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Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
An engraved portrait of Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560), Professor of Greek at the University of Wittenberg. In tribute to his subject, and like a number of his contemporaries, he adopted the Greek version of his surname (Schwartzerd, literally ‘black earth’). A staunch supporter of Luther, with whom he worked closely to put reforming ideals into practice, he was widely respected. In 1525 Melanchthon was invited to Nuremberg to undertake educational reform. During his stay in the city Melanchthon lodged with Willibald Pirckheimer and undoubtedly met Dürer, either through his host or through other members of the city’s humanist circle. The theologian would later praise the artist’s abilities, and appears to have owned a number of his prints. A portrait drawing of Melanchthon by Dürer, probably made at this time, survives in Florence (Casa Horne) and formed the basis for this engraving.
The image of Melanchthon was one of the last of Dürer’s portrait prints to be made. As he had done in his earlier portrait prints, Dürer made a bust portrait of his subject, which he placed over a fictive stone plinth bearing a Latin inscription. In a departure from his earlier portraits, however, Dürer chose to place Melanchthon against a dappled background which suggests sky. Rather than being enclosed within a confined area, Melanchthon thus appears in the open, giving an illusion of space rather than restriction.
Dürer’s inscription (which translates as ‘Dürer was able to depict the features of the living Philip, but the skilled hand could not portray his mind’) notes his skill as an artist through a conventional observation on the limits of artistic representation. It is also a reflection of Melanchthon’s own views on images, which he believed served as valuable signs and prompts to religion, but which were not interchangeable with the subject (and thus in the field of religious imagery could not be the object of worship themselves). Melanchthon’s image, the inscription states, is a good likeness, facilitating remembrance of the sitter, but it does not bear his essence and therefore falls short of being the man himself.
Catalogue entry adapted from 'The Northern Renaissance. Dürer to Holbein', London 2011