Dürer and the Reformation

The last dozen years of Dürer’s life coincided with the tumultuous advent of the Protestant Reformation in Germany. Although Dürer did not create polemical art that was intended to discredit the Church of Rome, he was a self-avowed supporter of Martin Luther’s effort to provide a new German Bible and a new path to salvation that did not depend on non-biblical traditions, rituals, or institutions. Already in March 1518, less than five months after Luther had publicized his 95 Theses, the Wittenberg theologian received a gift from Dürer as a token of his admiration. By 1520 the artist had collected many of Luther’s writings, and in 1521 he wrote a lament upon hearing (falsely) that the reformer had been captured and killed.

Although other German artists would play more decisive roles in the theological and social upheaval of the Reformation, the art that Dürer produced between 1517 and his death in 1528 was “Protestant” in that it abandoned the depiction of popular saints, it portrayed the leading reformers and their supporters in a heroic light, and it emphasized the exclusive authority of the Bible in personal and civic worship.