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Dürer and Christ

Dürer’s Passions September 9-December 3, 2000 by

an exhibition at the Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts,, album of the exhibition, with a separately bound essay Jordan Kantor, foreword by Joseph Leo Koerner
Harvard University Art Museums, two volumes pp., $30.00 (paper)

Daumier and Redon have their lithographs, and Picasso his etchings, but no major artistic reputation owes more to prints than Dürer’s. His woodcuts, propagated by the relatively new power of the printing press, circulated through Europe and made his fame; they combined the sturdy starkness of folk art with the elaboration and expressiveness of Renaissance painting. To this day, for all the brilliance of his oil paintings, including the first European series of self-portraits, and the tender, photographic precision of his watercolors and drawings, and his importance as the German who, with both writ-ten theory and exemplary practice, brought the lessons of the Italian Renaissance north, his name likely conjures up a black-and-white image—one of the set of surreal, majestic woodcut illustrations to the Apocalypse (circa 1497-1498), say, or his copperplate engravings Adam and Eve (1504) or Knight, Death, and the Devil (1513).

Since Dürer prints are in the collection of most museums, exhibitions are relatively easy to assemble; in 1971, the five-hundredth anniversary of the artist’s birth in Nuremberg, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts drew exclusively upon its own collection to mount the extensive Albrecht Dürer: Master Printmaker. Now, Harvard’s Fogg, having assimilated the old Busch-Reisinger Museum that once stood on the other side of Memorial Hall, has supplemented its own considerable holdings with some loaned prints to give us, in ninety-three works, the full array of Dürer’s six versions of Christ’s Passion—the successive events, from the Last Supper to the Crucifixion, of Christ’s week of redemptive suffering.

The works are handsomely displayed in one large, irregular room painted a deep maroon on the lower half of the walls and a dark green on the upper. The earliest passion, called the Albertina Passion (1494-1500), and the latest, the Oblong Passion (1520-1524), are both fragmentary, containing respectively four and ten images. The Green Passion (1504) consists of eleven drawings in pen and brush on green paper, heightened with white gouache; the originals are in the collection of the Graphische Sammlung Albertina in Vienna and are represented at the Fogg by reproductions two thirds the size of the originals. Finely limned, their dark ground spotted with chalky white, they are probably hard to look at even in the original; yet, moving from Christ’s arrest in the Garden to his entombment, the cycle seems planned and is minutely executed, possibly toward some painted version to adorn a noble’s chapel. The Nailing to the Cross and the Descent from the Cross are notably lucid, dramatic, and moving.

But it is the Engraved Passion of 1508-1512 and the two woodcut series, the Large Passion (1497-1510) and the Small Passion (1508-1510), that make the show worth a museum’s space and a museumgoer’s time. They date, roughly, from the same period of Dürer’s life, and were moved forward more or less simultaneously, in one wave of interest. It is hard to imagine this narrative, the center of the Christian story and a topic of depiction from Romanesque capitals to Rouault canvases, ever being more earnestly, searchingly, and, as it were, introspectively illustrated. This is an exhibition with a thesis, put forward a few years ago by a young man who at the time was not even a graduate student. James Cuno, the director of the Fogg, in a brief foreword describes the event:

Jordan Kantor had just received his B.A. from Stanford when he showed up at the office door of the Fogg Museum’s print curator, Marjorie Cohn. He said he had an idea for an exhibition about Dürer’s Passion prints. Jerry [Marjorie] listened politely, and the more Jordan explained his thesis, the more she thought there was something to what he was saying. Finally, she said she would think about it….

After she thought, and Kantor exercised his gift for salesmanship on Harvard’s Professor Joseph Koerner, Kantor was enrolled in the Ph.D. program in the history of art and architecture and, six years or so later, the Passions are up on the walls. In an essay of thirty-three pages, Kantor puts forward his notion, which is perhaps less than revolutionary:

Dürer’s Passions reveal the artist’s own struggle to distill a personal vision of what a Passion should be…. Dürer did not just want to depict the Passion; he wanted to do it in a way that demonstrated his God-given genius. He wanted to create Dürer’s Passions. Dürer’s desire to create a personalized version of the Passion story was also certainly connected to his close identification with Christ…. This collapse of boundaries between artist and subject also parallels the strategy Dürer developed throughout his career to knit his viewer into the image…. As a young artist, Dürer imagines Christ as highly emotional, resisting his inevitable suffering and death. Late in his career, Dürer pictures his protagonist as calmer and more resigned to his fate. Halfway between these, as in the 1505 drawing, he pictured Christ as an impotent object.

It is no secret that Dürer depicted himself as Christ, or read Christ into his self-portraits: there are the beautiful chalk drawing Self-Portrait as Man of Sorrows (1522) and the iconlike oil self-portrait of 1500, among other evidences. Both covers of the exhibition’s strangely subdivided catalog (splitting the reproductions from their titles and dates) carry Dürer’s dramatic charcoal Head of Dead Christ (1503); the artist and viewer draw morbidly close to the dead Savior’s gaping mouth and shuttered eyes. But close identification with the suffering and humiliated Christ was a Christian’s duty, urged with especial fervor as the pomp and show of medieval piety turned toward the private exertions of the soul foreshadowing Protestantism. As ecclesiastical authority faltered, and monks and popes became scandals, the psychological and physical reality of the Gospel drama offered devotion a perennial basis. Dürer aimed, like a modern newscaster, to put himself—faithfully represented by his prominent monogram—and the viewer there. In the repellently well-observed charcoal head, we sense with a physical chill the rigidity and rot of death beginning. This death will someday be ours.

But what struck this viewer, perambulating the maroon walls, was the multiplicity and variety of other presences than Christ’s in these scenes. The world is much with the Incarnate Deity. The figure of Jesus is in frequent danger of being lost in the crowd; the animation and variety of incident within the crowd disperse attention from the sacred action at the center. This is most true of the Large Passion, seven of whose sixteen panels were executed in the last years of the fifteenth century, and then rounded out with a second installment in 1510. In its Flagellation (1497), no fewer than fifteen subsidiary figures taunt, whip, stare, blow horns, and, in one arresting visage, finger-whistle at the central figure; in the Bearing of the Cross (1498-1499), an astonishing linear congestion of figures and draperies presses down on top of the diagonal arm of the cross whose weight has brought Christ to his knees; in the Crucifixion (1497), the area not covered with figures on the ground is filled with angels catching Christ’s blood in chalices; in the Deposition (1497), Christ is more than half-eclipsed by mourning handlers of his body, beneath a furiously detailed thicket with its roots.

Scrutinizing such details in the half-size reproductions on the catalog’s shiny coated paper approaches the painful; one revelation of the exhibition is the relative comfort of viewing the woodcuts at their actual fifteen by eleven inches, printed on the soft, matte, pure rag paper of the fifteenth century. Seen as Dürer meant them to be seen, the visages of his minor actors and bystanders lose some of their knitted, snarling look, and some of them—like the vivid, not quite malevolent face at the back of the Deposition‘s crowd—gaze right back at us. In this series’ Last Supper (1510), we can follow the expressions into the darkest depths of the heavily cross-hatched shadows (is that Judas scowling?) and, in the Harrowing of Hell (1510), examine the somewhat wistful and shy expressions of the bizarre, beaked, horned, and scaly devils in residence as they contemplate their gracious visitor. These prints were designed to be bound into a book as large and gorgeous as the Apocalypse encased in the center of the room.

The Small Passion, thirty-seven woodcuts and an alternative block, which generally measure less than five by four inches, was designed for a mass audience. Extending the Passion into its full cosmic significance, the prints compose the most readily intelligible and vivid sequence, beginning with Adam and Eve Eating the Forbidden Fruit and their Expulsion from Paradise and moving into the life history that will redeem the Fall, from the Annunciation to the Ascension, the Descent of the Holy Ghost, and the Last Judgment, in which the damned are swallowed by a large-mouthed Satan and the saved move toward an ineffable light. Published as a book in 1511, the prints date at the earliest to 1508, and show little of the sometimes awkward congestion of the Larger Passion.

Consciousness of producing a handy popular work has led Dürer to a dramatic simplicity and a music of recurring imagery. The sword with which the angel of the Expulsion banishes the sinners returns suspended near Christ’s head as he judges mankind; the flailing motion with which Christ ousts the moneylenders from the temple returns as he is dragged before Annas and scourged in the Flagellation; Mary kneeling at her lectern in the Annunciation is still kneeling there when the risen Christ appears to announce his Resurrection; long handles, breaking up the eddying of hatching, appear in connection with crucifers, spears, halberds, and, in the most arrestingly secular image, a shovel, as Christ in a rakishly brimmed sunhat appears as a gardener to Mary Magdalene and tells her, “Noli me tangere.”

A number of these small woodcuts achieve a classic expression of their well-worn subject matter: the Expulsion with its magnificently clothed angel, touchingly steatopygous naked pair of sinners, and mournful backward glance from Adam; the Annunciation astir with an excitement that ruffles even the feathers of the descending Dove of the Holy Spirit; the wonderfully airy and architectural Nativity; the grave and beautifully lit Christ Washing the Feet of St. Peter; the agonized Bearing of the Cross (a considerable improvement over the Large Passion version); the understated, modestly populated Crucifixion; the eloquent Descent from the Cross. In this last, the face of Christ is quite hidden; he is visible only as a head of hair, as he is in Christ Before Annas; in several others his face is deeply shadowed, or sharply averted.

One wonders how new to iconography was this subjection of the God-Man to the laws of perspective and group action; certainly no Byzantine artist, or Sienese, would have let Christ’s face be eclipsed in a process of representational realism. Medieval Christian art was in that sense as aspective as Egyptian; the artist shows us not what he sees but what he knows. Dürer dares submerge God in the human tumble, omitting his halo in all but the Last Supper and the post-Resurrection appearances. If the Large Passion impresses us with its masses of witnesses, the Small Passion shows the action they are witnessing, felt as if from within, an ordeal coming ever faster. As Jordan Kantor points out, the pictorial composition, “even the direction of the cross-hatching,” enforces the momentum and turns, as it were, the page. The visual stream, like a stream in nature, ripples and dimples into whirlpools; some of the most dynamic images—the Mocking of Christ, Christ Nailed to the Cross, the Lamentation, the near-comic Ascension—have a circular motion that floods the frame.

All this is presented with a linear clarity that leaves no detail fudged or vague. A word of praise should be reserved for the anonymous woodcutters, who with such remarkable patience and skill and keen sight translated Dürer’s drawings to raised ridges of wood. A crudely made woodcut, like those of the early, abortive Albertina Passion, reads in its halftones as white scooped from black; but even in its finest, closest crosshatching the Small Passion, on a scale little bigger than that of playing cards, reads as black on white, each tiny rhomboid of white left by the artist’s pen lifted out by the woodcutter’s chisel.

The woodcuts are, then, a collaboration, whose final texture and definition are supplied by an artisan. But an engraving or etching is from the hand of the artist, who often supervises the inking of the intaglio plate as well. The fifteen plates of the Engraved Passion, are marvelously fine; into rectangles slightly smaller than those of the Small Passion Dürer scratched details that for comfortable appreciation need a blowup to twice the real size. My impression was of a greasy darkness in which only a few passages have the breathing room, the daylight tonality, common in the woodcuts. Though executed in the same rough period as the Small Passion and the second installment of the Large, the Engraved was the last to be completed, and has a flavor of decadence. Familiarity with the Gospel tableaux has bred something like contempt. The costumes, however common in Dürer’s Nuremberg, strike a twentieth-century viewer as bizarre and even clownish—e.g., the double-crowned hat of Caiaphas in Christ before Caiaphas, the petal-fringed cap of the most prominent spectator in Ecce Homo, the furry top hat in the Entombment, and the towering construction, crumpled like an animal’s snout, worn on the head of the pug-faced attendant kneeling to hold the basin in Pilate Washing His Hands.

Under the witchery of the graver’s needle, a strange lightness possesses the figures: Christ and his two tormenters in this Flagellation appear to be doing a stately dance, the lead lamenter in Lamentation is gesturing over her head as if with castanets, and the lissome Christ in Resurrection is doing a graceful two-step on the lid of his tomb. The details of armor, of creased faces, of distant villages are rendered with fanatic intensity, but a transparent didactic thread has been lost. Virtuosity has replaced exemplification of virtue. Dürer’s monogram is always prominent, and is manifest through a number of ingenious conceits—in plaques and tablets and stone slabs, and carved flat into flooring, obedient to the picture’s perspective. The Passion has become, in part, self-advertisement.

Dürer did not soon return to the Passion after 1512, but in the 1520s, after Luther had nailed up his theses and altered northern Christendom forever, a number of pen-and-ink drawings, and one completed woodcut, pick up the Passion again, in the so-called Oblong Passion. Some of the drawings, especially the crowd scene of the Bearing of the Cross, are superb; the lateral format gives Dürer space to animate a pedestrian throng. Jordan Cantor proposes that in this last Passion the artist tends to marginalize and dematerialize the physical presence of Christ. A 1523 Last Supper has Jesus at the end of the table, at the extreme left of the picture. Several sketches of the Agony in the Garden show the agonist face down and as it were, levitating. An engraving for a Crucifixion was left in outline on Dürer’s death, and looks bloodless and schematic.

At a far cry from Grünewald’s twisted, skeletal Christ of ten years earlier, Dürer’s final version shows him standing firmly on a ledge on the Cross, his arms stretched out more in command than in torment. Crucifixion has become an abstract idea; passion, at least in this engraved outline, has fled. Dürer’s personal involvement has faded, and the work was left unfinished. It seems true that as the impulses of Protestantism—and, to come, Pietism—were felt in art, holy subjects could not be tackled without personal, even egoistic, feeling. To project the story of the Incarnation, the artist had to put himself into it.

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