Albrecht Dürer’s Nativity Woodcuts
Albrecht Dürer’s Nativity Woodcuts communicate complexity with nothing but lines, and it is astounding. Realistically representing space, emotion, perspective, with nothing but lines cut into wood amazes me with the delicacy he achievies. Dürer has always been my favorite artist and I’m looking forward to sharing some of his work with you today.
Durer and Printmaking
Printmaking was just coming into it’s own when Dürer purchased a press. He was the first artist to do so. He saw in the medium the opportunity to have a consistent income. Painters, even great ones, had to wait for the next commission to come in, and money worries were the norm. Durer recognized the potential in printmaking. He could sell a piece of work, over and over again, and at an affordable price. A consistent base income was a luxury artists didn’t have.
Reading any biography of Dürer, without fail, the quality that is mentioned, after his art, is his understanding of business. Dürer was a true Renaissance man. He was famous during his lifetime and the greatest artist that Germany had seen. He was also a skilled businessman, a mathematician, an art theorist and student of nature. Insatiably curious and quick to absorb new ideas and see their potential, Dürer didn’t just set up a press to make prints, he created true art, taking printmaking beyond what had previously been conceived of.
Woodcuts had been around awhile, and many were good, very good, but Dürer elevated the craft of printmaking to the same level as painting. His engraving, Melancholia, is haunting and mysterious, his rhinoceros is one of the most reproduced images in art.
With painting artists generally waited for a commission, and Dürer received many commissions. He did altarpieces and massive paintings, but he also created woodcuts and engravings of things that interested him, and then sold them. He didn’t need to wait for a commission to make a woodcut. His wife handled a lot of the details of the print business, going out to the weekend markets to sell the prints. We know that his print of the rhinoceros sold several thousand prints in his lifetime, and there is still a strong market for the piece today.
Doing so many woodcuts, and being famous, there were challenges. Other artists could easily get a print, make a woodcut from it, then begin selling them. Many people did just that. Copyrights were not a thing. Dürer actually went to court with one competitor and the judgement was that there was nothing wrong with copying the picture, but on the copies, his signature could not be duplicated. Of course, knowing that one had purchased a Dürer was a selling point, but even without his mark on them, they were amazing prints. Most copies couldn’t match the work that his workshop did, so copies were not identical to the original prints.
Durer Created Branding
Dürer had a more modern view of the artist. He saw himself, and others like him, as more than just craftsmen. In a time when most Northern artist didn’t sign their work, he worked his signature into his pieces in very visible ways. This was not a small signature on a frame. He’d designed what we would now call a logo, and displayed it prominently. The logo was his initials.
Woodcuts vs. Engravings
I’m going to show you three different prints that Dürer created of the nativity. Two are woodcuts and one is an engraving. Engravings were drawn, and then engraved by the artist, and there was a limited number of copies that could be made before the engraving was done.
Woodcuts are a bit different. First they are a relief print, meaning the black lines you see is what is NOT cut away. The raised portion is the part that will be inked. So, as you look at these prints realize that the white areas are what was carved out. This is the opposite of the engraving process. Also, the print will be in reverse once printed.
The artist, in this case Dürer, would make the very detailed drawing. He would not be doing the carvings. The workshop would have craftsmen who were highly skilled in carving and in the use of the tools needed. The wood would be very carefully chosen, as grains as well as other features of wood can make carving challenging. The carving would be a collaborative effort between the artist and the carver.
I would strongly suggest enlarging these as you are looking at them to appreciate how the shading, perspective, and depth was achieved, Albrecht became an expert at cross-hatching. That is where lines run horizontally and vertically making hatch marks. Depending on how close together they are, they can create differences in shading.
Imagery: Dilapidated Buildings
In the North in particular, artists frequently painted the nativity scene in a building that appears to be the ruins of a house, falling down and in serious disrepair. This is meant to show that Christ was coming into a fallen, sinful world that is decaying and in ruins. His coming will redeem not only men, but creation itself.
As you can see, the building portrayed in the Nativity to our left is in ruins. The fact that the building is open at the front is not an indication of it’s dilapidated state however. Leaving a wall out so that we can view what is happening inside was a common device used in the North. However, the roof has holes and we can see evidence of the building showing the signs of its age.
Imagery: The Naked Baby
Mary and several angels are kneeling in adoration in front of the baby and the Christ child is naked. Artists use a variety of images to communicate meaning when creating nativity scenes. Here we have an emphasis on Jesus being fully human and also fully divine. He is naked to show the vulnerability of God taking on flesh and coming, not just as a human to save his people, but as a helpless newborn. And we have Mary, recognizing the divine in her son as she kneels in adoration. These two simple details convey a wealth of Christian doctrine to the viewer.
Mary’s clothing has the distinctive angular folds that we see in Northern Renaissance works.
Imagery: Shepherds and Animals
The Shepherds kneel at the open arched doorway, and if you look beyond them you will see in the distance an angel appearing to the shepherds in the field. This continuous narration gives us the two scenes of the shepherds story in that one doorway.
If you look closely into the darkness at the back of the stable you will see that the traditional oxen is back there feeding.
Additional Details Finish the Story
Joseph is outside, entering from the left. He is dressed as a man from Nuremberg, not ancient Bethlehem. Check out the shoes. This was intentional. Dürer is not trying to be historically accurate, he is inviting us to picture ourselves at the nativity, he is showing that the message of the story is timeless.
Over Joseph a circle of angels celebrate the birth. Although I couldn’t read the banner, and it was probably in Latin or German, it is safe to assume it had the familiar line of the angels…Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth, Peace. To the right of the angels is the star, shining over the stable, announcing the birth.
At the foreground, on a stone, we see Dürer’s initials, foreshortened as if really carved into the stone. Amazingly, as we look at this print we can tell the texture of stone from that of wood, we can feel the delicacy of the grasses growing from the roof. We can even make out details in the background of the painting, smoke from a chimney, shepherd’s on a hill. Just as painters painted landscapes with details in paintings, Dürer has given us a full scene with all that we would expect to see if we were there. All of this done with black ink on white paper, without colors for shading or translucent glazes to trick the eye.
When we use the words, The Passions of Christ, we are normally referring to the events of the last week of Christ’s life. During Dürer’s life there was a great deal of physical suffering: plagues, wars, and famines were common. But there was spiritual suffering as well. The various waves of the Reformation were happening and individuals and cities were being torn apart as various factions fought over doctrine and practice.
In this climate, painting cycles of the Passion was very popular. Passion Cycles were a series of paintings that showed the events of the last week of Christ’s life. The word Passion, refers to Christ suffering, and the images would focus specifically on the moments that Christ suffered during that week. Often these cycles were painted around the walls of churches to remind parishioners of what their salvation cost Christ.
With the advances of the printing press, Dürer made a series of woodcuts about the Passion of Christ, but he began with the Garden of Eden, The Fall, and a few other Old Testament stories, then Christ’s life, then the last weeks of His life.
The woodcut to the right is from Albrecht Dürer’s The Small Passion. Consisting of 36 woodcuts and a title page, many copies were made and bound together.
The first edition was made in 1511, and on the reverse of each print, written in Latin were the verses pertaining to the picture. The series proved quite popular across Europe and was being printed in full cycles up to the 20th Century.
We have here many of the common nativity elements, Mary kneeling with arms crossed, a sign of prayer and submission most often found in Annunciation works. Joseph, the Shepherds, and the star above the stable are all present.
Off in the distance we see the angel appearing to the shepherds.
Along with this, above Mary the beams form a cross, reminding us that Christ has come to die.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at a few of the prints Dürer created during his career.
I have several videos on my YouTube channel that explore some of Dürer’s other works.
I’ve also created a curriculum on the Rhino print that is available in my store.
For other articles in this advent series, follow this link.
This is a video on how a woodcut print is made.
Continue the Advent in Art Journey – Day 16 Giorgione
E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art. (New York, Phaidon Press, 2016)
Professor Sharon Latchaw Hirsh, How to Look at and Understand Great Art, Lecture series, Great Courses
Professor William Koss, History of European Art Lecture series, Great Courses
Sister Wendy Beckett, The Story of Painting (London, Dorsey Kindersley, 2000)
Marilyn Stokstad, Art History. (New Jersey, Pearson Education, 2005)
National Gallery of Art website www.nga.gov
Metropolitan Museum of Art website www.metmuseum.org
The Getty Center www.getty.edu
And thanks to the Met and Wiki commons quality images for public domain art is now much more easily accessible.