During the birth of Luther’s Reformation, the German artist Albrecht Dürer found himself in agreement with the Protestant principles of the authority of Scripture. His final masterpiece, The Four Apostles, gives striking evidence of his Protestant commitments. This work stands at the birth of the Protestant Reformation like a mighty symbol decrying papal rule and idol worship that consumed the medieval church while also hailing the return to the authority of Scripture. Dürer’s gift to the magistrates of his home city of Nürenberg speaks volumes to the monumental changes brought forth by Martin Luther. This, the final masterwork produced by the artist, is a successful integration of the divine with the creation. Rather than depicting biblical narrative, Dürer utilizes his imagination to create a portrait as a vehicle for showing that individuals are the mouthpiece of the Creator and are under the authority of scripture.
I will take a look at a masterpiece that is considered a memorial to the chief principle of the Protestant Reformation, namely the authority of God’s Word. By using imagination to depict men who lived under the authority of Scripture Dürer was promoting reason. Because the Protestant tradition since the Reformation has shifted dominantly in favor of reason over imagination, by looking at this artwork produced at the birth of the movement, it is possible to see that in fact the earliest Reformers saw that imagination could be under the authority of reason and in the end coexist in a new way through cognition. Art awakens emotion and the responsibility of the Christian artist is to bring that emotion under the authority of scripture.
German artist Albrecht Dürer left behind this monumental work as a testament to his artistic achievements and to the positive changes the Reformation brought to his city.
His mastery of color and line combined with the authority of scripture pointed to divine truth brought back to awareness in the Protestant Reformation. The use of these four Saints; Paul, Mark, Peter, and John, along with the accompanying Scripture at the base of each panel, requires that this painting be a focus piece in the discussions of Reformation Arts.
Perhaps it can serve as a model for discussing how image was seen as complimentary to theology. It can also serve to inspire how art can be part of public Christian expression.
Description of the Two Panels
The two panels equally measure 215 x 76 cm each painted with oil on linden wood. The left panel depicts the Apostle John in the foreground and the Apostle Peter in the background. The right panel depicts the Apostle Paul in the foreground with Saint Mark in the background. Mark’s turned head and eyes look to Paul as the main focus of the panel drawing attention to the intensity of Paul’s face. Mark is recognized by the scroll in his hand that bears the name of his Gospel and the fact that Mark was not actually an Apostle questions the commonly accepted name for this piece, The Four Apostles.
Another title is accepted as The Four Holy Men. John and Paul are both holding bibles while Paul is seen with a sword, the traditional symbol in Pauline images. Peter is recognized by the key to heaven, a traditional symbol for Petrine images.
The balanced design of the composition and forward placement of John in the left panel and Paul in the right panel combined in their full-length stance with the flowing robes brings dominance to the two Apostles. Their symmetrical composition visually connect the two panels. The arms of the two men that hold their respective books align at the same level, each reinforcing the other. The men are turned toward each other yet have different facial demeanors and focus. John with a calmness looking reverently at his open book contrasted by Paul’s menacing left eye gazing directly at the viewer.
Details did not escape Dürer even the lettering of the open book held by John. The book clearly depicts the opening words of his gospel from Luther’s translation; “Im Anfang war das Wort” (In the beginning was the Word).
Dürer was trained as an artisan having come from a family of master goldsmiths. The precision and detail required for the craft were evident in his many woodcuts but also carried through to his painting. This can be seen in the attention given to proportion of the figures, the lines of the folds in the drapery and the fine hair on the heads and beards of the Apostles. His mastery of the portrait climaxed in this piece. This can be seen from the Italian styled dark background, to the mastery of color, to the highlights and the details on the skin of the apostles’ faces.
A significant aspect of this painting is the calligraphic inscription at the bottom of each panel. Passages of Scripture are selections from biblical writings of each of the four men. Preceding the New Testament passages is a warning to those in authority over men to beware of false teachers who misinterpret the Word of God. For God will not tolerate anything added to or taken away from His Word. The introduction concludes, “Hear therefore these four excellent men, Peter, John, Paul, and Mark, their warning.”
The two passages that rest at the base of the left panel are both from apostolic epistles. The first from the Apostle Peter’s second epistle (2 Peter 2:1-3) and the second from the Apostle John’s first epistle (1 John 4:1-3). On the right panel, are two passages from Saint Mark and the Apostle Paul. Beneath Mark are the words from Paul’s second epistle to Timothy (2 Timothy 3:1-7) and beneath the Apostle Paul are the words from Mark’s gospel (Mark 12:38-40).
These warnings from New Testament passages all speak against false teachers, false spirits, and those with a false form of godliness who selfishly seek to destroy the kingdom of God.
The Meaning of The Four Apostles
Consensus among art historians of the proper interpretation and meaning behind this piece has been impossible to determine and controversy among scholars remains today.
One of the most commonly held interpretations of the painting came from the calligrapher Johann Neudörfer, hired by Dürer to inscribe the chosen scriptural text at the bottom of each panel. According to Neudörfer he heard Dürer explain that the four men represented four personality traits found in mankind, “a sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic, and melancholic.”
However, Gerhard Pfeiffer argued that if one took a closer look at Neudörfer’s statements, there was no conclusive evidence that he overheard these words from Dürer himself while in the master artist’s employment as a calligrapher.
It was believed that Dürer chose the passages and not his hired calligrapher.
The strongest evidence of Dürer’s intended purpose of the painting can be found in the artist’s own words about the piece. In a letter accompanying the two panels when they were presented to the Nürnberg city council, Dürer expresses his long held desire to show, “respect for your Wisdoms by the presentation of some humble picture of mine as a remembrance.”
He goes on to explain that part of the delay in finishing the piece was due to his effort in making the paintings. He admits to taking a long period of time and a sacrifice of material to perfect the work and considered no painting more worthy than this piece because of his respect for the men he wished to honor.
Dürer’s presentation of this piece to the magistrates of Nürnberg was seen as a memorial to His own legacy. Scholars have viewed this action as the first example of a Northern Renaissance master dedicating his art to secular authority rather than to the church.
An alternate view from Gerhard Pfeiffer was that Dürer, rather than wishing a personal memorial, wanted to commemorate important persons and events in Nürnberg’s history.
Yet Carl Christensen argued that perhaps both motives were active in Dürer’s presentation. It was very likely that Dürer wanted to be remembered for his artistic legacy and desired to honor those he felt were important authorities in the community of Nürnberg.
Through Dürer’s own writings scholars have gleaned insight into his theories on painting and the arts. He thought of his art not only as a means of memorializing his own artistic legacy but his religious legacy as well. In his masterwork on painting, Speiss der Malerknaben, he is clear on the purpose of art. He saw painting fulfilling three areas; service of the church, the memorial, and scientific illustration.
One theory that these pieces were the result of a cancelled commission for an altarpiece is also debated. According to Art historians Charles Ephrussi and Moritz Thausing, the two panels were to have originally been planned as two outside wings of a triptych altarpiece. The middle panel was never completed and Dürer was left with an unpaid order. Due to numerous attempts to hypothesize the subject matter of the mystery middle panel was, according to Wölfflin, evidence that the two panels were never intended for purchase, nor were they intended for the church.
However, Dürer did receive financial reward for the two panels as government records show that the city fathers of Nürnberg took it upon themselves to compensate Dürer for this donation in the amount of 100 gulden, plus twelve gulden for his wife and two for his servant.
Carl Christensen brought adequate evidence to contradict the intensions of Dürer to simply donate the panels pro bono to the city council of Nuernberg. When asked by the council to name his desired compensation Dürer denied a reply. The nature of art patronage and the art market during this period was not economically sound. The Protestant Reformation had brought with it a violent iconoclasm, which resulted in economic disaster for those who earned their living through the arts. Some scholars have argued that the function of The Four Apostles may have been intended as a public testimony for the arts in a period when religious radicalism lead to iconoclastic anger toward the arts. This painting stands as a strong apology for the marrying of visual arts and religion.
The shape of the panels and the subject matter are strongly reminiscent of two winged sections of an altarpiece. One cannot deny these obvious connections to a work that would normally be commissioned by the church. Scholars argue that Dürer began these two panels years prior to their presentation to the city council but lost the commission due to the radical change in the art market. He then framed them and delivered the art to the city. It was not uncommon for artists of the day to receive some form of repayment when presenting art to the council as a donation. The pattern for this type of activity was seen in the courthouse records of the day where numerous artists and writers, looking for patronage, would present works of creativity to the council and in turn the council would pay a small sum as a good will gesture for their efforts. Dürer would have been familiar with this practice as there is strong evidence that he himself had in years past benefited from this arrangement. However, his other motives for wishing to honor his city and those he considered honorable leaders were still compatible with the patronage argument.
Dürer could have hardly been surprised at the council’s decision to purchase the painting. If Dürer did anticipate compensation, this does not weaken the importance of this piece in the discussion of art and religion.
Dürer is successful through this piece in wanting to memorialize the beliefs he embraced in the Reformation. Because he had planned on painting a portrait of Luther as a remembrance of the Reformer but never did, The Four Apostles is seen as a memorial to the victory of the Reformation.
Further evidence of a tribute to the Reformation is strongly present in The Four Apostles in several ways. First. The selection of these four men being portrayed together was unique. There is no traditional evidence for this grouping in earlier church art. Next, the strong emphasis in this piece on the Word of God is another important Reformation principle. Three of the four men hold copies of the scripture. It is significant that the Apostle Peter is pushed to the background. His head is bowed as if in submission to the Word of God being held in front of him. In traditional Roman Catholic images, Peter is the hailed founder of the church and was usually portrayed in places of prominence. By treating Peter this way, many art historians view Dürer’s choice as a direct challenge toward traditional papal authority. Peter’s lowered gaze directs the viewer to the book held by John and also shows retreat, giving greater authority to the two Apostles in the foreground.
By Catholic tradition, Peter and Paul were the leading apostles. But in this painting, John and Paul are given that status. The Reformation gave importance to the New Testament contributions of John and Paul and at times the early Reformers were called Pauline’s as Paul was considered the Apostle of the Reformation. Luther considered John his favorite evangelist as he viewed John’s account of Christ as the chief Gospel.
Dürer wished to express his opinion that mankind was the mouthpiece and voice of God, the means to which God chose to carry out his Word.
The figures portrayed show a strong adherence to the individual. The focus for Dürer was not to illustrate a biblical event; rather he chose to focus on the message that four individuals carried out through their writings and lives as ordained by God. The Word became the focus and the men who carried out the Word were the subjects. The Four Apostles panels became Dürer’s prayer of expression to God. Rather than portraying the infinite toward the finite, he portrayed the finite pointing to the infinite, a clearly Protestant theology. This was his confession that all he does, namely art, was done for the glory of his creator. If in fact this painting was presented without expectation of payment to the city of Nürnberg, then his motives were entirely for the glory of God. Confessions were not expected to have financial reward.
The passages chosen by Dürer to be included at the base of the two panels represent the qualities of the Reformation. Whatever position these passages hold in support of the Reformation, the four men stand as pillars of Christianity as a whole. Man is the visual focus in these panels and all landscape is absent. The inscribed text was necessary to aid in understanding the intent of the piece, because these panels were to enlighten the community while being seen by everyone in the public square.
As a master of his craft, Dürer was fully aware that no work of art should be overly weighted by interpretive boundaries. The scripture aided in the understanding of the piece, but his thoughts on theology were strongly seen in the pictures. This piece clearly showed Dürer’s master of color and form. The portraits were imaginary conceptions of each man drawn from their writings.
However, Gerhard Pfeiffer proposed an argument that the four portraits of the evangelists were also exact portraits of four leaders, educators, who established a Protestant secondary school in the city of Nürnberg.
His arguments were intriguing but have been disputed by other Dürer scholars. Also missing were halos symbolizing sainthood. These four men were merely men. Yet, they stand in a mysterious light that comes from within as dedicated servants to God.
This further emphasized the Protestant notion that as fallen men, their humanity was brought to perfection through the power of God’s Word in their lives.
Likewise, The Four Apostles was the culmination of Dürer’s spiritual and artistic perfection.
Imagination and Reason in Balance
A new form of art that was developed after the Protestant Reformation was a combination of imagery and the word. William A. Dyrness wrote, “The image has a role to play, but not independently of the word. The word and image together display the truth that God has placed in the order of things, just as the sign and promise together give meaning to the sacrament.”
What the Reformation rightly accomplished was a return to reason over emotion in communal and private worship. Artists like Albrecht Dürer knew well that visual images had the power to motivate the viewer. This was why he chose to present his piece to the city magistrates resulting in it being displayed in a public building for all to see. He desired to have his exhortation of warning and encouragement be seen by all and wanted the most visible exposure for the piece to reach the greatest number of people.
On the nature of art, William Dyrness argues that, “Reformation Art, like medieval philosophy, functioned ancilla domini, a means to a higher end.”
Dürer’s message in The Four Apostles is that art does point to a higher purpose, namely the Sovereignty of God as revealed in his Word. He saw that word (reason) and image (imagination) could work together effectively to achieve a higher end and he warned the public not to stray from the authority of God’s Word. By this example, he allowed his own imagination to be in subjection to the scriptures. The divinely inspired words of John, Peter, Mark and Paul, the subjects themselves, shaped this painting. Jean-Louis Chrétien said that both word and image were necessary companions in the call and response from scripture. The calling for beauty and the image responding to that call express that beauty. Socrates in the Symposium pointed out that, “vision, at every step produces speech in response,” and “visible beauty calls for spoken beauty.”
The expression of the beauty of God’s Word often results in speech and music, but it can likewise move one to creativity through paint or sculpture.
Richard J. Foster’s discussion of the positive and dangerous aspects of the imagination, points out that it may be rare for some individuals to experience God in the abstract, that is seeing and understanding what is unseen. Without visual imagination one is left to contemplate with reason alone a tangible God who is beyond the ability of our simple minds to comprehend without some root of familiarity. A merely mental approach becomes too abstract and detached from God himself. The imagination aids in anchoring the mysteries that one seeks to contemplate. However, it is also appropriate to be concerned that the imagination can be untrustworthy and be used by the Evil One. Just like all of our other faculties, the imagination has succumbed to sin through the fall. But if God can sanctify reason and use it for His purposes, can he not also restore the imagination just the same? The dangers of the twisted abuse of the imagination is cause for one to depend on God to protect our imagination from the snares of evil. The idea of incarnation applies here. If God has so incarnated himself into our world he most surely uses images of what we know and understand to help us comprehend what is most impossible to understand.
When reason and imagination work together the result is a method of acquiring understanding that leads to perception or intuition.
Albrecht Dürer the artist embraced this truth and expressed it perfectly in The Four Apostles.
Dürer’s Defense of Religious Art
During Dürer’s influence in the early years of Protestantism, the movement struggled to distinguish what had become traditions of man from what was divine and led to truth. The church had, to many, become idolatrous taking away the rightful worship due God himself. The material world had stolen the attention of worshippers. In the process the church had been filled with the filth of idols in the most vivid way. So the Protestant Reformation sought to cleanse the Church from all the wreckage of images and relics.
Some of the harshest battles in the Reformation were over the role of images. The corruption had become so large, opposition rose among sections of the movement for a radical response. Artists of the day were very much aware of the attacks against their craft. Dürer was no stranger to Bordenstein von Karlstadt, a contemporary of Martin Luther at the University of Wittenberg. Karlstadt was a vocal critic of religious art and his writings stirred violent iconoclasm throughout Germany. His purpose was to reestablish the authority of God’s Word, but his methods did more harm than good.
In a publication of 1521 entitled, “Instruction Concerning Vows,” Karlstadt condemned what he called the cult of images. He saw images as intrical to a religious atmosphere that impeded the intellectual and spiritual growth of the common laity. Worse, images misdirected and corrupted Christian worship. He argued that religious art stole away faith and prayer from their proper recipient, God himself. Karlstadt later that year continued his condemnation of makers of images and called for the destruction of all images of Christ, Mary and the Saints. His strongest condemnation of images came a year later in 1522 when he wrote “On the Abolition of Images” to justify the violence against images in Wittenberg.
It is no doubt that these attacks affected Dürer and he felt compelled to stand up against them. Just as Luther vehemently fought back against Karlstadt on matters of iconclasm, Dürer felt compelled to take a stand for religious art as well. He must have seen the writings of Karlstadt and other iconoclasts as taking away or adding wrong teachings to the Word of God. They became false teachers in his eyes and were dangerous to the well being of the church.
The Four Apostles was most clearly Dürer’s proclamation on the validity of Christian Art and his response to the attacks of the iconoclasts in Wittenberg. It was very possible that the artist wrestled with the apparent contradiction between his love for the visual image and his newfound theology. He must have asked himself if his career as an artist was compatible with his evangelical faith. But any fears were laid to rest as evidenced in his personal writings on religious art in 1525. He wrote;
“For a Christian would no more be led to superstition by a picture or effigy than an honest man to commit murder because he carries a weapon by his side. He must indeed be an unthinking man who would worship picture, wood, or stone. A picture therefore brings more good than harm, when it is honorably, artistically, and well made.”
The arts were under heavy attack during this time and Dürer responded with this final masterpiece, The Four Apostles. He wrote further in response to the iconoclasts of his day, “arts very quickly disappear, but only with difficulty and after a long time can they be rediscovered.”
The arts in some Protestant worship have nearly disappeared for five centuries. Perhaps it is time for the religious arts to be rediscovered among Evangelicals who must then lead the way to proper application and understanding within the church while ministering to the twenty-first century visual culture.