At Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts there is a silver and glass box with a lock of hair. The provenance of this unusual relic is intact; it dates to 1528 and the hands of a certain Hans Baldung Grien, a former apprentice of Germany’s greatest artist Albrecht Dürer. Baldung had cut off a piece of Dürer’s hair two days after the artist died. This, before Dürer was interred and a group of other artists immediately exhumed his body to make a plaster cast of his face. Such was the intense popularity of this master painter and master printmaker.
Dürer was, in 1494/5, the first northern European artist to travel to Italy to examine the sculptures and the paintings and the first to tote the ideals of the Italian Renaissance back across the Alps; today he’s even called the “first truly international artist.” He sold his copper engravings and woodcut prints throughout Europe, branding himself with a distinct monogram, gaining commissions and being named the official court artist to Holy Roman Emperors Maximilian I and Charles V—all which helped to cement his reputation as not only an artistic genius and an innovator but also a savvy entrepreneur.
When Baldung arrived in Nuremberg on the doorstep of Dürer’s workshop in 1503, the thirty-two-year old Dürer, since his yearlong Italian sojourn, had been spending his time distilling the works of the Italian masters, from Mantegna to Michelangelo, embracing the linear perspective and the classical human form; transforming the printmaking process, inventing a system that produced middle tones as opposed to the customary ‘dark marks on white paper’; and creating crosshatching and meticulously-spaced parallel and curved lines so the subjects he depicted read both light and shadow. Calling on his mastery of drawing and painting, by the turn of the sixteenth century he had deftly elevated printmaking to fine art.
Now under Baldung’s gaze Dürer bent over his latest proofs, fixated on perfecting the male nude in his rendition of Adam and Eve just before the Fall; he had been studying a small replica the goldsmith sculptor Pier-Jacopo Alari-Bonacolsi had made of the recently found sculpture Apollo Belvedere. Adam and Eve would become one of Dürer’s most influential and most enduring engravings; he boldly signed the work on a plaque he hung on the tree: Albertus Durerus Noricus faciebat 1504, this sort of inscription we’re told he picked up from the Italians.
The ideal forms of Man and Woman are not to be missed but it is the cornucopia of symbolism that fills the space: the apple and the serpent of course; the mountain ash and the fig tree, representing the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge respectively; the parrot representing Mary, the second Eve; the goat in the background poised atop a cliff representing stability; and the four animals in the foreground representing the four temperaments, the ‘humors,’ which according to a ‘scholastic doctrine’ speak to the bodily fluids that become unbalanced in a corrupt individual—the hare the sanguine, the elk the melancholic, the ox the phlegmatic, and the cat the choleric. While the mouse has been said to symbolize the weakness of ‘man,’ here in this unblemished Eden, the mouse peacefully co-exists with the cat. Little does he know it’s all about to change.
 “Dürer and His Legacy,” The British Museum.
Additional sources: Jill Dunkerton, Suan Foister, Nicholas Penny, Dürer to Veronese: Sixteenth-Century Paintings in the National Gallery, Yale University Press, 1999; Diane Lesko, “Albrecht Dürer: Adam and Eve,” Telfair Museum of Art: Collection Highlights, University of Georgia Press, 2005; Joseph Leo Koerner, The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art, University Of Chicago Press, 1997; Metropolitan Museum of Art.
(Image: Detail and full reproduction, Adam and Eve, 1504, Engraving, 9 7/8 x 7 7/8 in, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)