This was Dürer’s third self portrait painting, the previous two were from 1493 and 1498.
According to Vasari in Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects he painted a fourth, lost, portrait, in 1515, as a gift for Raphael. The first known work of Dürer was a self portrait drawing of 1484 (when he was 13 years old) and he drew himself several more times during his career. He also used himself as his own model, featuring in several of his other pictures including The Jabach Altarpiece (1503/4), The Adoration of the Magi (1504), The Altarpiece of the Rose Garlands (1506) and The Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand (1508). At the time all this was unprecedented, the only previously known Western artist self portrait possibly being Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man from 1433.
From the above we have a pretty good idea what Dürer looked like. Yet for the 1500 portrait he deliberately changed his features to have a higher forehead and brown instead of light ginger hair. Both of these make him look close to the idealised image of Christ used in medieval paintings and the Salvator Mundi (saviour of the world) image of Christ widely used by Northern Renaissance artists such as Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling. Also it can be referenced to The Veil of Veronica (Volto Santo) a supposed direct imprint of the face of Jesus. That he chose a face on viewpoint was also typical of these paintings, as were the colour palette and the Christ as judge, emotionless, facial expression. We have no idea why Dürer painted himself as Christ, but we know that it wasn’t blasphemous because the Nuremberg city council put this picture on public display for well over 200 years. So what reasons could Dürer have for doing this? Perhaps he saw the artist as the creator. Perhaps it was alluding to man being created in the image of God. Perhaps he saw his artistic talents as being divine. Perhaps it was homage to a previous artistic heritage. Perhaps it was an illustration of his own piety. Perhaps it illustrated his humanist beliefs that man was at the centre of all things.
It is also highly relevant here that it is thought that Dürer had painted himself as Christ previously. His rendering of Jesus in Christ as Man of Sorrows (1493) bearing a very close resemblance to the artist.
There were strong societal influences at the time from the date, 1500, a portentous number. Many thought it signaled the end of the world, also there was a highly influential rise in the humanist movement. Dürer was a friend of Conrad (Konrad) Celtes (Celtis), one of its most important proponents, painting the two of them together in The Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand. Dürer created a woodcut for the dedicatory page for Celtes’ 1502 book Quatuor Libri Amorum (Four Books of Love). Also Dürer’s closest friend was Willibrand Pirckheimer, a wealthy Nuremberg lawyer, author and humanist, who is thought to be responsible for much of Dürer’s classical and philosophical education. These factors greatly influenced Dürer’s work.
Dürer’s hand position in the self portrait is also open to interpretation, it is uncomfortable and unnatural to hold. Was this showing off the tools of his trade, spelling his AD initials, pointing to his soul, making a Christ like blessing or symbolically fingering the marten fur of his jacket, which was also used for paint brushes? In this composition the eyes and the hand are the most important elements, both lit to be so and both on the centreline.
The pre Renaissance heritage of portraiture had been the frontal view, used here, or the profile as seen on coins. The Northern Renaissance moved on from this from the 1420s with the development of the three quarters view, which was far more realistic because it allowed volume and modelling of the brow, nose, lips and chin. We see this in many works of Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Dieric Bouts, Hans Memling, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Hugo van der Goes and Petrus Christus. Dürer’s 1493 and 1498 self portraits also used this perspective as did the portrait of Oswolt Krel he painted in 1499, just the year before his Christ like self portrait.
The 1500 self portrait measures 66.3cm X 49cm and was painted using oil paints on limewood. It is a tour de force of technical virtuosity with fine detail and textures typical of the great Northern Renaissance painters. We see this in the rendering of the skin, hair, forehead, beard, cloth and his eyes, with their window reflections (metaphorical window into Dürer’s soul?). Yet also the picture conforms to the concept of beauty, proportion and disegno of the Italian Renaissance.
If we read the picture from left to right, firstly it has Dürer’s AD monogram (echoed with the AD spelled by his hand position?) and the year 1500, both in gold paint. There could be a play on word here with AD being both Dürer’s initials and the standard abbreviation for Anno Domini, thus conflating Dürer with Jesus in written form. Next we get Dürer’s eyes. Then we get the inscription in Latin (not German) which is significant as Latin was the language both of the humanists and of the Catholic church. It reads (in translation): “Thus I, Albrecht Dürer from Nuremberg painted myself in appropriate (or everlasting) colours aged twenty-eight years”, again using gold paint. It is no accident that these three elements form a straight line that we read across. Also, with the vertical line of the lighting of Dürer’s hand and eyes in the centreline they form a cross.
The background to the picture is plain and extremely dark, at a time when landscape backgrounds were more common in portraits, as we saw in Dürer’s 1498 self portrait and the 1499 Oswolt Krel portrait. There are several possible reasons for this, it places the picture outside both time and place, it isolates and thus emphasises Dürer’s image and it pays homage to the medieval portraits of Christ.
The composition is pyramidal with Dürer’s hair splayed out and it is largely bilaterally symmetrical. Dürer is offset very slightly to the right of the centreline, but he looks very slightly to the left, so his gaze still fixes us. His hair is parted slightly to the left of the centreline, with an untidy tuft dropping to the right. The fur collar wraps over and only his right hand (his creative hand) is shown, the picture being cut off at the top of his left sleeve. These sleeves are of a finestrella design with undercloth visible through a slash. A fashion originating in Italy in the late 1400s which spread around Europe, so it is contemporary with the painting of the portrait. This is significant because it is a big departure from all the other Christ like elements. He wears no jewellery. The foreshortening of the right arm gives the picture depth and perspective as does the positioning of the hand, so it can bee seen as a real person occupying a real space.
The picture was obviously painted using a mirror, but in 1500 flat glass mirrors hadn’t been invented, which may explain the near total absence of self portraits before Dürer. Glass mirrors were small and convex, as we see in many Renaissance pictures, such as the Arnolfini Portrait by van Eyck or were made from polished metal, giving a poor image. Flat glass mirrors were first made by the Venetians in Murano in the early 1500s. So Dürer must have encountered severe problems in all his self portraits and it must have taken a lot of patience and skill to overcome them.
Lord Clark in Civilisation said of Dürer: “he was intensely self-conscious and inordinately vain”. He was certainly also very self aware and self promoting. So the purpose of this painting were likely to be multiple and complex. A demonstration of technical skill, a marker for posterity, something to sell, a marketing tool, a sop to vanity, a philosophical and/or religious statement, a work of self analysis or even an attempt to elevate the status of the artist to be what he had witnessed in Italy.
The importance of this painting is difficult to overstate. Dürer was one of the most innovative and influential artists of all time. After more than 500 years he is still providing direction and inspiration. And this is one of his most important and significant works, in so many ways, as this article makes clear. He broke the old rules and made new rules, setting the scene for the richness and diversity that we know as art history. Every great Western painter knows Dürer well and knows this picture well. It is embedded in their cultural DNA.