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

The Four Holy Men

Oil on lindenwood, 215 x 76 cm (each panel)
Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Dürer did not paint these four paintings on commission. It was he who wanted to donate them to Nuremberg, his native city. On 6 October 1526 the artist offered The Four Holy Men to the city fathers of Nuremberg: 'I have been intending, for a long time past, to show my respect for your excellencies by the presentation of some humble picture of mine as a remembrance; but I have been prevented from so doing by the imperfection and insignificance of my works... Now, however, that I have just painted a panel upon which I have bestowed more trouble than on any other painting, I considered none more worthy to keep it as a memorial than your excellencies.' As it was common in many cities in Italy to bestow the town hall with a work of art that would serve as an example of buon governo, so did Dürer want to provide his native city with a work of his that had been purposefully made to this end.

The council gratefully accepted the gift, hanging the two works in the upper government chamber of the city hall. Dürer was awarded an honorarium of 100 florins. The four monumental figures remained in the municipality of Nuremberg until 1627, when, following threats of repression, they had to be sold to the elector of Bavaria, Maximilian I, a great enthusiast of Dürer's work. On that occasion, however, the prince had the inscriptions, at the bottom of the paintings, sawed off and sent back to Nuremberg, as they were considered heretical and injurious to his position as the sovereign Catholic. The city handed them over to the museum in Munich in 1922, where they were rejoined with their respective panels.

Despite the presence of the Evangelist Mark, the pair of panels with their slightly larger than life-size figures have since the 1530s usually been called `The Four Apostles', although The Four Holy Men is a more accurate title. John the Evangelist stands on the far left, holding an open New Testament from which he is reading the first verses of his Gospel. Behind him is the figure of Peter, holding the golden key to the gate of heaven. On the other panel, standing at the back, is the Evangelist Mark, with a scroll. On the far right is Paul, holding a closed Bible and leaning on the sword - a reference to his subsequent execution.

The Four Apostles, witnesses to the faith, were to simultaneously function as a warning. For this, their figures had inscriptions affixed that the calligrapher Johann Neudörfer had added to the bottom of the panels, which reproduced biblical passages from the recent translation of Martin Luther (1522). The first line of both are references to the Apocalypse of St John (22:18 ff.), but the essential content has another origin: it is a reproach to the secular powers not to conceal the divine word in seductive human interpretation. Besides, it reads that everyone should take the warning of the "four excellent men" to heart: almost a formulation of the symbolic program represented in the choice of the four figures, of three apostles and an evangelist, Mark, an unusual choice that Dürer does not explain or illustrate.

The Four Apostles undoubtedly represents his personal religious credo through the inscriptions. His position is to be on guard against the "false prophets." This becomes understandable if one considers the political-religious background of that time and the violence and passion of the religious upheavals, which favoured the onset of false doctrines. Dürer knew that his support of the Lutheran movement, which surely came out from the words of the inscriptions, would have been shared by important and influential citizens; in fact, different from the majority of Nuremberg sovereignties, firmly embraced Protestantism in toto.

In his Bulletin on the Artists and Artisans in Nuremberg of 1546, the aforementioned Neudörfer writes that Dürer wanted to represent a sanguine, a choleric, a phlegmatic, and a melancholic. It is possible to subdivide them according to the following attributions: John would be the sanguine, Peter the phlegmatic, Paul the melancholic, and Marco the choleric. In addition, each temperament would correspond to one of the four ages of life. Preparatory drawings exist for the heads in Berlin and Bayonne .

Although some scholars had believed that the two figures at the back of the pictures, Peter and Mark, had been added later by Dürer, a technical analysis in the 1960s showed that the paintings had originally been conceived with the four men. This examination also confirmed that they were made as a pair, not as wings of a triptych.

These are Dürer's last known oil paintings, done when he was 55. They represent his spiritual testimony and are among his most powerful works.