The times they were a’ changing. Albrecht Durer’s goal was to expand the expressive range of German art by bringing it to the expressive disciplines of the Renaissance. The vistas of the Alps, and the breadth and vigor of the intellectual life to the south of them, were revelations that transformed Durer’s art after a trip to Italy in 1494. ”When in Rome do as the Romans do”, was the refraining echo that transformed Durer’s work from a formerly cramped style of the medieval orthodoxy of linear isolation. His first trip to Venice was a revelation beyond anything he had expected. Italy for a German artist at the end of the fifteenth century was not only a matter of crossing a mountain range, but of traversing a century of time.
Regarding Adam and Eve above, Durer ( 1471-1528 ) scholar Erwin Panofsky felt temptation to be an inevitable consequences of temperament. The animals in the background which seem to be only ornamental accessories to the Garden of Eden, symbolize these temperaments. The elk, rabbit, cat and ox stand respectively for the melancholic, sanguine, choleric and phlegmatic humors. The serpent’s meaning is clear. The parrot, a symbol of wisdom, is a balancing opposite in this apparently perfectly balanced composition. Possibly, the fact that the sage parrot’s back is turned to the serpent at this crucial moment is a lapse, and thus a comment on the disaster, depending on your point of view,that is about to occur. As for the mouse, Panofsky points out that the artist’s contemporaries ”would have shared his delight in paralleling the tense relation between Adam and Eve to that between a mouse and a cat crouching to spring…”
Durer had to reorient himself from the dependable craftsman mentality to that of a new style; the importance of which was expressed in a new attitude toward life, and a new conception of the world that were incompatible with the expressive forms available from Gothic art. Previously, composition was conceived as a collection of individual objects defined with such individual care that they could almost have been drawn separately and then pasted together. Any object of the earlier pre-Venice Durer landscapes for example could be plucked out for individual examination, and the picture would be poorer only by the absence of that detail. It would not bleed, as it would if a working part had been wrenched from an organic whole.Durer would succeed in harmonizing both the rational and mystical.
Durer’s life encompassed the waning of the age of faith to the rise of the age of power. DaVinci was already in his forties when Durer, in his twenties, first saw Italy. The entire lifetime of Raphael, the one who summarized its classical aspirations in his Vatican frescoes, was encompassed within Durer’s lifetime. Michelangelo, whose thunderous doubts denied Raphael’s serenity and marked the end of the Renaissance as a period of optimistic affirmation, was born only four years after Durer.
The climactic expression of Durer’s genius came in 1513-14 with three engravings which can be grouped as a trilogy that summarized the theory and practice of art in the service of humanistic learning. These engravings expounded on the triple aspect of virtue as represented by three ways of life. ”Knight Death and the Devil” illustrated the moral virtue of Christian action, ”Saint Jerome in His Study” was a celebration of the theological virtue of spiritual contemplation; Melancolia I examines and questions the intellectual virtues of the world that was most Durer’s own, the world of science and art.
”Durer’s brooding figure, posed in an attitude of dejection and frustration, with a sad, leaden, downward cast, may be interpreted as an embodiment of the alchemical searcher after the ephemeral Stone — or, in a wider sense, as the seeker after wisdom — in a mood of temporary defeat. The atmosphere of lassitude and gloom is intensified by the tolling bell, the quiescent infant, and the lean and passive hound. Despite the opening keys and the light-giving lamp, knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers.” Yet, “we fail to rise, are baffled to fight better.” In the distance, dispelling the black bat, night, shines the sun over the Saturnine Sea and if, like the Saturnine symbols of alchemy, the winged genius of Melencolia broods with darkened face.” ( John Read )
It does not seem that the pleasure of a Durer can be complete unless its symbolic program can be explained. Each engraving is built on a complicated iconographical scheme; Durer as cartographer of symbols and powerful artist up to the demands and standards of pure expression. ”Knight” is built on the cliched and time worn idea of life as journey through dark places where the traveller is threatened with perils and vice. The simile is old, but in Durer’s version, the viewer is drawn into the complexities of a wilderness where every single angle of rock and every twist of root takes it place within a mass of other details that combine a sense of pageantry with elements of threat, mystery, phantasmagoria and lucidity.
” The knight and his noble horse are always firm, determined, impregnable, and unsullied, reducing death and his pitiful nag to beggary and revealing the fearsom devil as a mere scareface. Opposed by serene faith and virile action, the temptations of the world are only ”terricula et phantasmata”, spooks and phantoms, as Erasmus calls them in his ”Enchiridion”, certainly known to Durer and perhaps the source of this conception” (J. Canaday )
In ”Saint Jerome” the perils of the wild, are replaced by privacy and hermetic concentration. The savage intrusions are replaced by order within limited space. And by extension, psychological coherence channeled into the spirit of ordered thought. Panofsky has observed that by placing each object at forty-five degrees, or right angles to the observer; the precision of the perspective contributes to the peacefulness. Effectively, its a seductive image,cozy and beatific, an illusion of the scholarly good life far removed from academic politics, student papers, committee meeting and the pressures of ”publish or perish” that drive the engines of higher learning.
Melencolia I however, is the least apparent, most complicated and perhaps most contradictory work of the trilogy. Most interpretations come to the conclusion that genius is at once a condition of power and of helplessness, and of privilege and frustration; disorder arising from the defeating complexity of knowledge. The statement is considered too profound to be bitter and the pessimism and discouragement have their fall broke by the fall back position of a recognition of a power, a God, that exists and knows the secrets that no learning can hope to decipher, except through rare flashes and oblique and murky gazes. Due to Durer’s religious beliefs, admitting negation and despair was not an option. ” But so extensive are the connotations and the side currents of this personal testament, conceived five hundred years ago, that it can also be read as an anticipation of the philosophies of negation and despair on which entire schools of twentieth-century art were based”
His last major work was the ”Four Apostles” which was a variation on the theme of the four humors where each saint is a personification of a temperament, in again, a balanced harmony symbolizing the fourfold image of the divine. it could also be looked at as a response to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelations which would be in line with Melencolia and its innate sense of paradox.The four humors, The sanguine, melancholic, phlegmatic and choleric; all of which were extrapolated into the four seasons, the four points of a compass, fourfold image of the divine, four races of people and the numerological identification of four representing harmony, balance and solidity. There was an increasing secular consciousness that accompanied Durer’s mystical humanism. The Catholic abuses that had first forced Durer’s departure from the Church to the teachings of Martin Luther , now inevitably pushed him into the position of counter-revolutionary due to Protestant excesses and its own brand of zealotry and radicalism.