The famous paintings and engravings of Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) could be a springboard to discuss decades of European history and art history.  After been trained in painting, goldsmithing, stained-glass design and woodcutting, Albrecht Durer traveled to Northern Europe and Venice in 1494-1495 to experience Renaissance art firsthand.  He was particularly impressed with the Renaissance paintings of Giovanni Bellini (ca. 1430 -1516), and with the social status enjoyed by Italian Renaissance artists – he dryly observed, “Here [in Italy], I am a gentleman; at home, I am a parasite”.

It wasn’t only the artist’s stature that was in flux at the turn of the century – the Catholic Church, impoverished and rife with financial abuse and corruption, had itself become controversial.

Albrecht Durer.  The Four Apostles, 1523-1526.  Oil on panel, each 7’1″ by 2’6″.  Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

 Pope Julius II was selling indulgences, papal “guarantees” of salvation and forgiveness, to those who contributed to rebuilding St. Peter’s.  These sales were protested by numerous religious reformers, including two, Desiderius Erasmus (ca. 1466-1536) and Martin Luther (1483-1546), who vociferously questioned the supremacy of papal authority.

Such religious protests and reforms (along with Durer’s etchings) spread rapidly throughout Europe, thanks to widespread use of printing presses; it is estimated that by 1499, some 15 million books had been printed.  Albrecht Durer was an early supporter of Martin Luther, ‘the Christian man who has helped me out of great anxieties’, and revealed his new found faith in his paired art paintings or diptych, The Four Apostles.  

In the left panel (left) St. John (Luther’s favorite evangelist) looms large, overshadowing St. Peter, who as the first pope holds a key to the Church.  In the right panel (below), St. Paul, often deemed the spiritual father of Protestantism, nearly blocks St. Mark from view. Durer’s Four Apostles stands out in art history as a pure Protestant painting — these four men are part of the foundation of its doctrines.

In addition to this literal interpretation of Durer’s famous paintings, Honour and Fleming observe in The Visual Arts: A History that:

Durer is known to have intended the figures to exemplify also the four humours or temperaments – sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric, and melancholic – associated with the elements forming the basic substance of all creation.

According to this train of thought, the “humours” have been unbalanced since the Biblical Fall of Adam and Eve. The relative presence and absence of these temperaments create humans’ physical and psychological diversity, a tenet of Protestantism.  Although humours may now seem simplistic, consider the science available in the 16th century — with Gregory Mendel and Charles Darwin two centuries away, humours are a reasonable explanation for the wonder of human diversity!

Coming next: More art beyond the European tradition, created around Durer’s era in art history.