Mirror of Zen Blog

Attaining Your Original Face: More on the World’s Most Revolutionary Selfies

This is the most famous “selfie” of all time. I never tire of “showing” it to people who have never yet really experienced it, to appreciate its full power and import, and its ongoing influence in the very way we moderns “see” ourselves. Albrecht Dürer already gave us the keys to that. As it is said, in many places, Dürer was concerned with many subjects for his sketches, engravings, woodblock prints, and paintings, “but nothing fascinated him as much as his own Self”. Beethoven’s Third Symphony is this portrait’s musical embodiment, and Mahler’s entire corpus and everyone else on down flow from this one canvas, in a sense. Everyone who posts a selfie is Dürer’s own child.

The “Self-Portrait with Fur” (1500) is really the first work of art where the artist so flagrantly depicts himself as Creator — the autonomous producer of meaning on Earth, as self-reliant as any human being, and unlike the emphasis on demi-gods (Muse-inspired) and the purely divine (everything in Christian art) that had hitherto commanded authorship for everything true and transcendent in human expression.

This painting kicks spiritual ass on multiple levels. There is that classical “blessing” hand-pose, reserved only for Jesus in religious icons: The artist (or, the intellectual, the human creator) blesses. There is that confident full-frontal (again, only reserved for pantings of Jesus): The artist, the intellectual, the thinker says “Look at the Me.” There is the mad attention to realistic detail. Only the everyday and rudely true can be believed. Even the inscriptions themselves are significant, and make the hair stand on end. The year (1500) and the initials of the Creator: AD. (Which also is the known abbreviation for our present time — A.D., Anno Dominus, the Year of our Lord. And directly across that axis of FACT, there is the very very personalized statement of self-praise: “I, Albrecht Dürer of Nuremberg, portrayed myself in everlasting colors aged twenty-eight years”. A fact, colored with Dürer’s self-advertising character. But this AXIS, this alignment of these facts, they draw a straight line right across his eyes, those eyes, those languid spheres of relaxed self-confidence, even a kind of tired arrogance (to some). To read both inscriptions, we, the viewers, are forced by Dürer across this straight-line axis to confront even more directly and intimately the windows into the soul of this creating force: the Artist, the Voice, the human. This is who and what I am: deal with it.

The combination of blessing hands (dirtied with the engraver’s ink), the tired eyes that see all, and the situation of self-orienting facts on an axis across the a line which brings you right into the pupils of his eyes, are a gesture I believe to be as radical and clear and self-revelatory in its self-evidencing power as Buddha’s touching-the-earth gesture at the moment of his Enlightenment, the moment the Buddha attained his Original Face:

Here I stand (or sit), and it is sufficient truth. My pure Being proves itself. It does not come from or require any gods or otherworldly powers. In Zen, we attain don’t-know mind, we return to our before-thinking mind by considering the question: “What was my Original Face before my parents were born?”

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A very recent article in The New Statesman:

“Dürer was obsessed with self-portraiture and self-promotion,” the article avers. “While his paintings were acknowledged as astonishingly skilful, they could only be seen by the few. And so he made himself the master of engravings and woodcuts that could pour off the press by the hundred.


From a video POV, here is an excellent and extremely relevant “take” on the significance of Dürer’s “Self-Portrait with Fur” (1500), this work of stunning genius (and bravery, since Dürer deliberately depicted himself in the poses that were reserved in painting for Jesus alone). This painting was considered scandalous and even dangerous, when it first appeared: Now, you benefit from it every time you raise a phone to take (and post) a selfie. This excellent recent multi-media New York Times article is so helpful in helping people to appreciate the importance of this single work of creation:


Two super-short and very simple backgrounding videos for folks who would like to know more:

This one is sort of a music video — evocative more than informative:

And here is the Wikipedia entry for it:

Self-Portrait (or Self-Portrait at Twenty-Eight) is a panel painting by the German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer. Painted early in 1500, just before his 29th birthday, it is the last of his three painted self-portraits. Art historians consider it the most personal, iconic and complex of his self-portraits.

The self-portrait is most remarkable because of its resemblance to many earlier representations of Christ. Art historians note the similarities with the conventions of religious painting, including its symmetry, dark tones and the manner in which the artist directly confronts the viewer and raises his hands to the middle of his chest as if in the act of blessing.

Dürer’s face has the inflexibility and impersonal dignity of a mask, hiding the restless turmoil of anguish and passion within. In its directness and apparent confrontation with the viewer, the self-portrait is unlike any that came before. It is half-length, frontal and highly symmetrical; its lack of a conventional background seemingly presents Dürer without regard to time or place. The placement of the inscriptions in the dark fields on either side of Dürer are presented as if floating in space, emphasizing that the portrait has a highly symbolic meaning. Its sombre mood is achieved through the use of brown tones set against the plain black background. The lightness of touch and tone seen in his earlier two self-portraits has been replaced by a far more introverted and complex representation.

In 1500, a frontal pose was exceptional for a secular portrait. In Italy the conventional fashion for profile portraits was coming to an end, but being replaced with the three-quarters view which had been the accepted pose in Northern Europe since about 1420, and which Dürer used in his earlier self-portraits. Fully frontal poses remained unusual, although Hans Holbein painted several of Henry VIII of England and his queens, perhaps under instruction to use the pose. Late medieval and Early Renaissance art had developed the more difficult three-quarters view, and artists were proud of their skill in using it; to viewers in 1500 and after, a frontal pose was associated with images from medieval religious art, and above all images of Christ.

The self-portrait is of a markedly more mature Dürer than both the 1493 Strasbourg self-portrait and the 1498 self-portrait which he produced after his first visit to Italy; in both of these earlier paintings he had highlighted his fashionable hairstyle and clothing and played on his youthful good looks. Dürer turned 28 around 1500, the time of this work. In the medieval view of the stages of life, 28 marked the transition from youth to maturity. The portrait therefore commemorates a turning point in the artist’s life and in the millennium: the year 1500, displayed in the centre of the upper left background field, is here celebrated as epochal. Moreover, the placing of the year 1500 above his signature initials, A.D., gives them an added meaning as an abbreviation of Anno Domini. The painting may have been created as part of a celebration of the saeculum by the circle of the Renaissance humanist scholar Conrad Celtes, which included Dürer.

Dürer chooses to present himself with exaggerated symmetry, in a style that unmistakably recalls depictions of Christ.  Dürer likely believed that any Christian could be portrayed as imitating Christ. The painting’s Latin inscription, composed by Celtes’ personal secretary, translates as: “I, Albrecht Dürer of Nuremberg portrayed myself in appropriate [or everlasting] colours aged twenty-eight years”. A further interpretation holds that the work is an acknowledgement that his artistic talents are God-given.  Art historian Joseph Koerner wrote that “to seeing the frontal likeness and inward curved left hand as echoes of, respectively, the “A” and nestled “D” of the monogram featured at the right … nothing we see in a Dürer is not Dürer’s, monogram or not.” Christ as Man of Sorrows, undated, likely 1493–1494, Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe. This work is often compared to the 1500 self-portrait for its similar facial features and the direct way the subject stares out at the viewer.

Late Northern medieval painting often portrayed Christ in a symmetrical pose looking directly out of the canvas, especially when shown as Salvator Mundi. Typically he was shown with a short beard, moustache and brown parted hair. Dürer has rendered himself in this manner, and gives himself brown hair, despite his other self-portraits showing his hair as reddish-blond. The painting so closely follows the conventions of late medieval religious art that it was used as the basis for depictions of Christ in a woodcut by Sebald Behamof c. 1520. This was perhaps intended to be passed off as a print by Dürer from the start, and in later printings bears a very large Dürer monogram, though this appears to have been added to the block several decades later; it was accepted by most experts as a Dürer until the 19th century.  In the next century, the face was used for Christ again, in a Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery of 1637 by Johann Georg Vischer.

Dürer presents himself in similar poses and expressions in both his 1498 Christ as Man of Sorrows and 1503 charcoal drawing Head of the Dead Christ. Both are believed to be self-portraits, although they are not named as such. However, artist historians believe that since they bear remarkable similarities to his known self-portraits – including prominent eyes, a narrow mouth with a full upper lip, and the shape of both the nose and indent between lip and nose – that Dürer intended to represent himself in these works.


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