Text copyright © Dec 28, 2012 Dr. Elizabeth A. Garner, All Rights Reserved
THE NEW MEISTER AT WORK
The life of Albrecht Dürer got even stranger when he returned to Nuremberg and started conducting business in the summer of 1495. He was given a 200 gulden dowry to buy a house but he didn’t buy a house until 1509. Instead, as was the usual custom, the bride and groom moved in with the father-in-law. But Albrecht and Agnes didn’t even have to do this, because Hans Frey owned two houses at the City Market square, so Albrecht and Agnes by themselves were able to move into a house with a fully furnished print shop on the first floor, equivalent to setting up shop on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Nothing could be better.
The incredibly strange thing about this period in Albrecht’s life is that he didn’t hire any apprentices, which is what Meisters did. He was working alone. In fact, there is no evidence that Dürer has any apprentice before 1501, when one of the most powerful men in all of the Holy Roman Empire, the Elector Friedrich, Duke of Saxony, who became Dürer’s patron in 1496, sent his bastard son to Dürer’s workshop as his first apprentice. No one has ever questioned why Dürer was working alone for over 6 years.
The first oil painting Dürer does as a Meister is a painting of St. Jerome in the Wilderness, believed to be dated to 1495, which you see here:
St. Jerome kneels as a penitent. In his right hand he holds the Bible, which he translated into Latin, and in his left hand the stone which he is using to beat his breast. His eyes stare upwards, beyond the small crucifix stuck into the tree trunk. Wearing a blue gown, his red mantle and cardinal’s hat lie beside him on the ground. Behind is his faithful lion, befriended after he had removed a thorn from its paw. In the background is a landscape with dramatic rock formations, probably based on sketches that Dürer had made of the quarries near Nuremberg. The scene is lit by a dramatic evening sky. The reverse of the panel depicts an apocalyptic celestial phenomenon, a red star-like light and a streaking golden disc. Many times, it would be found that Dürer had another painting on the back of his oil images, and always these added paintings had Jewish themes.
Although some scholars have considered it to be an eclipse or meteor, it is usually considered a comet. Dürer’s image is probably derived from woodcuts of comets published in the Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493. A similar object to the one painted by Dürer appears in the sky of his engraving of Melencolia I, made 20 years later. This small panel was only recognized as a Dürer in 1956 by art historian David Carritt, so no historian was even studying a Dürer oil paintings from 1495. We have no idea who would have commissioned this painting or what they paid the new Meister.
Let’s look at what he was producing for sale in 1495-1496 that would be supporting himself and his wife. In the early part of his career, from 1495 until late 1500, Dürer was an artist of only regional importance, whose market was primarily the south-central Bavarian German cities of Nuremberg, his birthplace, Regensberg, Augsburg, and Frankfurt, so we have to keep this customer base in mind as we analyze what really occurred.
The man on the left leaning on the wooden post is hypothesized to be Michael Wolgemut, Dürer’s Master, with whom he apprenticed, although Wolgemut was not known to sport a beard; men were clean-shaven in Nuremberg, except for Dürer, who was chided often for wearing a beard in the fashion of his Hungarian ancestors. There is no mistaking the homoerotic overtones of the longing gaze of this figure.
Notice the not so subtle homosexual clues that Dürer included. The first is the obvious “cock” spigot coming out of the wooden post on the left. Lucas Paümgartner, foreground right, is holding a flower. Wolgemut, leaning on the post is gazing longingly at Dürer. Most of the poses of the figures are very sexually suggestive.
The inscrutable clues, though, are right in the center of the print on the Dürer figure. It is the distinctive knot in the string of Dürer’s codpiece. Dürer uses this knot in other images also as clues. And an almost imperceptible half circle peeking out from under the cap of Lucas Paumgartner on the right.
But what we must explore is the outrageousness of the entire image and that it was sold at all with impunity. Whoever the unidentified figures are, everyone in Nuremberg would have recognized them as members of the power elite families in their g-strings. This wasn’t some version of Greek art. This WAS the sale of the naked famous sons of Nuremberg with their obvious agreement.
Even worse, this print would have been sold at the market fairs by Dürer’s wife Agnes or his mother Barbara. Imagine what it would have been for either of those women having to peddle pictures of their naked son/husband cavorting with his naked rich buddies in homoerotic poses, and having to look all buyers in the eye as they sold this print, knowing the buyer recognized everyone in the print? How could this not be a humiliation for their families? How could this not be a best seller? How could they keep any of these prints in stock?
And why was there no punishment for anyone involved? These arrogant sons of the ruling class were guaranteed their spot in the government no matter how much humiliation they heaped on their families by appearing in this image. They had nothing to lose.
Since Dürer suffered no punishment from this action, but instead ended up with many painting commissions from these elite, it is not unreasonable to conclude that the Nuremberg ruling families was protecting Albrecht Dürer more so than anyone has ever realized. And that the Dürer family was part of this power elite society.
In other words, Albrecht Dürer’s fame and fortune was planned and steered by the media moguls, his godfather and father-in-law, and protected by his government. Dürer didn’t become a rock star because of his artistic talent. Albrecht Dürer became a rock star because he was a “product,” a contrived Nuremberg brand.
How could anything go wrong?