No, it’s not just because the air conditioner happened to be running.
Last week, my brain went on strike. A grading marathon followed by blogging and writing just under 2000 words on the WIP while trying to juggle plumbers and a call from the office left my mind unwilling to engage in anything requiring serious input. And my eyes needed a break from the screen or page. So I put in a Teaching Company (aka Great Courses) course I’ve been working through, this one including three lessons on Albrecht Dürer. And I was reminded once again why I love northern Renaissance art so very much, and why I can study his paintings and engravings and woodcuts for, if not hours, for extended periods of time. I also got to see his workshop and house-museum in Nuremberg a few years ago and pretty much had the place almost to myself, which is/was a nice bonus.
When I wasn’t juggling administrative matters that afternoon, I’d been working on some of the fall concert music, including my favorite “O nata Lux” by Morten Lauridsen. I know it well enough that I hear the other parts in my mind’s ear as I sing it, and it is very well memorized. Since I was warmed up, I also grabbed “Wie Lieblig Sind Deine Wohnungen,” the fourth movement of the Brahms’ German Requiem. There’s something moving about those two pieces, something that, when everything locks into place, sends chills through me.
Topping that with Renaissance art was perfect. I wish they’d shown more of Dürer’s religious paintings, but he worked in so many media that there’s a limit to what can be covered in three half-hour lectures. Just to get to see some old favorites again (“The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” “Adam and Eve,” the rabbit study) and learn more about them was wonderful.
I got a little chill watching the images and listening to the lecture. There is a beauty-shaped space inside me (with apologies to Pascal) that needs to be filled every so often. And the last time I was in a fine art museum was last summer, in the Kunsthistorisches (aka the Habsburg Attic. Between that and the Prado and Escorial, you will probably hit 9/10 of the Habsburg family’s collection, and only a fraction is ever on display at any given time, even as huge as those three collections are.) Looking at the pictures, in detail, learning about what role they played at the time and how they reflect the artist and his world is wonderful. And then there’s the pure aesthetic experience, the colors and shapes, the textures . . . The Renaissance was a period of amazing craftsmanship but also experimentation. New subjects (non-royal people, secular or Classical scenes), new techniques and the perfection of older ones (Dürer’s woodcuts), artists working in multiple media, the sense of discover, rediscovery and possibility, even in the face of wars and other problems, everything combines to produce some of the most magnificent art in the Western tradition. Granted, there’s also a lot of OK to “erm, well, it’s old” stuff too. Peter Paul Rubens produced art by the yard, if not the mile, and a lot of it gets repetitive. And a person can get a touch tired of room after room of saints, especially the most popular ones.
But the best Renaissance paintings and woodcuts and engravings reach out and touch something in the human spirit. I’m not Roman Catholic. I have some serious doubts about some of the theology around the Virgin Mary. But I can stand and look at this for quite a while and enjoy and feel a sense of something.
The Four Horsemen, for all that it is black and white, is one of the scarier images of that terrifying vision. You don’t have to know anything about the Book of Revelation to know that something terrible rides this way.
For more: www.albrecht-durer.org