The neologism ‘selfie’ first entered the Oxford English Dictionary’s online edition in 2013 and has come to be associated primarily with narcissistic adolescent girls, but historically the great Queen of the Selfie was in fact a King, the great Northern Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer.
Over the course of his lifetime Dürer painted at least three self-portraits, of which this is the last. He also completed several sketches of himself, and may also have used himself as the model in several paintings of Christ.
‘Self Portrait at Twenty-Eight’ is not a painting of Christ, but it borrows heavily from religious imagery of the time, and it is this which gives it a certain air of controversy. In 1500, the year of ‘Self-Portrait at Twenty-Eight’, only religious subjects were depicted in a frontal view: portraits were painted in profile, or with a quarter turn away from the viewer. Nor does the religious imagery end there. Although Dürer’s long hair and beard are hardly exceptional by the fashion standards of the day there is an undeniable resemblance to popular depictions of Christ. There is something epochal about the way the date is painted: 1500, followed by Dürer’s initials, which just happen to be A.D., which just happens to be the old way of indicating ‘Anno Domini’ – ‘the year of our Lord’ – the number of years since Christ. In medieval thinking, twenty-eight marked the transition from youth to maturity (no such concept as ‘middle age’ back then), and there is something epochal in Dürer’s recording of the date.
Then there is the other inscription, which apparently translates as “I, Albrecht Dürer of Nuremberg portrayed myself in appropriate [or everlasting] colours aged twenty-eight years”. Which is it, ‘appropriate’ or ‘everlasting’? And, if the latter, is ‘everlasting’ simply a prosaic assessment of the durability of the materials used, or is a more spiritual interpretation intended? And finally there is the position of Dürer’s right hand as it fingers the fur trim of the coat in a position which bears a strong resemblance to the gesture used in religious icons and by priests to deliver a benediction – but here, the gesture is turned inwards.
What was Dürer’s intention? Was this an ego trip, consciously portraying himself as a god, or at least god-like? Was it a philosophical statement on the supremacy of man at a time when humanism was placing fresh emphasis on the power and possibility of human thought and talent? Or was it just the opposite, a visual depiction of that most deeply Christian of ideals, the humble imitation of Christ?
Certainly, Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) was one of the foremost painters of his time, and The foremost painter of the Northern school. His work, like that of Caravaggio in Italy, would have a profound influence on those who came after him. He painted kings and queens, was commissioned by bishops and noblemen, and corresponded with the intellectual elite. He also authored a number of works himself, on subjects like geometry and architecture as well as art. In short, he was a Renaissance Man.
‘Self-Portrait at Twenty-Eight Years Old Wearing a Coat with Fur Collar’ is painted in oil on a wood panel and measures 66.3cm by 49cm, making it a relatively small work. It is held in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, Germany.
What do you think? What is Dürer getting at here?