About the Commemoration
Albrecht Dürer, a methodical explorer of the world and of humankind’s place in it, was born in Nuremberg, May 21, 1471, the son of a goldsmith. His artistic talent was recognized early, and at age sixteen he was apprenticed to a local painter. After three years he left his apprenticeship to travel in the Netherlands, Alsace, and Switzerland. By the end of May 1494, he was back in Nuremberg. On the seventh of July he married Agnes Frey; they had no children. In the autumn of 1494, Dürer went to Italy, and this visit, which lasted until the following spring, was a great influence on his work: Dürer was the first northern European artist to immerse himself in the art of the Italian Renaissance. Upon his return to Nuremberg in 1495, Dürer renewed his association with his boyhood friend Willibald Pirkheimer (1470-1530), the noted humanist. Like Leonardo, Dürer had an enormously inquisitive mind and was one of the most learned of Renaissance artists and the friend of many distinguished people of the time.
His painting style vacillated between Gothic and Italian Renaissance style until the end of the century when he moved toward the Renaissance spirit. In the fall of 1505 he made his second journey to Italy and spent most of his time in Venice. The visit lasted until the winter of 1507. He returned to Nuremberg in February 1507, and bought a house near the zoological garden. This “Dürer Haus” still stands.
For a time he worked for the Emperor Maxmillian I. In July 1520 he went to the Netherlands again. At the coronation of Charles V, the successor to Maxmillian, at Aachen, Dürer met Matthias Grünewald, who ranked second only to Dürer in German art of the time. In April 1521 Luther stood before the Diet at Worms, and the emperor Charles V had concluded that he would “proceed against him as a notorious heretic.” On the seventeenth of May, in Antwerp, Dürer heard the news. He wrote in his diary, “O Lord, you desire before you come to judgment that as your Son Jesus Christ had to die at the hands of the priests and rise from the dead and ascend to heaven, even so should your disciple Martin Luther be made conformable to him.” Not knowing of Luther’s refuge in the Wartburg, Dürer wrote again in his diary,
I know not whether he lives or is murdered, but in any case he has suffered for the Christian truth…. If we lose this man, who has written more clearly than any other in centuries, may God grant his spirit to another…. His books should be held in great honor, and not burned as the emperor commands, but rather the books of his enemies. O God, if Luther is dead, who will henceforth explain to us the gospel? What might he not have written for us in the next ten or twenty years?
Nonetheless, despite his admiration of Luther, it is uncertain to what degree Dürer supported the Reformation.
Dürer returned to Nuremberg July 12,1521. His health declined, and he spent his time writing letters, poems, and treatises on fortification. The Nuremberg city council adopted the Lutheran Reformation in March 1525; in 1526 Dürer gave the city council his painting Four Apostles, which includes quotations from Luther’s translation of the Bible. He died April 6, 1528, and was buried in the churchyard of the Johanneskirche in Nuremberg. Luther, learning of his death, wrote to Eoban Hesse, “Affection bids us mourn for one who was the best of men, yet you may well consider him happy that he has made so good an end, and that Christ has taken him from the midst of this time of trouble…. May he rest in peace with his fathers. Amen.”
Deeply religious in spirit, Dürer was affected by the apocalyptic spirit of the time in the face of famine, plague, and social and religious upheaval. His paintings and woodcuts are a close examination of the splendor of creation: the human body, animals, grasses, and flowers. He was, unfortunately, never able to fulfill his desire to paint Luther “as a lasting memorial to the Christian man who has helped me out of great anxiety.”
Dürer, who is listed on the German Lutheran Evangelical Calendar of Names (1962) is on the calendar in Evangelical Lutheran Worship and also the Lutheran Service Book; he was included, together with Michelangelo, on the calendar in the Lutheran Book of Worship.
Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), Dürer’s near-contemporary, whose work is lighter and more joyful than that of Dürer, was able to be the portraitist of the Reformers. He was on the most intimate terms with Luther. When Luther went into hiding in 1521, Cranach was among the very few with whom he kept in touch; when Luther married, Cranach was the sole lay witness; and Luther stood as godfather for Cranach’s daughter. Cranach the Elder was a prolific conveyor of the message of the Reformation and was highly regarded by the humanists of his day. A court painter, he was a student of nature, morals, and eroticism. An exhibit of his work at Basel in 1974 vindicated his reputation in the eyes of many critics. Beneath an apparent simplicity, there lies a serious and intense effort of the northern Renaissance, a search for balance between the spirit and the body, God and the flesh, good and evil, humanity and nature. Cranach is commemorated on the German Evangelical Calendar of Names on October 16.
The fascinating and enigmatic painter Matthias Grünewald was born, it seems, in Würzberg sometime between 1455 and 1480. The name by which he is known is a fabrication of a seventeenth-century biographer. His original surname was Gothardt, to which he sometimes added the surname of his wife, Neithardt. He spent most of his life in the upper Rhine area under the patronage of the Archbishop of Mainz and then of Albrecht of Brandenburg. Grünewald’s limited influence and renown is in contrast to those of Dürer, yet his works are highly valued. He was fascinated by the crucifixion as a subject for painting, and his greatest work, inspired by the mystical Revelations of Birgitta of Sweden (see July 23), is the Isenheim altarpiece with its combination of horror and mystical elevation. Grünewald died at Halle in August 1528, at the time secretly siding with the Reformation.
Michelangelo Buonarroti, the famed creator of gigantic sculpture was himself an awe-inspiring figure who was accorded, even in his lifetime, the high respect usually reserved for the great religious teachers.
Michelangelo was born March 6, 1475, at Caprese, a small town near Florence. He was of aristocratic stock, his father claiming descent from the counts of Canossa, but the family fortunes had declined. Overcoming family objections to his becoming an artist, Michelangelo at age thirteen was apprenticed briefly to Ghirlandaio, the most successful Florentine painter of the period, and then under the sculptor Bertoldo. The young artist attracted the attention of Lorenzo de Medici and lived for a time in his palace, meeting many artists and writers there. Before the expulsion of Piero de Medici in 1494, Michelangelo went to Venice and then Bologna and read Dante and Petrarch.
Michelangelo arrived in Rome in the summer of 1496 and there carved the Pieta now in St. Peter’s Basilica in which the Virgin Mother holds in her lap the dead body of her Son. The work is a marvelous feat of technical skill and shows the sculptor’s consummate mastery of his craft. Indeed, the story is that when admirers of the work doubted that it could be the work of a twenty-one-year old, he went back to the sculpture and inscribed in bold letters on the sash across the Virgin’s breast, “Michelangelo made it.”
In 1501 he returned to Florence to carry out commissions that expressed the pride, vigor, and idealism of the Medicis. The David is the great figure of power and magnificence from this period.
In March 1505 Michelangelo was again summoned to Rome to design the tomb of Pope Julius II. For eight months Michelangelo was at Carrara supervising the quarrying of huge blocks of marble for what was to be the greatest tomb in Christendom. He was inaccessible in that awe-inspiring landscape, surrounded by stone. He made such sojourns to Carrara several times in his life, and these times, like religious retreats, were preludes to spells of his greatest activity. When he returned to Rome in the winter of 1506-1507, he was refused immediate access to Pope Julius and in April 1506, returned to Florence. Seven months later he returned to Rome and the papal presence. He went to Bologna to make a bronze statue of the pope for the door of San Petronio there; then he went back to Florence but was recalled to Rome and was given the task of painting the ceiling of the papal chapel, called the Sistine Chapel. His prodigious frescoes were unveiled October 31, 1512, and illustrated the progression from servitude of the body (The Drunkenness of Noah) to the liberation of the soul (The Creation).
From this point on, Michelangelo’s mood became more grave and his confidence in physical beauty diminished. He became increasingly preoccupied with death. Leo X succeeded Julius, and Raphael became the favored artist. Michelangelo returned to Florence, which underwent a revolution in 1527, and he was put in charge of the fortifications of the city against the expelled Medici.
In 1534 Paul III called Michelangelo back to Rome to paint the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, which he completed in 1541. He then turned his attention to designing the dome of St. Peter’s. He spent his last years with poetry, architecture, and drawing, writing in a sonnet that “only in darkness can men fully be.” He died in his eighty-ninth year.
Michelangelo believed that classical antiquity and Christianity could be served simultaneously by a devotion to the human figure, and the greatest accomplishment of this sculptor, architect, painter, poet, and draftsman was his exploration of the mystery of life locked in the human body, particularly apparent in his drawings of the nude male body in action. For him the human form was the expression of God’s purpose.
In commemoration of the five hundredth anniversary of his birth, a New York Times editorial said: “The art of Michelangelo was fueled by a largeness of soul and a frighteningly powerful belief—a terribilita—that would not be possible today. Grandeur is a term applied to the creative spirit on rare occasions, and the world is changed by it forever. So that great spirit and its transforming impact upon the world is celebrated” (March 6, 1975).
Excerpts from New Book of Festivals & Commemorations: A Proposed Common Calendar of Saints by Philip H. Pfatteicher, copyright, 2008 by Fortress Press, an imprint of Augsburg Fortress.
From Thomas Traherne, Centuries
You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you. Till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God, as misers do in gold, and Kings in scepters, you never enjoy the world.
Till your spirit filleth the whole world, and the stars are your jewels; till you are as familiar with the ways of God in all Ages as with your walk and table: till you are intimately acquainted with that shady nothing out of which the world was made: till you love men so as to desire their happiness, with a thirst equal to the zeal of your own; till you delight in God for being good to all: you never enjoy the world. Till you more feel it than your private estate, and are more present in the hemisphere, considering the glories and the beauties there, than in your own house: Till you remember how lately you were made, and how wonderful it was when you came into it: and more rejoice in the palace of your glory, than if it had been made but to-day morning. Yet further, you never enjoy the world aright, till you so love the beauty of enjoying it, that you are covetous and earnest to persuade others to enjoy it. And so perfectly hate the abominable corruption of men in despising it, that you had rather suffer the flames of Hell than willingly be guilty of their error. There is so much blindness and ingratitude and damned folly in it. The world is a mirror of infinite beauty, yet no man sees it. It is a Temple of Majesty, yet no man regards it. It is a region of Light and Peace, did not men disquiet it. It is the Paradise of God. It is more to man since he is fallen than it was before. It is the place of Angels and the Gate of Heaven. When Jacob waked out of his dream, he said “God is here, and I wist it not. How dreadful is this place! This is none other than the House of God, and the Gate of Heaven.”
Thomas Traherne, Centuries (1672), 1:29, 30, 31, introduction by John Farrar (New York: Harper & Bros., 1960), 14-15.
Michelangelo, “On the Brink of Death”
Now hath my life across a stormy sea
Like a frail bark reached that wide port where all
Are bidden, ere the final reckoning fall
Of good and evil for eternity.
Now know I well how that fond phantasy
Which made my soul the worshipper and thrall
Of earthly art, is vain; how criminal
Is that which all men seek unwillingly.
Those amorous thoughts which were so lightly dressed,
What are they when the double death is nigh?
The one I know for sure, the other dread.
Painting nor sculpture now can lull to rest
My soul that turns to His great love on high,
Whose arms to clasp us on the cross were spread.
Trans. J. A. Symonds.
We give thanks to you, O God, creator and fashioner of the universe, for the work of your servants Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach, Matthias Grünewald, and Michelangelo; and we pray that by the vigor and strength of their creations you would open our eyes to the wonder of life, the glories of creation, and the exploration of our place in the world; through your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Readings: Isaiah 28:5-6; Psalm 96; Philippians 4:8-9; Matthew 13:44-52
Hymn of the Day: “How marvelous God’s greatness” (LBW 515, ELW 830)
Prayers: For painters, sculptors, architects; For a renewed appreciation of beauty as an attribute of God; For joy in the natural world; For a receptive mind to explore the beauty of creation.
Preface: All Saints