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Albrecht Durer and woodcuts of the Nativity

Welcome to day 15.

Albrecht Durer is one of my favorite artists, I really love his woodcuts and engravings. Communicating complexity with nothing but lines, it astounds the viewer. That he so realistically represents space, emotion, perspective, shading…with nothing but black and white lines is beyond impressive.

Printmaking was just coming into it’s own when Durer 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. This could mean a consistent base income, a luxury most artists didn’t have.

When one sets out to learn about Durer, without fail, along with his incredible artistic talent, the other quality that is mentioned is his understanding of business. This was a true Renaissance man. He was an artist, the greatest artist that Germany had ever seen, and extremely famous and valued in his own time. But with that Durer was a skilled businessman, a mathematician, an art theorist and student of nature. Insatiably curious and quick to absorb new ideas and see their potential, he didn’t just set up to make prints, he created true art, taking printmaking beyond what had been conceived of.

At that time woodcuts had been around awhile, and many were good, very good, but Durer elevated the craft  of printmaking to the same level as painting. His engraving, Meloncholia, is haunting and mysterious, his rhinoceros is one of the most reproduced images in art.

With painting artists generally waited for a commission, and Durer 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. Durer 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 Durer 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 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.

I’m going to show you three different prints that Durer 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.

Albrecht Durer, The Nativity.  1502-1504 Woodcut on laid paper. 11 3/4 by 8 5/16  National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

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 Durer, 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.

The one element that we have not discussed so far in our series is the element of the dilapidated building. 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 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. However, the roof has holes and we can see evidence of the building showing the signs of its age.

Mary and several angels are kneeling in adoration in front of the baby. The Christ child is naked, a reminder that God has come in the flesh to save us. Mary’s clothing has the distinctive angular folds that we see in Northern Renaissance works.

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 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. Joseph is outside, entering from the left. 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 his birth. At the foreground on a stone we see Durer’s initials, foreshortened as if it is 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, Durer 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 that time there was not only a great deal of physical suffering, but spiritual suffering as well. Painting cycles of the passion was very popular. By cycles I mean a series of paintings done of each individual event of that week. Often these cycles were done around the walls of a church.

With the advances of the printing press, Durer made a series of woodcuts about the Passion of Christ, but it started 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.












Albrecht Durer, The Nativity and Adoration of the Shepherds from the Small Passion. The British Museum

The woodcut to the right is one of these from what is now referred to as Albrecht Durer’s The Small Passion. Consisting of 36 woodcuts and a title page, many copies were made of these and bound together. They  were collected by those who could afford a copy.

The first edition was made in 1511, and on the reverse of each print, written in Latin were the verses pertaining to the picture. It was very 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. We have Joseph and the Shepherds, the star above the stable, and the angel appearing to the shepherds off in the distance. Along with this, in the beams directly above Mary is a clear reference to the cross.

Durer’s signature is in the foreground on a beam.

I’ll leave you with this famous carol, which seems to fit these prints. The second stanza of Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.

Christ, by highest Heav’n adored;
Christ the everlasting Lord;
Late in time, behold Him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail th’incarnate Deity,
Pleased with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel

For other articles in this advent series, follow this link.

This is a video on how a woodcut print is made.

This is a video by the British Museum about Durer’s rhinoceros.

Continue the Advent in Art Journey – Day 16 Giorgione

Giorgione’s Adoration of the Shepherds


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

Metropolitan Museum of Art website

The Getty Center

And thanks to the Met and Wiki commons quality images for public domain art is now much more easily accessible.



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