Like so many of his contemporaries, Dürer was haunted by death and guilt and the fear of damnation. He had good reason to be. Death was everywhere. Dürer had seventeen siblings, and only two made it to adulthood. Both his trips across the Alps to Italy—in 1494 and 1505–1507—were partly inspired by the desire to flee outbreaks of the plague in his home town, Nuremberg. “Anyone who is among us today,” Dürer wrote in one poem, “may be buried tomorrow.” This was not a poetic conceit. It was the brutal truth. …
To overcome the inborn tendency to evil, Dürer appears to have believed there were three things you could do, if you received the grace to do them. One was to mortify the flesh. It may sound morbid to us, but mortification was a common part of religious practice then. It is even recommended in the third of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses: “penitence is null unless it produces outward signs in various mortifications of the flesh.”
We do not know for a fact that Dürer also practiced this discipline, but his sense of its attractions is evident in his art. … If the artist did not actually practice self-flagellation, he surely understood why someone would and sympathized with the impulse.
The second was to throw yourself onto the mercy of God. His writings are full of sayings such as “Always seek grace, as if you might die any moment” and “No help could have reached us save through the incarnation of the son of God.”
The third was to work without ceasing. Never stop. … Work was a form of prayer and art was a form of praise. Dürer wrote, “[Painting] is useful because God is thereby honored.” But if you ever stopped, you would lose your way and fall into error, like the idle genius in Melencolia I. To quote [Martin Luther’s spiritual advisor Johann von] Staupitz once more, “The first sign of true faith is the battle against the demons.”
(Image: St. Jerome in His Study, Albrecht Dürer, 1514, via Wikimedia Commons)