From top: Albrecht Dürer self-portrait and Patti Smith as she appears on the cover of ‘Horses’; David Langwallner
Several years ago, I lectured law and international relations in The Anglo-American University in Prague. Prague is a transport hub and if you get a bus in three hours or so, you are in Germany or more precisely Nuremberg, a city I had always wanted to visit.
Part of the fascination was to see the house of Albrecht Dürer, but the main interest is that Nuremberg both historically and in terms of present resonances is one of the great cultural sites of the world, if unfortunately a pilgrimage to infamy. The Nuremberg courts. But of course, Durer saw it coming. So, in a counterpoint one should visit his house first to see the apocalypse to come or at least to get a sense of the great man.
Of the talented artists of the Renaissance, Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael, all Italian, are more celebrated and while no one could argue Dürer was quite Leonardo, he was certainly the equal of the others.
Consider the diversity: He was the greatest lithographer woodcutter and engraver of all time though Hogarth has a legitimate claim to second best and he thus made art accessible to the people. Ink in wood or metal leads to an anticipation of the printing press and the distribution of art to the public. So, he was a popular artist with universal leitmotifs.
[Meanwhile. this little serf for 50 Euros, admittedly a bargain bought in a little side street in Umbria, an original 15th century print of his greatest lithograph Melancholia. Of which more later.]
He was also a great painter and of the many works the greatest are his self-portraits, not unlike Rembrandt over time, though he died younger. Dürer’s eyes are like Rembrandt’s eyes. All seeing. All knowing.
Now I am not an art critic and nor I suspect is Patti Smith, but on the cover of ‘Horses’ is the Christ-pose and that, of course, quintessentially is a reference to Dürer’s greatest painting and the greatest self-portrait of all time painted in the year of our lord as he believed 1500, where Christian theology suggested the end of days at age 28. More of that also later.
Lesson One. The Four Horseman of The Apocalypse
The fourth woodcut of his Apocalypse cycle, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, depicts the first four of seven seals that must be opened for the Apocalypse to begin, the first four seals are Conquest, War, Famine, and Death. All now evident. Except the war and conquest is internal and multi directional.
The work is Christian and Protestant, but The Four Horseman is an also a recent book transcription: a meeting of Dawkins, Hitchens et al, the new secular atheists where the argument is that religious faith and belief in its myriad forms is jettisoning evidence, fact, and reasoning. When people have nothing to say they are not to be argued with, Hitchens razors apropros of religion.
The New Atheism’s hatred of religion was, in my view, unbalanced and, as a counterweight, the secular, agnostic Habermas is curiously prescient for the reassertion of Christian beliefs:
“For the normative self-understanding of modernity, Christianity has functioned as more than just a precursor or catalyst. Universalistic egalitarianism, from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights, and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, unchanged, has been the object of a continual critical reappropriation and reinterpretation. Up to this very day there is no alternative to it. And considering the current challenges of a post-national constellation, we must draw sustenance now, as in the past, from this substance. Everything else is idle postmodern talk.”
So, the enemy is not Christian decency surely, but the valueless nihilism that is leading to the apocalypse?
Lesson Two. Knight , Death and The Devil
In this legendary engraving, The knight seem resigned, and his facial features are downcast. The horse in contrast looks well, but death and the devil surround. It is a testament to courage in the face of adversity and the inevitability of courage in the face of defeat by the fates. Keep fighting brave knight even though the odds are impossible. Well or walk away to fight another day. Stay tolerably safe?
It is generally believed that the portrayal is a literal, though pointed, celebration of the knight’s Christian faith, and also of the ideals of humanism. As well as a degree of optimism in the face of adversity. Or stoicism whose roots are in agnosticism also. Or late stoicism Beckett in Westward Ho! is prescient for the Knight’s quest. Every tried, ever failed. Never mind. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
The fox in the engraving is ambiguous, either an undermining treachery as some interpretations would suggest or a fox’s tail of protection. Well, the fox can change its shape and mean anything, and indeed humanistic works of art can be appropriated by even the most nefarious of people.
Thus the Nazi theorist and ideologue, and later convicted war criminal Alfred Rosenberg extolled ‘Knight, Death and The Devil’, exclaiming that “in everything that you do, remember that for the National Socialists only one thing counts: to cry out to the world: And even if the world is full of devils, we must win anyway.” Hopefully not.
Marco Denevi, in his story ‘A Dog in Durer’s Etching’, writes of “the stench of Death and Hell, because the dog in the engraving already knows that in the knight’s groin a pustule has begun to distil the juices of the Plague.” Well brave knight. Rage, rage with inevitable decay, as we must in virusland.
Lesson 3: Melancholia
Of all the Works of art of the Renaissance, three stand supreme in the visual arts: the Sistine Chapel, the Virgin on the Rocks in the Louvre and a small engraving by Dürer which as hitherto mentioned, I purchased for fifty euros.
The engraving is a puzzle of a work of symbolism. A magus of ideas. We do not know whether it is daylight or darkness, whether the central figure is man, woman, or hermaphrodite. It is clearly influenced by paganism, alchemy, and astrology. The dark demonological arts. it is also a cold mathematical work and exercise in numerology. It is with the brooding central figure best represented as an allegory of the limits of reason and personal or collective descent into madness when reason no longer makes sense.
There is much also in Merbacks assessment in ‘Perfection’s Therapy: An Essay on Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia’ (2017) that Dürer intended Melancholia as a therapeutic image, building in him the…
“…self-conception of an artist with the power to heal that calms rather than excites the passions, a stimulation of the soul’s higher powers, an evacuative that dispels the vapours beclouding the mind… This, in a word, is a form of katharsis—not in the medical or religious sense of a ‘purgation’ of negative emotions, but a ‘clarification’ of the passions with both ethical and spiritual consequences”.
Lesson 4. The Self Portrait.
Mentioned at the outset, this was painted at the beginning of the prime of Dürer’s life and there he is, determined and preening. The confident young man in the year and age, but apprehending the end of days.
Well, we need such confident young men now and I ask the younger Dürers of our age to assume the mantle. I am available for elderly counselling and the impartation of wisdom. I have hopefully acquired the zen-like clarity of Melancholia and happy to impart, as a bird of passage, a degree of hard-won wisdom as we enter meltdown.
Though I go on well I must go. Consider the alternatives. Dürer would understand.
David Langwallner is a barrister, specialising in public law, immigration, housing and criminal defence including miscarriages of justice. He is emeritus director of the Irish Innocence project and was Irish lawyer of the year at the 2015 Irish law awards. Follow David on Twitter @DLangwallner
All images via WikiArt