Process & Print

A close look at Albrecht Dürer's St. Anthony Reading

By The Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University

Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471-1528), St. Anthony Reading. 1519. Engraving. Michael C. Carlos Museum of Emory University.

St. Anthony Reading by Albrecht DürerThe Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University

The Subject

The monk's cowl, the white beard, and the bell on the cross-staff identify this subject as Saint Anthony the Great. The saint, born in northern Egypt around AD 250, is said to have lived to the age of 105.

He was considered to be the founder of Christian monasticism, having decided at a young age to give away all his possessions to go and live as a hermit in the desert. There he experienced the torments of evil demons, and the bell alludes to his ability to exorcise them.

St. Anthony Reading, Albrecht Dürer, From the collection of: The Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University
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Martin Schongauer, The Temptation of St Anthony, a copperplate engraving, 1469/1473, From the collection of: British Museum
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Artists very often depict Saint Anthony afflicted by lurid visions of demons, as in Martin Schongauer's engraving above. Dürer, however, shows the saint in prayerful contemplation. The horizontal format of the engraving contributes to the quiet mood and is unusual within the Dürer's body of work.    

St. Anthony Reading by Albrecht DürerThe Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University

The townscape in the background-an assemblage of textured geometric forms-combines elements of Dürer's native Nuremberg and the towns of Innsbruck and Trent, through which he passed on his first journey to Italy in the 1490s. 

The dominance of the town in this composition serves to remind the viewer of the world that Saint Anthony has renounced for the holy life of an ascetic.

St. Anthony Reading by Albrecht DürerThe Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University

The Process

This diminutive engraving measures only 14.3 x 9.8 cm. Despite its size, Albrecht Dürer accomplished the astonishing range of textures, tone, and detail that have become hallmarks of his style. 

St. Anthony Reading, Albrecht Dürer, From the collection of: The Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University
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Engraving is an intaglio process in which an artist incises lines into the surface of a copperplate using a sharp metal tool called a burin. Dürer created dark shadowy areas, like the deep folds in St. Anthony's hooded robe (or cowl), by cutting dense cross-hatched lines into the plate so that these areas would receive more ink. By contrast, he left lighter areas like the top St. Anthony's hood, the fabric draping over his knees, and the clear sky free of incised lines. 

St. Anthony Reading by Albrecht DürerThe Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University

Dürer utilized negative space and loose cross-hatches to create the water's glassy surface. 

European artists of the 16th and 17th centuries often placed biblical narratives and scenes from the lives of long-dead saints in settings that felt more familiar to their viewers. 

The details and forms of this imagined city, simultaneously inventive and typical of the architectural features of northern European towns, were celebrated by Dürer's audience. 

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