Object Record

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Catalog number 63.37
Artist Durer, Albrecht
Title Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam
Date 1526
Object Name Print
Description Desiderius Erasmus, Christian theologian and humanist, witnessed the burgeoning movement that would come to be known as the Protestant Reformation, yet remained committed to reforming the Church from within.

Here, he is depicted by printer and fellow theorist Albrecht Durer. Erasmus represented a more moderate position than his contemporary, Martin Luther, a man for whom Durer clearly had sympathy, though unlike Luther the artist never openly broke with the Roman Catholic Church. His religious loyalties notwithstanding, Erasmus gained the respect of both Luther and Durer for his superior learning and commitment to reform. The respect was mutual, for Erasmus was a great admirer of Durer's work, inquiring once: "What cannot Durer express in monochromes, that is, by black lines only?" In 1520, Durer gave Erasmus an engraving of the Passion (see the Passion prints on the upper level), and in 1526 executed an engraving of the theologian, the most famous symbol of the connection between the two influential men.

Erasmus is shown in a standing position, working at his desk, surrounded by the books that represent his scholarship and superior intellect. A Latin inscription on the wall proclaims: "This image of Erasmus of Rotterdam was drawn from life by Albrecht Durer." Accompanying the Latin is a Greek inscription: "A better portrait his writings show." The Greek was copied from a medal in the possession of their mutual friend Willibald Pirckheimer. The quote itself indicates that one may better understand Erasmus's nature through his written works, rather than through a graphic likeness. The inscriptions also show the command of classical language and learning held by the subject while also speaking to the artist's knowledge. Immediately below the inscription is the date of execution (1526) as well as Durer's monogram.

The engraving has the unique distinction of being Durer's last, for he died less than two years after its completion. Unfortunately, Erasmus found the portrait rather lacking, as he attested on several occasions. However, he did appreciate the power of the printed image, and in light of the fact that this image remains one of Durer's most famous (and the most recognizable likeness of Erasmus), one would like to think that Erasmus would have appreciated its continued impact, nearly five centuries after its execution.

Citation: Extract taken from essay by Justinne Lake-Jedzinak in "SCHOLARS, EXPLORERS, PRIESTS, How the Renaissance Gave Us the Modern World," ex. cat. G -T M, Queens College, CUNY, February 2 - March 27, 2010, 12.

Master of the graphic arts, Dürer had the task of portraying Erasmus of Rotterdam six years after seeing the humanist. Although the image did not please Erasmus, it remains one of
the most exquisite examples of Renaissance portraiture. Erasmus was an influential humanist who criticized the state of Catholicism during his time. As an ordained priest, Erasmus perceived hypocrisy in the church and, like Martin Luther, sought a more personal relationship with God that
did not require mediation or submission to the Pope. In this portrait, Erasmus sits alone in deep contemplation. With few distractions, it is possible for Erasmus to explore his own relationship with God.
The framed inscription behind Erasmus identifies the sitter, artist and year of creation, in Latin. Accompanying the Latin is a Greek text which reads, “A better portrait his writings show,” modestly suggesting that Erasmus’ true nature is better understood through his works than through this image.

Lisa Finger in "Re-Forming the Image in Northern Europe in the Dutch Golden Age", ex. cat. G -T M, Queens College, CUNY, February 4-April 27, 2013

Medium/Material Ink on paper
Dimensions H-10.5 W-8.346 inches
Search Terms Renaissance
16th century AD
Exhibition and Publication History * "Art from the Queens College Art Collection, Part I" City Art and Culture Center, NY 1973, p. 5, #5
* "A Selection From the Queens College Art Collection" , Klapper, 1979, #4
* Exhibited at the Gallery of the College of Staten Island, Master Prints of Four Centuries, Staten Island, 1997-98
* Exhibited"Director’s Choice: Highlights of the Godwin-Ternbach Collection, Part II: Renaissance to Modern Art. " G-TM, 10/10-12/20/02. A. Winter, Curator.
*"Director's Choice, Part II," G-TM, Fall, 2002, Amy Winter
* "SCHOLARS, EXPLORERS, PRIESTS, How the Renaissance Gave Us the Modern World," Curated by James M. Saslow, G -T M, Queens College, CUNY, February 2 - March 27, 2010, # 12, ill.
Culture German