Paul writes of ‘the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ’ (2 Corinthians 4:6). How might divine glory be seen in a human face?
Albrecht Dürer’s portrait of himself aged 28 is one of the masterpieces of German Renaissance art. The power of the portrait is built on a paradox of identity. The frontal pose and the compositional structure of the face and hair is predicated on a long history of images of iconic, ‘true’ portraits of Jesus, deriving from miracle narratives such as the St Veronica legend and the Mandylion of Edessa. The face, from the top of the head to the v-point of the robe at the base of the neck, is governed by a perfect equilateral triangle, circle, and square, superimposed on each other, with their central intersecting lines crossing just beneath the nose. The application of sacred geometry to the construction of the face, connects it with divine beauty.
But the portrait is unmistakably of Dürer, not Jesus. The paradox of the figure’s identity is further heightened by a moral paradox: the portrait is both glorious and vainglorious. Dürer’s virtuoso talent as a painter is unashamedly celebrated. His curly hair is lavishly depicted. His right hand pinches the expensive fur trim of his robe to remind us of his professional success. Dürer omits his left hand at the bottom edge of the panel as a subtle reminder that his painting hand was not at rest in making the image. On the left, the date 1500 is emblazoned with the monogram ‘AD’, referring not only to ‘Albrecht Dürer’ but also to ‘Anno Domini,’ the ‘year of the Lord’. On the right, the Latin inscription states how the artist has portrayed himself with ‘indelible colours’. Dürer clearly desired immortality as a painter.
Dürer’s self-promotion may not make him the best exponent of Paul’s claim ‘what we preach is not ourselves’ (4:5). But might he also illustrate—if only in parody—the powerful attraction of Christian transformation, ‘being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another’ (3:18)?
Koerner, Joseph Leo. 1993. The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press)