(b. 1471, Nürnberg, d. 1528, Nürnberg)
Portrait of Johannes Kleberger1526
Oil on lindenwood, 36,7 x 36,6 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
In 1564, Willibald Imhoff, the child from the first marriage of Johannes Kleberger's second wife, Felicita Pirckheimer (who had first married Hans Imhoff, acquired the painting in Lyon from Johannes's son, David Kleberger. In 1588, it was sold by Willibald's heirs to Emperor Rudolph II. From Prague, it went to the Schatzkammer in Vienna and, in 1748, to the gallery.
Among the three portraits Dürer painted in 1526 - Hieronymus Holzschuher, Jakob Muffel, and Johannes Kleberger (1486-1546) - the last was distinct for the format of the frame and for the depiction: the man, in fact, is sketched in a bas relief, in a half-bust, and inserted, classically, in a clypeus. It is an unusual depiction among Dürer's works, which has largely puzzled art historians. But since portraits in bas-relief on medallions were often found on the facades of Renaissance buildings in France, where Kleberger lived for a long time, it is quite likely that the patron himself had requested the artist to portray him in this way. Dürer's innovation was that of vivifying the portrait in bas relief on a medallion of fake stone, giving him the colours of a live, if pale, complexion. Dürer takes up again the age-old theme of the comparison of the figurative arts, or, more specifically, the discussion of the predominance of one on the other. He interprets this discussion by presenting an image in sculpture, with its light and shadow, giving at the same time the signs of a painted portrait. Thus, even while maintaining, in the steadiness of the gaze, the immobile plasticity of a sculpted image, characteristic of the portraits of emperors during classical times, the result is a particularly vivid portrait, since it expresses the power of the subject and his extremely ambitious character.
Johannes Kleberger, on the whole, had good reason to be proud of himself: working for the Imhoff merchants in Bern and especially in Lyon - a city that, because of its geographical position, had become a huge trading centre with branches of very important German merchants - he had accumulated a sizable wealth that allowed him, in 1522, to provide a loan for Francis I of France. During his sojourn in Nuremberg, in 1525-26, he had Dürer paint his portrait and, after having married the daughter of Willibald Pirckheimer, Felicita, the widow of Hans Imhoff, he returned to Lyon, where he acquired various properties. In 1543, Francis I appointed him his valet de chambre. Johannes Kleberger thus became one of the ten wealthiest and most influential inhabitants of Lyon. He gave enormous financial donations to the city, as in 1531 when, during the plague epidemic, he gave 500 livres to benefit the orphans of the plague victims. He was called le bon Allemand, and a monument was erected in his honour, of which a replica still exists today. Upon his death, along with the bequests to the hospitals in Bern and Geneva, he left the French city huge sums to assign to charities. Yet the portrait Dürer delivers shows a very hard-looking man: a hardness underscored from the classical type of pose and from the indication of the coldness of the stone.
Behind the inscription (E[FFIGIES] IOAN[N]I KLEBERGERS NORICI AN[N]O AETA[TIS] SVAE XXXX) lies the cabbalistic sign of the sol in corde leonis, which is the conjunction of the brightest star of Leo, with the sun that was taken from the De occulta philosophia of Agrippa von Nettesheim (1510). He, too, was a German whom Kleberger likely met in Lyon, and according to whom the men born under this sign were destined for greatness. The symbol also represents an amulet against melancholy. Even the symbol of Leo surrounded by stars, depicted in the upper-left corner of the painting, would have a divinatory significance and again, according to Agrippa von Nettesheim, it would represent the particularly fortunate position of the person portrayed. In the lower corners, to the left and right, are the redende Wappen (figurative coats of arms) of the Kleberger family.