From the Archives: Dürer and the Lutheran Image

Two St. Jeromes demonstrate the striking effect of Albrecht Dürer: Saint Jerome in His Study, 1514, engraving, 10 by 7½ inches. 




Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther nailed a list of complaints against Catholic Church abuses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany. Museums around the country are marking this anniversary with exhibitions reconsidering the impact of his influence on visual culture in Europe. In our April issue, Christopher P. Heuer considers “Martin Luther: Art and the Reformation,” at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and “Word and Image: Martin Luther’s Reformation,” at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, as revisions to the conventional wisdom about Lutheranism. “Indeed, at the center of Lutheran faith was not the image of godhead, but the Word—an abstraction,” Heuer writes. “Yet, as these important shows authoritatively demonstrate, the visual arts played a key role in both articulating and refuting Lutheran precepts.” In our January–February 1975 issue, art historian Donald Kuspit assesses how the work of Albrecht Dürer changed in response to the Reformation, shifting from generalized depictions of man to an immediate individuality, from the burden of sin to the vigor of virtue. “To use Lutheran language,” Kuspit writes, “where the 1521 and 1522 pictures show penitent men (poenitentiam agite), troubled by bad consciences and confessing their sins, […] the 1524 and 1526 portraits show men who have come to their senses (metanoia) and have, in renewing their faith, renewed themselves, experiencing ‘a change in heart and love in response to God’s grace.'” We present the article in full below. —Eds.


Dürer’s late portraits are very famous for the freshness and directness with which they communicate the human presence, and acclaimed for the completeness of their rendering of personality, beyond physiognomic configuration and the apprehension of character. The individuality of their subjects is powerfully concentrated, beyond their conformity to the demands of the Netherlandish portrait-bust formula of the period. This individuality is also usually immediate despite its commemorative idealization, designed to ensure not simply the remembrance but the respect of posterity. In this article I hope to explain the reasons, cultural as well as stylistic, for the impact of these portraits, and to single out within them a certain number­––those of Frederick the Wise, 1524; Willibald Pirckheimer, 1524; Philip Melanchthon, 1526; Heironymus Holzschuher, 1526; and Jacob Muffel, 1526––as exemplary. Others, such as the portraits of Ulrich Varnbüler, 1522; Cardinal Albrecht von Brandenburg, 1523 (called “The Large Cardinal”); and Johannes Kleberger, 1526, are more stylistically than culturally determined (and less effective), and the portrait of Erasmus, 1526, is more important culturally than stylistically, and has frequently been considered a failure.

This singling out of a particular constellation of portraits and of their cultural significance as distinct from their stylistic force (although ultimately these are integral) is essential if their mystery is to be penetrated. Why, in them, should Dürer transcend the question of medium––most are engravings, some are paintings, one is a woodcut––by consistently using a graphic line which has been compared to that of his expressionistic Apocalypse? 1 Why does their graphic immediacy of line seem a dynamic revelation of inner integrity rather than simply a convenient means of vitalizing appearances? Why do their subjects seem “models of individuality” 2 rather than simply, as in the best of other Renaissance portraits, men completely themselves, spontaneously full of virtú?

Dürer produced some 160 portraits in his lifetime. Most of them are sketches (but sufficiently finished to be signed by his monogram) made during his 1520-21 trip to the Netherlands. However, it was at the beginning and end of his career that the portrait particularly occupied him. His early portraits, including the self-portraits, are mostly concerned with communicating the physical presence of the subject––shaping a body in space––although they also convey a rudimentary sense of inner life, without tying it to the specific personality of the subject. However, some, particularly the self-portraits and the portrait of Oswolt Krell, 1499, convey a sharp sense of spiritual unrest. However, this quickly becomes abeyant, and most of the other early portraits have a documentary cast, recording the appearances, often with the special attention to costume, of different classes of people. Sometimes they are rationalized into types, in an effort to understand physiognomy.

Only in a group of late (after 1522) portraits does Dürer return to and resolve––name and qualify––the spiritual element, under the pressure of his allegiance to Luther. In these late works he not only completely grasps the psyche of his subjects but conceives it as a spiritual force, not simply the result of circumstances but as an immanent power rising up to reveal and assert itself. Dürer communicates not simply the ordinary consciousness of his subjects but their spiritual self-consciousness decisively articulating itself at a desperate moment in history. Without the pressure of Reformation events, this self-consciousness would never have qualified itself as spiritual––as simultaneously personal and universal. And without Dürer’s personally desperate situation (illness and religious crisis combined) he might not have articulated his own spiritual self-consciousness by producing a group of portraits of friends in an attempt to escape his own involution.

In the best of his late portraits Dürer creates an objective correlative for his own mental state. This is what one would expect in an artist who had too much in him that would hinder the objective portraitist, too much independence of spirit to abide the obsequiousness implicit in the painting of a portrait. 3 Dürer, an extraordinarily self-aware artist, could not feel his way into the spiritual being of another personality without expressing his own. Thus, it has been noted that his portrait of Frederick the Wise as “a pondering, brooding spirit” and “titanic character” lends “something of his own struggling spirit to the model.” 4 It has long been known that empathy is crucial in determining the success of a portrait and may even cause the artist’s own likeness to appear in the work, if only subliminally. 5 But in Dürer, empathy is more complex (although the brightness of eye in the subjects of the late portraits also heightens the purposiveness of glance in the early self-portraits, apotheosizing the look which reveals intention, as if at last Dürer knew what he fully meant by that glance). In the older Dürer, empathy is not simply a matter of giving but of taking, not simply a matter of a full spirit bounding beyond itself but of a suffering spirit desiring succor. The spontaneity of youthful self-projection is replaced by the rescuing and preserving of outstanding selves, by a conscious effort to care for what has already been created. In the last decade of his life Dürer’s empathy had less to do with projecting himself into the subject than with finding in an old friend or close associate the strength and stability he himself needed, the certainty of spirit his own troubled spirit lacked. The late portraits are not simply of “an elite, an oligarchy of the most significant men of Dürer’s time” 6 but of friends who had experienced what he had––the turmoil of Luther’s advent––and like Luther were compelled, by both circumstance and conviction, to state where they stood, whatever the risks. They confirmed Dürer in the courage of his own Lutheran faith and the triumph it represented over the death and sin he was aware of in himself. His Self-Portrait as Man of Sorrows, 1522, is the most direct visual statement of this.

This sense of impending death was objective as well as subjective. Dürer became sick––today we think it was malaria––in the Netherlands, and he suspected that his illness would shorten his life. But Luther’s writings convinced him that his soul as well as his body was in trouble. “The crisis of 1519” is well documented; Dürer was reported by a humanist friend to be “in bad [spiritual] shape,” and Jan van Scorel, who had come to Nuremberg to study with Dürer, found him absorbed in the “teaching by which Luther had begun to stir the quiet world.” 7 Luther moved Dürer’s mind away from humanist interests toward Christian ideas, leading his art away from the decorative and intellectual––whose fusion had just reached its climax in his work for the Emperor Maximilian––to the eschatological and evangelical. The change is summed up in Panofsky’s comparison of the 1514 engraved St. Jerome and the 1521 painting of St. Jerome. The former “conforms to the ideal of Erasmus” while the latter “reflects the spirit of Luther,” and “where the engraving shines with the quiet glow of scholastic contentment, the painting is a gloomy memento mori.” 8

To be fully understood, the late portraits, while exactly the opposite of gloomy, must certainly be interpreted in this Lutheran context. Where the St. Jerome and the 1522 Self-Portrait as Man of Sorrows articulate a consciousness of sin and suffering, catalyzed by Luther, the late portraits communicate freedom from sin; indeed, they show men no longer troubled by consciousness of it. The subject matter is different, but the change is correlate with a change in the status of Luther, from heretic and rebel to German institution (as the German cities asserted their support of him in the mid-‘20s). More importantly, there was also a change of emphasis in his doctrine; from sin to salvation. The mood has lifted, changing from one of suffering and danger to one of security and resoluteness, the new inner strength indicated as much by the absence of symbolic attributes––very much in evidence in the 1521 and 1522 works––as by radical reduction of the portrait to little more than the face. Attributes are no longer needed––partly in acknowledgement of Lutheran sacramental simplicity and partly for the sake of stylistic concentration, in keeping with Dürer’s explicit commitment to radical simplicity. 9 But more significantly, their absence signifies a new affirmation, for in the 1521 and 1522 works, the attributes––skull and flail––all had negative connotations, being associated with the Passion rather than the Resurrection. In the 1524 and 1526 portraits we have men who have been resurrected as it were, displaying not signs of suffering but the forthrightness and self-possession of spiritual health so self-assured it is in no need of signs to mediate or interpret it.

To use Lutheran language, where the 1521 and 1522 pictures show penitent men (poenitentiam agite), troubled by bad consciences and confessing their sins, at least to themselves, within the context of the old Christianity (as their surroundings indicate, the 1524 and 1526 portraits show men who have come to their senses (metanoia) and have, in renewing their faith, renewed themselves, experiencing “a change in heart and love in response to God’s grace.” 10 The late portraits show men who are spiritually renewed––”the renewal of man’s life” is a crucial Lutheran ideal––and who have experienced “inner transformation.” 11 They are ready to accept repentance as “a lifetime matter,” for, as Benesch writes, “Life had to be mastered, and the human character had to be provided in it severely and harshly. Life was no longer an artistic (and one might add ‘intellectual’) performance of the personality, but a duty and a task. The Reformation gave to life this new meaning.” 12

Benesch correctly sees Cranach as the artist who became “the most faithful exponent of Lutheran Protestantism”––he was in fact one of Luther’s closest friends. But Dürer’s late portraits are also prototypical Protestant portraits. In Dürer’s case the typical righteous sternness of such portraits is mitigated by a sense of the fresh new faith of the subject, which keeps them from being self-righteous before the world. For Luther, the renewal of man’s life by faith rather than by “pilgrimages, scourgings and health-destroying fasts and vigils,” which only “tortured poor consciences to death.” 13 In Cranach this faith, no longer revolutionary, has settled into a habit of seriousness and become a kind of conscience. In Dürer it is still the climax of a spiritual adventure, still a youthfully intense appetite for the absolute. There is, in Dürer’s late portraits, a sense of respite from death which renews, if not exactly an appetite for life, then a sense of heroic aspiration. The theme of a reprieve, of a restoral to health, perhaps momentary but nonetheless vigorous, lurks in them. It was as if Dürer was looking around him to see who had the strength to endure or who had endured with him for so long, and hoped to sustain that strength to show it once more exuberant.

The inextricability of death and religious consciousness is demonstrated by Dürer’s late portraits, which––with the exception of Melanchthon, who incarnates the future of the new faith––show aging men (Frederick the Wise was to die within two months of the completion of his portrait) who have had a kind of health and youthfulness of spirit restored to them by their religious sanity. One might speculate that Dürer depicts them, if not precisely at the moment of conversion, then still aroused by inner revelation. Men of mature experience freshened by new faith––they were depicted close in time to Nuremberg’s official conversion to and endorsement of Lutheranism (1525-26––they have about them an air of energy and determination, of high mood and firm will, characteristic of the aftermath of conversion.

In fact, these portraits apotheosize their subjects, showing them with some of the traditional characteristics of the inspired ruler. Dürer sees them not only as rulers in Nuremberg or in the Protestant world but in a sense over their own souls. Typically, they are shown in a “listening hush” and with a “shining glance,” and, in the famous case of Hieronymus Holzschuher, with a “profusion of hair” that is symbolic of divine strength. 14 While they lack the ideal beauty of the transfigured hero, they do have an almost daemonic intensity. Thus, their apotheosis is not precisely the same as in ancient portraiture––in a sense they are the last step in Dürer’s lifelong search for a classic portrait formulation––but they are unmistakably full of the fortune or luck of faith, the instinctu divinitatis typical of such portraits, epitomized by Holzschuher’s “white locks with lightning-like twistings.” 15 They are not simply seen sub specie aeternitatis, as has been remarked, but partake of eternity by reason of their intensity of faith. “Dürer’s desire not to restrict the infinite complexity of nature,” 16 visible in the careful detail––the pithy empiricism––of his renderings, restrained him from idealizing their appearances in the ancient manner, but not from idealizing the inner being of these highly individualized men. Thus, the traditional commemorative aspect of the portraits is secondary to their inspirational aspect. They are portraits not simply of famous but of devout men, portraits not simply of personal friends but of committed heroes. Highly unlike each other, they nonetheless share the same religious spirit. When Hertzer said the late portraits should be seen together rather than, as with the Italian equivalent, separately, each in and for itself, 17 he was more to the point than he knew, for Dürer’s late portraits are of a community of Christianly conscious men.


It has been said that the best portraits unite the individual and the universal, the former for the sake of doing justice to a particular likeness, the latter to convey an accessible identity. The best of Dürer’s late portraits––Frederick the Wise, Pirckheimer, Melanchthon, Holzschuher, Muffel––particularly epitomize the “perfect” portrait’s synthesis of seeming opposites.

What has been said in general about Dürer’s “puritanical”––radically simplified––late style can be said with special appropriateness about these portraits; the “stiffening and tightening of form strengthens rather than weakens the emotional impact…the outward receptacle had to be made as rigid and impervious as possible in order to withstand the pressure of an inward passion…” 18 Yet to note their rigid form and impacted passion is only to begin to qualify their union to tautness and dynamics, their sense of a powerfully poised identity. This identity is most directly realized by way of the ambiguity of import that results from abstractly isolating it in an uncompromisingly neutral space or void. To put an intensely alive figure––fully realized in all its details, precisely rendered down to the last empirical detail––in an abstract space which qualifies as “natural” only by reason of the slight turn of the figure’s head into it, is to set up an extreme conflict of purpose which can either heighten or obliterate the sense of identity. In Dürer’s late portraits the heightening of effect occurs because the abundant details acquire extreme immediacy and individuality, and simultaneously singular unity, because none can “escape” into the surrounding space––there is nothing in it for them to relate to. These details combine to create a sense of singular wholeness because they are rigidly confined by forms of sharp contours and hard surfaces; self-contradictorily, they become abstractly intense and self-consciously particular. Thus, the presence of the face is exaggerated in the late portraits, for the moment it is seen as a compact whole it begins to disintegrate into abstract details, into a linear richness which is only incidentally constitutive of a familiar form. Intensified yet isolated, the face communicates a fundamental, dynamic self. Unmediated by a context––the inscription is an incidental convenience and convention––it is richly and vigorously described. The only empirical immediacy, it becomes a symbol of the self-centered soul, buoyed up by its own being and by whatever gives life to that being. In general, the late portraits are almost monadic in their insularity yet alive in their detail, and as such sublime in effect. Thus Dürer cancels the finitude of the face.

In general, the late portraits, monumental yet highly particular, immortalize the immediate man, independent in his being, rather than, as in the customary humanist portrait, the generalized man of learning. This immediacy communicates Lutheran renewal, the subject not being charged with any specific social attribute, only with a sense of spiritual potency and revived human potentiality.


The portraits of Erasmus, Ulrich Varnbüler and Cardinal Albrecht von Brandenburg cannot be seen in these terms, for not only do they make clear that their subjects belong to specific temporal worlds, but they are also presented without the striking radical isolation of the foregoing exemplary works of 1524 and ’26. The Erasmus portrait, which has been regarded by everyone from Erasmus to Panofsky and Wölfflin as a failure, 19 is regressive, returning in a half-hearted way to the humanist world of the 1514 St. Jerome. The Varnbüler and Albrecht von Brandenburg portraits, which Panofsky makes so much of because they indicate Dürer’s discovery and introduction to the North of the Renaissance profile portrait typical in Quattrocento Italy, 20 are ambiguous in connotation because they do not so much idealize as disguise their subjects. The profile portrait is a device which shows Varnbüler and von Brandenburg to “spiritual…advantage” by suppressing “the massiveness of their features…in favor of a distinctive outline.” 21

In the Varnbüler and von Brandenburg portraits the profile view is a theatrical pose; it is a device representing Dürer’s flattery of unpromising subjects. Glamorizing their outer appearances, he hopes to create an inner being. But their portraits cannot even be said to achieve a rudimentary sense of religious individuality. In fact, it could be argued that Dürer used what in the 1520s was an archaicizing formula to depict Varnbüler and von Bradenburg because both belonged to older, archaic worlds (viz. the Holy Roman Empire and the Catholic Church, respectively) rather than to the new worlds of the bourgeois German city and the German (Lutheran) church. These two sitters were important to Dürer for their high position in a hierarchy, not for their individuality and character.

But in the 1524 and 1526 portraits Dürer needs no such artifice––they are all in three-quarter profile––to express his subject’s spirituality. Spiritualization, as Sartre says, is renewal; in the Varnbüler and von Brandenburg portraits it exists only as an illusion, the consequence of a transparent construction. It is not so much expressed––an invisible indwelling quality made visible––as invented.

Panofsky observes that the three-quarter profile was commonplace in the North because its “artists had no wish to externalize the individual by isolating him from any empirical context” but rather “tried to show the sitter as a ‘natural’ being, maintaining contact with the world around him.” In Italy the profile portrait had been (but was no longer) typical, “partly through the influence of classical antiquity but also because the Italians delighted in that very emphasis on permanence and autonomy which was foreign to the Northern taste.” 22 Yet, as shown above, the autonomy of Varnbüler and von Brandenburg is more illusion than substance, and Dürer himself seems to have been unhappy with the results, for he quickly discarded the profile from view. Nor, as a Northerner, did he use it “purely,” for Varnbüler and von Brandenburg are incompletely abstracted from their circumstances: these are very much present, ranging from von Brandenburg’s coat-of-arms and Varnbüler’s broad-brimmed hat and elegantly inscribed scroll to strong indication of bodily presence.

Neither is there authentic autonomy in the 1526 portrait of Johannes Kleberger, regarded as among the most remarkable of the late portraits. Its intensity––its “romantic” quality 23 ––is, like the spirituality of Varnbüler and von Brandenburg, a result of artifice, in particular the result of Dürer’s perfection of the classical portrait and thus the achievement of a “rational likeness.” 24 Only in the 1524 and 1526 portraits does Dürer avoid extremes––on the one hand, of superficial effects of aloofness and aloneness, the result of the profile view’s fragmentary appearance; and on the other hand, of superficial intensity, the result of softening and even losing details. The Varnbüler, von Bradenburg and Kleberger portraits are all the results of Dürer’s classicizing tendency distracting from and beside the point of the spiritually authentic individuality of the 1524 and 1526 portraits. In the latter, because the circumstantial has been removed so that the implicit can resonate, authentic individuality emerges forcefully, without the stylistic cues which make it a posture. In the staged portraits we have pseudo-apotheosis, in the more straightforward portraits the inextricable mingling of the empirical and the spiritual, in which each is full of the life of the other, which is the sign of authentic transformation. The achievement of the 1524 and 1526 portraits is the avoidance of any sign of disjunction between the empirical and spiritual.


It is significant that neither Erasmus, Cardinal Albrecht von Brandenburg nor Kleberger was committed to the new faith––experienced spiritual transformation––as were Fredrick the Wise, Pirckheimer and Melanchthon. Nor was Varnbüler (a jurist for the empire) the solid Nuremberg citizen that Muffel (its reigning mayor) and Holzschuher (one of its senators) were. Erasmus’ distaste for Luther, a matter of style as well as doctrine, is well documented, and von Brandenburg sold the indulgences that led to the posting of Luther’s Ninety-five Theses (1517)––later, in 1523, he persecuted Luther’s adherents. Kleberger was an adventurer-businessman who married Pirckheimer’s daughter and then abandoned her, spending the rest of his life in Lyons as a benefactor of the poor.

In contrast, Frederick the Wise was Dürer’s patron from the beginning of his career as well as Luther’s protector in the Wartburg (1520-21); Pircheimer, Dürer’s closest friend for more than a generation, was actively committed to the Reformation and has warren of both his own and Dürer’s feeling for Luther; and Melanchthon, “Perceptor Germaniae,” was, after Luther, the leading Reformation figure. Holzsucher and Muffel were instrumental in Nuremberg’s shift to Lutheran Protestantism. There is no doubt that in their portraits Dürer was commemorating friends who were personally and at the same time religiously close to him. This is borne out particularly in the case of Melanchthon, who, it has been argued, is depicted as St. John in the Four Apostles, which was produced at the same time as his portrait and the other portraits. (Like others in his circle of friends: according to Pfeiffer, Joachim Camerarius is depicted as St. Paul, Hieronymus Baumgartner as St. Mark and Michael Roting as St. Peter.) Melanchthon’s appearance in the Four Apostles commemorates the ideological sympathy Dürer felt for him and his circle. What Pfeiffer writes about the Four Apostles holds true for the best of Dürer’s late portraits as well:

“The Four Apostles is no sacred work of art…but a picture in remembrance of men who, in dangerous times, accomplished a particularly responsible task, performed a divinely willed mission, and as hearers of the Word of God were properly equipped for this task. Those depicted are no “saints” […] but men whom we, because of their Christian teaching and Christian life, shall thankfully remember.” , 1959-60), p. 29.’]25

In the same spirit, and even more personally, the best of the late portraits were produced.