Vita Activa “The Active Life” and Albrecht Durer

Albrecht Durer was born in Nuremberg, Germany in 1471, the third son of the Hungarian goldsmith Albrecht Durer and began his early career as a metal worker under his father’s tutelage.  Regarded as “the greatest exponent of Northern European Renaissance art” (Artcyclopedia), Durer’s passions encompassed painting, engraving, and art theory as he traveled in the pursuit of the Italian and Venetian artists he admired. Durer is known for his self-portraits, portraits, and woodcuts – though his copperplate engravings are amongst his greatest accomplishments.

It is unknown whether one of his most famous works, St. Jerome in His Study, was a commissioned piece or the direct result of the changing times.  The 16th century ushered in a new era where the art patron was steadily being replaced by middle class art enthusiasts.  It is worth noting that Durer was quite aware of this change and “wished to raise his artistic intensity to the highest level” (WebMuseum, Paris) regarding his woodcuts and engravings.  Though it is clear Durer continued to be commissioned as a portraitist by the wealthiest of his time, he felt that his woodcuts and engravings could reach a much larger audience especially in light of the popularity and growing distribution of books – where he would serve to illustrate.

St. Jerome in His Study is considered one of Durer’s greatest copperplate engravings.  Known as a member of his Meisterstiche (master engravings) and completed during 1513 and 1514, this often contested engraving was considered part of a loosely defined trilogy, with the Knight and Melencolia I completing the set.  The works have been described as “closely interrelated and complementary, corresponding to the three kinds of virtue in medieval scholasticism – theological, intellectual, and moral” (Met Museum).  All were approximately the same size and involved complex contradictory literature in “enigmatic, allusive, iconographic details” (WebMuseum, Paris).

St. Jerome is most widely known as a translator of the Old and New Testaments into Latin.  “This translation was recognized eleven centuries later by the Council of Trent as the official version of the Bible: the Vulgate” (Translator).  Jerome’s work included biblical analysis, theological debate, history, correspondence, and translation. Durer depicts St. Jerome diligently involved in medieval scholasticism, representing an overarching theme of virtue.  Durer fills the scene with symbols and icons that reinforce the importance of intellect and reason but also equates the effort to one that is far more reaching than the actions of St. Jerome himself.

St. Jerome in His Study is in and of itself an investigation and comprehension of the universe where man, as centrally represented by the scholar Saint Jerome, is juxtaposed between the enlightenment of knowledge and the struggles of physical reality.  St. Jerome is adorned with a glowing crown that signifies reason and intellect while ever-present around his aging, failing body is subtle reminders of mortality and temporality.  Further evidence of Neoplatonism and humanistic details can be noted in the representation of space, the orderly construct of the study as a place that is at odds with the natural world around it.  Outside the sun pierces through the windows while the lion and dog sleep peacefully beneath the table, unaffected by the passing time.  Hanging from the ceiling is an over-sized gourd with a single leaf that either eludes to the inevitability of death or that life is resilient and even separated from the nourishing sun the plant is capable of sustaining fruit.  While it is evident that the iconographic and symbolic elements of the engraving hold specific value to the life and time of St. Jerome, we can also examine them as representative of the inner struggle or Psychomachia present within the collective mind and soul.

Psychomachia represents the personal internal conflict of opposing forces within the mind and soul.  From the same class module we learn that “The Psychomachia, in its broadest meaning, can refer to a dualism within the individual, society, in the universe in general; a figurative mirror of microcosmic principles and microcosmic human nature”.  Durer’s specific juxtaposition of St. Jerome along with all the worldly elements of the physical realm are applicable to the idea of theme which lends further support of the connection between the other two pieces of the Meisterstiche. Here the world is presented as orderly, contained if you will, where sleeping lions lay with dogs and scholars, where the overt image of the skull on the shelf suggests mortality while at the same time the light of day coming in from the window proposes an enlightenment or manner by which man can escape death through intellect and reason.  It is through this process of coming to terms with both the positive and negative aspects of our environment as well as our self that Durer pursues Psychomachia but only so far as it serves to unite the viewer with shared universal conditions.

Surely one must abandon a certain physical experience of the world in order to pursue the loftier investigation and comprehension of the mind, universe and soul.  Through the very process of his work, St. Jerome gave up part of his physical self in the search for Neoplatonic and humanist truth relative to the division between the natural world and the spiritual world.  Durer’s depiction of the scholar concentrated at his desk, hunched over and separated from the rays of sunlight and in essence the natural world, relates specifically to the compartmentalization of the body as a vessel for the mind and soul.  Visually reinforced by the closed quarters of the studio, where life and death sleep at his feet, his head bathed in the light of knowledge and reason, St. Jerome epitomizes the ideal vision or theme of the conflict between mind, body, and soul.

The pursuit of balance and proportion in St. Jerome in His Study, while an inherent component of Neoplatonism and humanism, is also representative of the concept of syncretism or the fusion of disparate philosophies and cultures.  While Durer’s work remained primarily Germanic in form, he was highly influenced by the trips he made to Venice, Italy, and the Netherlands and the stylistic influences of artists such as “Mantegna, Antonio Pollaiuolo, Lorenzo di Credi, Raphael, and others” (Wikipedia).  The depiction of the study of St. Jerome is carefully tuned to the use of perspective and proportion, a direct influence from his meeting with Venetian artist Jacopo de Barbari in 1500 (Wikipedia).  The space recedes from the predominance of the foreground lion to the table and chair and each line from the windows to the shelves directs us to the curmudgeon absorbed in study at the back of the room.  Durer gathered from his travels the tools with which he would use his whole life, whether in painting or engraving and inevitably in his study of geometry and proportion which would later in life be published into books.

Albrecht Durer was prolific and produced paintings, engravings, etchings, and woodcuts throughout his life.  In his final years his declining health turned his attention to his theoretical pursuits in geometry, perspective, and fortification.  He managed to get two books published before his death, one on geometry and perspective in 1525, the other on fortification in 1527.  A third book on human proportion would be published posthumously in 1528 (Wikipedia).  

Bibliography “Artcyclopedia” August 5, 2005

“Web Museum, Paris” August 1, 2005

“Met Museum” August 3, 2005

“Translator Interpreter Hall of Fame” August 5, 2005

“Wikipedia” August 5, 2005

Other Sources:

“” August 5, 2005

“” August 5, 2005

“The Catholic Community Forum” August 3, 2005

“” August 5, 2005

About rorydean

Rory Dean is a multi-medium artist, writer and new media strategist with a background as a creative consultant and technology liaison in the San Francisco Bay Area. His broad experiences and specialties include print-to-web publicity, promotions and design marketing using traditional and social media networks. As a motion pictures and television professional, his short films, productions and commercials have screened to domestic and international audiences. His connections to a diverse client base include artists, entertainers, corporations, non-profits and everyday people.. Dean is co-owner and founder of Dissave Pictures, a boutique production company focusing on audio, video, photography and multi-media designs. Dean's personal and professional background includes dreaming and avid notebook journaling, creative and copy writing, promotions and marketing, audio/video production, photography, videography, editing, web design and new media. He’s also a fan of collaboration and knows when to turn the reigns over, offer feedback, lead the team and step aside. His portfolio includes print, online, film, video, photography, graphic design and promotions. He’ll show you. He has a book and everything. "When not juggling various online worlds, I do a pretty good mime – but that’s another story."
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One Response to Vita Activa “The Active Life” and Albrecht Durer

  1. Pingback: It Box @ All Around the World News

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