Lately I have had a pleasure to work on the old prints of the collection of Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences, which are being digitalised and appear in the on-line service PAUart (www.pauart.pl). The collection contains, among others, numerous prints and copies after the prints by Albrecht Dürer. Today I would like to focus on one of his engravings.
Albrecht Dürer is the most famous artist representing so called Northern Renaissance. He was a painter and engraver from Nuremberg, living since 1471 till 1528. He was very famous already during his lifetime, both north from the Alps and in Italy. He signed his works with his monogram AD and the proof of his popularity is in the fact that this monogram increased the value of any print, so it was actually often forged.
In one of his letters to Willibal Pirckheimer Albrecht Dürer complained that the Italians made money on copying and selling his prints. Dürer was actually one of the first artists concerned about his copyrights; he managed to get the imperial privilege from Maximilian I that forbade copying and selling Dürer’s prints. Today I would like to focus on one of his most famous engravings: Adam and Eve, dating back to 1504. There is a copy after this print, completed in 1566 by Jan Wierix, kept in Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences collection. Adam and Eve, surrounded by various animals in paradise, are depicted while commiting a sin – but that image actually also contains a promise of future salvation.
No doubts that Adam and Eve are depicted as perfect people in ancient tradition and taste – they resemble Venus and Apollo, which is not surprising, as Dürer was the artist of the Renaissance. But there is something more: unfortunately it seems that the image is a bit sexist, as apparently Eve is responsible for the fall of mankind, while Adam carries the promise of salvation. We need to have a closer look at the branches they hold: Eve hold a fig, which symbolises the sin, while Adam has a mountain ash, signifying the Tree of Life. By the hand of Eve we can see a snake, which is not surprising; but on a branch in Adam’s hand there sits a parrot. That bird has been associated with Virgin Mary, as the parrot’s sound was decyphered as “AVE” – the reverse of “EVA” and the beginning of Angel’s Greeting from the Annunciation. On that same branch we may see a tablet with a date and signature of Dürer.
What about the other animals? Well, they are surely not random. Usually it is assumed that the four animals by Adam and Eve’s feet represent four temperaments: so we have a choleric cat, melancholic elk, sanguinic rabbit and phegmatic ox. About the four temperaments you can read in one of my previous posts, available HERE.
We may wonder if the animals (together in the number of seven: parrot, snake, rabbit, elk, mouse, cat and ox) could represent seven deadly sins (Pride, Greed, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Anger and Sloth). In any case we should separately focus on the pair of cat and mouse. A cat that chases a mouse may recollect the idea of human soul chased by the devil; however it seems more likely that in this case the symbolics actually goes the other way round. Mouse is a pest, so it was understood as a personification of the devil, while cat, as living moustrap, could appear in the depiction of Annunciation, which is a moment of Incarnation of the Saviour. I have written about that in one of my previous posts as well, available HERE. And let me focus your attention on the fact that Adam steps on mouse’s tail: so again he is the one that predicts the salvation and eventual fail of Satan. That is connected to the idea that Christ can be called “the New Adam”. Unless we have a sexist image here again: perhaps Adam is just a helpless mouse while Eve is a femme fatale, a cat who chases and wins.
And finally one last animal, the one that is difficult to notice at first glance. In the background to the right we can see rocky mountains and there is a mountain-goat on the top of one of the peaks! That is actually a Biblical scapegoat – again a reference to Christ, whose sacrifice will save the world. So in spite of the fact that the image depicts the fall of mankind, we can see the salvation in the future.
It’s nice that at least this one symbol has been placed at Eve’s side of the print. Perhaps she’s not entirely lost cause… of course, it is Adam who is privileged, as Christ will be “New Adam”. Albrecht Dürer, by the way, seemed to think of himself as of “Another Christ”, as he obviously showed in the most famous of his self-portraits.
It seems that Albrecht Dürer was not very consequent: on one hand he fought for his copyrights, but on the other hand compared himself to Christ, who obviously advised everyone to follow him. Maybe because of that Dürer’s works were followed and copied for the next centuries in spite of any imperial privileges.
[Update Nov 2016]: If you are interested in Dürer’s copies in PAU collection, check out my article “Virgin and Child on a Grassy Bench by Albrecht Dürer and five copies after it in the collection of the Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cracow.” in on-line open access journal ArtHistory.us.