Artist and Humanist, Albrecht Durer is one of the most significant figures in the history f European art outside Italy during the Renaissance (Gowing 195). Portraying the questioning spirit of the Renaissance, Durer’s conviction that he must examine and explore his own situation through capturing the very essence of his role as artist and creator, is reflected in the Self-portrait in a Fur Collared Robe (Strieder 10).
With the portrait, Durer’s highly self-conscious approach to his status as an artist coveys his exalted mission of art more clearly than in any other painting. He seems to be less concerned with himself as a person than with himself as an artist, and less with the artist than with the origin and exalted mission of art itself. (Strieder 13).
In this self-portrait Durer portrays himself in the guise of the Savior. Durer’s natural resemblance to Christ has been reverently amplified (Hutchinson 67). His bearded face is grave, and fringed by lustrous shoulder-lenth hair painted in a dark, Christ-like brown (Russell 89. Scholars have called attention to the fact that, the portrait was intended to portray Durer as the thinking artist through emphasis on the enlarged eyes and the right hand. Duere’s use of the full-face view and almost hypnotic gaze emphasizes his belief that the sense of sight is the most noble of the five senses. He wrote in the Introduction to his Painter’s Manual, For the noblest of man’s senses is sight? Therefore a thing seen is more believable and long-lasting to us than something we hear (Hutchison 68).
The position of the right hand held in front of his chest is almost as if in blessing (89 Russell). Joachim Camerarius, a professor who published a Latin translation of two of Durer’s books, wrote of Durer’s intelligent head, his flashing eyes, his nobly formed nose, his broad chest, and then noted: But his fingers- you would vow you had never seen anything more elegant (Russell 8). Along with his qualities of mind and eye, the gracefully extended fingers in his self-portrait portrays his extraordinary faculty of hand. Camerarius continued:
What shall I say of the steadiness and exactitude of his hand? You might swear that rule, square, or compasses had been employed to draw lines which he, in face, drew with the brush, or very often with pencil or pen? this consummate artist’s mind, endowed with all knowledge and understanding of the truth? governed and guided his hand and bade it trust to itself without any other aids? And this was a subject of greatest wonder to most distinguished painters who, from their own great experience, could understand the difficulty of the thing (Russell 8).
Symmetrically arranging his serious, handsome face and mass of shoulder length hair deliberately invite comparison with the image of Christ. The idealized arrangement and strict symmetry of the face is based on a construction made up of circle and a triangle, a formula used down to the Byzantine period for images of the Redeemer. The frontal pose and symmetrical composition have recurred in many images of Christ, particularly in the form of the vera icon, or true image (Strieder14).
No architectural setting appears within the plain, black background of the painting (Hutchison 67). The darkened tone and limited but unified color scheme create a mood of sanctity (Hutchinson 68). The contours of the face are molded by means of soft light and transparent shadows, almost in an attempt to fathom the inner depths of Durer’s creative spirit (Strieder 147). Set against the dark background, the strong face and chin emanate an impression of energy from the portrait. Within the background on the right-hand side, the inscription reads I Albrecht Durer of Nuremberg painted myself thus, with undying colors, at the age of twenty-eight years (Hutchinson 67). This was a personal verification of the quality of his materials and his craftsmanship. And he had painted his own image in everlasting colors, desiring the hand down an undying image to posterity (Strieder 14).
Ironically, the self-portrait did more than preserve his image; it helped foster the popular characterization of Durer as a Christ-like master, aloof and awe-inspiring. Albrecht Durer believed that his artistic mission reflected that of Christ. He felt the artist’s creative spirit was God-given, (Russell 89) and saw the ability to create as being innate, a gift and labor linking man to God (Gowing 56). Art comes from God, he says. God created all forms of art and the attainment of true, artistic, and lovely execution in painting is hard to come unto? Whoseoever, therefore, falleth short cannot attain a right understanding for it cometh alone by inspiration from above (Strieder 14).
Durer was deeply religious, troubled by rebellions and abuses he witnessed within the church. Traditional values were beginning to show signs of breaking down with great religious and social upheavals (Gowing 56). The artist shared and understood Martin Luther’s plea for religious toleration, and for official recognition of the need for reform. There is no doubt that Durer’s thought and art were affected by the powerful reforming spirit of the age (Hutchison 164).
Albrecht Durer desired to establish a system of principles that would foster the development of a True Art. He wanted to find out all that he could, to obtain a higher knowledge about everything connected with his art- how to collect knowledge and pass it on to others (Streider 12). To further fulfill his spiritual role, Durer pledged to write one last instructional book entitled Food for Young Painters in which he would hand down all his knowledge and experience as his legacy to those able young men who love art more than silver and gold (Russell 161). His advice for the young painter was that he be kept from women? and that he guard himself from all impurity, (for) nothing weakens the understanding more than impurity. He should be taught how to read and write well, he should be taught to pray to God for The grace of quick perception (Hutchinson 111). But the book was never completed before he died suddenly on the sixth of April, 1528 (Hutchison 110).
Gowing, L. (1983). The Encyclopedia of Visual Art. (Vol. 10.) London: Encyclopedia Britannica International.
Hutchison, J.C. (1990). Albrecht Durer: A Biography. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Russell, F. (1967). The World of Durer: 1471-1528. New York: Time Inc.
Strieder, P. (1984). The Hidden Masters: Durer. Danbury, Connecticut: Masterworks Press.