by ALBRECHT DURER (German School)
WHEN Durer was in Italy, the old chronicler, Vasari, wrote him down in the
following comment: “It is indeed certain that if Albrecht Durer, so highly en
dowed, so assiduous, and so varied in his powers, had been a native of Tus
cany; had been in position to study the treasures of Rome, as we have done,
he would have been the best painter in Italy, as he is the most renowned among
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Durer was not stung by the condescension; but his own pictures,
compared with the easy flow of the Italian rhythms, appeared to him as some
what graceless and rigid, and he undertook to paint in the Southern style. His
results were not unworthy, but they were inferior to his models, and he was
too big a man not to acknowledge the discrepancy.
Taking his patriotism in
both hands, he returned to Nuremberg, having written to a friend, “How I
shall freeze at home, longing for the sunshine of Venice!”
Durer’s genius lay in his departure from classic conventions, in his realiza
tion of the supreme importance of ordinary human experience in the making
of an original art.
A Lutheran, he had attempted, in Italy, to depict the Chris
tian faith in a foreign language, in symbolical forms evolved by the Catholic
painters. In his last picture, summing up the knowledge of a lifetime, he paint
ed his Four Apostles, the crowning achievement of Germanic art, and the
greatest Protestant picture in the world.
The two panels were not commis
sioned; they were presented to the city of Nuremberg “as a warning,” the
artist wrote, “against evil and falsehood, and an eternal admonition to truth,
uprightness, sincerity and Christian love.” Later, they were stolen by Maxi
milian of Bavaria and taken to Munich.
Durer’s intention was not to rival the Italian masters. The picture was
painted in humility and superhuman gravity as an expression of his Chris
tianity and his devotion to the Protestant cause.
One of the panels represents
John and Peter, the other, Paul and Mark; figures conceived and executed in
the great style, but a Northern style with Durer’s human characterizations
raised to monumental simplicity and grandeur, figures which would not shrink
in stature if put beside the Prophets of the Sistine Chapel.
It was this work
that Goethe had in mind when he wrote: “In truth and nobility, and even in
beauty and grace, Durer, if one really knows him in heart and mind, is equaled
only by the very greatest of the Italian masters.”