Thursday, December 09, 2010


Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) was the third of his parent's eighteen children (according to his biographer Jane Campbell Hutchison). His mother Barbara had her first child at age sixteen and her last when she was forty; that is to say, she was almost continuously pregnant. Only three of the children lived to adulthood.

There was nothing unusual about any of this in the 15th century, except the fact that Barbara herself survived so many pregnancies. For all of prior human history, contraception was rare, childbirth was exceedingly dangerous for the mother, child mortality was the rule, and disease ran essentially unchecked. I doubt if any 21st-century woman would swap places with Barbara Durer, even for the chance to be the mother of an artist of lasting renown.

How did it change?

As Durer lived, Europe was on the brink of a Scientific Revolution, a new way of knowing based on an optimistic understanding of the human potential for progress, respect for empirical evidence, an emphasis on natural (as opposed to supernatural) causality, and rejection of revelation and authority as guarantors of truth. Human nature did not change. What occurred was escape from what Carl Sagan called "a demon-haunted world," a world in which humans believed their fates were in the hands of gods.

Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton and their contemporaries forged this new way of knowing. To that illustrious list of scientists I would add Albrecht Durer, artist, the northern Leonardo. He has always seemed to me a pivotal figure.


He was one of the first artists to put his talent in the service of exact observation of nature, as evidenced by his drawings of a hare, a clump of grass, or a bird's wing. He was among the first artists to sign his work; this was a man who was no plaything of the gods, no anonymous servant of authority. And he was among the first artists to paint self-portraits.

Look at the fellow in the painting above, age 26, or in this other self-portrait, age 28. Oh, he is familiar enough with the traditional images of Jesus Christ. But it's not the God-man of Galilee he sees looking back from the mirror; it's Albrecht Durer of Nuremberg -- good-looking, sexy in a Johnny-Deppish sort of way, self-obsessed, supremely confident. He is quite prepared to perform his own miracles, with pigment and talent. Reality is not what some churchman or scriptures says it is; reality is what he sees with his own eyes.

If women today in developed (science-based) countries can control their own reproductive health, and expect to safely give birth to children who will more often than not live long healthy lives, give just a little credit to the fellow you see here, with the piercing green eyes, who helped pioneer the radical notion that if you want to understand how the world works, you look at the world.

(I've written before about Durer, here and here.)