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Wood and copper: everything you wanted to know about Albrecht Dürer's engravings

Why did Dürer prefer engraving to painting? What is the technical difference between wood and copper engraving? And why was wood not suitable for the artist’s work Melencolia I? How did Dürer's father make a successful naming, and his son strengthened the brand and created a logo for it? What is encrypted in Dürer's signature? Why did Dürer's Apocalypse and Life of the Virgin become world "blockbusters" and what role did the artist’s mother, wife and godfather play in popularizing them? Did Dürer manage to defend his copyright in an Italian court? Arthive explored what it was like to "convey all the splendour of the visible world in two colours."

Engraving as a guarantee of independence

"…I shall stick to my engraving," wrote the upset 38-year-old Dürer in a letter to the merchant Jacob Heller in 1509. "And if I had done so before I should today be a richer man by 1,000 florins."

A few years before that, the wealthy and haughty Heller commissioned Dürer to create an altarpiece for the Dominican church in Frankfurt, promising 200 florins as payment for it. That wasn’t much, Dürer's teacher Wolgemut would have jacked up the price five-fold, but the strapped Dürer had to agree. The work involved a lot of difficulties, the artist was exhausted because of that altar, had a fever, was tormented by the problems regarding composition and color. Considering the fact that he spent half of the promised fee on an expensive blue pigment only, Dürer first asked, and then demanded to increase his payment, because, being completely occupied with the altar, he wasn’t able to do anything else! But the moneybag Heller was uncompromising: he wouldn’t pay him even a florin more, while Dürer had to think about finishing his work on time instead of looking for excuses. Who cared about his creative search, when the money had been paid in advance?

Engravings once again became the artist’s salvation in a desperate situation when he was morally exhausted and financially desperate. Paintings always had their commissioners — a merchant, a patrician, a monastery, a monarch — and that often limited the artist in choosing means. When it came to engraving, Dürer was free to do anything that was interesting to him. Sometimes a painting board or canvas cost more than a dissatisfied customer was willing to pay — but engravings printed in the large printing house of Dürer's godfather Anton Koberger enjoyed mass circulation and brought in a big revenue. A painting in a single copy can make you known to a narrow circle of connoisseurs, hence only the lucky ones will see it. Engraving, accessible even to the poor, is a nationwide recognition and fame that will quickly cross the borders of Germany.

Painting (in Dürer's case) is risky and difficult experiments. Engraving is money, fame and independence. And while Dürer had countless rivals in painting, he was second to none in Europe when it came to engraving. This what Erasmus of Rotterdam said about Dürer as an engraver: "He needs only two colors to convey all the splendor of the visible world."
Albrecht Dürer. Rhino
Rhinoceros. A woodcut. 1515. "Probably no animal picture has exerted such a profound influence on the arts," said people about Dürer's engraving depicting a rhinoceros. However, Dürer never saw the actual rhinoceros. The animal was brought to Europe from India and presented to the King of Portugal Emmanuel on May 1, 1512. Local artists could not miss a chance to depict such an event, and it seems that Dürer relied on their drawings. His rhino is covered with sheets of armor, like a knight. The anatomical folds in its skin seem to blend into a "body armor." Dürer depicts his rhinoceros with a rivet-like skin pattern, while its legs, head and horn are covered with scales. And although these details are only a figment of his imagination, that image was considered reliable and was even included in textbooks up to the 19th century.
  • Nemesis. Copper engraving. 1501-1502
  • The Apostle Thomas. Copper engraving. 1514
Albrecht Dürer. Men's bath
The Men’s Bath. Woodcut. German artists did not use the services of nude sitters (at least not as extensively and openly as the Italian ones did), and therefore the image of the men’s bath kind of "legitimizes" Dürer's natural interest in the human body. The friends who are drinking are the patrician brothers Stephan and Lucas Paumgartner (who can be seen dressed on the wings of the Paumgartner Altarpiece), humanist Willibald Pirckheimer, artist Michael Wohlgemuth (supposedly) and Dürer himself.

Apocalypse today

In the year before Dürer's birth, his godfather Anton Koberger established a printing house in Nuremberg. It was the second printing house in the city — the first one was established shortly before that by Johann Sensenschmidt. His enterprise went so well that Koberger, who, like Dürer's father, was a skilled jeweler, abandoned his "gold and silver craftsmanship" and spent his savings on the purchase of printing presses. Quite soon, Nuremberg became one of Europe’s largest publishing centers. Vladimir Vernadsky wrote: "Nuremberg's printers were distinguished by their entrepreneurial spirit, they took orders from distant cities: for example, they printed books at the expense of Polish scientists and amateurs long before the opening of the first printing houses in the Kingdom of Poland. They also made and cast letters for the first Russian books of the late 15th- early 16th centuries, which were published in Kraków and Prague."

Koberger’s printing house became the largest in Germany; more than a hundred people worked on 24 presses at the peak of the company’s activity. Of course, the young Dürer often visited his godfather’s estate. He smelled fresh printing ink, learned to handle a heavy press and examined numerous engravings which mainly served as book illustrations back in those days. Dürer saw woodcarvers at work — xylography was very popular in Germany. He could examine the artists' manner from its different sides.

Dürer learned the art of metal engraving from his father, who believed that his son would continue the jewelry dynasty; moreover, Nuremberg carved dishes, goblets, and jewelry collet setting were highly valued in Europe. When Albrecht decided to become an artist instead of a jeweler, it really shocked his father. It was the "apostate" Koberger who managed to convince his friend to let his son become an apprentice in the shop of the painter Michael Wolgemut and even paid half of its cost: if Albrecht had failed to become a painter, he would have been able to engrave illustrations for the books of the Koberger printing house.

After finishing his studies under Wolgemut, Dürer, as befits any beginner artist, went on a "pilgrimage". In Italy, he had to prove to local artists that he was skilled not only in drawing (hand steadiness and the perfect eye-sight are the most important qualities of an engraver), but also in paints. Dürer, in turn, was surprised that the Italians paid so little attention to engraving — only Mantegna was really interested in it. Dürer copied his engravings for educational purposes.
  • Andrea Mantegna. Bacchanal with Silenus. 1494. Copper engraving.
  • Albrecht Dürer. Bacchanal with Silenus. 1494. Ink on paper.
Having returned to Nuremberg in the late 1490s and feeling like a fully-fledged master, Dürer opened his own workshop. Meanwhile, those were tumultuous times which were definitely not suitable for starting a new business. It was the end of the century, and the number of apocalyptic signs increased each day. First, a severe drought in the lands adjacent to Nuremberg caused pestilence. Maddened by hunger, poverty and disease (plague and syphilis), the peasants abandoned their homes and left to wander, attacked country estates, poured into the cities like an unknown and terrible avalanche. They were on the eve of reformation, the era of religious wars, and Dürer saw a comet in the sky with his own eyes.

And that’s when Dürer experienced a real "insight" - a kind of mystical enlightenment, when you inevitably understand what you have to do next. Being deeply and passionately religious, Dürer re-read the Revelation of Saint John the Theologian many times and realized: that was exactly what he had to depict. The end of the world and the final judgment, four horsemen of the Apocalypse and the Wormwood star, a "woman clothed with the sun" and Saint John devouring a book, a vision of seven candlesticks and the Archangel fighting a dragon … 16 large-format woodcuts, each of which has a verse from the Apocalypse printed on its back. Dürer worked on them very quickly, feeling that an invisible hand was leading him. The woodcuts of the Apocalypse series cut by the best carvers and printed in the Koberger printing house were sold at the market fairs by Dürer's wife Agnes or his mother Barbara. Neurotised by the approaching doomsday, the townspeople bought them up instantly. Merchants brought the woodcuts of the Apocalypse series abroad as the most popular goods. On the part of the author, it was hitting the bull’s eye, or as they would say now, a real "hype".
Dürer's recent Italian experience came in handy when working on the Apocalypse — for example, his whore of Babylon from the engraving of the same name is dressed just like a Venetian from his own drawing. In general, the Italians' manner of dressing elegantly, which was so different from the restraint of the Nuremberg artisans and their wives, impressed Dürer very much, as evidenced by his drawings, in which he compares the dresses of the Venetian and German women, and his famous self-portrait in luxurious Italian clothes.
  • The Whore of Babylon. An engraving from The Apocalypse series. 1496. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York
  • The Venetian Woman. Pen-and-ink drawing. 1495. Albertina, Vienna

"Passion" – large, small, green and other

While the Apocalypse was created at once (or, as contemporaries said, "whispered by angels"), Dürer was working on the theme of the last days of the Savior’s earthly life ("passion") back and forth. He came back to his Passion in various states of mind, tried using different formats and techniques. However, his interest was not unique: Gospel descriptions of the torment of Jesus Christ are generally the leitmotif of the art of the 15th century. But Dürer, solving the most complex plastic problems, brought real sophistication to the topic, which was well studied by other artists.

Dürer has several cycles of Passion. In 1511, he published a series of 11 woodcuts, called The Large Passion (the number of prints varies from 11 to 15, depending on the source). At the same time, the artist worked on the engravings on the same topic, but on small boards — it’s the so-called Small Passion series, consisting of 36 woodcuts. Since about 1507, Dürer performed similar plots not only on wood, but also on copper — these engravings got the name Passion.

Albrecht Dürer. The Burial Of Christ
Albrecht Dürer. The Appearance Of Christ To Mary Magdalene
Albrecht Dürer. The Betrayal Of Christ
Albrecht Dürer. Behold the man
1499, 41.3×30.6 cm
Albrecht Dürer. Christ on the cross
1508, 13.9×10.4 cm
Albrecht Dürer. The coronation a crown of thorns. From the cycle "the passion of the Christ"
Albrecht Dürer. Christ carrying the cross. From the cycle "the passion of the Christ"
Albrecht Dürer. The Betrayal Of Christ. From the cycle "the passion of the Christ"
Albrecht Dürer. "Behold the man". From the cycle "the passion of the Christ"
Albrecht Dürer. Flagellation Of Christ
Albrecht Dürer. The Burial Of Christ
Albrecht Dürer. The Resurrection Of Christ. From the cycle "the passion of the Christ"
Albrecht Dürer. Christ on the mount of olives. Agony in the garden
Albrecht Dürer. Pilate, wash your hands
Albrecht Dürer. Saints Peter and John heal a paralytic. From the cycle "the passion of the Christ"
Albrecht Dürer. The descent into hell
Albrecht Dürer. Christ carrying the cross
Albrecht Dürer. Christ-Martyr in the column. From the cycle "the passion of the Christ"
Albrecht Dürer. The unbelief of the Apostle Thomas
Albrecht Dürer. Title page. The small passion
Albrecht Dürer. Christ before Caiaphas
Albrecht Dürer. Christ in Limbe. From the cycle "the passion of the Christ"
Albrecht Dürer. Christ from Caiaphas

There is also the unusual term "Green Passion". It’s used to refer not to the engravings themselves, but to Dürer's preliminary drawings. They are distinguished by great dramatic power and artistic value. "This unique technique consists in combining a pen and a brush against a green background, which gives the bright places of the picture a powerful dramatic shade, some kind of supernatural glow," explains Marcel Brion.

Christ before Caiaphas. Pen drawing on green primed paper. 1504, Albretina, Vienna.

Albrecht Dürer's Mary

Perhaps the most popular topic among ordinary people (the main buyers of Dürer's woodcuts) was not his Apocalypse, not the Passion, and certainly not the intellectuals' joy — his skilful engravings. Dürer's most popular engravings were those about the life of the Virgin Mary (Dürer created a cycle of the same name in 1511, and also made individual engravings on the subject in different years). Here the elderly Joachim and Anne stand embracing: childlessness makes them look ignominious in the eyes of their compatriots and they pray to be blessed with a child. And here the angel tells Joachim: you will have a daughter. Here the girl is brought to the Temple. And here Anne is looking at the already adult Mary, who gave birth to a Son … What was not in the Gospels was broadly described in the apocryphal literature (for example, "The Golden Legend" by Jacob Voraginsky), and Dürer used those subjects. Just like some modern "real-life" series, Life of the Virgin met all the hidden sentimental aspirations of the viewers.

Wood engraving and copper engraving: what's the difference?

At the time of Dürer, there existed two main engraving techniques — wood engraving and copper engraving, xylography and calcography (from the Greek. ξύλον - wood, χαλκός - copper and γράφω - I write). Usually, artists specialized in one of the techniques, but Dürer was the only one who equally mastered both.

The procedures of making wood and copper engravings are essentially the opposite. In both cases, it all starts with a drawing created by the artist. Then carvers come into play — and their actions vary depending on the material chosen. If the matrix with the drawing is wooden, then the cutter begins to deepen the unfilled spaces around the image. Thus, the contours become raised, and the background is deepened. A print from such a matrix is called a letterpress technique. Working with a metal plate, a cutter uses a graver directly on the drawing. The image deepens, while the background remains intact. This is an intaglio printing technique.

It is clear that working on metal, you can get much more differentiated and thin strokes, which means much more detailed images. At the same time, woodcuts have their own advantages and their own aesthetics — their strokes are more powerful, more expressive. Woodcuts are very popular among the general public, while calcography is often engravings for connoisseurs and intellectuals.
It is difficult (if not impossible) to imagine, for example, Dürer's Melencholia I performed on wood: such sharpness of the image and the fineness of strokes can be achieved only on metal. At the same time, the graphic expression of the Apocalypse requires a soft and compliant wood panel.

Making his woodcuts, Dürer used the services of highly professional carvers. However, he always applied drawings to copper plates himself.

The advantage of letterpress printing was that it was possible to make more prints from a wooden matrix — up to a thousand, while a copper matrix usually made it possible to create only about two hundred copies without a complete loss of "sharpness". Thus, copper engravings were more expensive.
The Nuremberg craft guilds had a rule: artists could create woodcuts, but only jewelers had the right to work with metal plates, it was their monopoly, and it sometimes lead to legal proceedings. That is why in Germany, it was xylography (wood engraving) that served as both book illustrations and a kind of "folk pictures". At the same time, in Italy, on the contrary, copper engraving was more popular. Dürer's first copper engravings reflect his introduction to the Italian culture and its ancient roots. However, mythological subjects not always came easy to the artist, so Dürer quickly shifted away from them. According to the artist’s biographers, he read the Bible much more often than Virgil or Homer.
  • Hercules at the Crossroads. 1489. Copper engraving.
  • Three Peasants in Conversation. 1497. Woodcut.
Albrecht Dürer. Map of the Northern sky
The Celestial Map — Northern Hemisphere. Woodcut. 1515

"Dürer was interested in geometry and the theory of perspective, tried his hand at cartography, left a noticeable mark on the history of astronomy, was engaged in the construction of scientific instruments. Many of Dürer's drawings and engravings can be considered as monuments of science of his time," wrote Galina Matvievskaya in her book "Dürer The Scientist".

Naming, branding, copyright

Dürer is rightly called the main artist of the German Renaissance
The Renaissance is the period that began around the 14th century and ended at the late 16th century, traditionally associated primarily with the Italian region. The ideas and images of the Renaissance largely determined the aesthetic ideals of modern man, his sense of harmony, measure and beauty. Read more
due to his creative universality (painter, graphic artist, scientist), but not only because of that. He had a stable author’s identity that fundamentally distinguishes him from medieval masters. No wonder that Dürer became the first woodcut artist to systematically sign his engravings.

Albrecht Dürer. The Coat Of Arms Of Albrecht Dürer

Actually, naming — the composition of the original name of the brand — was conducted by Albrecht Dürer the Elder, a Nuremberg jeweler and Dürer's father. As it is known, he was a Hungarian immigrant whose last name was not Dürer at all. Here’s what the son wrote about his father’s origin in the autobiography: "Albrecht Dürer was born in the Kingdom of Hungary, near the small town of Gyula, in a village called Ajtós, and his family earned their living by breeding bulls and horses." The original surname of Dürer's ancestors was Ajtósi. "Ajtós" is "doormaker" in Hungarian (from "ajtó", meaning door). In German, the "door" is "die Tür". After moving to Germany, father Albrecht Ajtósi changed his "door" surname so it sounded more German. At first, it became Türer, but later turned into Dürer, to adapt to the local Nuremberg dialect.

To make the name a brand, the son invented the "logo" for it — he signed his engravings with the letters A and D (his initials) in a unique way — A was depicted as a doorway.

This engraving from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (illustration above) is an image of the family coat of arms of the Dürers. It includes not only Dürer's signature itself (above, on the scroll), but also its prototype — an open door. The same one was depicted on the sign of the jewelry workshop of Dürer the Elder.

Copyright case

Dürer's success (both creative and commercial) caused a surge of interest in engraving in Germany, Flanders and Italy. Many artists began to engrave their own and other people’s works, and Dürer served as a model for them — variations on his plastic solutions were created, for example, by Lucas Cranach. However, many of them quickly realized that creating something original is longer and more expensive than faking other people’s "hits". Across Europe, artisans of various skill levels began to create "pirate copies" of Dürer's prints. And, despite the fact that counterfeits often came out rather rough, fakes were sold like hot cakes — after all, they were decorated with the Dürer's famous "logo".

Once Dürer got a small engraving from his Passion cycle from Venice. He immediately recognized the fake. The copy was made skillfully! But Dürer's original work was a woodcut, while the carver for some reason decided to repeat the same on copper, which gave him the opportunity to add new and interesting small details. Yet, the "counterfeiter" decided to leave Dürer's "logo" unchanged. In a letter, Dürer was informed that the plagiarist’s name was Marcantonio, who was a Bolognese by origin. "He flew into such a rage that he left Flanders and went to Venice, where he appeared before the Signoria and laid a complaint against Marcantonio," wrote Vasari.

It was possibly the world’s first trademark and copyright lawsuit against the plagiarist. Yet, in the end, the complainant achieved little. The court ruled that the defendant could not copy Dürer's monogram but could copy the rest of the work.
Having returned to his homeland, Dürer tried to protect his copyright again. Reeditions of his Passion cycles (Large and Small) and Life of the Virgin were then accompanied by the following text: "We have received privilege from the famous emperor of Rome Maximilian, that no one shall dare to print these works in spurious forms, nor sell such prints within the boundaries of the empire
Empire (fr. empire – imperial) is the style of the late classicism in architecture, applied art and painting. It was popular during the first three decades of the 19th century.
It is characterized by the craving for monumentality and greatness: so that it immediately becomes clear to everyone that the emperor’s power is almost limitless! The Empire style arose in France during the reign of Napoleon, later it was replaced by the eclectic art movements currents and then itfound its revival in ... the Soviet Union. Read more
, for if such a greedy crime is committed, understand that you will be pursued at law for the confiscation of your goods."
Needless to say, it didn’t stop the producers of fakes but rather encouraged them.
  • Albrecht Dürer. The Portrait of Emperor Maximilian I. Woodcut. 1519, 43 × 32 cm. The Albertina Museum Vienna.
  • The Portrait of Marcantonio Raimondi. Engraving from Giorgio Vasari's book about the lives of the artists.
As for Marcantonio Raimondi, he made a career: having become Raphael's close associate, he began to engrave his works (with consent of the author), and was very successful in it. In books on art history, he is respectfully called an outstanding copper engraver, who was raised on Dürer's works and founded a new direction — reproductive engraving. The funny thing is that subsequently engravings still got Marcantonio to prison, but he took the rap from Pope Clement VII not for plagiarism, but for violation of public morality: the artist Giulio Romano illustrated the obscene sonnets of Pietro Aretino, and Marcantonio engraved Romano’s scandalous drawings.
Albrecht Dürer. Arch Maxmilian I
The Arch of Maximilian. Reconstruction. 1515.

And here’s probably the most unusual way of using engravings. Emperor Maximilian commissioned a monument glorifying his wisdom and greatness — a triumphal arch three and a half meters wide, consisting of 192 wooden blocks with engravings. The best minds of Germany (including Dürer's friend Pirckheimer, who was a humanist) worked on the program of the arch, i.e. those feats of the emperor and his ancestors, which had to be immortalized, and their allegorical interpretations. Dürer took part in the creation of engravings, although he understood that it was plain impossible to achieve at least some integrity of impression in such a monstrous structure.

Master prints

After lengthy experiments with engraving, Dürer switched to a new technique: he began using a dry needle instead of a cutter. The finest needle with a steel or diamond tip glided so easily over the surface of the copper that it was more convenient for the artist to hold the brush motionless by rotating a metal plate under it. If you look at such work under a magnifying glass, you can see the burrs on the sides of its contour — the so-called "barbs". Thanks to these barbs, the contour loses its rigidity, while the strokes become flexible and the lines seem to vibrate. Three engravings with complex symbols, created in this, without exaggeration, unique technique, are called master prints.

The engravings Knight, Death and the Devil, St. Jerome in His Study
A study is an exercise painting that helps the painter better understand the object he or she paints. It is simple and clear, like sample letters in a school student’s copybook. Rough and ready, not detailed, with every stroke being to the point, a study is a proven method of touching the world and making a catalogue of it. However, in art history, the status of the study is vague and open to interpretation. Despite its auxiliary role, a study is sometimes viewed as something far more significant than the finished piece. Then, within an impressive frame, it is placed on a museum wall.
So, when does a study remain a mere drill, and when can we call it an artwork in its own right, full of life and having artistic value? Read more
and the famous Melencolia I were created by Albrecht Dürer in 1513−1514. And despite the fact that the relation between their plots is far from being obvious, the works still make up a kind of an "engraving triptych." These are the master’s top works.

  • Albrecht Dürer. Saint Jerome in His Study
    A study is an exercise painting that helps the painter better understand the object he or she paints. It is simple and clear, like sample letters in a school student’s copybook. Rough and ready, not detailed, with every stroke being to the point, a study is a proven method of touching the world and making a catalogue of it. However, in art history, the status of the study is vague and open to interpretation. Despite its auxiliary role, a study is sometimes viewed as something far more significant than the finished piece. Then, within an impressive frame, it is placed on a museum wall.
    So, when does a study remain a mere drill, and when can we call it an artwork in its own right, full of life and having artistic value? Read more
    . Copper engraving. 1514
  • Albrecht Dürer. Knight, Death and the Devil. Copper engraving. 1513
All three master prints are united by a common task of determining the meaning of life and death, as well as a common motive — an hourglass, which is present in each of the three engravings. Sometimes this engraving triptych (mainly, of course, Melencolia I) is even called Albrecht Dürer's spiritual self-portrait.
Albrecht Dürer. Melancholy
Stanislav Zarnitsky wrote in Dürer's biography: "He created it — his Melencolia I. In it, the reality he saw acquired the nature of symbols — a bat that spread its wings above his head, a stray dog, stonemasons' tools, and even the scattered lumps, which he placed around the figure of a winged woman. The symbols told about the influence of good and evil deeds on the fate of man. Reality is fantastically encrypted in them. The master himself found it necessary to explain only the meaning of a purse and a set of keys hanging from Melancholy’s belt. According to him, they symbolized wealth and power. Engravings clearly told the master’s contemporaries about his fate, tragedy and thoughts… "
Two colours — black and white — prevail in woodcuts. However, when it comes to his copper engravings, created with a dry needle, Dürer did something that was impossible and unattainable before — provided the works with the depth of space and "air". "Earlier, Dürer's engravings were perceived as "black-on-white," and now as "white-and-black-on-grey," explains art historian Alexandr Stepanov. "In 1512, Dürer created several engravings with a dry needle and came to a conclusion that the illusion of airiness appears only in the works with no strong contrasts in tone. Now his engravings, built on gradations of grey tones, seem cast in silver. This effect is achieved through the use of the dashed "fabric" of various "types" - those with thick and thin strokes, as well as the widely-spaced and dense, straight and wavy, continuous and discontinuous ones, applied in one, two, or three layers."

Though Erasmus of Rotterdam was essentially right when stating that Dürer embodied all the splendour of the world only in two colours, he wasn’t entirely accurate.