Albrecht Durer’s "Four Apostles": A Masterpiece of Imagination that Promotes Reason

Introduction

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 what is considered a memorial to the chief principle of the Protestant Reformation, namely the authority of God’s Word. The iconography and the accompanying scripture on the piece show a balance between word and image. By using imagination, Dürer is 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 leaves 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 points to divine truth brought back to awareness by the Protestant Reformation. The use of these four Saints; Paul, Mark, Peter, and John, along with the accompanying scripture, 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 and once again how art can be part of public Christian expression.

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4 Comments

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  1. It is also worth noting that unlike any of the Roman Catholic painters/sculptors of the Italian Renaissance, Durer places St. Peter in the back. He is not necessarily lessening Peter's importance, but it's impossible to ignore considering Peter is the first pope and symbolizes the Church (Capital 'C')Church commissioned work would never put St Peter BEHIND Paul and John.

  2. Bryant,I came across your blog while doing some research on Durer for an art history paper that I am writing. Thank you for the solid post. It is always interesting to see a true Christian opinion on all of the Catholic pieces of art. I was wondering…do you happen to know what the inscription says at the bottom of the “Four Apostles”. I have heard that it basically says to heed the words of the NT and not to be led astray by false prophets? I have been unable to find the full inscription anywhere. Thank you for a point in the right direction! Also, I wanted to tell you that my husband actually is in his second year of his M.Div at SEBTS.

  3. Thank you for your explanation of this great work of art and the connection you make, to the future of expressive art under the authority of Scripture. I am an SBC pastor’s wife in Florida, helping a high school son with a project for a college Humanities final project – to take an artist of the time period of Renaisaance to Baroque, and do a presentation on him and his work. Because the textbook and the teacher do not allow for the “faith” connection to many of these artists, we especially wanted to choose one that would give the opportunity to speak about such things. Thank you. I am new at blogging so thanks for the opportunity to try this side of it, commenting!

  4. Thank you Charlotte for the dialog. Yes, Christian artists must rise up after 500 years of silence. The Reformation returned Christianity to focus on scripture, but rejected creativity in the process through fear. It is now time for creativity to return, but it must be shaped by scripture first.

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