (1521), Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon

Travelling in the early Modern period was about as uncertain as it is currently. Passports to cross Europe to the Netherlands had to be obtained from Bamberg and shipwreck avoided. Plague was endemic and, at one stage, Dürer caught malaria. In his journal, he can sound like a latter-day St Paul. The show could be subtitled “Travails of a Renaissance Artist”.

In 1490, he left Nuremberg for Colmar and probably continued to Mainz, Basel, and Strasbourg, returning in 1494 for his marriage, which was necessary to permit him to open a workshop. Within weeks of his wedding, he had abandoned the long-suffering Agnes Frye, the daughter of a brass worker, to travel. They never had children.

He crossed the Alps, visiting the Habsburg cities of Innsbruck and Trent, a city on the alto Adige that he captured in one of his momentary watercolours (Trintperg — Dosso di Trento, Kunsthalle, Bremen). It stands silent and calm beneath a single mountain in an intentionally bared landscape. Fifty years later, Charles V chose the city as a meeting place for the Ecumenical Council, its harmony disturbed by the onslaught of the forces of Lutheranism.

Whether he travelled on to the Republic of Venice then is disputed. His more documented visit took place ten years later, from the late summer of 1505 until February 1507, when he journeyed there, possibly to escape the plague or his wife.

Or he may have gone to accept an invitation from Jacopo de’ Barbari, a Venetian artist who had lived in Nuremberg for at least a year from 1500 as court painter to the later emperor Maximilian.

Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.Albrecht Dürer, Madonna and Child (c.1496-99), National Gallery of Art, Washington, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.2.16.a  

For the German Hanseatic merchants’ church of San Bartolomeo a Rialto, he painted an altarpiece, The Madonna of the Rosary, with all the colour and light of the Serenissima to rebuff local criticism that he could master only black-and-white woodcuts and engravings.

It had first been commissioned before he left Germany by the banker Jakob Fugger, acting as an intermediary between the emperor and Pope Julius II. The original (now in Prague) has been severely damaged, but we get to see a copy, painted soon after Emperor Rudolf II acquired the original in 1606 for the Strahov Monastery (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna).

In it, Dürer repurposed a sacra conversazione, to celebrate the amity between the Papacy and the Empire; with St Dominic behind her, the Virgin sits enthroned between the kneeling figures of Pope Julius II and the emperor, both of whom have laid their earthly crowns on the ground as the Christ Child crowns the bald pontiff and the Virgin places a garland of roses on the emperor’s head.

Frederick III remained emperor until his death in 1508, but Dürer has given him the features of his successor Maximilian, who was crowned in Rome. In addition to the central figures, Dürer peppered the scene with portraits, including Burkhard von Speyer, whose remarkable portrait (HM The Queen) is on the wall near by, and a very knowing self-portrait with a scroll stating that the altarpiece had taken him five months to paint. From his journal entries, we see how prolific he was as a portraitist, while, from his letters, we learn just how widely prized his portraits were.

In one, dated 7 February 1506, he damns many of the Italian painters whom he has met for outright plagiary; “many of them are my enemies and copy my work in the churches and wherever they can find it; afterwards, they criticise it and claim that it is not done in the antique style and say it is not good.”

Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.Albrecht Dürer, Lot and His Daughters (c.1496-99), National Gallery of Art, Washington, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.2.16.b  

Giovanni Bellini singled him out for praise, and it may have been this reciprocated friendship that caused local resentment. Unless this is just the braggart German finding a grievance, few of his altarpieces have been traced. His influence on early-16th-century Venetian art was not perhaps as profound as he alleged nor as marked as that of the Bellini family.

In addition to the Rosenkrantzfest, the Christ among the Doctors (formerly in the Barberini collection, Rome; now Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid) is the other altarpiece on display. This extraordinary composition wheels around the fulcrum of four swirling hands, those of the adolescent Christ and the gnarled hands of one of the teachers of the Law. For all their book learning, it is Christ who has the Word of Eternal Life.

This is a remarkable exhibition of a remarkable man, possibly the first artist to tour Europe and almost undoubtedly the first to observe day-to-day life so exactly and minutely. Whether a tawny lion, a crouching dog, the face of an African slave, an altarpiece, or a formal portrait, Dürer’s work remains immediately recognisable and is still important for the history of Western art. How he must have enjoyed the fact that his monogram of his initials with a date offered a record in Anno Domini.

His death in 1528 will undoubtedly occasion much larger exhibitions than currently can be assembled in the National Gallery, but for this relief much thanks.


“Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist” is at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2, until 27 February. Phone 020 7747 2885. www.nationalgallery.org.uk

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