From working in Nuremberg, Germany, with his Hungarian-born goldsmith father, young Albrecht Durer learned how to wield the sharp-tipped burin, a tool used by engravers.
The boy's talent was obvious, and at 15, he studied with the city's top artist. At 19, he wandered Europe, meeting and studying with other artists.
Traveler, writer, painter, and engraver, Durer (1471-1528) created a huge body of work remarkable for its detail, atmosphere, and light/dark contrast.
More than 100 of his and his contemporaries' engravings and woodcuts are on view today through Jan. 2 in the Toledo Museum of Art, which owns the collection.
The title of the exhibit, "The Passion and the Apocalypse: Albrecht Durer's Renaissance," refers to the imagery in many of his prints (Christ's last days, the apocalypse, the life of the Virgin Mary).
Not only did Durer push the craft of engraving to new heights with his skill and imagination, he wrote influential essays promoting aesthetic ideas he gathered in Venice and Bologna; ideas that fueled the Renaissance.
Durer was born in Nuremberg, 21 years after Gutenberg made his printing press. An emerging middle class was embracing literacy and purchasing modest works of art. Popular were prints, in which multiple copies are made on paper from woodblocks or copper plates smeared with ink. They were far more affordable than paintings, and Durer's sold all over Europe.
Displayed in three corridors on TMA's lower level, the subject matter includes battle scenes, mythology, and lots of Christian lore.
Durer's print of an Asian rhinoceros became the standard image of that beast for centuries. He never laid eyes on the now-extinct creature, but he read descriptions of what had been a gift from a Cambodian king to the king of Portugal, who shipped it to the pope. The beast, however, perished en route to His Holiness.
The earliest Durer work here is The Prodigal Son Amid the Swine. With the most delicate of lines, he gave bristles to the hog and thatch to the roof. It's dated 1496, the year Columbus left the New World for Spain, Leonardo da Vinci tested a flying machine, and Martin Luther was 13.
Durer's most famous trio of engravings were done in his early 40s. All in a row are Knight, Death, and the Devil (used throughout the ages to represent various heroes and versions of morality); St. Jerome in His Study (in which the old gent translates the Bible and is kept company by a snoozing lion and dog), and Melencolia I, (a despairing angel sinks her head in her hand, greyhound curled at her feet).
The TMA owns two copies of each of these three, and they're positioned side-by-side to depict how the quality of a piece is affected by time (especially sunlight) and production factors (whether the piece was printed earlier or later in the run). Copies to the left of its twin are of better quality, says Thomas Loeffler, the museum's manager for works on paper, which includes almost 20,000 prints, photographs, drawings, and books.
Durer is enjoying a renaissance these days. This fall, the Hammer Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts are featuring his prints.
"The Passion and the Apocalypse: Albrecht Durer's Renaissance" opens today and continues through Jan. 2 in the Works on Paper Gallery in the Toledo Museum of Art, 2445 Monroe St. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Information: 419-255-8000 or www.toledomuseum.org.
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