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Albrecht Durer. Germany 1971. Durer's 500th birth anniversary. Albrecht Dürer

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Albrecht Dürer is the most famous artist of Reformation Germany, widely known for his paintings, drawings, prints, and theoretical writings on art, all of which had a profound influence on 16th-century artists in his own country and in the Lowlands. 

Dürer was born May 21, 1471, in Nürnberg. His father, Albrecht Dürer the Elder, was a goldsmith and his son's first art teacher. From his early training, the young Dürer inherited a legacy of 15th-century German art strongly dominated by Flemish late Gothic painting. German artists had little difficulty in adapting their own Gothic tradition to the Flemish art of Robert Campin, Jan van Eyck, and especially Rogier van der Weyden. The northern empirical (derived from observation rather than theory) approach to reality was their common bond. During the 16th century, stronger ties with Italy through trade, and the spread of Italian humanist ideas northward, infused the more conservative tradition of German art with new artistic ideas. 

Djibouti 1978. Albrecht Dürer. "The Hare".

Paraguay 1978. Albrecht Dürer. "The Insect".

Paraguay 1978. Albrecht Dürer. "The Squirrels".

German artists found it difficult to reconcile their medieval devotional imagery -- represented with rich textures, brilliant colors, and highly detailed figures -- with the emphasis by Italian artists on the antique, on mythological subjects, and on idealized figures. Dürer's self-appointed task was to provide a model for his northern contemporaries by which they could combine their own empirical interest in naturalistic detail with the more theoretical aspects of Italian art. In his many letters -- especially those to his lifelong friend, the humanist Willibald Pirckheimer -- and in his various publications, Dürer stressed geometry and measurement as the keys to understanding the art of the Italian Renaissance and, through it, classical art. From about 1507 until his death, he made notes and drawings for his best-known treatise, the Four Books on Human Proportions (published posthumously, 1528). Artists of his day, however, more visually oriented than literary figures, looked more to Dürer's engravings and woodcuts than to his writings to guide them in their attempts to modernize their art with the classicizing nudes and idealized subjects of the Italian Renaissance. 

Albania 1971. Albrecht Dürer. "Three Peasants Discussing". Albania 1971. Albrecht Dürer. "Dancing Peasant Couple". Albania 1971. Albrecht Dürer. "The Bagpiper". Czechoslovakia 1969. Albrecht Dürer. "The Horse".
After studying with his father, Dürer was apprenticed in 1486 to the painter and printmaker Michael Wolgemut at the age of 15. Between 1488 and 1493, Wolgemut's shop was engaged in the sizable task of providing numerous woodcut illustrations for the Nürnberg Chronicle (1493), by Hartmann Schedel, and Dürer must have received extensive instruction in making drawings for woodcut designs. 

Throughout the Renaissance, southern Germany was a center for publishing, and it was commonplace for painters of the period to be equally skilled at making woodcuts and engravings. As was customary for young men who finished their apprenticeships, Dürer embarked on his bachelor's journey in 1490. In 1492 he was in Colmar, where he tried to join the workshop of the German painter and engraver Martin Schongauer, who, unbeknownst to Dürer, had died in 1491. Dürer was advised by Schongauer's brothers to travel to the Swiss publishing center of Basel to find work.  

  • Mexico 1971. Air Post stamp. Ex Libris executed in wood cut by Durer in his early years. 

Mexico 1971. Air Post stamp. Ex Libris executed in wood cut by Durer in his early years.

France 1980. Albrecht Dürer. Self Portrait (PhilexFrance 1982).

In Basel and later in Strasbourg, Dürer made illustrations for several publications, including Sebastian Brant's Das Narrenschiff (Ship of Fools, translated 1507) in 1494. During this early period of his life, between his apprenticeship and his return to Nürnberg in 1494, Dürer's art demonstrates his extreme facility with line and his keen observation of detail. 

These qualities are especially evident in a series of self-portraits, including an early drawing (1484, Albertina, Vienna) done when he was 13, a thoughtful portrait drawn in 1491 (University Collections, Erlangen, Germany), and a painting of himself as an extremely confident young man (1493, Louvre, Paris). 

  • France 1980.  Self portrait issued for PhilexFrance 1982. 


After marrying Agnes Frey in Nürnberg in 1494, he left for Italy. He produced some superbly detailed watercolor landscape studies, probably during his return journey -- for example, a view of the Castle at Trent (National Gallery, London). During the next ten years in Nürnberg, from 1495 to 1505, Dürer produced a large number of works that firmly established his fame. 

An interesting work from this period is "Self-portrait as Nude" depicted on this stamp from the German Democratic Republic, issued 1971, in commemoration of Dürer's 500th birth anniversary. The art work belonging to the German National Art Collections in Weimar, which was at the time located in the German Democratic Republic, this issue is an excellent choice by the now no longer existing country. 

The portrait is dated c. 1500, when Dürer was 29 years old. It is a feather-and-brush work on special paper, and measures 29,1 * 15,3 cm. It is part of a set of three stamps depicting his works "Three Peasants Discussing" (see the Albanian stamp above"), and "Philipp Melanchthon". 

  • German Democratic Republic 1971. Dürer Self-Portrait as Nude. Scan by courtesy of Sue Harris (USA). 

These include his woodcut series the Apocalypse (1498) and the engravings Large Fortune (1501-1502) and Adam and Eve (1504). Collectively these works and others of the period show his increasing technical mastery of the woodcut and engraving media, his understanding of human proportions based on passages by the ancient Roman writer Vitruvius, and his brilliant ability to incorporate the details of nature into believable pictures of reality. His self-portrait of 1500 (Alte Pinakothek, Munich), in which he portrayed himself as a Christ-like figure, summarizes in visual form his lifelong concern for the elevation of the artist's status above that of a mere artisan.  

Paraguay 1978. Albrecht Dürer. Se-tenant set of stamps depicting Dürer- Engravings. Hungary 1978. Albrecht Dürer. Self-portrait.  

Between 1505 and 1507, Dürer once again traveled to Italy. In Venice he met the great master Giovanni Bellini and other artists, and he obtained an important commission for a painting, the " Madonna of the Rose Garlands" for the German Merchants' Foundation, who in turn presented the painting as an altar peace for the Cathedral of St. Bartholomew. About 100 years later it became part of the art collections of Emperor Rudolph II in Prague.  

Czechoslovakia 1968. Albrecht Dürer. "The Madonna of the Rose Garlands".

The motif of the painting is the Feast of Roses of the Catholic church.  All true believers are part of a brotherhood symbolized by roses, and receive under the leadership of the Pope and the Emperor roses from the hands of Virgin Mary and St. Dominique.  

Albrecht Dürer came to Venice mostly because of clashes with the great Renaissance artists. 

Venice offered him not only an atmosphere which encouraged him artistically, but also a feeling of personal competition. 

The contract for the Madonna of the Rosary brought him enormous recognition at the end of his stay. 

  • Czechoslovakia 1968.  "The Madonna of the Rose Garlands". (1506). 

This portrait originated from the beginning of Dürer's stay in Venice between 1505 and 1507. A relationship between the painter and his model, a red-haired woman, has been claimed, yet historians have no information as to why Dürer painted this woman, or who she is. 

Knowing that he was famous abroad but almost unknown at home, in one of his farewell letters Dürer wrote the often-quoted words "Here I am a master - at home merely a nobody". 

  • Austria 1971. Red-haired Woman from Venice. Tempera on wood, created 1505-07. The painting is rather small, only 35 x 26 cm, and belongs to the Gallery of the Museum of Fine Arts in Vienna (Austria), one of the oldest art galleries in the world.  
  • Burundi 1971. Idem, reproduced in original colours. 

Austria 1971. Albrecht Dürer. "Red-haired Woman from Venice".

Burundi 1971. Albrecht Dürer. "Red-Haired Woman from Venice".

Monaco 1972. Albrecht Dürer. "Christ Before Pilate".

Back in Nürnberg in 1507, he began a second period of great productivity in which he created such works as 

- an altarpiece (1508-1509, destroyed by fire in 1729) for the Dominican church in Frankfurt; 
- an Adoration of the Trinity panel (1508-1511,  
- portraits; 
- many prints, including two editions of the Passion; 
- woodcuts for Triumphal Arch for Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, 
- a series of engravings that included the Knight, Death, and the Devil (1513), 
- Saint Jerome in His Study (1514), and 
- Melancolia I (1514). 

Through the linear technique of engraving, Dürer was able to create tones of varying darkness and he used them to describe three-dimensional form. 

  • Monaco 1972. "Christ Before Pilate". (1512). Copper engraving from the series "The Passion". 
In 1514, Dürer made his interesting copper plate engraving, named "Melancolia I". It is rather small, only 23,9*18,8 cm. The interest lies in the square in the upper right corner, that reveals quite a bit of history of this engraving. 

It is the so-called Magic Square, this one containing four vertical and four horizontal cells with each a number engraved. No matter which way you add the numbers (up, down, diagonally), you will end up with the result 34. But there is more to it. 

As mentioned above, the engraving was done in 1514, and Dürer has cunningly included the year of the work in his "magic square". The lower two central numbers are "15 14". 

  • Aitutaki 1986. Close-up of "Melancolia I".

Aitutaki 1986. Close-up of Melancolia I by Albrecht Durer (1514).

The order-4 magic square in Dürer's engraving is believed to be the first seen in European art. It is very similar to a square, which was created in China about 250 years before Dürer's time. The sum 34 can be found in the rows, columns, diagonals, each of the quadrants, the center four squares, the corner squares, the four outer numbers clockwise from the corners (3+8+14+9) and likewise the four counter-clockwise. Magic squares are also known in modern European art, the best example being on the Sagrada Familia Church in Barcelona, created by Antoni Gaudí

But the story doesn't stop here. The sheet is issued in commemoration of Halley's Comet passing through planet Earth's atmosphere. Unlike most comets, 1P/Halley is not named after the person who discovered it. Instead, it is named in honour of the 17th century English astronomer Edmond Halley (1656-1742). 

Using Isaac Newton's newly published theory of gravitation, Halley calculated the orbits of several comets and made the revolutionary suggestion that the bright comet seen in 1682 was the same object previously recorded in 1531 and 1607. His theory was proved to be correct when, as he predicted, the comet duly returned once more in 1758.

  • Aitutaki 1986. Souvenir sheet of Albrecht Dürer's copper plate engraving "Melancolia I". Germanisches National Museum, Nuremberg. Scan by courtesy of Rodney Cork (Australia), and info by courtesy of Gerhard Reichert, (Germany). 

Halley's Comet appeared in June 1456 and again in August 1531, seventeen years after Dürer's engraving was completed. Maybe the "star" behind the little bat holding up the sign "Melancolia I" is indeed Halley's Comet?  

Aitutaki 1986. Souvenir sheet. Melencolia I by Albrecht Durer (1514).

One of Dürer's most famous portraits from this period is this one of Emperor Charles I "The Great", also known as Charlemagne, born about 742 as the elder son of the Frankish leader Pepin the Short. Pepin held the ancestral title of mayor of the palace under the Merovingian dynasty of Frankish kings. However, in the wake of a long line of increasingly weak Merovingian kings, Pepin abandoned this lesser title and in 751 assumed the kingship of the Franks. In 799 Charlemagne came to the aid of Adrian’s successor, Pope Leo III, who was threatened by a rebellion in Rome. Charlemagne put down the rebellion, and on Christmas Day 800, Leo crowned Charlemagne and anointed him emperor of the Romans. This action revived the imperial tradition of the Western Roman Empire and set a precedent that the emperors’ authority rested on the approval of the pope. Although the imperial title did not confer any new powers on Charlemagne, it did legitimate his rule over central Italy, a fact that the Byzantine emperor acknowledged in 812. 

Grenada/Grenadines 1981. Albrecht Dürer. Emperor Karl the Great  (Charlemagne).

In order to legitimate his rule, Pepin sought the support of the pope, and in exchange for a promise to protect the pope’s lands in Italy from an invasion, Pope Stephen II officially crowned Pepin in 754. Besides crowning Pepin, the pope anointed both Charlemagne and his younger brother Carloman.

During his father’s reign, Charlemagne accompanied the Frankish army on campaigns to defend the pope against the Lombards, a Germanic people who controlled northern and central Italy, and on missions to conquer the region of Aquitaine in what is now southern France. 

As a result, Charlemagne learned at an early age the importance of both strong leadership on the battlefield and of close links between secular power and the Roman Catholic Church. 

  • Grenada/Grenadines 1981. Emperor Karl the Great (Charlemagne).  Oil Painting on wood, created 1512-13, 188 x 88 cm.  The painting belongs to the Germanic National Museum in Nuremberg (Germany). Across the painting is clearly written "Karolus Magnus", translated to "Charlemagne". 

On Pepin’s death, his kingdom was divided between his two sons. For three years Charlemagne shared rule of the kingdom with his brother, Carloman. After Carloman died suddenly in 771, Charlemagne became sole king of the Franks, and immediately afterward traveled to Rome and assured the pope of his continued support. Charlemagne then began a lengthy series of military campaigns to expand the Frankish kingdom. 

In 1520, Dürer learned that Charles V, Maximilian's successor, was scheduled to travel to Aachen from Spain to be crowned Holy Roman emperor of the Habsburg dynasty. 

Dürer had received an annual stipend from Maximilian, and he was anxious to meet with Charles to have it continued. Armed with prints and other artworks, which he sold along the way to finance his trip, Dürer journeyed to Aachen and on to the Lowlands between 1520 and 1521. 

His diary provides a fascinating account of his travels, his audiences with royalty, and receptions by fellow artists, especially in Antwerp. His audience with Charles proved successful, probably also because the artist might have offered this flattering portrait, created in 1519, to his patron

  • Central African Empire 1978. Portrait of Emperor Maximilian I. (1519). Tempera on wood. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (Austria). 

Central African Empire 1978. Albrecht Dürer. Portrait of Emperor Maximilian I.

Hungary 1978. Albrecht Dürer. "The Four Apostles".

He returned to Nürnberg, where he remained until his death on April 6, 1528. His last monumental works are two large panels, depicting the Four Apostles presented originally as his gift to the city of Nürnberg.  

  • Hungary 1978. "The Four Apostles" (c. 1526). Alte Pinakothek, Nürnberg. 

The quality of Dürer's work, his prodigious output, and his influence on his contemporaries all underscore the importance of his position in the history of art. 

In a broader context, his interest in geometry and mathematical proportions, his keen sense of history, his observations of nature, and his awareness of his own individual potential demonstrate the intellectually inquiring spirit of the Renaissance.  

When Durer died in 1528 he left some 80 paintings, more than 100 etchings, c. 200 wood carvings, and 800 drawings behind as his cultural legacy.  

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