A Fine Testament to Durer Ability

The Birmingham Post (England), July 4, 1998 | Go to article overview

A Fine Testament to Durer Ability


The Lions International Convention this week reminded me that the huge medieval fairs - especially the great print and book fairs held once in Nuremberg, Mainz, Strasbourg and Basel - were greeted with the same excitement and expectation accorded tothe Lions.

By 1450, Guthenberg was printing in Mainz (called Goldene Mainz) because of its opulence and wealth.

And once the craft of taking printed paper pages from a clear letter press was established, prints were the obvious development and customers thronged to the fairs where many artists of note showed their wares.

One of the greatest artists of his time was Albrecht Durer, whose prints will be sold next week at Christie's in a fine collection originally formed by Count Antoine Seilern.

So why Durer? The answer is simple - apart from his genius as an artist, Durer, above all else was an eye witness to the beginnings of the European Reformation and counted many of its leading lights, including the philosopher and Humanist, Erasmus, along with Martin Luther, among his closest friends.

In fact, it is Durer's engraving of Erasmus which makes the front cover of Christie's elegant and informative sale catalogue.

Durer travelled widely across Europe and in his heyday, this fine artists used his own prints as credit cards in great cities, trading them for fine printing paper, food, lodgings or whatever. An interesting point to remember is that when Durer travelled in the summer months of 1521 he too, in a similar way to today's traveller switched from currency to currency changing in and out of guilders, stuivers, stubers, or pfennigs.

It is also important to remember that when Durer and his wife were resident in a large town, Strasbourg or Basel, perhaps, collectors came to the leading print merchants in the city where Durer's work would be offered. And they were by no means cheap.

Mounted on linen and set into ebony and ivory frames they were expensive and were already appearing in property inventories. What costs pounds 1000 today at Christie's certainly cost an equivalent amount in the 16th century.

Durer can be grouped with the Holbeins, Altdorfer, Baldung and many more engravers all of whom provided excellent reasons to study this period of early prints more closely.

The pre-occupation of The Middle Ages had been the fear of death and the hope of salvation - worries reinforced by constant outbreaks of plague, the threat of war and famine. Not unsurprisingly it is these subjects which occupied both Durer and his conte mporaries and so these images recur time and again in Christie's finely illustrated catalogue.

"Knight, Death and The Devil," is an example with its warhorse so perfectly proportioned. A passage from Durer's Netherlands Diary tells us much. "Look - of what avail is the unjust tyranny of worldly might and powers of darkness? Ride forth at the side of Christ our Lord and obtain the crown of the Martyrs." And so the knight rides on steadily ignoring the horrors looming up around him. The estimate for this beautiful thing is pounds 15,000-pounds 20,000.

Durer's Adam and Eve, using figures based on classical proportions has become one of the most celebrated images of the Renaissance, epitomising the new Humanism. Durer's contemporaries would have understood the symbolism in the engraving, things we shoul d dismiss today as picturesque accessories. The branch of mountain ash which Adam holds, signified the Tree of Life. The parrot on the branch signified benevolence, and we all know what serpents mean.

The print represents the culmination of Durer's technical achievements and is as much sought after today as it was in 1504 when it first appeared.

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