Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Mysteries of Dürer

We had driven down to do a little birding at Swan Lake, a few miles west of St. Peter. A hundred years ago the lake was a market-hunter’s paradise, and thousands of ducks and geese were bagged there, packed in ice, and shipped immediately to the fancy restaurants in Chicago. Duck hunters still go there today, though more than half of the lake has been drained, and if you don’t have a boat or a canoe you’re not likely to see much. The cattails have overgrown the viewing platforms on the SE side of the lake.

Our best sighting was of a least bittern, typically an elusive bird, who was standing in the mud in plain view near the conservation club headquarters. We watched him picking up passing morsels from the muck for a good fifteen minutes.

After a pleasant picnic at Mill Pond Park, we drove up to the campus of Gustavus Adolphus College. It has a windswept feel, sitting on the top of the hill with miles of former prairie to the west and St. Peter, nestled in the valley of the Minnesota River, to the right. The arboretum is fit for a pleasant stroll. But we had it in mind to see a collection of Albrecht Dürer prints that were on display at the college’s Hillstrom Museum of Art.

The museum proved to be harder to find than the overgrown shores of Swan Lake. It’s tucked in the far basement of the student union without a single sign to guide the way. We asked around an eventually reached the empty museum. When I opened the door the attendant jumped about a foot. (I don’t think they get many visitors.)

The exhibit carries the title A Collector's Passion for Dürer's Secrets: the MAGJEKL Collection. The woman whose collection is on display, Elizabeth Maxwell-Garner, may be described, I think, as an amateur—in a good way. Her interest in the works of the great German artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) was kindled as recently as 2006. The Connecticut collector now owns more than forty of the master’s woodblocks and engravings.

The images themselves are stunning, for the most part, and Maxwell-Garner has studied them with a fresh eye. She has developed a host of theories that orthodox scholars would never have dreamed of about how they relate to Dürer’s Hungarian background and the petty urban politics of the time. Each one of her acquisitions appears to have a secret meaning that no one has explored before. How extraordinary.

To take a single example, Maxwell-Garner makes the commonplace observation that Dürer’s most famous engraving has been given the name Melancholia on the basis of a word that appears in the rendering, but that word is not Melancholia. It’s Melencholia. How are we to explain the discrepancy? She proposes that the lettering actually contains an inscription in Greek rather than Latin.

"Mele" means honey in Greek; "col," means "suffering." To pronounce these two words in succession word would have required adding a meaningless "N" in between. The "ia' at the end Latinizes the Greek. A "flourish" comes next, followed by the letter "I." She tells us that researchers have ignored this symbol, though it has a horizontal slash through it—a symbol for "returning." She suspects that the “I” at the end might actually be a “J”—perhaps a symbol for Jesus or Jehovah?

Thus Maxwell-Garner concludes that the lettering actually means: "in sweetness and in sorrow, returning to the Lord." She goes on to speculate that the various objects that clutter up the periphery of the engraving symbolize various relatives of Dürer who have died. Not quite satisfied with the simplicity of these speculations, she adds:

“It is my opinion this image is a tribute to all the Dürer relatives who had died by 1514, and specifically to his mother Barbara and his sister Margret (the eighth child in the family). I also believe that this image tells us that Dürer's family is of Hungarian noble descent, that they are possibly Jewish, that Dürer's mother Barbara functioned at some point as his woodblock cutter, and that his sister Margret helped him with his engravings.”

I can’t say whether any of this is true, though some of it is definitely hard to follow. The effect of such observations is to remind us that Dürer had a lot of things on his mind as he cut these images—both “meaning” and markets prominent among them. He also took a serious interest in mathematics. Some expert has determined that the large geometrical object in the engraving is a cube, first distorted to give it rhombus faces with angles of 108° and then truncated so that its vertices lie on a sphere. The picture also contains Europe’s first magic square.

Garner will be giving a public lecture on Sunday, October 16, in the Nobel Hall of Science in Wallenberg Auditorium at Gustavus. It might be fun to listen to this wildcat art historian speak.

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