“Simplicity is the greatest adornment of art”*
In case you missed it, Albrecht Dürer (1528), Matthias Grünewald (1529), and Lucas Cranach the Elder (1553), artists, were remembered on the Episcopal Church calendar on Tuesday.
You may recall, that in the turbulent sixteenth century, as the Renaissance and the Reformation changed the cultural, social, political and religious face of northern Europe from medieval to modern, these three artists were emblematic of those revolutions. You can read about them here.
Ever since I was a child I have been a big fan of Albrecht Dürer. I seem to remember that we had several of his woodcuts and engravings (watercolors?) in the collection of the Saint Louis Art Museum, but when I searched their online catalogue I could not find any. (What’s up with that?))
Anyway, Albrecht Dürer was born in Nuremberg and is generally regarded as the greatest German artist of the Renaissance. “His talent, ambition and sharp, wide-ranging intellect earned him the attention and friendship of some of the most prominent figures in German society.” He became official court artist to Holy Roman Emperors Maximilian I and his successor Charles V. In Nuremberg, a vibrant center of humanism and one of the first cities to officially embrace the principles of the Reformation, Dürer had access to some of Europe’s outstanding theologians and scholars, including Erasmus, Philipp Melanchthon and his good friend Willibald Pirkheimer–each of whom he made portraits.
Hundreds of surviving drawings, letters and diary entries document his travels through Italy and the Netherlands, attesting to his insistently scientific perspective and demanding artistic judgment.
Dürer attended the Augustinian Church in Nuremberg and was heavily influenced by the teachings of Luther and the emphasis on Christ’s passion as the only key to forgiveness from sin. When Luther disappeared after the Diet of Worms and few knew whether he was living or dead, Dürer offered a prayer:
“If we have lost this man, who has written more clearly than any that has lived for 140 years, and to whom Thou hast given such a spirit of the Gospel, we pray Thee, O Heavenly Father, that Thou wouldst again give Thy Holy Spirit to another . . . O God, if Luther is dead, who will henceforth deliver the Holy Gospel to us with such clearness?
Of course, unknown to Dürer at the time, Luther was very much alive and had been placed in hiding by his friends to protect him from capture by the imperial or papal forces.
In 1525 Nuremberg became a Protestant city. The following year Dürer made a present to the Nuremberg City Council of The Four Holy Men — Saints John, Peter, Mark and Paul. Below the painting Dürer wrote, “All worldly rulers in these dangerous times should give good heed that they receive not human misguidance for the Word of God, for God will have nothing added to His Word nor taken away from it. Hear therefore these four excellent men, Peter, John, Paul, and Mark and their warning.”
We give thanks to you, O Lord, for the vision and skill of Albrecht Dürer, Matthias Grünewald and Lucas Cranach the Elder, whose artistic depictions helped the peoples of their age understand the full suffering and glory of your incarnate Son; and we pray that their work may strengthen our faith in Jesus Christ and the mystery of the Holy Trinity; for you live and reign, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
* Albrecht Dürer