Most of the art work swirling about this nexus is by the Nuremberg born master Albrecht Dürer. I first encountered Dürer as a child when I lived in what was then West Germany, a young American stranger in a strange but wonderful land filled with music, art, and architecture. You might say my cultural identity was forged in the fires of German art. I imprinted upon it almost immediately, despite the barrier of language and poor education. On one of many Saturday trips to Nuremberg I began to notice a particular style of what I mistook as medieval art, often with that famous signature:
which I took for anno Domini. A few years later, I spent many a Saturday more at the Würzburger Residenz, and discovered the University of Würzburg’s collection of Dürer’s woodcuts in the Martin-von-Wagner Museum. The idea of woodcuts fascinated me. My grandfather often whittled drift wood while fishing, mostly animals to pass the time. But this was something completely different, and I spent hours staring at miniature scenes brought to life, dumbstruck by a type of art that seemed to speak directly to me. Even at Würzburg however, I failed to put together the AD as a signature. I left Germany after four years with individual pieces of distinctive art burned into my memory, but with no idea of who the artist was behind the masterpieces.
Returning to the United States, I felt I was adrift in a cultural wasteland. Suddenly cut off from the sparks of creativity that had nursed my developing sense of art, I realized what had been readily available on demand as it were, was suddenly much harder to come by in my homeland. I turned to libraries and art history books to fill the void, and eventually in high school, I at long last discovered the man behind the woodcuts that captivated my soul, Albrecht Dürer, the Northern Renaissance master.
Today, as a fellow pilgrim on the road to find out, I study the man as much as his legacy to art. Dürer represents one of those pieces in that collective unconscious jigsaw puzzle I like to take out from time to time to stare at. Much is known about his exterior life, it is well documented. But his interior life is a different story. The true nature of the man remains enigmatic, as Mrs. Charles Heaton relates:
The Life of Albrecht Dürer of Nürnberg: With a Translation of His Letters
Dürer himself, unfortunately, is wholly silent concerning the reasons that moved him towards this important undertaking. His journal is purely a record of facts. he never troubles himself to set down in it his motives or his opinions. The ‘Ego’ of the autobiographer is indeed strangely absent in all Dürer’s writings. His letters to Pirkheimer, it will doubtless have been observed, are mostly occupied with his friend’s business rather than with his own, and the little autobiographical record so often quoted at the commencement of this volume is almost entirely taken up with accounts of his ancestors and relations, and tells us very little about himself. And so with the journal we are now about to consider; it tells us nothing of his inner life, his feelings or his thoughts, but is simply a record of the towns he passed through, the people he became acquainted with, and above all of the money he spent. It seems; indeed, to have been kept principally for the latter object, for he sets down faithfully, at every fresh place that he visits, the exact sum that he expends there;–in fact, no journal of personal history was ever, perhaps, less subjective than this of Dürer’s. Like Goethe, who says, ‘Ich habe nie ans Denken gedacht,’ If we want to learn anything of his mind, we much search for it in his pictures; in these he has expressed his deepest thoughts: but it is only by accident, as it were, that we gain any insight into the real heart of the man from any of his writings. Now and then, indeed, as in that touching description of the death-bed of his mother, his great but simple nature reveals itself; but for the most part he chronicles events, and describes the sights he see with laconic precision, without ever troubling himself to record the effect that these things produced on his mind, as is the wont of most autobiographers.
I’ve always imagined Dürer kept multiple books, probably in code, a trick maybe learned in Italy from the Italian masters or other secret brotherhoods of the time. I am positive given the extent of his genius, he recorded something somewhere for posterity. Perhaps it is in his ‘pictures’ as Goethe suggests, or in the woodcuts I still marvel at today. What I do know is that I am forever in Dürer’s debt. I grew up in a very religious family, yet never had a religious experience in a congregation, or from a sermon. What others describe as ‘religious ecstasy’ I’ve only felt in the solitary contemplation of great art, and my baptism into ‘faith and greater mysteries’ was by the hand of an early 16th century master from Nuremberg.
Appropriate theme music: