Lute of the Month
Albrecht Dürer (1472 - 1528)
Margin illustration in Emporer Maximilian's Prayerbook
Maximilian's Prayerbook, or Book of Hours, is a curious production for its time, being printed on vellum as if it were handlettered and decorated with marginalia by most of the leading painters of Germany: Jorg Breu, Cranach, Baldung Grien, Burgkmair, Altdorfer and Dürer. Among the great, only Grünewald was not employed.
It was commissioned by Maximilian for distribution to the Knights of St George, a crusading order he was promoting as part of his chivalric fantasies. Vincenz Rockner was ordered to cut the type in imitation of the calligraphic style of earlier manuscripts. It was begun in 1513 but the printing remained unfinished at the Emporer's death in 1519, the knights never got their presentation volumes and Dürer never got paid.
Dürer's illustrations are not really much in keeping with the spiritual texts, and this jolly little angel is typical of his approach; it even seems to be winking. And the joke may be twofold. I have written in an earlier Lute of the Month about the impact of the new renaissance style of lute playing which Dürer encountered on his travels to Venice and on which he commented almost ironically in his silverpoint drawing of 1497. And here too, resting a foot on a snail, the little angel calls attention in an overtly humourous manner to the need, in this "modern" style of playing, for even an angel to have something to support the lute in its "new" position.
However there may be a further joke, largely hidden from us but which the citizens of Nürnberg, Dürer's native city, would have picked up more easily.
In 1488 the Nürnberg Council commissioned a huge new tomb to house the remains of their city's patron saint, St. Sebaldus, in the Sebalduskirche. The designs survive in the Akademie der Bildenden Kunst in Vienna and are usually credited to Peter Vischer who was a large-scale bronze founder. The work hung about largely untouched until 1507 and then dribbled on sporadically until 1514 when it was undertaken with more urgency and finished in 1519. This huge structure is almost five metres high and is set about with reliefs of the legends of St. Sebaldus, the Apostles, classical and biblical Worthies, Virtues, Prophets, Arts and Italianate humanist values, including several lute players. The entire edifice, representing the then world in all its variety, rests on a procession of twelve snails moving to the right and looking just like our Dürer drawing!
This vast undertaking going on for so long in such a public way, cannot have been unknown to Dürer who was several times employed by the same City Council and who is also thought to have influenced Vischer's work.
On this reading, the slow moving snail of the Sebaldus tomb may well have needed an angelic push to hurry it along a bit, and perhaps Dürer may have felt the same about the slow-moving Prayerbook.
There is a full size plaster cast of the entire tomb in the unjustly neglected Plaster Room of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, together with other full size replicas such as Trajan's column and the entire west door of St. Iago de Compostela!
Finally, in our own day there is a wonderful book by W. G. Sebald (sic!) "The Rings of Saturn" published in Germany 1995 and in England 1998 by the Harvill Press, which traces an individual journey through the consciousness of Europe and many of its horrors. In the course of this travel of the mind he talks of the Sebaldus tomb:
"In June 1519, when his twelve-year labours were completed, the great monument, weighing many tons, standing almost five yards high on twelve snails and four curved dolphins, and representing the entire order of salvation, was installed in the chancel of the church consecrated in the name of the city's saint. On the base of the tomb, fauns, mermaids, fabulous creatures and animals of every conceivable description throng about the four cardinal virtues of Justice, Prudence, Temperance and Fortitude. Above them are mythical figures - Nimrod the hunter, Hercules with his club, Samson with the jawbone of an ass, and the god Apollo between two swans - along with representations of the miracle of the burning of the ice, the feeding of the hungry, and the conversion of a heretic. Then come the apostles with their emblems and the instruments of their martyrdom, and, crowning all, the celestial city with its three pinnacles and many mansions, Jerusalem, the fervently longed-for bride, God's tabernacle amongst mankind, the image of an other, renewed life. And in the heart of this reliquary cast in a single piece, surrounded by eighty angels, in a shrine of sheet silver, lie the bones of the exemplary dead man, the harbinger of a time when the tears will be wiped from our eyes and there will be no more grief, or pain, or weeping and wailing."
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Copyright 2000 by David Van Edwards