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Durer's Lasting Impression

The MFA's collection includes fine examples of European and American paintings, Asian art, and ancient Egyptian artifacts. Following this five-part series, the Monitor will interview curators at London's Tate Gallery.

By Christopher Andreae / February 24, 1997



I could have chosen another Durer print, but this is a much-loved one and one that I came to fully appreciate when I first saw this exceptional early impression from the plate.

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"An ordinary impression is wonderfully detailed but lacks the subtle play of light and shadow and the exaggerated depth of space that the room has in this brilliant impression."

These are the basic reasons Clifford Ackley gives for choosing the German artist Albrecht Durer's 1514 virtuoso engraving, "St. Jerome in His Study," as a favorite work in the Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. Mr. Ackley is the department's curator.

Ackley explains that in an engraving, the lines that receive the ink are incised into a copper printing plate with a tool called a burin (BYOO-rin), a sharply pointed steel tool. "An 'impression' is a single printing on paper from a plate," he adds.

After many impressions, the plate starts to wear, so later impressions are not as good as earlier ones.

The MFA's print collection contains 200,000 to 300,000 objects, Ackley says, "ranging from the mid-15th century to the present." So selecting just one could not have been easy. This remarkable print is, however, to be included in an exhibition (Feb. 15-Sept. 7) called "Durer in His Time" - "mostly prints, but also one or two drawings by Durer." Most of the time, the majority of the works in Ackley's department are in storage, but can be seen by appointment.

In 1971, he worked on the department's exhibition "Albrecht Durer: Master Printmaker." In it, details of the two impressions of the St. Jerome print that the department owns were compared. "We conceive of our print collection as a study collection ... and we like, particularly for a famous print, to have both better and worse impressions for comparison, so that the student can learn about quality."

He describes the "St. Jerome" print as "a milestone in the history of engraving, an evocation of an absolutely extraordinary pattern of light and shadow in a rational, coherent space." That, and "the texture of things" depicted "are elements that are much more vivid in a brilliant early impression.

"In a later impression, it all becomes more equal.... The thing that struck me when I first saw this one - or when I have since seen comparable impressions, and there aren't many - was that rather than being all over and diffuse, your attention is urgently directed to the saint himself. The perspective of the space is actually rather exaggerated. It zooms in on the saint. He is also picked out by the halo of light around his head - because that's the only untouched bit of white paper in the entire composition. And the cardinal's hat behind him, a target-like goal for the perspective lines, echoes his head and its halo.

"The rafters above St. Jerome's head are a very complex interplay of light and shadow. They are also very closely described as to their silken, wood-grain texture. And if you look at the play of shadow around the furniture, you'll see, for example, that the leg of the bench - the one by the table with the cushion on it - makes a shadow within the shadow of the table. Not to speak of the intricate play of light and shadow in the arch of the window embrasure.

'ST. JEROME is of course accompanied by his faithful lion. A legend relates that a wounded lion approached the monastery in the Near East where St. Jerome was residing and that all the monks ran away frightened. The lion had a thorn in its paw, and it was only St. Jerome who had the courage to assist the lion by removing the thorn. Thereafter, the lion became devoted to St. Jerome. Here he's a kind of overgrown pussycat who, along with the faithful dog, guards the threshold so that the saint is undisturbed in his labors at his writing desk. These undoubtedly relate to the fact that he was the scholar who produced the official Latin translation of the Old and New Testaments - the Vulgate version of the Bible.

"So one of the ways in which Jerome is represented ... which became extraordinarily popular during the Renaissance, particularly in the North, was as the Scholar Saint. This is an almost ideal representation of the humanist scholar of the Renaissance in his well-furnished study."

As an authority on 17th-century Dutch art, Ackley makes an intriguing point about this engraving. "I think the print is also important not just for the image of the Renaissance scholar; but also, in many ways, it is the seed of the development in the 17th century of the image of the domestic interior, particularly in Holland." For example, Vermeer and De Hooch. "Here you have a print that was famous from the moment it was made and never lost its interest for later collectors, including artists such as Rembrandt."

Clearly, Ackley feels that this print has universal appeal: "Even those who are not involved with the religious iconography or the idea of the Renaissance humanist scholar are captivated, of course, by the description of the cozy interior - in the same way that they might be by the interior in the Arnolfini marriage portrait of Jan van Eyck [1434]."

* Second in a series. The first story ran Feb. 10.