Bearing the Cross: Devotions on Albrecht Dürer’s Small Passion, by Carolyn S. Brinkley. St. Louis MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2012. 167 pages.
Carolyn Brinkley is trained as a deaconess in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. This project originated as a paper prepared in the deaconess program of Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) was a German artist most commonly known for his woodcuts. Woodcuts could be easily reproduced by the printing press, and were therefore inexpensive for people to own. Dürer remained a Roman Catholic his entire life, but evidence suggests that he was supportive of the work of the Reformation.
The Small Passion of Dürer is a collection of woodcuts based on the life of Christ. Dürer produced other similar collections. What makes the Small Passion unique is the actual size of the woodcuts (4×6 inches), which enabled the collection to be portable and suitable for devotional use.
In this volume, Brinckley provides a devotional look into the woodcuts. Each image is accompanied by a brief commentary on the primary text of scripture rendered by Dürer, and on the artist’s depiction of it. In her commentary, the author reveals many details which would likely not be noticed without her insight. She comments on background objects, facial expression, object placement, and prominence.
One observation that this writer found enlightening was her observations about the perspective from which the viewer is invited into the scene. For example, Dürer’s Nativity woodcut places the viewer looking at the scene from below the floor level of the stable, even lower than the shepherds who worship the Christ-child on their knees.
In every piece, Dürer places his easily identifiable monogram (AD) in a unique location. In some, Brinckley suggests a possible motive for the placement of that signature mark.
As with many works which attempt to provide interpretation of great works of art, one often wonders whether the interpretation and explanation of certain details were ever intended by the artist or not. Did Dürer really intend to refer back to the Garden of Eden every time a tree is placed in the scene? Perhaps not. Yet most of these observations are useful to the viewer as he seeks to reflect on the actual events of the Passion, and makes connection along the way to other interconnected truths and events of Scripture.
Each commentary invites the viewer and reader to—along with the artist—consider his own place in these passion scenes. Her application is direct and pointed, and clearly directs the reader to the substitutionary work of Christ as comfort for desperate sinners who meditate on the Passion of Christ for them. Finally, each of the commentaries concludes with a stanza or stanzas of hymns appropriate to the subject at hand.
Placed in an appendix at the back of the book are three of Dürer’s woodcuts which do not portray scenes from the biblical accounts of the Passion, but are legends of the medieval church. The inclusion of these woodcuts is interesting and useful for historical perspective. Their separate placement is appreciated for distinguishing between legend and scriptural truth.
This little book would be profitable for devotional use by pastor and layperson alike. With 37 plates, this devotional could be especially fruitfully read during Lententide.