Old Master

Albrecht Durer at the National Gallery is the Daily Pic by Blake Gopnik

The Daily Pic: In one of the world's greatest prints, the German master stays on the sidelines.

I was left dumbfounded by almost every picture in the current Albrecht Durer show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, but this 1514 engraving of Saint Jerome at work in his study is one of the artist’s most virtuosic demonstrations. (I’ll be Daily Pic-ing others over coming weeks.) Riding a favorite hobby horse of mine, however, I wonder how many viewers recognize how strange it is that Durer gives precisely half the normal view you’d expect in an image like this: The scene’s viewpoint (or vanishing point) is at the far right edge of the picture rather than smack in its center, as prescribed by the standard perspective constructions recently mastered by northern artists like Durer. It’s as though Durer had taken a conventional image and sliced it down the middle. I’ve suggested technical explanations for the use of eccentric perspectives in 17th-century Holland, but in this earlier case I wonder if there isn’t a kind of almost theological point: When modern sinners try to witness a long-gone sacred scene, etiquette insists that they stay on its margins. Sanctity must be approached crabwise.

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