Monday, August 05, 2013


Before we go on, click on this drawing of a thirteen-year-old boy and study it for a moment. Is he happy? Is he sad? Does he think about girls? Does he think about God? What does he dream about under the covers in the darkest hours of the night? Is he a "good" boy, or is he prone to mischief? What will he be when he grows up? A priest? A soldier? An artist?

The drawing is a self-portrait of Albrecht Dürer, age thirteen, drawn in the year 1484.

That we can ask the questions above and posit answers speaks to the originality of the drawing. Here is a young artist obsessed with verisimilitude. With seeing things as they are. The drawing does not depict some theme from classical literature, or the Bible, or the lives of the saints. It looks nowhere but inward. It is one of the earliest works of western art that lets us look behind those shadowed eyes. It is one of the earliest works that depicts an embodied soul.

In a review of a recent exhibit of Dürer's work in Washington, D. C., Andrew Butterfield tells us something about the adult artist's religious life (NYRB, June 20). Dürer was raised in a context of Catholic moral theology -- sin and salvation. He admired Luther, but Luther gave no release from a preoccupation with hell fire. Life is a preparation for eternity. Prayer, penance, and mortification of the flesh should dominate one's thoughts. All else is vain distraction.

Did you see that in the self-portrait? Yes, perhaps. But something else too. That burning longing for verisimilitude. We get glimpses of it in others of Dürer's drawings: the hare, the tufts of grass. A turning away from eternity to the here and now, from morbidity to joy. "Self-portrait at Thirteen" makes the Scientific Revolution inevitable. The beginning of the end for hell fire.

The beginning, but not the end. Five centuries later, at age thirteen, I too lived in fear of hell fire. I might have been the boy you see in the drawing. But because of the boy in the drawing -- because he wanted to see things as they are, because he helped us learn to see things as they are -- I had a door of escape.