Durer’s ‘A heavenly body’: painting apocalypse

May 4, 2020 0 Comments

Albrecht Durer surely had the sharpest eye of any painter.  Think of his watercolour A big piece of turf, made in 1503, half a millennium before the hyperrealist painters of our own time.  Or the astonishing sketch of his own head and hand on the reverse of the painting in Paris known as Portrait of the artist holding a thistle.  These are objects scrutinised in close-up.  But Durer’s long sight was equally acute, and he was just as observant in recording very distant objects. 

On the reverse of the small picture of St Jerome he painted in oil on pearwood around 1456 – it was acquired by the National Gallery in London in 1996 – is a painted sketch conventionally known as A heavenly body in the night sky.  It’s as striking an image as Durer ever painted, though it’s received little attention except by Durer specialists.

Albrecht Dürer, Saint Jerome (c1496) (National Gallery)

In the St Jerome picture – it was probably used for personal devotional purposes – we see the aged saint in the desert, beating his breast in repentance with a stone with one hand, and carrying a bible (perhaps his own Latin translation) in the other.  Behind him is a mixed Italian/north European landscape, and he’s accompanied by a grumpy lion (Jerome’s symbol) and two small birds, identifiable, this being Durer, as goldfinches.

Albrecht Durer, A heavenly body (c1496) (National Gallery)

On the reverse, ‘A heavenly body’ couldn’t be more different.  Nothing here is readily recognisable, and symbolism has been banished.  Set just off-centre, an intense spot of light pulses – a small, slightly smudged rectangle of bright yellow.  Away from it, though not quite from its centre, radiate piercing red darts.  Three of these exploding darts shoot downwards, forming a tripod-like arrangement.  The sky is dark, but the ‘body’ lights up clouds below, swirling in troubled billows.  One of them rotates wildly (Durer’s circular brushstrokes are easily visible). 

Sebastian Brant, Ensisheim meteor

‘A heavenly body’ is a simple, powerful, unsettling image.  Opinions differ about its nature.  Some take it literally, as a naturalistic representation of a real astronomical object or event, which Durer might have witnessed at first hand.  It’s unclear what kind of body it might be – a star, a comet or a meteor – or what contemporary event might be commemorated.  A comet was recorded in 1491.  On 7 November 1492 the ‘Ensisheim meteor’ fell on the edge of the town of Ensisheim in Alsace (a fragment of it is in the town’s museum).  Its landing, in a wheat-field, was witnessed by a local boy, and a fireball was seen and heard across a distance of a hundred miles.  Within weeks a satirist named Sebastian Brant produced broadsheets in Latin and German which included a woodcut of the comet’s fall.  A second noticeable comet appeared in 1493.  Meteors leave a long tail as they burn through the atmosphere, whereas comets do not, so the Ensisheim event may be as near as we can get to Durer’s subject – though it arrived during daytime, not, as Durer has it, at night.

Ensisheim meteorite
(Musée de la Régence, Ensisheim)

It’s not unreasonable to search for real models for Durer’s painting, in view of his strong interest in minute observation of the world around him.  True, ‘A heavenly body’ doesn’t share the extreme realism of other Durer works.  It’s a rapid, impressionistic sketch.  But it’s far from being a stylised representation of an astronomical body, like, for example, the star or comet in Durer’s famous 1514 engraving, Melencolia I.

Others, though, approach the painting from a different angle.  In the medieval and early modern periods comets and meteors were commonly interpreted as omens – harbingers sent by God of momentous events to follow.  In one of his broadsheets Sebastian Brant took the Ensisheim meteor in this way, as a sign of the imminent military defeat of the French by Maximilian, Holy Roman Emperor to be:

Also the Burgundians heard it, and
It struck fear into the French.
Truly, say I, this signifies
A special plague upon those people.

Albrecht Durer, St Jerome in his study (1514)

Shooting stars could portend more fateful events than military victory.  They could warn of the Apocalypse: the destruction of the world and the final judgement.  In the words of the Book of Revelation, ‘And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp’.  Durer lived in an age, as the early Reformation shaped a new ‘revelation’, when apocalyptic ideas were widespread.  This is what could link ‘A heavenly body’ with the picture of St Jerome on the other side of the pearwood board.  St Jerome was said to have foretold the end of the world, on hearing the angels’ trumpets that heralded the last judgement.  The subject became a stock theme for artists; the most dramatic, much later, treatment of it was by the Spanish artist Jusepe de Ribera.  Durer would soon produce, in 1498, his series of fifteen apocalypse engravings, including the famous Four Horsemen, and he returned to St Jerome as a subject for painting on many occasions.  Though this St Jerome picture carries no overt reference to angels, trumpets or the end of the world, its version of the saint seems to emphasise not the scholar and hermit (as in Durer’s 1514 engraving St Jerome in his study), but what Andrew Graham-Dixon calls ‘the visionary, the dreamer, the apocalyptic mystic’. 

Albrecht Durer,
Four horsemen of the
Apocalypse (1498)

So perhaps ‘A heavenly body’, as an omen of the end of time, isn’t entirely divorced in theme from the scene on the other side of the wooden board. 

But really it stands on its own: Durer never reused or repeated the blazing motif of the falling meteor.   And it has no artistic parallels, at least until the work of William Blake (who also lived through revolutionary times).  There’s no way of knowing, but, as Jean Michel Massing has suggested, it may derive from one of Durer’s dreams.  We know he was prone to dreams.  In 1525 he had a vivid nightmare about an apocalyptic deluge, which he recorded in a painting, and in words underneath it.  The sketch, appropriately in watercolour, shows giant pillars of blue water pouring from above on to a brown plain.

Albrecht Durer, Dream vision (1525) (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

… I had this vision in my sleep, and saw how many great waters fell from heaven. The first struck the ground about four miles away from me with such a terrible force, enormous noise and splashing that it drowned the entire countryside. I was so greatly shocked at this that I awoke before the cloudburst. And the ensuing downpour was huge. Some of the waters fell some distance away and some close by. And they came from such a height that they seemed to fall at an equally slow pace. But the very first water that hit the ground so suddenly had fallen at such velocity, and was accompanied by wind and roaring so frightening, that when I awoke my whole body trembled and I could not recover for a long time. When I arose in the morning, I painted the above as I had seen it.

Eschatology of the St John of Patmos kind no longer has a hold over most of us today.  But we’re not free of apocalypse.  We’re living through one today.  (If anyone should doubt this, consider that a jumbo jetful of people are currently dying of the virus daily in Britain.)  Many people have reported having, and remembering, vivid dreams since the crisis began.  The Greek word apocalypse simple means ‘uncovering’ (hence, The Book of Revelation), and times of crisis often, it seems, uncover dreams and visions of unusual power.  Perhaps we shall see new, contemporary examples of the kind of extreme art typified by ‘A heavenly body’?

Bibliographical note

I came across ‘A heavenly body’ only very recently.  In 1998 it was chosen as the cover for a new Gwasg Gomer edition of Ellis Wynne’s classic work Gweledigaethau y Bardd Cwsg, published in 1703 – appropriately enough, since the targets of Wynne’s biting satire are sinners facing their final judgement.

Albrecht Durer, A large piece of turf (1503)

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