This page contains affiliate links. As Amazon Associates we earn from qualifying purchases.
Buy it on Amazon FREE Audible 30 days




Now let us consider what the world was like in which this virile, accurate and persevering spirit had grown up. Over and over again, the story of the New Birth has been told; how it began in France, and met an untimely fate at the hands of English invaders, then took refuge in Italy, where it grew to be the wonder of the world; and how the corruption of the ruling classes and of the Church, with the indignation and rebellion that this gave rise to, combined to frustrate the promise of earlier days.

When the Roman Empire gradually became an anarchy of hostile fragments, every large monastery, every small town, girded itself with walls and tended to become the germ of a new civilisation. Popes, kings, and great lords, haunted by reminiscence of the vanished empire, made spasmodic attempts to subject such centres to their rule and tax them for their maintenance. In the first times, the Church–the See of Rome–made by far the most successful attempt to get its supremacy acknowledged, and had therefore fewer occasions to resort to violence. It was more respected and more respectable than the other powers which claimed to rule and tax these immured and isolated communities dotted over Europe; but as time went on, the Church became less and less beneficent, more and more tyrannical. Meanwhile kings and emperors, having learned wisdom by experience, found themselves in a position to take advantage of the growing bad odour of the Church; and by favouring the civil communities and creating a stable hierarchy among the class of lords and barons from which they had emerged, were at last able to face the Church, with its _protégés,_ the religious communities, on an equal footing.

The religious communities, owing to the vow of celibacy, had become more and more stagnant, while the civil communities increased in power to adapt themselves to the age. All that was virile and creative combined in the towns; all that was inadequate, sterile, useless, coagulated in the monasteries, which thus became cesspools, and ultimately took on the character of festering sores by which the civil bodies which had at first been purged into them were endangered. Luther tells us how there was a Bishop of Würzburg who used to say when he saw a rogue, “‘To the cloister with you. Thou art useless to God or man.’ He meant that in the cloister were only hogs and gluttons, who did nothing but eat and drink and sleep, and were of no more profit than as many rats.” And the loathing that another of these sties created in the young Erasmus, and the difficulty he had to escape from the clutches of its inmates–never feeling safe till the Pope had intervened–show us that by their wealth and by the engine of their malice, the confessional (which they had usurped from the regular clergy), they were as formidable as they were useless. It became necessary that this antiquated system of social drainage should be superseded.

In England and Germany it was swept away. In centres like Nuremberg, the desire for reformation and the horror of false doctrine were grounded in practical experience of intolerable inconveniences, not in a clear understanding of the questions at issue. Intellectually, the leaders of the Reformation had no better foundation than those they opposed: for them, as for their opponents, the question was not to be solved by an appeal to evident truths and experience, but to historical documents and traditions, supposed, to be infallible. For a clear intelligence, there is nothing to choose between the infallibility of oecumenical councils or of Popes, and that of the Bible. Both have been in their time the expression of very worthy and very human sentiments; both are incapable of rational demonstration.


Scattered over Europe, wherever the free intelligence was waking and had rubbed her eyes, were men who desired that nuisances should be removed and reforms operated without schism or violence. To these Erasmus spoke. His policy was tentative, and did not proceed, like that of other parties, by declaring that a perfect solution was to hand. Luther’s action divided these honest, upright souls, and would-be children of light, into three unequal camps.

As a rule the downright, headstrong, and impatient became reformers. The respectful, cautious and long-suffering, such as More, Warham, and Adrian IV., clung to the Roman establishment, were martyred for it or broke their hearts over it. Erasmus and a handful of others remained true to a tentative policy, and, compared with their contemporaries, were meek and lowly in heart–became children of light. To them we now look back wistfully, and wish that they might have been, if not as numerous as the Churchmen and Beformers, at least a sufficient body to have made their influence an effective force, with the advantage of more light and more patience that was really theirs. But, alas! they only counted as the first dissolvent which set free more corrosive and detrimental acids. The exhilaration of action and battle was for others; for them the sad conviction that neither side deserved to be trusted with a victory. Yet, beyond the world whose chief interest was the Reformation, we may be sure that such men as Charles V., Michael Angelo, Rabelais, Montaigne, and all those whom they may be taken to represent, were in essential agreement with Erasmus. Luther and Machiavelli alone rejected the Papacy as such: the latter’s more stringent intellectual development led him also to discard every ideal motive or agent of reform for violent means. He was ready even to regard the passions of men like Caesar Borgia, tyrants in the fullest sense of the word, as the engines by which civilisation, learning, art, and manners, might be maintained. Whereas Luther appealed to the passions of common honest men, the middle classes in fact. It is easy to let either Luther or Machiavelli steal away our entire sympathy. On the one hand, no compromise, not even the slightest, seems possible with criminal ruffians such as a Julius II. and an Alexander Borgia; on the other hand, the power swollen by the tide of minor corruption, which such men ruled by might, did come into the hands of a Leo X., an Adrian IV.; and though that power was obviously tainted through and through, it might have been mastered and wielded in the cause of reform. Erasmus hoped for this. Even Julius II. protected him from the superiors of his convent. Even Julius II. patronised Michael Angelo and Raphael and everything that had a definite character in the way of creative power or scholarship; and could appreciate at least the respect which what he patronised commanded. He could appreciate the respect commanded by the austerity and virtue of those who rebelled against him and denounced his cynical abuse of all his powers, whether natural or official. He liked to think he had enemies worth beating. Such a ruler is a sore temptation to a keen intellect. “Everything great is formative,” and this Pope was colossal–a colossal bully and robber if you like–but the good he did by his patronage was real good, was practical. Michael Angelo and Raphael could work as splendidly as they desired. Erasmus was helped and encouraged. Timid honesty is often petty, does nothing, criticises and finds fault with artists and with learning, runs after them like Sancho Panza after Don Quixote, is helpless and ridiculous and horribly in the way. Leo X. was intelligent and well-meaning; wisdom herself might hope from such a man. Be the throne he is sitting on as monstrous and corrupt a contrivance as it may, yet it is there, it does give him authority; he is on it and dominates the world. It is easy to say, “But the period of the Renascence closed, its glory died away.” Suppose Luther had been as subtle as he was whole-hearted, and had added to his force of character a delicacy and charm like that of St. Francis; or suppose that Erasmus instead of his schoolfellow Adrian IV. had become Pope; what a different tale there might have been to tell! Who will presume to point out the necessity by which these things were thus and not otherwise? “Regrets for what ‘might have been’ are proverbially idle,” cries the historian from whom I have chiefly quoted. I do not recollect the proverb, unless he refers to “It is no use crying over spilt milk;” but in any case such regrets are far from being necessarily idle. “What might have been” is even generally “what ought to have been;” and no study has been or is likely to be so pregnant for us as the study of the contrast between “what was” and “what ought to have been,” though such studies are inevitably mingled with regrets. We have every reason to regret that the Reformation was so hasty and ill-considered, and that the Papacy was as purblind as it was arrogant. The plant of the Roman Church machinery, which it had taken centuries to lay down, came into the hands of men who grossly ignored its function and the conditions of its working. They used its power partly for the benefit of the human race, by patronising art and scholarship; but chiefly in self-indulgence. If honest intelligence had been given control, a man so partially equipped for his task would not have been goaded into action; but only force, moral or physical, can act at a disadvantage; light and reason must have the advantage of dominant position to effect anything immediate. If they are not on the throne, all they can do is to sow seed, and bewail the present while looking forward to a better future. Now, most educated men are for tolerance, and see as Erasmus saw. We see that Savonarola and Luther were not so right as they thought themselves to be; we see that what they condemned as arrogancy and corruption is partly excusable–is in some measure a condition of efficiency in worldly spheres where one has to employ men already bad. True, the great princes and cardinals of those days not only connived at corruption and ruled by it, but often even professed it. Still in every epoch, under all circumstances, the majority of those who have governed men have more or less cynically employed means that will not bear the light of day. While these magnificoes of the Renascence do stand alone, or almost alone, by the ample generosity of their conception of the objects that power should be exerted in furtherance of; their outlook on life was more commensurate with the variety and competence of human nature than perhaps that of any ruling class has been before or since. As Shakespeare is the amplest of poets, so were theirs the most fruitful of courts. From the great Medicis to our own Elizabeth they all partake of a certain grandiose vitality and variety of intention.


Greatness demands self-assertion; self-assertion is a great virtue even in a Julius II. There is a vast deal of humbug in the use we make of the word humility. We talk about Christ’s humility, but whose self-assertion has ever been more unmitigated? “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Light.” “Learn of Me that I am meek and lowly, and ye shall find rest to your souls.” No doubt it is the quality of the self asserted that justifies in our eyes the assertion; humility then is not opposed to self-assertion. When Michael Angelo shows that he thinks himself the greatest artist in the world, he is not necessarily lacking in humility; nor is Luther, asserting the authority of his conscience against the Pope and Emperor; nor Dürer, saying to us in those little finely-dressed portraits with which he signs his pictures, “I am that I am–namely, one of the handsomest of men and the greatest artist north of the Alps.” Or when Erasmus lets us see that he thinks himself the most learned man living,–if he is the most learned, so much the better that he should know this also as well as the rest. The artist and the scholar were bound to feel gratitude for the corrupt but splendid Church and courts, which gave them so much both in the way of maintenance and opportunity. It may be asked, has all the honesty and the not always evident purity of Protestantism done so much for the world as those dissolute Popes and Princes? And the artist, judging with a hasty bias perhaps, is likely to answer no.


For us nowadays the pith of history seems no more to be the lives of monarchs, or the fighting of battles, or even the deliberations of councils; these things we have more and more come to regard merely as tools and engines for the creation of societies, homes, and friends. And so, though religion and religious machinery dominated the life of those days, it is not in theological disputes, neither is it in oecumenical councils and Popes, nor in sermons, reformers, and synods, that we find the essence of the soul’s life. Rather to us, the pictures, the statues, the books, the furniture, the wardrobes, the letters, and the scandals that have been left behind, speak to us of those days; for these we value them. And we are right, the value of the Renaissance lies in these things, I say “the scandals” of those days; for a part of what comes under that head was perhaps the manifestation of a morality based on a wider experience; though its association with obvious vices and its opposition to the old and stale ideals gave it an illegitimate character; while the re-establishment of the more part of those ideals has perpetuated its reproach. There can be no intellectual charity if the machinery and special sentences of current morality are supposed to be final or truly adequate. Their tentative and inadequate character, which every free intelligence recognises, is what endorses the wisdom of Jesus’, saying, “Judge not that ye be not judged.” Ordinary honest and good citizens do not realise how much that is in every way superior to the gifts of any single one of themselves is yearly sacrificed and tortured for their preservation as a class. On what agonies of creative and original minds is the safety of their homes based? These respectable Molochs who devour both the poor and the exceptionally gifted, and are so little better for their meal, were during the Renascence for a time gainsaid and abashed; yet even then their engines, the traditional secular and ecclesiastic policies, were a foreign encumbrance with which the human spirit was loaded, and which helped to prevent it from reaping the full result of its mighty upheaval.

To see things as they are, and above all to value them for what is most essential in them with regard to the development of our own characters;–that is, I take it, consciously or unconsciously, the main effort of the modern spirit. On the world, the flesh, and the devil, we have put new values; and it was the first assertion of these new values which caused the Renascence. Fine manners, fine clothes, and varied social interchange make the world admirable in our eyes, not at all a bogey to frighten us. Health, frankness, and abundant exercise make the flesh a pure delight in our eyes; lastly, this new-born spirit has made “a moral of the devil himself,” and so for us he has lost his terror.

Rabelais was right when he laughed the old outworn values down, and declared that women were in the first place female, men in the first place male; that the written word should be a self-expression, a sincerity, not a task or a catalogue or a penance, but, like laughter and speech, essentially human, making all men brothers, doing away with artificial barriers and distinctions, making the scholar shake in time with the toper, and doubling the divine up with the losel; bidding even the lady hold her sides in company with the harlot. Eating and drinking were seen to be good in themselves; the eye and the nose and the palate were not only to be respected but courted; free love was better than married enmity. No rite, no church, no god, could annihilate these facts or restrain their influence any more than the sea could be tamed. Dürer was touched with this spirit; we see it in his fine clothes, in his collector’s rapacity, above all in his letters to his friend Pirkheimer–a man more typical of that Rabelaisian age than Dürer and Michael Angelo, who were both of them not only modern men but men conservative of the best that had been–men in travail for the future, absorbed by the responsibility of those who create.

Pirkheimer, one year Dürer’s senior, was a gross fat man early in life, enjoying the clinking of goblets, the music of fork and knife, and the effrontery of obscene jests. A vain man, a soldier and a scholar, pedantic, irritable, but in earnest; a complimenter of Emperors, a leader of the reform party, a partisan of Luther’s, the friend and correspondent of Erasmus, the elective brother of Dürer. The man was typical; his fellows were in all lands. Dürer was surprised to find how many of them there were at Venice–men who would delight Pirkheimer and delight in him. “My friend, there are so many Italians here who look exactly like you I don’t know how it happens! … men of sense and knowledge, good lute players and pipers, judges of painting, men of much noble sentiment and honest virtue; and they show me much honour and friendship.” Something of all this was doubtless in Dürer too; but in him it was refined and harmonised by the sense and serious concern, not only for the things of to-day, but for those of to-morrow and yesterday; the sense of solidarity, the passion for permanent effect, eternal excellence. These things, in men like Pirkheimer, still more in Erasmus, and even in Rabelais and Montaigne, are not absent; but they are less stringent, less religious, than they are in a Dürer or a Michael Angelo.




There are several reasons which may possibly have led Dürer to visit Venice in 1505. The Fondaco dei Tedeschi, or Exchange of the German Merchants at Venice, had been burned down the winter before, and they were in haste to complete a new one. Dürer may have received assurance that the commission to paint the altar-piece for the new chapel would be his did he desire it. At any rate he seems to have set to work on such a picture almost as soon as he arrived there. It is strange to think that Giorgione and Titian probably began to paint the frescoes on the facade while he was still at work in the chapel, or soon after he left. The plague broke out in Nuremberg before he came away; but this is not likely to have been his principal motive for leaving home, as many richer men, such as his friend Pirkheimer, from whom he borrowed money for the journey, stayed where they were. Nor do Dürer’s letters reveal any alarm for his friend’s, his mother’s, his wife’s, or his brother’s safety. He took with him six small pictures, and probably a great number of prints, for Venice was a first-rate market.


The letters which follow are like a glimpse of a distant scene in a _camera obscura_, and, like life itself, they are full of repetitions and over-insistence on what is insignificant or of temporary interest. To-day they call for our patience and forbearance, and it will depend upon our imaginative activity in what degree they repay them; even as it depends upon our power of affectionate assimilation in what degree and kind every common day adds to our real possessions.

I have made my citations as ample as possible, so as to give the reader a just idea of their character while making them centre as far as possible round points of special interest.

_To the honourable, wise Master Wilibald Pirkheimer, Burgher of Nürberg, my kind Master_. VENICE, _January 6, 1506._

I wish you and yours many good, happy New Years. My willing service, first of all, to you dear Master Pirkheimer! Know that I am in good health; I pray God far better things than that for you. As to those pearls and precious stones which you gave me commission to buy, you must know that I can find nothing good or even worth its price. Everything is snapped up by the Germans who hang about the Riva. They always want to get four times the value for anything, for they are the falsest knaves alive. No one need look for an honest service from any of them. Some good fellows have warned me to beware of them, they cheat man and beast. You can buy better things at a lower price at Frankfurt than at Venice.

[Illustration: Wilibald Pirkheimer–Charcoal Drawing, Dumesnil Collection, Paris _Face p._ 80]

About the books which I was to order for you, the Imhofs have already seen after them; but if there is anything else you want, let me know and I will attend to it for you with all zeal. Would to God I could do you a right good service! gladly would I accomplish it, seeing, as I do, how much you do for me. And I pray you be patient with my debt, for indeed I think much oftener of it than you do. When God helps me home I will honourably repay you with many thanks; for I have a panel to paint for the Germans for which they are to pay me a hundred and ten Rhenish florins–it will not cost me as much as five. I shall have scraped it and laid on the ground and made it ready within eight days; then I shall at once begin to paint and, if God will, it shall be in its place above the altar a month after Easter.

* * * * *

VENICE, _February 17_, 1506.

How I wish you were here at Venice! There are so many nice men among the Italians who seek my company more and more every day–which is very pleasing to one–men of sense and knowledge, good lute-players and pipers, judges of painting, men of much noble sentiment and ‘honest virtue, and they show me much honour and friendship. On the other hand there are also amongst them some of the most false, lying, thievish rascals; I should never have believed that such were living in the world. If one did not know them, one would think them the nicest men the earth could show. For my own part I cannot help laughing at them whenever they talk to me. They know that their knavery is no secret but they don’t mind.

Amongst the Italians I have many good friends who warn me not to eat and drink with their painters. Many of them are my enemies and they copy my work in the churches and wherever they can find it; and then they revile it and say that the style is not _antique_ and so not good. But Giovanni Bellini has highly praised me before many nobles. He wanted to have something of mine, and himself came to me and asked me to paint him something and he would pay well for it. And all men tell me what an upright man he is, so that I am really friendly with him. He is very old, but is still the best painter of them all. And that which so well pleased me eleven years ago pleases me no longer, if I had not seen it for myself I should not have believed any one who told me. You must know too that there are many better painters here than Master Jacob (Jacopo de’ Barbari) is abroad (_wider darvsen Meister J._), yet Anton Kolb would swear an oath that no better painter lives than Jacob. Others sneer at him, saying if he were good he would stay here, and so forth.

I have only to-day begun to sketch in my picture, for my hands were so scabby (_grindig_) that I could do no work with them, but I have got them cured.

Now be lenient with me and don’t get in a passion so easily, but be gentle like me. I don’t know why you will not learn from me. My friend! I should like to know if any one of your loves is dead–that one close by the water for instance, or the one called [Illustration] or [Illustration] or a [Illustration] so that you might supply her place by another. ALBRECHT DÜRER.

VENICE, February 28, 1506.

I wish you had occasion to come here, I know you would not find time hang on your hands, for there are so many nice men in this country, right good artists. I have such a throng of Italians about me that at times I have to shut myself up. The nobles all wish me well, but few of the painters.

* * * * *

VENICE, _April_ 2, 1506.

The painters here, let me tell you, are very unfriendly to me. They have summoned me three times before the magistrates, and I have had to pay four florins to their school. You must also know that I might have gained a great deal of money if I had not undertaken to paint the German picture. There is much work in it and I cannot get it quite finished before Whitsuntide. Yet they only pay me eighty-five ducats for it. Now you know how much it costs to live, and then I have bought some things and sent some money away, so that I have not much before me now. But don’t misunderstand me, I am firmly purposed not to go away hence till God enables me to repay you with thanks and to have a hundred florins over besides. I should easily earn this if I had not got the German picture to paint, for all men except the painters wish me well.

Tell my mother to speak to Wolgemut about my brother, and to ask him whether he can make use of him and give him work till I come, or whether he can put him with some one else. I should gladly have brought him with me to Venice, and that would have been useful both to me and him, and he would have learnt the language, but my mother was afraid that the sky would fall on him. Pray keep an eye on him yourself, the women are no use for that. Tell the lad, as you so well can, to be studious and honest till I come, and not to be a trouble to his mother; if I cannot arrange everything I will at all events do all that I can. Alone I certainly should not starve, but to support many is too hard for me, for no one throws his gold away.

Now I commend myself to you. Tell my mother to be ready to sell at the Crown-fair (_Heiligthumsfest_). I am arranging for my wife to have come home by then; I have written to her too about everything. I will not take any steps about buying the diamond ornament till I get your next letter.

I don’t think I shall be able to come home before next autumn, when what I earned for the picture, which was to have been ready by Whitsuntide, will be quite used up in living expenses, purchases, and payments; what, however, I gain afterwards I hope to save. If you see fit don’t speak of this further, and I will keep putting off my leaving from day to day and writing as though I was just coming. I am indeed very uncertain what to do next. Write to me again soon.

Given on Thursday before Palm Sunday in the year 1506. ALBRECHT DÜRER, Your Servant.

VENICE, _August_ 18, 1506.

_To the first, greatest man in the world. Your servant and slave Albrecht Dürer sends salutation to his Magnificent master Wilibald_ Pirkheimer. _My truth! I hear gladly and with great satisfaction of your health and great honours. I wonder how it is possible for a man like you to stand against_ so many _wisest princes,_ swaggerers _and soldiers; it must be by some special grace of God. When I read your letter about this terrible grimace, it gave me a great fright and I thought it was a most important thing,_[15] but I warrant that you frightened even Schott’s men,[16] you with your fierce look and your holiday hopping step. But it is very improper for such folk to smear themselves with civet. You want to become a real silk-tail and you think that, if only you manage to please the girls, the thing is done. If you were only as taking a fellow as I am, it would not provoke me so. You have so many loves that merely to pay each one a visit you would take a month or more before you got through the list.

For one thing I return you my thanks, namely, for explaining my position in the best way to my wife; but I know that there is no lack of wisdom in you. If only you had my meekness you would have all virtues. Thank you also for all the good you have done me, if only you would not bother me about the rings! If they don’t please you, break their heads off and pitch them out on to the dunghill as Peter Weisweber says. What do you mean by setting me to such dirty work? _I_ have become a _gentleman_ at Venice.

I have also heard that you can make lovely rhymes; you would be a find for our fiddlers here; they fiddle so beautifully that they can’t help weeping over it themselves. Would God our Rechenmeister girl could hear them, she would cry too. At your bidding I will again lay aside my anger and bear myself even more bravely than usual.

Now let me commend myself to you; give my willing service to our Prior for me; tell him to pray God for me that I may be protected, and especially from the French sickness; I know of nothing that I now dread more than that, for well nigh every one has got it. Many men are quite eaten up and die of it.

VENICE, _September_ 8, 1506.

Most learned, approved, wise, knower of many languages, sharp to detect all encountered lies and quick to recognise plain truth! Honourable much-regarded Herr Wilibald Pirkheimer. Your humble servant Albrecht Dürer wishes you all hail, great and worthy honour _in the devil’s name,_ so much for the twaddle of which you are so fond. I wager that for this[17] you would think me too an orator of a hundred parts. A chamber must have more than four corners which is to contain the gods of memory. I am not going to cram my head full of them; that I leave to you; for I believe that however many chambers there might be in the head, you would have something in each of them. The Margrave would not grant an audience long enough!–a hundred headings and to each heading, say, a hundred words, that takes 9 days 7 hours 52 minutes, not counting the sighs which I have not yet reckoned in. In fact you could not get through the whole at one go; it would stretch itself out like the speech of some old driveller.

I have taken all manner of trouble about the carpets but cannot find any broad ones; they are all narrow and long. However I still look about every day for them and so does Anton Kolb.

I have given Bernhard Hirschvogel your greeting and he sent you his service. He is full of sorrow for the death of his Son, the nicest lad I ever saw.

I can get none of your foolish featherlets. Oh, if only you were here! how you would like these fine Italian soldiers! How often I think of you! Would to God that you and Kunz Kamerer could see them! They have great scythe-lances with 278 points, if they only touch a man with them he dies, for they are all poisoned. Hey! I can do it well, I’ll be an Italian soldier. The Venetians as well as the Pope and the King of France are collecting many men; what will come of it I don’t know, but people ridicule our King very much.

Wish Stephan Paumgartner much happiness from me. I don’t wonder at his having taken a wife. Give my greeting to Borsch, Herr Lorenz, and our fair friends, as well as to your Rechenmeister girl, and thank that head-chamber of yours alone for remembering her greeting; tell her she’s a nasty one.


I sent you olive-wood from Venice to Augsburg, where I directed it to be left, a full ten hundredweight. She says she would not wait for it; _whence the stink_.

My picture, you must know, says it would give a ducat for you to see it, it is well painted and beautifully coloured. I have earned much praise but little profit by it. In the time it took to paint I could easily have earned 220 ducats, and now I have declined much work, in order that I may come home. I have stopped the mouths of all the painters who used to say that I was good at engraving but, as to painting. I did not know how to handle my colours. Now every one says that better colouring they have never seen.

My French mantle greets you and my Italian coat also. It strikes me that there is an odour of gallantry about you; I can scent it out even at this distance; and they tell me here that when you go a-courting you pretend not to be more than twenty-five years old–oh, yes! double that and I’ll believe it. My friend, there are so many Italians here who look exactly like you; I don’t know how it happens!

The Doge and the Patriarch have also seen my picture. Herewith let me commend myself to you as your servant. I must really go to sleep as it is striking the seventh hour of the night, and I have already written to the Prior of the Augustines, to my father-in-law, to Mistress Dietrich, and to my wife, and they are all downright whole sheets full. So I have had to hurry over this letter, read it according to the sense. You would doubtless do better if you were writing to a lot of Princes. Many good nights and days too. Given at Venice on our Lady’s day in September.

You need not lend my wife and mother anything; they have got money enough,


VENICE, _September 23_, 1506.

Your letter telling me of the praise that you get to overflowing from Princes and nobles gave me great delight. You must be altogether altered to have become so gentle; I shall hardly know you when I meet you again.

You must know that my picture is finished as well as another _Quadro_[18] the like of which I have never painted before. And as you are so pleased with yourself, let me tell you that there is no better Madonna picture in the land than mine; for all the painters praise it, as the nobles do you. They say that they have never seen a nobler, more charming painting, and so forth.

* * * * *

But in order to come home as soon as possible, I have, since my picture was finished, refused work that would have yielded me more than 2000 ducats. This all men know who live about me here.

Bernhard Holzbeck has told me great things of you, though I think he does so because you have become his brother-in-law. But nothing makes me more angry than when any one says that you are good-looking; if that were so I should become really ugly. That could make me mad. I have found a grey hair on myself, it is the result of so much excitement. And I fear that while I play such pranks with myself there are still bad days before me, &c.

My French mantle, my doublet, and my brown coat send you a hearty greeting, I should be glad to see what great thing your head-piece can produce that you hold yourself so high.

VENICE, _about October_ 13, 1506.

Knowing that you are aware of my devotion to your service there is no need for me to write to you about it; but so much the more necessary is it for me to tell you of the great pleasure it gives me to hear of the high honour and fame which your manly wisdom and learned skill have brought you. This is the more to be wondered at, for seldom or never in a young body can the like be found. It comes to you, however, as to me, by a special grace of God. How pleased we both are when we fancy ourselves worth somewhat–I with my painting, and you with your wisdom. When any one praises us, we hold up our heads and believe him. Yet perhaps he is only some false flatterer who is scorning us all the time. So don’t credit any one who praises you, for you’ve no notion how utterly and entirely unmannerly you are. I can quite see you standing before the Margrave and speaking so pleasantly–behaving exactly as if you were flirting with Mistress Rosentaler, cringing as you do. It did not escape me that, when you wrote your last letter, you were quite full of amorous thoughts. You ought to be ashamed of yourself, an old fellow like you pretending to be so good-looking. Flirting pleases you in the same way that a shaggy old dog likes a game with a kitten. If you were only as fine and gentle a man as I, I could understand it. If I become burgomaster I will serve you with the Luginsland.[19] as you do to pious Zamesser and me. I will have you for once shut up there with the ladies Rechenmeister, Rosentaler, Gärtner, Schutz, and Pör, and many others whom for shortness I will not name; they must deal with you.

People enquire more after me than you, for you yourself write that both girls and honourable wives ask after me–that is a sign of my virtue. When, however, God helps me home I don’t know how I shall any longer stand you with your great wisdom; but for your virtue and good temper I am glad, and your dogs will be the better for it, for you will no longer strike them lame. Now however that you are thought so much of at home, you won’t dare to talk to a poor painter in the street any more; to be seen with the painter varlet would be a great disgrace for you.

O, dear Herr Pirkheimer, just now while I was writing to you, the alarm of fire was raised and six houses over by Pietro Venier are burnt, and a woollen cloth of mine, for which only yesterday I paid eight ducats, is burnt, so I too am in trouble. There is much excitement here about the fire.

As to your summons to me to come home soon, I shall come as soon as ever I can, but I must first gain money for my expenses. I have paid away about 100 ducats for colours and other things. I have ordered you two carpets for which I shall pay to-morrow, but I could not get them cheap. I will pack them in with my linen.

And as to your threat that, unless I come home soon, you will make love to my wife, don’t attempt it–a ponderous fellow like you would be the death of her.

I must tell you that I set to work to learn dancing and went twice to the school, for which I had to pay the master a ducat. No one could get me to go there again. To learn dancing I should have had to pay away all that I have earned, and at the end I should have known nothing about it.

[Illustration: HANS BURGKMAIR–Black chalk drawing on yellowish prepared ground. The lights and background in watercolor may possibly have been added later At Oxford]

In reply to your question when I shall come home, I tell you, so that my lords may also make their arrangements, that I shall have finished here in ten days; after that I should like to ride to Bologna to learn the secrets of the art of perspective, which a man is willing to teach me. I should stay there eight or ten days and then return to Venice. After that I shall come with the next messenger. How I shall freeze after this sun! Here I am a gentleman, at home only a parasite.


Sir Martin Conway writes:

He (Dürer) enjoyed Venice; he liked the Italians; he was oppressed with orders for work; the climate suited him, and the warm sun was a pleasant contrast to the snows and frost of a Franconian winter. But Dürer’s German heart was true; its truth was the secret of his success…. The syren voice of Italy charmed to their destruction most Germans who listened to it. Brought face to face with the Italian Ideal of Grace, they one after another abandoned for it the Ideal of Strength peculiarly their own.

We do not resort to these arguments to approve Holbein or Van Dyck for their long residence in England. I am not sure how much false sentiment inspired Thausing when he first praised Dürer in this strain; but I must confess I suspect it was no little. I incline to think that the best country for an artist is not always the one he was born in, but often that one where his art finds the best conditions to foster it. We do not honour Dürer by supposing that he would have been among that majority of Dutch and German artists who, weaker than Roger van der Weyden and Burgkmair, returned from Italy injured and enfeebled; even if he had passed the greater portion of his life with her syren voice in his ears.

Dürer could not bring himself to undergo for art’s sake what Michael Angelo endured; years of exile from a beloved native city, and, still worse, years of exile from the most congenial spiritual atmosphere. Nevertheless, we must remember that the difference of language would have made life in Venice for Dürer a much more complete exile than life in Verona was for Dante, or life in Rome for Michael Angelo. So he did not share the patronage and generous recognition which gave Titian such a splendid opportunity. He ceased for a time at least to be a gentleman to become a hanger-on, a parasite once more. At Antwerp he once more was met by the same generosity and recognition only to refuse again to accept it as a gift for life and return to his beloved Nuremberg, where it is true his position continually improved, though it never equalled what had been offered at Venice and Antwerp.


The tone of some of the pleasantries in these letters may rather astonish good people who, having accepted the fact that Dürer was a religious man, have at once given him the tone and address of a meeting of churchwardens, if they have not conjured up a vision of him in a frock coat. “Things are what they are,” said Bishop Butler, and so are women; boys will be boys. The distinctive functions of the two sexes were in those days kept more in view if not more in mind than is the case to-day. The fashions in dress and in deportment were particularly frank upon this point, especially for the young. One may allow as much as is desired for the corruption of manners produced by the civil and religious mercenaries, soldiers of fortune, and friars. There will always remain a certain truth and propriety, a certain grace and charm in those costumes and that deportment, as also in the freedom of jest which characterises even the most modest of Shakespeare’s heroines; and under the influence of their spell we shall feel that all has not been gain in the change that has gradually been operated. No doubt virtue is a victory over nature, and chastity a refinement; but among conquerors some are easy and good-natured, others tactless, awkward, insulting; and among the chaste some are fearless and enjoy the freedom which courage and clear conscience give, others timid and suffer the oppression of their fears. Even among sinners some make the best of weaknesses and redeem them a great deal more than half, while others magnify smaller faults by lack of self-possession till they are an insupportable nuisance. We may well admit that from the successes of those days, those who succeed to our delight to-day may glean additional attractions.


We know that Dürer stopped on at Venice into the year 1507, by a note which he made in a copy of Euclid, now in the library at Wolfenbüttel. “This book have I bought at Venice for a ducat in the year 1507. Albrecht Dürer”; and by another stray note we learn the state of his worldly affairs on his return.

The following is my property, which I have with difficulty acquired by the labour of my hand, for I have had no opportunity of great gain. I have moreover suffered much loss by lending what was not repaid me, and by apprentices who never paid their fees, and one died at Rome whereby I lost my wares.

In the thirteenth year of my wedlock (Le., 1507-8) I have paid great debts with what I earned at Venice. I possess fairly good household furniture, good clothes, chests, some good pewter vessels, good materials for my work, bedding and cupboards, and good colours worth 100 florins Rhenish.

The wares that Dürer lost in Rome were doubtless chiefly woodcuts and engravings which his prentice had taken to sell during his _wanderjahre_, as Dürer himself during his own had very likely sold prints for Wolgemut. One of the reasons which had taken him to Venice may have been to summon Marc Antonio before the Signoria, for having copied not only his engravings, but the monogram with which he signed them; in any case he obtained a decree defending him against such artistic forgery. Dürer’s most steady resource seems to have been the sale of prints; it is these that his wife had sold in his absence, and in the diary of his journey to the Netherlands there is constant mention of such sales. Nuremberg was very much behind Antwerp or Venice in the price paid for works of art; and the possibilities of such a market as Rome had very likely tempted Dürer to trust his prentice with an unusual quantity of prints. His worldly affairs were neither brilliant nor secure; yet we shall find him tempted on receiving an important commission to spend so much in time and material as to make it impossible for him to realise a profit. We are accustomed to think that these trials were spared to artists in the past by the munificence of patrons: but apart from the fact that patrons often paid only with promises or by granting credit, at Nuremberg there were few magnificent patrons, and its burghers were in no way so generous or so extravagant as those of Venice or Antwerp. In fact, Dürer’s position was very similar to that of the modern artist, who finds little and insufficient patronage, and can make more if he is lucky by the reproduction of his creations for the great public. But Dürer still had one advantage over his fellow-sufferers of to-day–that of being his own publisher. Doubtless portraits were as popular then as nowadays; but if the public taste had not been prostituted by a seductive commercialism to the degree that at present obtains, on the other hand, at Nuremberg at least, the fashion seems to have been very little developed; and most of Dürer’s important portraits seem to have been the result of his sojourns away from home.


[Footnote 15: Thus far the original is in bad Italian.]

[Footnote 16: The retainers of Konz Schott, a neighbouring baron, at one time a conspicuous enemy of Nürnberg.]

[Footnote 17: These words are in Italian in the original.]

[Footnote 18: Prof. Thausing suggests that this “other _Quadro_” is the “Christ among the Doctors” in the Barberini Gallery at Rome–a picture containing seven life-size half-figures or heads, and dated 1506. The inscription states it to have been _opus quinque dierum_. At Brunswick there is an old copy of it. The original studies for the hands are likewise in existence. In Lorenzo Lotto’s Madonna of 1508 in the Borghese Gallery at Rome, the head of St. Onuphrius is taken from the model who sat for the front Pharisee on the left in Dürer’s picture.]

[Footnote 19: A Nürnberg prison.]




Dürer had hitherto occasionally enjoyed the patronage of the wise Elector, Frederick of Saxony, for whom he painted the brilliant _Adoration of the Magi_ in the Uffizi. He was soon to obtain that of Maximilian, but this genial and eccentric emperor proved a fussy patron, as quick to change his mind and to interfere with impossible demands and criticisms, as he was slow to pay and deficient in means for being truly generous. There are a certain number of letters which give a glimpse of Dürer’s relations with his clients; they show him appealing always to the judgment of artists against the ignorant buyer, and giving more than he bargained to give, though thereby he eats up his legitimate profits; lastly, they show him vowing never again to enter upon work so unprofitable, but to give all his time to the creation of engravings and woodcuts. The first is written to Michael Behaim, who died in 1511, and had commissioned him to make a design for a woodcut of his coat of arms.

DEAR MASTER MICHAEL BEHAIM,–I send you back the coat of arms again. Pray let it stay as it is. No one could improve it for you, for I made it artistically and with care. Those who see it and understand such matters will tell you so. If the leafwork on the helm were tossed up backward, it would hide the fillet. Your humble servant, ALBRECHT DÜRER.

[Illustration: Photograph J. Lowy–THE ADORATION OF THE TRINITY, 1511–From the painting at Vienna]

The other letters concern the lost _Coronation of the Virgin_, the centre panel of an altar-piece of which the wings are still at Frankfurt, of which town Jacob Heller, who commissioned it, was a burgher. They were to be studio work, and are supposed to be chiefly due to Dürer’s brother Hans. There is, however, one picture extant which gives an idea of the execution of the missing centre panel, the _Holy Trinity and All Saints_ at Vienna; which, in spite of his vow never to do such work again, was commenced shortly after the _Coronation_, and for a Nuremberg patron. How much he was paid for it is not known; but it cannot have been a really adequate sum, as towards the end of his life he writes to the Nuremberg Council, “I have not received from people in this town work worth five hundred florins, truly a trifling and ridiculous sum, and not the fifth part of that has been profit.” The preceding picture, referred to in the first letters, is the _Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand by Sapor II_. All three pictures were signed, like the _Feast of the Rose Garlands_ by little finely-dressed portraits of the painter.

NÜRNBERG, _August_ 28, 1507.

I did not want to receive any money in advance on it till I began to paint it, which, if God will, shall be the next thing after the Prince’s work;[20] for I prefer not to begin too many things at once and then I do not become wearied. The Prince too will not be kept waiting, as he would be if I were to paint his and your pictures at the same time, as I had intended. At all events have confidence in me, for, so far as God permits, I will yet according to my power make something that not many men can equal.

Now many good nights to you. Given at Nürnberg on Augustine’s day, 1507.


* * * * *

NÜRNBERG, March 19, _1508_.

Dear Herr Jacob Heller. In a fortnight I shall be ready with Duke Friedrich’s work; after that I shall begin yours, and, as my custom is, I will not paint any other picture till it is finished. I will be sure carefully to paint the middle panel with my own hand; apart from that, the outer sides of the wings are already sketched in–they will be in stone colour; I have also had the ground laid. So much for news.

I wish you could see my gracious Lord’s picture; I think it would please you. I have worked at it straight on for a year and gained very little by it; for I only get 280 Rhenish gulden for it, and I have spent all that in the time.

* * * * *

NÜRNBERG, _August 24, 1508_.

Now I commend myself to you. I want you also to know that in all my days I have never begun any work that pleased me better than this picture of yours which I am painting. Till I finish it I will not do any other work; I am only sorry that the winter will so soon come upon me. The days grow so short that one cannot do much.

I have still one thing to ask you; it is about the _MADONNA_[21] that you saw at my house; if you know of any one near you who wants a picture pray offer it to him. If a proper frame was put to it, it would be a beautiful picture, and you know that it is nicely done. I will let you have it cheap. I would not take less than fifty florins to paint one like it. As it stands finished in the house it might be damaged for me, so I would give you full power to sell it for me cheap for thirty florins–indeed, rather than that it should not be sold I would even let it go for twenty-five florins. I have certainly lost much food over it.

* * * * *

Nürnberg, _November_ 4, 1508.

I am justly surprised at what you say in it about my last letter: seeing that you can accuse me of not holding to my promises to you. From such a slander each and everyone exempts me, for I bear myself, I trust, so as to take my stand amongst other straightforward men. Besides I know well what I have written and promised to you, and you know that in my cousin’s house I refused to promise you to make a good thing, because I cannot. But to this I did pledge myself, that I would make something for you that not many men can. Now I have given such exceeding pains to your picture, that I was led to send you the aforesaid letter. I know that when the picture is finished all artists will be well pleased with it. It will not be valued at less than 300 florins. I would not paint another like it for three times the price agreed, for I neglect myself for it, suffer loss, and earn anything but thanks from you.

You further reproach me with having promised you that I would paint your picture with the greatest possible care that ever I could. That I certainly never said, or if I did I was out of my senses, for in my whole lifetime I should scarcely finish it. With such extraordinary care I can hardly finish a face in half a year; now your picture contains fully 100 faces, not reckoning the drapery and landscape and other things in it. Besides, who ever heard of making such a work for an altar-piece? no one could see it. But I think it was thus that I wrote to you–that I would paint the picture with great or more than ordinary pains because of the time which you waited for me.

You need not look about for a purchaser for my Madonna, for the Bishop of Breslau has given me seventy-two florins for it, so I have sold it well. I commend myself to you. Given at Nürnberg in the year 1508, on the Sunday after All Saints’ Day.


* * * * *

NÜRNBERG, _March_ 21, 1509.

I only care for praise from those who are competent to judge; and if Martin Hess praises it to you, that may give you the more confidence. You might also inquire from some of your friends who have seen it; they will tell you how it is done. And if you do not like the picture when you see it, I will keep it myself, for I have been begged to sell it and make you another. But be that far from me! I will right honourably hold with you to that which I have promised, taking you, as I do, for an upright man.

* * * * *

NÜRNBERG, _July_ 10, 1509.

As you go on to say that if you had not bargained with me for the picture you would never do so now, and that I may keep it–I return you this answer: to retain your friendship, if I had to suffer loss by the picture, I would have done so, but now since you regret the whole business and provoke me to keep the picture I will do so, and that gladly, for I know how to get 100 florins more for it than you would have given me. In future I would not take 400 florins to paint another such as this.


NÜRNBERG, _July_ 24, 1509. DEAR HERR HELLER, I have read the letter which you addressed to me. You write that you did not mean to decline taking the picture from me. To that I can only say that I don’t understand what you do mean. When you write that if you had not ordered the picture you would not make the bargain again, and that I may keep it as long as I like and so on–I can only think that you have repented of the whole business, so I gave you my answer in my last letter.

But, at Hans Imhof’s persuasion, and having regard to the fact that you ordered the picture of me, and also because I should prefer it to find a place at Frankfurt rather than anywhere else, I have consented to send it to you for 100 florins less than it might well have brought me.

I am reckoning that I shall thus render you a pleasing service; otherwise I know well how I could draw far greater pecuniary advantage from it, but your friendship is dearer to me than any such trifling sum of money. I trust however that you would not wish me to suffer loss over it when you are better off than I. Make therefore your own arrangements and commands. Given at Nürnberg on Wine-Tuesday before James’. ALBRECHT DÜRER.

NÜRNBERG, _August 26_, 1509. First my willing service to you, dear Herr Jacob Heller. In accordance with your last letter I am sending the picture well packed and seen to in all needful points. I have handed it over to Hans Imhof and he has paid me another 100 florins. Yet believe me, on my honour, I am still out of pocket over it besides losing the time which I have bestowed upon it. Here in Nürnberg they were ready to give 300 florins for it, which extra 100 florins would have done very nicely for me had I not preferred to please and serve you by sending you the picture. For I value the keeping of your friendship at more than 100 florins. I would also rather have this painting at Frankfurt than anywhere else in all Germany.

If you think that I have behaved unfairly in not leaving the payment to your own free-will, you must bear in mind that this would not have happened if you had not written by Hans Imhof that I might keep the picture as long as I liked. I should otherwise gladly have left it to you even if thereby I had suffered a greater loss still. My impression of you is that, supposing I had promised to make you something for about ten florins and it cost me twenty, you yourself would not wish me to lose by it. So pray be content with the fact that I took 100 florins less from you than I might have got for the picture–for I tell you that they wanted to take it from me, so to speak, by force.

I have painted it with great care, as you will see, using none but the best colours I could get. It is painted with good ultramarine under, and over, and over that again, some five or six times; and then after it was finished I painted it again twice over so that it may last a long time. If it is kept clean I know it will remain bright and fresh 500 years, for it is not done as men are wont to paint. So have it kept clean and don’t let it be touched or sprinkled with holy water. I feel sure it will not be criticised, or only for the purpose of annoying me; and I answer for it it will please you well. No one shall ever compel me to paint a picture again with so much labour. Herr Georg Tausy himself besought me to paint him a Madonna in a landscape with the same care and of the same size as this picture, and he would give me 400 florins for it. That I flatly refused to do, for it would have made a beggar of me. Of ordinary pictures I will in a year paint a pile which no one would believe it possible for one man to do in the time. But very careful nicety does not pay. So henceforth I shall stick to my engraving, and had I done so before I should to-day have been a richer man by 1000 florins.

I may tell you also that, at my own expense, I have had for the middle panel a new frame made which has cost me more than six florins. The old one I have broken off, for the joiner had made it roughly; but I have not had the other fastened on, for you wished it not to be. It would be a very good thing to have the rims screwed on so that the picture may not be shaken.

If anyone wants to see it, let it hang forward two or three finger breadths, for then the light is good to see it by. And when I come over to you, say in one, two, or three years’ time, if the picture is properly dry, it must be taken down and I will varnish it over anew with some excellent varnish, which no one else can make; it will then last 100 years longer than it would before. But don’t let anybody else varnish it, for all other varnishes are yellow, and the picture would be ruined for you. And if a thing, on which I have spent more than a year’s work, were ruined it would be grief to me. When you have it set up be present yourself to see that it gets no harm. Deal carefully with it, for you will hear from your own and from foreign painters how it is done.

Give my greeting to your painter Martin Hess. My wife asks you for a _Trinkgeld_, but that is as you please, I screw you no higher, &c. And now I hold myself commended to you. Read by the sense, for I write in haste. Given at Nürnberg on Sunday after Bartholomew’s, 1509. ALBRECHT DÜRER.

NÜRNBERG, _October 12_, 1509.

DEAR HERR JACOB HELLER, I am glad to hear that my picture pleases you, so that my labour has not been bestowed in vain. I am also happy that you are content about the payment–and that rightly, for I could have got 100 florins more for it than you have given me. But I preferred to let you have it, hoping, as I do, thereby to retain you as my friend down in your parts.

My wife thanks you very much for the present you have made her; she will wear it in your honour. My young brother also thanks you for the two florins _Trinkgeld_ you sent him. And now I too thank you myself for all the honour &c. In reply to your question how the picture should be adorned I send you a slight design of what I should do if it were mine, but you must do what you like. Now, many happy times to you. Given on Friday before Gall’s, 1509. ALBRECHT DÜRER.

Dürer must have commenced the All Saints picture almost immediately after having finished Heller’s _Coronation of the Virgin_. Perhaps he had practically accepted the commission from Matthsus Landauer before he wrote to Heller that he would never again undertake a picture with so much work and labour in it, for he afterwards was as good as his word. This new work was for the chapel of an almshouse founded by Landauer and Erasmus Schiltkrot for twelve old men citizens of Nuremberg. The original frame designed by Dürer is now in the Germanic Museum, though a copy has replaced the picture. After the completion of the _Trinity and All Saints_, Dürer apparently carried out his threat and gave up painting for a dozen years, devoting his energies more especially to a magnificent series of engravings on copper. He also completed his series of wood engravings and published them with text, and produced a number of single cuts, many of them among his very best, like the _Assumption of the Magdalen_, and the _St. Christopher_, here reproduced.

[Illustration: ST. CHRISTOPHER Woodcut, B. 103]

[Illustration: THE ASSUMPTION OF THE MAGDALEN Woodcut, B. 121]


In 1514 his mother died. He has recounted her death twice over, as he did that of his father already cited; for the single surviving leaf of the “other book” happens to contain this also. In the briefer chronicle he says:

Two years after my Father’s death (i.e., 1504) I took my Mother into my house, for she had nothing more to live upon. So she dwelt with me till the year 1513, as they reckon it; when, early one Tuesday morning, she was taken suddenly and deadly ill, and thus she lay a whole year long. And a whole year after the day she was first taken ill, she received the holy sacraments and christianly passed away two hours before nightfall–it was on a Tuesday, the 17th day of May in the year 1514. I said the prayers for her myself. God Almighty be gracious to her.

The account in the “other book” is more circumstantial:

Now you must know that, in the year 1513, on a Tuesday before Rogation week, my poor afflicted Mother, whom two years after my Father’s death, as she was quite poor, I took into my house, and after she had lived nine years with me, was one morning suddenly taken so deadly ill that we broke into her chamber; otherwise, as she could not open, we had not been able to come to her. So we carried her into a room downstairs and she received both sacraments, for every one thought she would die, because ever since my Father’s death she had never been in good health.

Her most frequent habit was to go much to the church. She always upbraided me well if I did not do right, and she was ever in great anxiety about my sins and those of my brother. And if I went out or in her saying was always, “Go in the name of Christ.” She constantly gave us holy admonitions with deep earnestness and she always had great thought for our souls’ health. I cannot enough praise her good works and the compassion she showed to all, as well as her high character.

This my pious Mother bare and brought up eighteen children; she often had the plague and many other severe and strange illnesses, and she suffered great poverty, scorn, contempt, mocking words, terrors, and great adversities. Yet she bore no malice.

In 1514 (as they reckon it), on a Tuesday–it was the 17th day of May–two hours before nightfall and more than a year after the above-mentioned day in which she was taken ill, my Mother, Barbara Dürer, christianly passed away, with all the sacraments, absolved by papal power from pain and sin. But she first–gave me her blessing and wished me the peace of God, exhorting me very beautifully to keep myself from sin. She asked also to drink S. John’s blessing, which she then did.

She feared Death much, but she said that to come before God she feared not. Also she died hard, and I marked that she saw something dreadful, for she asked for the holy-water, although, for a long time, she had not spoken. Immediately afterwards her eyes closed over. I saw also how Death smote her two great strokes to the heart, and how she closed mouth and eyes and departed with pain. I repeated to her the prayers. I felt so grieved for her that I cannot express it. God be merciful to her.

To speak of God was ever her greatest delight, and gladly she beheld the honour of God. She was in her sixty-third year when she died and I have buried her honourably according to my means.

[Illustration: “1514, on Oculi Sunday (March 19). This is Albrecht Dürer’s mother; she was 63 years of age.” After her death he added in ink, “And departed this life in the year 1514 on Tuesday Holy Cross Day (May 16) at two o’clock in the night” Charcoal-drawing. Royal Print Room, Berlin]

God, the Lord, grant me that I too may attain a happy end, and that God with his heavenly host, my Father, Mother, relations, and friends may come to my death. And may God Almighty give unto us eternal life. Amen.

And in her death she looked much sweeter than when she was still alive.


Such was the home life of this great artist; and from homes presenting variations on this type proceeded probably all the giants of the Renaissance, whose work we think so surpasses in effort, in scope, and in efficiency, all that has been achieved since. This Christianity was unreformed; it existed side by side with dissolute monasteries and worldly cynical prelates, surrounded by sordid hucksters and brutal soldiery. Turn to Erasmus’ portrait of Dean Colet, and we see that it existed in London, among the burghers, even in the household of a Lord Mayor. We are almost forced on the reflection that nothing that has succeeded to it has produced men equal to those who sprang immediately out of it.

However much and however justly the assurance of Christian assertion in the realm of theory may be condemned, the success of the Christian life, wherever it has approached a conscientious realisation, stands out among the multitudinous forms of its corruption; and those who catch sight of it are almost bound to exclaim in the spirit of Shakespeare’s:

“How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world.”

I have heard a Royal Academician remark how even the poorest copies and reproductions of the masterpieces of Greek sculpture retain something of the charm and dignity of the original: whereas the quality of modern work is quickly lost in a reduction or even in a cast. I believe this may be best explained by the fact that the chief research of the Greek artist was to establish a beautiful proportion between the parts and the whole; and that fidelity to nature, dexterity of execution, the symbolism of the given subject, and even the finish of the surfaces, were always when necessary sacrificed to this. Whereas in modern work, even when the proportions of the whole are considered, which is rarely the case, they are almost without exception treated as secondary to one or more of these other qualities. Is it not possible that Jesus in his life laid down a proportion, similar to that of Greek masterpieces for the body, between the efforts and intentions which create the soul and pour forth its influence?–a proportion which, when it has been once thoroughly apprehended, may be subtly varied to suit new circumstances, and produce a similar harmony in spheres of activity with which Jesus himself had not even a distant connection? We often find that the rudest copies from copies of his actual life are like the biscuit china Venus of Milo sold by the Italian pedlar, which still dimly reflects the main beauties of the marble in the Louvre.


In 1512 Kaiser Maximilian came to Nuremberg, and soon afterward Dürer began working for him. The employment he found for the greatest artist north of the Alps was sufficiently ludicrous; and perhaps Dürer showed that he felt this, by treating the major portion as studio work; though, no doubt, the impatience of his imperial patron in a measure necessitated the employment of many aids.

It is difficult to do justice to the fine qualities of Maximilian. Perhaps he was not really so eccentric as he seems. The oddity of his doings and sayings may be perhaps more properly attributed to his having been a thorough German. The genial men of that nation, even to-day and since it has come more into line in point of culture with France and England, are apt to have a something ludicrous or fantastic clinging to them; even Goethe did not wholly escape. Maximilian was strong in body and in mind, and brimming over with life and interest. We are told that when a young man he climbed the tower of Ulm Cathedral by the help of the iron rings that served to hold the torches by which it was illuminated on high days and holidays. Again we read: “A secretary had embezzled 3000 gulden. Maximilian sent for him and asked what should be done to a confidential servant who had robbed his master. The secretary recommended the gallows. ‘Nay, nay,’ the Emperor said, and tapped him on the shoulder, ‘I cannot spare you yet'”; an anecdote which reveals more good sense and a larger humanity than either monarchs or others are apt to have at hand on such vexing occasions. Thausing says admirably, “A happy imagination and a great idea of his exalted position made up to him for any want of success in his many wars and political negotiations,” and elsewhere calls him the last of the “nomadic emperors,” who spent their lives travelling from palace to palace and from city to city, beseeching, cajoling, or threatening their subjects into obedience. He himself said, “I am a king of kings. If I give an order to the princes of the empire, they obey if they please, if they do not please they disobey.” He was even then called “the last of the knights,” because he had an amateurish passion for a chivalry that was already gone, and was constantly attempting to revive its costumes and ordinances. Then, like certain of the Pharaohs of Egypt, he was pleased to read of, and see illustrated by brush and graver, victories he had never won, and events in which he had not shone. He himself dictated or planned out those wonderful lives or allegories of a life which might have been his. It was on such a work of futile self-glorification that he now wished to employ Dürer.

The novelty of the art of printing, and the convenience to a nomadic emperor of a monument that could be rolled up, suggested the form of this last absurdity–a monster woodcut in 92 blocks which, when joined together, produced a picture 9 feet by 10, representing what had at first been intended as an imitation of a Roman triumphal arch; but so much information about so many more or less dubious ancestors, &c., had to be conveyed by quaint and conceited inventions, that in the end it was rather comparable to the confusion of a Juggernaut car, which never-the-less imposes by a barbarous wealth and magnificence of fantastic detail. And to this was to be joined another monster, representing on several yards of paper a triumphal procession of the emperor, escorted by his family, and the virtues of himself and ancestors, &c. Such is fortune’s malice that Dürer, who alone or almost alone had conceived of the simplicity of true dignity and the beauty of choice proportions and propriety, should have been called upon by his only royal patron to superintend a production wherein the rank and flaccid taste of the time ran riot. The absurdity, barbarism, and grotesque quaintness of this monument to vanity cannot be laid exclusively at Maximilian’s door; for the architecture, particularly of the fountains, in Altdorfer’s or Manuel’s designs, and in those of many others, reveals a like wantonness in delighted elaboration of the impossible and unstructural. The scholars and pedantic posturers who surrounded the emperor no doubt improved and abetted. Probably it was this Juggernaut element, inherited from the Gothic gargoyle, which Goethe censured when he said that “Dürer was retarded by a gloomy fantasy devoid of form or foundation.” Perhaps this was written at a period when the great critic was touched with that resentment against the Middle Ages begotten by the feeling that his own art was still encumbered by its irrational and confused fantasy. We who certainly are able to take a more ample view of Dürer’s situation in the art of his times, see that he is rather characterised by an effort which lay in exactly the same direction as that of Goethe’s own; and while sympathising with the irritation expressed, can also admire the great engraver for having freed himself in so large a degree from the influence of fantasy “devoid of form and foundation,” even as the justest Shakespearean criticism admires the degree in which the author of Othello freed himself from Elizabethan conceits. It is difficult to appreciate the difference for a great artist in having the general taste with rather than against the purer tendencies of his art. Probably the Greeks and certain Italians owe their freedom from eccentricity, in a very large measure, to this cause. But I intend to treat these questions more at length in dealing with Dürer’s character as an artist and creator. It was necessary to touch on the subject here, because Maximilian embodies the peculiar and fantastic aftergrowth, which sprouted up in some northern minds from the old stumps remaining from the great mediaeval forest of thoughts and sentiments which had gradually fallen into decay. All around, even in the same minds, waved the saplings of the New Birth when these old stumps put forth their so fantastic second youth, seeming for a time to share in the new vigour, though they were never to attain expansion and maturity.


Thausing shrewdly remarks, “This love of fame and naïve delight in the glorification of his own person are further proofs that the Emperor Max was the true child of his age. No one was so akin to him in this respect as the painter of his choice, Albert Dürer.” This last is a reference to those strutting, finely-dressed portraits of the artist which stand beside the entablatures bearing his name, that of his birthplace, the date, &c., in four out of the five most elaborate pictures which Dürer painted. But I would like to suggest that probably this apparent resemblance to his royal patron is not thus altogether well accounted for. May there not have been something of Homer’s invocation of his Muse, or of that sincerity which makes Dante play such a large part in the “Divine Comedy”?–something resembling the ninth verse of the Apocalypse: “I John, who also am your brother and companion in tribulation … was in the isle that is called Patmos … and heard behind me a great voice as of a trumpet, saying….” Those little strutting portraits of himself sprung, perhaps, out of this relation to those about him of the man by native gift very superior, who is not made contemptuous or inclined to emphasise his isolation, but who is ever ready to say, “It is I, be not afraid.” The man who painted and conceived this is the man you know, whom you have admired because he carried his fine clothes so well in your streets. Here I am even in the midst of this massacre of saints, I have conceived it all and taken a whole year to elaborate it; and since you see me looking so cool and well-dressed in the midst of it, you need not be offended or overwhelmed. Such is ever the naïvety of great souls among those whose culture is primitive. It is like the boasted bravery of the eldest among little children, wholly an act of kindness and consideration, not a selfish vaunt. That they should be admired and trusted is for them a foregone conclusion; and when they call on that admiration and trust, they do it merely for the sake of those whom they would encourage and console, for whose sakes they will even hide whatever in them is really unworthy of such admiration and such trust.

We do not easily realise the corporate character of life in those days. Very much that seems to us quaint and absurd drew proper significance from the practical solidarity that then obtained; what appears to us a strange vanity or parade may have appeared to them respect for the guild, the town, the country to which they belonged. Dürer signed “Noricus,”–of Nuremberg;–and preferred its little lucrative citizenship to those more remunerative offered by Venice and Antwerp. “Let all the world behold how fine the artist of Nuremberg is.” Just as he says, “God gave me diligence,” so it seems natural to him to attribute a large half of his fame and glory to his native town. In many respects the great man of those days felt less individual than an ordinary man does now; for classes did not so merge one into the other, and their character was more distinct and authoritative. The little portrait of himself added to those wonderful _tours-de-force_ made them something that belonged to Nuremberg and to Germans. Even so it would be with some treasure cup, all gold and jewels, belonging to a village schoolmaster, which none of his neighbours dared look at save in his presence; for he was the son of a great baron whom his elder brothers robbed of everything except this, and his presence among them alone made them able to feel that it really belonged to their village, was theirs in a fashion. These suggestions will not, I think, appear fantastic to those who ponder on the apparently vainglorious address of much of Dürer’s work, and keep in mind such a passage from his writings as this:

“I would gladly give everything I know to the light, for the good of cunning students who prize such art more highly than silver and gold. I further admonish all who have any knowledge in these matters that they write it down. Do it truly and plainly, not toilsomely and at great length, for the sake of those who seek and are glad to learn, to the great honour of God and your own praise. If I then set something burning, and ye all add to it skilful furthering, a blaze may in time arise therefrom which shall shine throughout the whole world.”[22]

But still, even if such considerations may bring many to accept my explanation of this contrast, I do not want to over-insist on it. I think that wherever men have been superior in character, as well as in gift or rank, to those about them, something of this spirit of the good eldest child in a family is bound to be manifested. But just as such a child may be veritably boastful and vain at other times,–however purely now and then, in crises of apparent difficulty or danger, its vaunt and strut may spring from real kindness and a considerate wish to inspire courage in the younger and weaker;–so doubtless there was a haughtiness, sometimes a fault, in Dürer as in Milton.


But we have been led a long way from Kaiser Max and his portable monument. The reader will re-picture how the court arrived at Nuremberg like a troop of actors, whose performance was really their life, and was taken quite seriously and admired heartily by the good and solid burghers. This old comedy, often farce, entitled “The Importance of Authority,” is no longer played with such a telling make-up, or with such showy properties as formerly, but is still as popular as ever; as we Londoners know, since the last few years have given us perhaps an over-dose of processions, illuminations, &c. &c. In this case the chief actors in the show piece were men of mark of an exceptionally entertaining character; with many of them Dürer and Pirkheimer were soon on the best of terms.

Foremost, Johann Stabius, the companion of the Emperor for sixteen years without intermission in war and in peace, who was associated with Dürer to provide the written accompaniment for the monument; a literary jack-of-all-trades of ready wit and lively presence. A contemporary records: “The emperor took constant pleasure in the strange things which Stabius devised, and esteemed him so highly that he instituted a new chair of Astronomy and Mathematics for him at Vienna,” in the Collegium Poetarum et Mathematicorum founded in the year 1501, under the presidency of Conrad Celtes.

In all probability there would have been besides the learned protonotary of the supreme court, Ulrich Varenbuler, often mentioned as a friend in the letters of Erasmus and Pirkheimer, and the subject of the largest of Dürer’s portrait woodcuts, which shows him to us some ten years later, still a handsome trenchant personality, with a liking for fine clothes, and the self-reliant expression of a man who is conscious that the thought he takes for the morrow is not likely to be in vain.

It may be that Dürer then met for the first time too the Imperial architect, Johannes Tscherte, for whom he afterwards drew two armillary spheres, to take the place of those on which he had cast ridicule; for Pirkheimer wrote to Tscherte: “I wish you could have heard how Albert Dürer spoke to me about your plate, in which there is not one good stroke, and laughed at me. What honour it will do us when it makes its appearance in Italy, and the clever painters there see it!” To which Tscherte replied: “Albert Dürer knows me well, he is also well aware that I love art, though I am no expert at it; let him if he likes despise my plate, I never pretended it was a work of art.” And in a later letter he speaks “of the armillary spheres drawn by our common friend Albert Dürer.” He was one of those who helped Dürer in his mathematical and geometrical studies; and he, like Pirkheimer, dedicated books to him. Although the mathematics of those times are hardly considered seriously nowadays, they then ranked with verse-making as a polite accomplishment, and had all the charm of novelty. Dürer, no doubt, had some gift that way, as he seems to have made a hobby of them during many years. Besides those who came in the Imperial troop, Dürer had many opportunities of meeting men of this kind, for such were constantly passing through Nuremberg. Dürer has left us what are evidently portraits of some whose names are lost: of others we have both name and likeness, among them the English ambassador, Lord Morley.

In 1515 “Rafahel de’ Urbin, who is held in such high esteem by the Pope, he made these naked figures and sent them to Albrecht Dürer at Nuremberg to show him his hand.” This shows us that travellers through Nuremberg sometimes brought with them something of the breath of the great Renaissance in Italy. The drawing, which bears the above inscription in Dürer’s own handwriting on the back, is a fine one in red sanguine, representing the same male model in two different poses, in the Albertina. Raphael had, we are told by Lodovico Dolce, drawings, engravings, and woodcuts of Dürer’s hanging in his studio; and Vasari tells us he said: “If Dürer had been acquainted with the antique he would have surpassed us all.” The Nuremberg master, in return for the drawing, sent a portrait of himself to Raphael, which has unfortunately been lost. There appears to have been quite a rage for Dürer’s work in Italy, and above all at Rome: we know that it provoked Michael Angelo to remonstrate; probably on many lips it was merely a vaunt of superior knowledge or taste, as rapture over the conjectural friends or aids of a great quatrocentist is to-day. The tokens of esteem which he won from distinguished travellers, and this drawing which reached him testifying to the interest and friendship felt for him by the Italian whose fame was most widespread, must have been full of encouragement, and have compensated in some measure for the feeling he had that he was only a hanger-on at Nuremberg, though he might still have been “a gentleman” in Venice. Yet Nuremberg itself furnished many desirable or notable acquaintances. There was Dürer’s neighbour, the jurist, Lazarus Spengler; later the most prominent reformer in Nuremberg, who in 1520 dedicated to him his “Exhortation and Instruction towards the leading of a virtuous life,” addressing him as “his particular and confidential friend and brother,” whom he considers, “without any flattery, to be a man of understanding, inclined to honesty and every virtue, who has often in our daily familiar intercourse been to me in no common degree a pattern and an example to a more circumspect way of life;” whom, finally, he asks to improve his little book to the best of his ability. Dürer had before this rendered him service in designing his coat of arms for a woodcut and furnishing a frontispiece to his translation of Eusebius’ “Life of St. Jerome.” He was, moreover, a poet, author of “an often-translated song”; he wrote verses to discourage Dürer from spending his time in producing the doggerel rhymes which at one time he was moved to attempt,–framing poems of didactic import, and publishing one or two on separate sheets with a woodcut at the top, in spite of the inappreciative reception given to them by Spengler and Pirkheimer. Besides Spengler, there were “Christopher Kress, a soldier, a traveller, and a town councillor;” and Caspar Nützel, of one of the oldest families, and Captain-general of the town bands. Both of these went with Dürer to the Diet at Augsburg in 1518. The martial Paumgartners were two brothers for whom Dürer painted the early triptych at Munich (see page 204). One of them is supposed to figure as St. George in the All Saints picture. Lastly, there were the Imhoffs, the merchant princes of Nuremberg, as the Fuggers were at Augsburg. A son of the family married Felicitas, Pirkheimer’s favourite daughter, in 1515, and Dürer stood godfather to their little Hieronymus in 1518. It is easy to imagine that there was many a supper and dinner, when a thousand strange subjects were even more strangely discussed; when Pirkheimer now made them roar with a hazardous joke, or again dumbfounded them with Greek quotations pompously done into German, or made their flesh creep and the superstitions of their race stir in them by mysteriously enlarging on his astrological lore,–for to his many weaknesses he added this, which was then scarcely recognised as one.


In spite of all his wealthy and influential friends, Dürer found it difficult to get the emperor to indemnify him for his labours, though the Town Council had received a royal mandate as early as 1512 from Landau. The following is an extract:

Whereas our and the Empire’s trusty Albrecht Dürer has devoted much zeal to the drawings he has made for us at our command, and has promised henceforth ever to do the like, whereat we have received particular pleasure; and whereas we are informed on all hands that the said Dürer is famous in the art of painting before all other Masters: we have therefore felt ourself moved, to further him with our especial grace, and we accordingly desire you with earnest solicitude, for the affection you bear us, to make the said Dürer free of all town imposts, having regard to our grace and to his famous art, which should fairly turn to his profit with you, &c.

The town councillors sent some of their principal members to treat with Dürer, and he resigned his claim “in order to honour the said councillors and to maintain their privileges, usages, and rights.” In 1515 the drawings for the “Gate of Honour” were finished, and Dürer began to press again for pay. Stabius had promised to speak for him, but nothing had come of it. Albrecht thought Christoph Kress could be of more avail; so he wrote to him:

(No date, but certainly 1515). DEAR HERR KRESS, The first thing I have to ask you is to find out from Herr Stabius whether he has done anything in my business with his Imperial Majesty, and how it stands. Let me know this in the next letter you write to my Lords. Should it happen that Herr Stabius has made no move in the matter, … Point out in particular to his Imperial Majesty that I have served his Majesty for three years, spending my own money in so doing, and if I had not been diligent the ornamental work would have been nowise so successfully finished. I therefore pray his Imperial Majesty to recompense me with the 100 florins–all which you know well how to do. You must know also that I made many other drawings for his Majesty besides the “Triumph.”

Not long after this, Maximilian, by a _Privilegium_ (dated Innsbruck, September 6, 1515), settled an annual pension of 100 florins on the artist.

We Maximilian, by God’s grace, &c., make openly known by this letter for ourself and our successors in the Empire, and to each and every one to wit, that we have regarded and considered the art, skill, and intelligence for which our and the Empire’s trusty and well-beloved Albrecht Dürer has been praised before us, and likewise the pleasing, honest and useful services which he has often and willingly done for us and the Holy Empire and also for our own person in many ways, and which he still daily does and henceforward may and shall do: and that we therefore, of set purpose, after mature deliberation, and with the full knowledge of ourself and the Princes and Estates of the Empire, have graciously promised and granted to this same Dürer what we herewith and by virtue of this letter make known:

_That is to say_, that one hundred florins Rhenish shall be yielded, given, and paid by the honourable, our and the Empire’s trusty and well-beloved Burgomaster and Council of the town of Nürnberg and their successors unto the said Albrecht Dürer, against his quittance, all his life long and no longer, yearly and in every year, on our behalf, out of the customary town contributions which the said Burgomaster and Council of the town of Nürnberg are bound to yield and pay, yearly and in every year, into our Treasury. And whatever the said Burgomaster and Council of the town of Nürnberg and their successors shall yield, give, and pay to the said Albrecht Dürer, as stands written above, against his quittance, the same sum shall be accepted and reckoned to them as paid and yielded for the customary town contributions which they, as stands written above, are bound to pay into our Treasury, as if they had paid the same into our own hands and received our quittance therefor, and no harm or detriment shall in anywise be done therefor unto them or their successors by us or our successors in the Empire. Whereof this letter, sealed with our affixed seal, is witness.

Given, &c.

Thus Dürer became Court painter: in return for his salary he had to work. As soon as the “Gate of Honour” was finished, there was the “Car of Triumph” to be taken in hand, the first sketch for it (now in the Albertina) having already been made about 1514-15. In December 1514 Schönsperger, the Augsburg printer, printed a splendid “Book of Hours” for Maximilian. The type was specially made for the book, and only a few copies were printed, some on fine vellum with large margins. One copy which Maximilian intended for his own use was sent to Dürer that he might decorate the margins with pen-drawings in various coloured inks. Of this work there exist forty-three pages by Dürer himself and eight by Cranach at Munich, and at Besançon thirty-five pages by Burgkmair, Altdorfer, Baldung Grien, and Hans Dürer. Marvellously deft and light-handed as are Dürer’s freehand arabesques, embellished by racy sketches of which these borders consist, they are nevertheless touched with a like unsatisfactory character with the other works undertaken for Maximilian, and are almost as far removed from the spirit and performance of the best period for this kind of work, as is the _Triumphal Arch_ from that of Titus.

Dürer was also employed on another woodcut representing a long row of saintly ancestors of this eccentric sovereign. He accompanied Caspar Nützel and Lazarus Spengler, the representatives of Nuremberg, to the Diet of Augsburg, and there made some drawings of his royal patron, on one of which is written, “This is my dear Prince Max, whom I, Albrecht Dürer, drew at Augsburg in his little room upstairs in the palace, in the year 1518, on the Monday after St. John the Baptist’s day.” (_See opposite_.) And Melanchthon narrates that “once Max himself took the charcoal in hand to make his mind clear to his trusty Albert, and was vexed to find that the charcoal kept breaking short in his hand when Dürer said; ‘Most gracious emperor, I would not that your Majesty should draw so well as I do!’ by which he meant, ‘I am practised in this, and it is my province; thou, Emperor, hast harder tasks and another calling.'”

[Illustration: _By permission of Messrs. Braun, Clément & Co. Dornach._–“This is the Emperor Maximilian, whose likeness I, Albrecht Dürer, have taken, at Augsburg, high up in the palace in his little chamber, in the year of Grace 1518, on Monday after St. John the Baptist’s Day” Charcoal-Drawing. Albertina, Vienna]


A charming letter from Charitas Pirkheimer gives us a little sunlit glimpse of the tone of Dürer’s lighter hours.

The prudent and wise Masters Caspar Nützel, Lazarus Spengler, and Albrecht Dürer, for the time being at Augsburg, our gracious Masters and good friends.


As a friendly greeting, prudent, wise, gracious Masters and especially good friends, cousins, and wellwishers, I desire every good thing for you, from the Highest Good. I received with great pleasure your friendly letter and its news of a kind suited to my order, or rather my trade; and I read it with such great devotion that more than once tears ran down my eyes over it–truly rather tears of laughter than of sorrow. I consider it a subject for great thankfulness that, with such important business and so much gaiety on hand, your Wisdoms do not forget me, but find time to instruct me, poor little nun, about the monastic life whereof you now have a clear reflection before your eyes. I conclude from this that doubtless some good spirit drove you, my gracious and dear Masters, to Augsburg, so that you might learn from the example of the free Swabian spirits how to instruct and govern the poor imprisoned sand-bares.[23]

For since our trusty Master Warden (Caspar Nützel), as a lover of the Church, likes to help in a thorough reformation, he should first behold a pattern of holy observance in the Swabian League. Let Master Lazarus Spengler, too, inform himself well about the apostolic mode of common life, so that at the annual audit he may be able to give us and others counsel and guidance, how we may run through everything, that nought remain over. And Master Albrecht Dürer, also, who is such a genius and master at drawing, he may very carefully inspect the stately buildings, and then if some day we want to alter our choir he will know how to give us advice and help in making ample slide-windows (? blinds), so that our eyes may not be quite blinded.

I shall not further trouble you, however, to bring us music to learn to sing by notes, for our beer is now so very sour that I fear the dregs might stick fast among the four reeds or voices, and produce such strange sounds that the dogs would fly out of the church. But I must humbly pray you not quite to wear out your eyes over the black and white magpies, so as no longer to know the little grey wolves at Nürnberg. I have heard much of the sharp-witted Swabians all my life, but it would be well if we learnt more from them, now that they are so wisely labouring with his Imperial Majesty to save the Apostolic life from being done away with. It is easy to see what very different lovers of the Church they are from our Masters here.

Pardon me, my dear and gracious Masters, this my playful letter. It is all done _in caritate–summa summarum_; and the end of it is that I should rejoice at your speedy return in health and happiness with the glad accomplishment of the business committed to you. For this I and my sisters heartily pray God day and night; still we cannot carry it through alone, so I counsel you to entreat the pious and pure hearts (of Augsburg) to sing in high quavers that thereby things may speed well. And now many happy times to you!

Given at Nürnberg on September 3, 1518.

SISTER CHARITAS, unprofitable Abbess of S. Clara’s at Nürnberg.

Dürer returned with a letter to the Town Council of Nürnberg, from which the following extract is taken:

Honourable, trusty, and well-beloved, Whereas you are bound to pay us on next St. Martin’s day year a remainder, to wit 200 florins Rhenish, out of the accustomed town contribution which you are wont to render into our and the Empire’s treasury….We earnestly charge you to deliver and pay the said 200 florins, accepting our quittance therefor, unto our and the Empire’s trusty and well-beloved Albrecht Dürer, our painter, on account of his honest services, willingly rendered to us at our command for our “Car of Triumph” and in other ways; and, at the said time, these 200 florins shall be deducted for you from the accustomed town contribution. Thus you will perform our earnest desire.

Given, &c.

Dürer procured a receipt for the 200 florins, signed by the emperor himself. But before “next St. Martin’s day year,” Maximilian was dead, and the 200 florins no longer his to dispose of, being due to the new Emperor Charles V. The municipal authorities of Nürnberg refused to pay until his Privilegium had been confirmed by Maximilian’s successor.

Dürer wrote the following letter to the Council:

NÜRNBERG, April 27, 1519.

Prudent, honourable and wise, gracious, dear Lords. Your Honours are aware that, at the Diet lately holden by his Imperial Roman Majesty, our most gracious lord of very praiseworthy memory, I obtained a gracious assignment from his Imperial Majesty of 200 florins from the yearly payable town contributions of Nürnberg. This assignment was granted to me, after many applications and much trouble, in return for the zealous work and labour, which, for a long time previously, I had devoted to his Majesty. And he sent you order and command to that effect, signed with his accustomed signature, and quittance in all form, which quittance, duly sealed, is in my hands.

Now I rest humbly confident that your Honours will graciously remember me as your obedient burgher, who has employed much time in the service and work of his Imperial Majesty, our most rightful Lord, with but small recompense, and has thereby lost both profit and advantage in other ways. And therefore I trust that you will now deliver me these 200 florins to his Imperial Majesty’s order and quittance, that so I may receive a fitting reward and satisfaction for my care, pains, and work–as, no doubt, was his Imperial Majesty’s intention.

But seeing that some Emperor or King might in the future claim these 200 florins from your Honours, or might not be willing to spare them, but might some day demand them back again from me, I am, therefore, willing to relieve your Honours and the town of this chance, by appointing and mortgaging, as security and pledge therefor, my tenement situated at the corner under the Veste, and which belonged to my late father, that so your Honours may suffer neither prejudice nor loss thereby. Thus am I ready to serve your Honours, my gracious rulers and Lords.

Your Wisdoms’ willing burgher, ALBRECHT DÜRER.

[Illustration: FREDERICK THE WISE. Silver-point drawing, British Museum.]

Dürer next wrote “to the honourable, most learned Master Georg Spalatin, Chaplain to my most gracious lord, Duke Friedrich, the Elector” of Saxony.

The letter is undated, but clearly belongs to the early part of the year 1520.

Most worthy and dear Master, I have already sent you my thanks in the short letter, for then I had only read your brief note. It was not till afterwards, when the bag in which the little book was wrapped was turned inside out, that I for the first time found the real letter in it, and learnt that it was my most gracious Lord himself who sent me Luther’s little book. So I pray your worthiness to convey most emphatically my humble thanks to his Electoral Grace, and in all humility to beseech his Electoral Grace to take the praiseworthy Dr. Martin Luther under his protection for the sake of Christian truth. For that is of more importance to us than all the power and riches of this world; because all things pass away with time, Truth alone endures for ever.

God helping me, if ever I meet Dr. Martin Luther, I intend to draw a careful portrait of him from the life and to engrave it on copper, for a lasting remembrance of a Christian man who helped me out of great distress. And I beg your worthiness to send me for my money anything new that Dr. Martin may write.

As to Spengler’s “Apology for Luther,” about which you write, I must tell you that no more copies are in stock; but it is being reprinted at Augsburg, and I will send you some copies as soon as they are ready. But you must know that, though the book was printed here, it is condemned in the pulpit as heretical and meet to be burnt, and the man who published it anonymously is abused and defamed. It is reported that Dr. Eck wanted to burn it in public at Ingolstadt, as was done to Dr. Reuchlin’s book.

With this letter I send for my most gracious lord three impressions of a copper-plate of my most gracious lord of Mainz, which I engraved at his request. I sent the copper-plate with 200 impressions as a present to his Electoral Grace, and he graciously sent me in return 200 florins in gold and 20 ells of damask for a coat. I joyfully and thankfully accepted them, especially as I was in want of them at that time.

His Imperial Majesty also, of praiseworthy memory, who died too soon for me, had graciously made provision for me, because of the great and long-continued labour, pains, and care, which I spent in his service. But now the Council will no longer pay me the 100 florins, which I was to have received every year of my life from the town taxes, and which was yearly paid to me during his Majesty’s lifetime. So I am to be deprived of it in my old age and to see the long time, trouble, and labour all lost which I spent for his Imperial Majesty. As I am losing my sight and freedom of hand my affairs do not look well. I don’t care to withhold this from you, kind and trusted Sir.

If my gracious lord remembers his debt to me of the staghorns, may I ask your Worship to keep him in mind of them, so that I may get a fine pair. I shall make two candlesticks of them.

I send you here two little prints of the Cross from a plate engraved in gold. One is for your Worship. Give my service to Hirschfeld and Albrecht Waldner. Now, your Worship, commend me faithfully to my most gracious lord, the Elector.

Your willing ALBRECHT DÜRER at Nürnberg.


[Footnote 20: _The Massacre of the Ten Thousand Saints._]

[Footnote 21: Supposed to be the _Madonna with the Iris_.]

[Footnote 22: “Literary Remains of Albrecht Dürer,” p. 178.]

[Footnote 23: The soil about Nürnberg is sandy.]




But while Dürer was thus busily at work or dunning his great debtors, Luther had appeared. In 1517 he nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of Wittenberg church, and Cardinal Caietan by the unlucky Leo X. was poured like oil upon the fire which they had lighted. Luther had been summoned to meet the Cardinal at the Diet of Augsburg, where Dürer went to see Maximilian, though he only arrived there after our friends from Nuremberg had departed. However, Luther passed through Nuremberg on foot, and borrowed a coat of a friend there in order to figure with decency before the Diet. Yet Dürer probably did not meet him, although the words in the letter to George Spalatin, quoted above, “If ever I meet Dr. Martin Luther, I intend to draw a careful portrait of him and engrave it on copper,” do not forbid the possibility of this early meeting before the Reformer had become so famous. Next the Pope tried to soothe by sending Miltitz with flatteries and promises–a man that could smile and weep to order, but who succeeded neither with the Elector Frederic, nor with Luther, nor with Germany. At Nuremberg the preacher Wenzel Link soon formed a little reformed congregation, to which Dürer, Pirkheimer, Spengler, Nützel, Scheurl, Ebner, Holzschurher, and others belonged. We have already seen how, soon after this, Dürer was anxious for Luther’s safety, by the letter to the wise Elector, quoted above; and in 1518 he sent Luther a number of his prints, and soon after joined with others of Link’s hearers to send a greeting of encouragement. And before long we find him jotting down a list of sixteen of Luther’s tracts, either because he intended to get and read them, or because they were already his; and on the back of a drawing we find the following outline of the faith such as he then apprehended it, in which we see clearly that Christ has become the voice of conscience–the power in a man by which he recognises and creates good.

Seeing that through disobedience of sin we have fallen into everlasting Death, no help could have reached us save through the incarnation of the Son of God, whereby He through His innocent suffering might abundantly pay the Father all our guilt, so that the Justice of God might be satisfied. For He has repented, of and made atonement for the sins of the whole world, and has obtained of the Father Everlasting Life. Therefore Christ Jesus is the Son of God, the highest power, who can do all things, and He is the Eternal life. Into whomsoever Christ comes he lives, and himself lives in Christ. Therefore all things are in Christ good things. There is nothing good in us except it becomes good in Christ. Whosoever, therefore, will altogether justify himself is unjust. _If we will what is good, Christ wills it in us_. No human repentance is enough to equalise deadly sin and be fruitful.

In this the old mythological language is retained, but it has received a new interpretation or significance, and this quite without the writer’s perceiving what he is doing. Christ is affirmed to have repented of the sins of the whole world. Among the early heresiarchs there were, I believe, some who went so far as to hold that he had committed the sins before he repented of them, and triumphed over their effects by his sufferings and death. In any case, a similar feeling is expressed by our odd mystic Blake in his “Everlasting Gospel”:

“If He (Jesus) intended to take on sin, His mother should an harlot have bin.”

The actual records of Christ are too meagre the moment he is regarded as an allegory of human life; and such additions to the creed spring naturally out of the ardent seeker’s desire to realise the universality implied in the dogma of his Godhead, which is accepted even by Blake as a historical fact beyond question. It was not the character of so much as can be perceived of the universe which daunted Luther and Dürer, as it daunts the serious man to-day. They accepted what appears to us a cheap and easy subterfuge, because they believed it to have been prescribed by God; the ambiguous inferences which such a prescription must logically cast on the Divine character did not arrest their attention. What they gained was a free conscience, a conscience in which Christ was, to use their language, and which was in Christ; and for practical piety this was sufficient. They themselves had not made up their minds on theoretical points; it was only in the face of their opponents that they thought of arming themselves with like weapons, and sought a mechanical agreement upon questions about which no one ever has known, or probably ever can know, anything at all. This was where Luther’s pugnacity betrayed him; so that little by little he seems to lose spiritual beauty, as the monk, all fire and intensity, is transformed into the “plump doctor,” and again into the bird of ill omen who croaked.

“The arts are growing as if there was to be a new start and the world was to become young again. I hope God will finish with it. We have come already to the White Horse. Another hundred years and all will be over.”

Compare this with Dürer’s:

“Sure am I that many notable men will arise, all of whom will write both well and better about this art than I.”

“Would to God that it were possible for me to see the work and art of the mighty masters to come, who are yet unborn, for I know that I might be improved.”

I do not want to judge Luther harshly; he had done splendidly, and it is difficult to meddle with worldly things without soiling one’s fingers and depressing one’s heart; but I ask which of these two quotations expresses man’s most central character best–the desire for nobler life–which reveals the more admirable temper? (Dürer had been touched by the spirit of the Renaissance as well as by that of the Reformation; we can distinguish easily when he is speaking under the one influence, when under the other, and the contrast often impresses one as the contrast between the above quotations. And it gives us great reason to deplore that the two spirits could not work side by side as they did in Dürer and a few rare souls, but that in the world there was war between them.) It seems inevitable that the things men fight about should always be spoiled. The best part of written thought is something that cannot be analysed, cannot therefore be defended or used for offence; it is a spirit, an emanation, something that influences us more subtly than we know how to describe.

We see by the passage quoted that Dürer was not only influenced by Luther’s heroism, but by his doctrinal theorising. Unfortunately we do not know whether he outgrew this second and less admirable influence. Did he feel like his friend Pirkheimer in the end, that “the new evangelical knaves made the old popish knaves seem pious by contrast?” Milton under similar circumstances came to think that “New Presbyter is but old Priest writ large.” Probably not; for just as we know he did not abandon what seemed to him beautiful and helpful in old Catholic ceremonies, usages, and conceptions, so probably he would not confuse what had been real gain in the Reformation with the excesses of Anabaptists or Socialists, or even of Luther himself or his followers. There is no reason to suppose he would have judged so hastily as the gouty irascible Pirkheimer, however much he may have deplored the course of events. It must have been evident to thoughtful men, then, that it was impossible for so large an area to be furnished with properly trained pastors in so short a time, and that therefore more or less deplorable material was bound to be mingled in the official _personnel_ of the new sect. It is impossible, when we consider how he solved the precisely parallel difficulty in aesthetics, not to feel that if he had had time given him, he would have arrived in point of doctrine at a moderation similar to that of Erasmus.

Men deliberate and hold numberless differing opinions about beauty…. Being then, as we are, in such a state of error, I know not certainly what the ultimate measure of true beauty is…. Because now we cannot altogether attain unto perfection shall we, therefore, wholly cease from learning? By no means … for it behoveth the rational man to choose the good. (See the passage complete on page 15.)

Luther imagined that the faith that saved was entire confidence in the fact that a bargain had been struck between the Persons of the Trinity, according to which Christ’s sacrifice should be accepted as satisfying the justice of his Father, outraged by Adam’s fault. To-day this appears to the majority of educated men a fantastic conception. For them the faith that saves is love of goodness, as love of beauty saves the artist from mistakes into which his intelligence would often plunge him. Jesus has no claim upon us superior to his goodness and his beauty; nor can we conceive of the possibility of such a claim. But we recognise with Dürer that we do not know what the true measure of goodness and beauty is, and all that we can do is to choose always the good and the beautiful according to the measure of our reason–to the fulness of the light at present granted to us.


The curiosity of the modern man of science no doubt is descended from that of men like Leonardo and the early Humanists, but it differs from almost more than it resembles it. The motive power behind both is no doubt the confidence of the healthy mind that the human intelligence will ultimately prove adequate to comprehend the spectacle of the universe. But for the Humanists, for Dürer and his friends, the consciousness of the irreconcilableness of that spectacle with the necessary ideals of human nature had not produced, as in our contemporaries and our immediate forerunners it has produced, either the atrophy of expectation which afflicts some, or the extravagance of ingenuity that cannot rest till it has rationalised hope, which torments others. They were saddled with neither the indifference nor the restlessness of the modern intellect. They escaped like boys on a