Albrecht Durer Engravings (Melancholia) Buy Art Prints Now
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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Nuremburg artist Albrecht Dürer was accomplished in oil paintings, watercolours and pen and ink drawings, but he is best known for his engravings

Dürer had already produced many quality woodcut prints of religious scenes when he began to produce engravings in 1494, after a trip to Italy. He became accomplished in the difficult skill of using a burin (known as a graver in English) to produce engravings. His earlier works, many of which show scenes of everyday peasant life, lack the complexity and tonal contrast of his later work. However they do show the beginnings of genius in their bold compositions.

In 1500 the Venetian artist Jacopo de' Barbari visited Nuremburg and from him Dürer learnt a great deal about the Venetian breakthroughs in proportion, perspective and anatomy. He used what he had learnt in is paintings and engravings, as well as writing several theoretical works on the subjects. Dürer visited Venice once again in 1505. On his return to Nuremburg in 1507 he began concentrate on engraving over painting to produce what are widely believed to be his masterworks.

His Meisterstiche, or masterprints, are Knight, Death and the Devil; Melencolia I; and St Jerome in his Study. These prints are rich in symbolism, and their meaning is hotly debated. One theory is that Knight, Death, and the Devil represent the moral sphere; Melencolia I represents the intellectual; and St. Jerome in his Study the theological and contemplative life. In Knight, Death and the Devil, the knight rides though a narrow valley on a horse, accompanied by a dog. At his side, the figure of Death rides a pale horse and holds an hourglass.

Behind the rider a goat-headed devil lurks. The rider seems unperturbed by the horrors around him, his armour may represent his Christian faith. The knight appears solid in comparison to the tangled branches behind him. Knight, Death and the Devil was perhaps inspired by Psalm 23, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil." In later years the engraving has been used by German nationalists who believe the rider is a Teutonic ideal.

Melencolia I is Dürer's best known engraving. It is thought by some to be autobiographical, representing a loss of confidence by Dürer. A winged figure sits, head in hand, surrounded by symbolic objects. Unused geometric equipment, a polyhedron, an hourglass, an empty scale. Behind the figure is a Magic Square. Each of the square's four rows, columns, quadrants, corners and centre equal 34, and the centre of the bottom row reads "1514", the date of the engraving. The references to mathematics and geometry suggests the figure is putting imagination over reason, and may refer to the humanist Cornelius Agrippa's work.

St Jerome in his Study features iconography from the life of St Jerome: a sleeping lion, a gourd vine and a sleeping dog (Dürer often used dogs in his works to represent loyalty.) The composition of the piece, with the sight line away from the centre, gives the viewer the feeling that he has just walked in to the saint's study, rather than being part of the scene. A line drawn from the saint's head through the cross on his desk would lead to the skull on the windowsill, a momento mori that also features in many of Dürer's engravings.

Although there is no evidence that Dürer rejected his Catholic faith, he was at least sympathetic to Martin Luther and Protestantism. Many of his engravings are of religious scenes, including his series of the passions of Christ and his many depictions of the Madonna and the saints. He also engraved some of the great men of his time, secular scenes of peasants and ordinary people, and scenes from classical mythology such as Apollo and Diana.

Dürer's engravings are considered to be among the finest examples of the form. Dürer's father was a goldsmith and his brother a painter, on his early travels to Italy he learned much about composition and technique while retaining a distinctively northern Europe style. To produce an engraving, a drawing must be copied onto a copper plate, then incised into the copper with the burin. In 2015 artist Andrew Rafferty attempted a copy of Dürer's 1514 engraving of St Paul which gives us some insight into his work. We know that Dürer made preparatory drawings, in reverse, to plan out the fine lines of the cross hatching, as a preparatory drawing still exists in Vienna. We also know, from an early print, that Dürer completed the figure of St Paul first, adding the background after. Modern copper plate is rolled and has a grain, unlike the copperplate of the late 15th century which was hammered. While the curved cross-hatching that gives Dürer's work its unique solidity is less difficult to achieve on hammered plate, modern engravers, including Rafferty, have struggled to replicate the intricacies of Dürer's fine, sweeping lines.

Dürer's influence on European art continued after his death. Many artists such as Raphael and Titian would collaborate with printmakers to bring their art to a wider audience. Dürer's theoretical works on anatomy and perspective were written not in Latin but in the German vernacular of the craftsman, making them accessible to many. Dürer's prints are still considered to be the height of the art form today.

Albrecht Durer's vast assemblage of work incorporates etchings, his favoured procedure in his prints, altarpieces, paintings, creative books and watercolours. The woodcuts, for example, the "Apocalypse series" in 1498), are more Gothic than whatever is left of Durer's work. Some of his most outstanding engravings were Melancolia I 1514, Saint Jerome in his Study and Knight, Death and the Devil. His work has been subject to broad investigation and translation over the years. Albrecht Durer's watercolours additionally mark him out as one of the leading European specialists in landscape art, while his love of the woodcut technique altered the capability of that medium.

His work in etching appears to have encouraged more artists to follow in this medium, but most struggled with the constraints found here and also lacked Durer's own genius. Lucas van Leyden was the main Northern European etcher to efficiently keep on producing expansive engravings in the early sixteenth century.