Commentary by Hovak Najarian
Related post ‘Palm Sunday, April 1,2012’
When Albrecht Durer was a young boy in Nuremberg,Germany his skills were apparent and his father, a goldsmith, took him into his workshop for training. As a youth, Durer continued his training by apprenticing with a master engraver and then followed by traveling to other European countries. His first visit to Italy was in the mid 1490s but nine years later he returned in order to immerse himself in creative work. In Italy, a rebirth had been underway throughout the fifteenth century and during an extended stay in Venice (from 1505-1507) he made a thorough study of not only art but also the intellectual ideas that led to the Renaissance. In his life, Durer enjoyed a well deserved reputation as a painter but it was through the unrivaled quality of his woodcuts and metal engravings that his reputation as a Northern Renaissance artist spread throughout Europe.
Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem is from a series of woodcuts known as the Small Passion (the prints are quite small in scale). Durer started the thirty-seven prints not long after his return to Germany from Italy; he completed them in 1510 and then published them as a book in 1511. The dates of some of the plates (wood blocks) indicate Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem was the first of this series. In his original concept, the Passion was to be the only subject of the prints but after completing them, he decided to add six more prints beginning with Adam and Eve. This changed the emphasis from the Passion to mankind’s woes and our salvation through Christ.
In Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, Jesus is the central figure and is the focus of attention as He rides toward the gate of the city. The crowd that surrounds him is in a subordinate role; they are the supporting cast to the drama. As Christ is approaching the gate, an old man is placing a cloak on the ground before him. Another man is holding a palm frond. In ancient Rome, a frond symbolized victory and in Christian art it came to be associated with martyrs and a triumph over death. The palm tree in the background symbolizes the promise of immortality (because its fronds are always green).
Halos in Christian art are intended to suggest radiant light around the heads of saints and heavenly beings, but they have not always been depicted in the familiar circular form. Sometimes God the Father is given a triangular halo signifying the trinity. A living person, such as a donor, may be shown with a square halo to indicate they are not one of the saints. Christ is the only one given a cruciform halo in reference to his death on the cross. In “Christ’s Entry,” Durer does not use a circular halo but instead shows Christ’s head surrounded by an intense light with rays extending out beyond the glow.
Making prints from a raised surface (relief print) is a very ancient graphic process in which an image is drawn on a flat block of wood and then everything but the image itself is carved to be slightly below the surface. When ink is rolled across a prepared block the carved areas, being below the surface, receive no ink; these areas will remain white on the print. When a piece of paper is placed over the block and it is run through a press or pressed by hand, the ink is pulled from the surface of the block, transferring a reversed image onto the paper.
Many prints can be made from a prepared plate. Often an artist plans for a limited edition and destroys the plate after a series has been printed. Copyright laws were not in place during Durer’s time and many copies of his woodcuts were made. Some of his plates still exist.
Albrecht Durer signed his plates with a stylized letter “A” and a “D” in the lower space of the “A.” In “Christ’s Entry,” it is likely you noticed the “D” is reversed. In most instances, Durer reversed his initials on the plate itself in order that it could be read correctly after the print was pulled. It may have been one of his assistants who did the carving in Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem.
© 2012 Hovak Najarian