Dürer lived from 1471–1528, making him a Renaissance artist, but that is a very broad category. The term Renaissance makes one think of the Italian city-states and their own cultures and geniuses. Instead, we can use the term German Renaissance, itself a part of the Northern Renaissance, to classify Dürer, who was born in Imperial Free City of Nuremberg (Dürer, Albrecht). But although Dürer was Germanic, he was still influenced by the Italian Renaissance, and visited Italy twice (Albrech Dürer). He also may have corresponded with Leonardo da Vinci.
The Fall of Man is a copper engraving, made in 1504, and measures about 6 x 8 feet. There is a sign hanging from a tree limb announcing “ALBRECHT DVRER NORICVS FACIEBAT 1504”, a bit of obvious Latin with V in place of U. Defining Dürer’s style is more difficult, as he was a woodcutter, engraver, and painter. For example, it would surely take a scholar to identify Dürer as the creator of 1503’s The Large Turf . But probably the defining characteristic of his work — at least those showing people and distinct objects — is exacting proportion, of which he wrote four books. In this he fit in with the Renaissance pattern of greater visual realism, or (more likely) seeming realism, as his proportions are said to be idealized.
This picture is loaded with symbolism, as is much of Dürer’s work (his Melancholia 1 may be a defining example). “Official” explanations seem to trivialize his art as much as explain it. Here is how one authoritative source treats some of the picture’s iconography:
The cat and mouse in the foreground—predator and innocent prey—summarize the relationship between the two human protagonists. Perched on a distant cliff at the upper right is an ibex, or goat, a traditional symbol for the unbelieving, and an apt metaphor for the first humans to break a divine commandment. The elk, bull, rabbit, and cat embody the four humors, or temperaments: the melancholic, the phlegmatic, the sanguine, and the choleric. (Index)
The cultural context of the Fall of Man was that of (as mentioned) the various regional renaissances. Some highlights: in 1504, Columbus was in the New World frightening hostile Jamaican natives with a lunar eclipse he knew would occur; his patron Queen Isabella died, as did her husband Ferdinand II (both in November of that year); the well-known painter Filippino Lippi, a contemporary of Dürer, died as well; and Michelangelo’s David was unveiled in Florence (Hisdates.com). Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation was thirteen years away.
This picture is culturally significant in the same way all of Dürer’s output is, being the product of a uniquely gifted artist, in this case a virtuoso of engraving. Such works necessarily reflect the culture and education of the artist. For Dürer, it meant a culture that was producing more and more customers who could buy pieces requiring such difficult disciplines as engraving images backward with absolute precision into metal and wood. That is a culture with an adequate surplus of time and money. In other words, it is a rich culture, one worthy of such an artist.
Dürer’s work (both the Fall of Man and others) might be rich with symbolism to the point of saturation, but anyone can enjoy them. They may be puzzles in one sense, but first they are masterful works of visual art that attract and hold the viewer’s interest. Finally (for the purposes of this paper anyway), although the subject matter of the engraving is obviously religious, it is also Dürer’s own unique take on the Old Testament warning. He re-imagines it and feels free to do so without fear of being burnt at the stake for blasphemy or banished from his family and city like a leper. He could even turn such art into a profession and be rewarded. His was a new world.
Albrech Dürer. 2012. 20 January 2013.
Dürer, Albrecht. 19 Junee 2006. 20 January 2013.
Hisdates.com. 2013. 20 January 2013.
Index . n.d. 20 January 2013.