DÜRER, Albrecht
(b. 1471, Nürnberg, d. 1528, Nürnberg)

Heller Altar (copy)

1508-09
Tempera and oil on wood, 189 x 138 cm (central element)
Historisches Museum, Frankfurt

This altarpiece was commissioned by Jakob Heller (1460-1522), a wealthy merchant, member of the town council, and mayor of Frankfurt, either before or after Dürer's second trip to Italy. Only the central element depicting the Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin was executed by Dürer himself. The altarpiece was destroyed by a fire in the residence of Duke Maximilian of Bavaria in Munich. Fortunately, a copy of the work, executed c. 1614 by Jobst Harrich of Nuremberg (c. 1580-1617) survived.

The theme of the assumption and of the coronation of the Madonna was familiar in Nuremberg painting of the fifteenth century. But Dürer gives it a particular Renaissance interpretation. The doubting St Thomas bows over to the inside of the emptied sarcophagus in the foreground and clings to the linens that wrapped the body of the Madonna. He demonstrates the difficulty he has in convincing himself that the assumption is truly happening. His lowered head is painted by Dürer in a sharp foreshortening.

The other apostles are standing or kneeling around the sarcophagus. St Peter and St Paul, in the foreground, turn their backs to the observer opening the view onto St Thomas and the landscape behind the group. In the center-ground of the landscape, Dürer stands as usual with the explicative tablet and his gaze fixed straight ahead. The background presses into the far distance, toward a lake enclosed by hills, peppered with buildings. A broad and tranquil landscape contrasts with the monumental, concentrated and restless group of apostles. While the doubting St Thomas is still looking for proof of the Assumption, the other apostles, arranged in an ascending semicircle to the left and right, have already recognized it. In the sky, in a semicircle of clouds, accompanied and held by a flock of cherubs, the Madonna rises toward the Eternal Father and Jesus Christ, as they wait to crown her. The faces and gestures of the men express an endless bewilderment at the sight of the miracle that is unfolding before their eyes. The variety and vigour that distinguishes the apostles, who disagree among themselves, is opposed to the monumentality of the isolated group in the foreground, consisting of the princes of the apostles, St Peter and St Paul. Each detail of the panel - for example, the bare feet of St Peter, precluding a Caravaggio - has been carefully studied. Eighteen preparatory drawings that still exist demonstrate this. They are in pencil on paper, with an azure, green background. The famous Hands in Prayer also is part of these drawings.

The entire episode was conceived with an unusual grandiosity and an intimate participation. Dürer expresses this in the vigour of the colours and, most of all, in the spaciousness and wealth of the clothes. It is modeled on a Raphael citation - twelve years his younger - and his Coronation of the Madonna, painted in 1502-03 and ordered by Alessandra degli Oddi for the chapel of the Oddi in the church of Saint Francis in Perugia. In Dürer's panel, everything is more complex and splendid, but the comparison of the two paintings is nonetheless interesting. Dürer had an opportunity to see the Raphaelesque painting while in Italy. If the commission for the painting was assigned him by Jakob Heller before his first trip to Italy, one cannot consider the Raphaelesque echo to be accidental.