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The Apostle Philip

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). Galleria degli Uffizi – Florence. 1516.

The Four Apostles

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). Alte Pinakothek – Munich. 1526.

Saint Philip at the Temple of Mars The Crucifixion of Saint Philip

Filippino Lippi (1457-1504). The Strozzi Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria Novella – Florence. Ca. 1502.

Albrecht Dürer was the third of eighteen children of a Hungarian goldsmith who had settled in the German imperial free town of Nuremberg around 1455. Albrecht was born in 1471. He worked young in the Nuremberg workshop of the engraver and painter Michael Wohlgemut. Engraving was the art that Dürer preferred, probably due to Wohlgemut’s early instruction. Around 1491 Dürer started to travel. He went to Holland and Flanders and then to Colmar in the Alsace region to meet Martin Schongauer, the foremost German painter. Schongauer had died however just before Dürer arrived. Dürer travelled on to close-by Swiss Basel, where he worked for some time making woodcuts and engravings for a printer, Johann Amerbach. He returned to Nuremberg, to be married by his parents’ arrangement to a lady called Agnes Frey. There would be no children of this marriage. In 1494, when there was an outbreak of the plague in Nuremberg, he left for Italy. He arrived and worked in Venice, where he met Giovanni Bellini whom he seems to have much admired. Dürer went back to Nuremberg in 1497 and opened his own workshop. He then worked in Nuremberg with one of his brothers, Hans Dürer, who was equally a painter and who became in 1525 the court painter of King Sigismund of Poland. Albrecht Dürer liked the classical ideals of the Renaissance and he longed for the refinement of Italy. He made a second voyage to Italy and Venice in 1507. He visited Mantua and Milan then.

Dürer became a respectable man in his community. He was a member of the Town Council of Nuremberg and he received commissions from the German emperor Maximilian. The emperor granted him a stipend so that he had no financial problems. From 1509 to 1521 Dürer mostly made engravings, which were printed by the growing editing industry of Europe and thus distributed to many countries. His fame as an engraver grew. In 1521 Dürer travelled once again to Flanders and Brabant, the Southern Netherlands, probably to ask for renewal of his stipend to the new emperor Charles V. He met many painters and humanists on this trip, of which he held a diary. He met Lucas van Leyden, the best engraver of the Netherlands, as well as Joachim Patenier the landscape painter, and he was received with honours in Bruges where the guild of painters offered him a royal banquet. He also met Erasmus in Rotterdam.

Dürer was a very intelligent scholar. He lived in a most cultural town and was open to the many new ideas that he encountered during his trips. He knew the Humanists and their theories; he sympathised with Martin Luther. He knew the classic authors and had spoken to many painters in North and South. He was certainly one of the most travelled and learnt artists of his time. He liked to depict himself as such in various self-portraits. He showed himself as a Renaissance prince, with a somewhat haughty, sensual, refined, face. Dürer was aware of his good looks. He was aware of his learning and talents. He worked little for churches, more for the emperor, the notables of his hometown and for the printers of Nuremberg. He had a keen interest in seeing his art reproduced by prints for a larger audience. He also wrote books on architecture, for instance on military engineering of fortifications of towns in times of war. He was a many-sided personality, a true Renaissance man.

Albrecht Dürer made a picture of the apostle Philip, one of the first followers of Jesus. Philip is mentioned a few times in the Gospels, such as in the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves of bread and he was present at Pentecost, but very little is known of him. The Acts of the Apostles talk of a man called Philip who undertook early missionary work in Samara, Caesarea and Gaza of Palestine, but this would be the newly elected dean Philip and thus not the apostle. The apostle Philip came from Bethsaida in Galilee. According to tradition Philip converted people in Phrygia and he would have died and buried there at Hierapolis. The Golden Legend quotes from a book called ‘On the Life, Birth, and Death of the Saints’, written by Isidore, to state that Philip died in Hierapolis. His relics were allegedly translated to Rome, to the Basilica of the Twelve Apostles, a church that was originally dedicated to the saints Philip and James. Philip is supposed to have died by Crucifixion in the same way as Peter, that is upside down.

Dürer’s Philip is a man of wisdom and of suffering. The long, curly, grey beard and the high forefront indicate his wisdom. His clothes also are grey-white, which gives the whole picture a cool feeling. Philip has a sad, melancholic personality. He keeps his head inclined as if the weight of the world is put on his shoulders. His mouth is half-open in a gasp of pain and his eyes look weary. His eyes are sunken in the wrinkles that characterise his whole face. He does not look at the viewer, but averts his eyes in a downward glance. This man may be asking for our pity, imploring indulgence and pleading for support of Christ’s word. Dürer thus seems a master of portraiture and psychology.

Dürer made the picture of Philip in 1516. The same mastery can be found in his painting of the Four Apostles, which he made in 1526, two years before his death. Dürer painted these panels for the Communal House of Nuremberg. The title of the panels is slightly wrong, for John and Peter on the first panel were indeed apostles, but Paul and Mark of the second panel were only disciples of Christ, though important ones. Paul and Mark contributed to the New Testament, as did John. Seen from this aspect Peter is the odd man out.

With the Four Apostles Dürer has painted four different characters, so that the panels are sometimes referred to as representing the four temperaments or phlegms.

John is a tranquil man. He is at ease and intent on his book, the Gospel, that he wrote. John is the scholar who is oblivious of the world around him. He is still young, with a handsome face and full rosy cheeks. He looks healthy and somewhat sensual. He has thrown a red cloak nonchalantly but elegantly over his shoulders. The cloak envelops him cosily. Dürer has shown John not with the usual symbol of the apostle, a chalice with vipers, but with his Gospel book. The attentive viewer can read the open book. The pages are opened on the first words of a chapter of the German text of Martin Luther’s Bible. This indicates Dürer’s sympathies for Luther’s new learning.

Another indication of Dürer’s favour for Protestantism can be found in the apostle Peter who is placed behind John. The positioning alone is already indicative. Peter holds the keys of the church. But he stands behind John and behind the open Gospel. Peter is in the shadows of the living Book. He is looking at the Bible with his head bent downwards in humble submission. Peter seems to have been subdued, as Luther wanted the Popes to be. Luther did not accept the infallibility of the Popes of Rome. Peter, the impulsive, strong man who kept always hope in the faith and who called to start the missionary work when the disciples were lost after Christ’s Resurrection, that strong man has become a hidden, humbled old man. He has a very bold head, which gives him a tired and forlorn countenance. Peter’s authority has been taken away from him and the young man of learning has gained first place.

On the other side, equally in the shadows, stands Paul. This is the violent Paul with the weird, piercing eyes. Paul was the obsessive preacher of the faith, and the warrior of God. Paul is depicted with his sword, his usual symbol. He holds the sword strongly and decidedly. His mouth is half opened as if he were willing to preach once more or were still shouting commands. Paul is a wizard, looking out from the darkness as God has brought him forward out of the evil of violent persecution to use him as his instrument.

Mark is the scholar again, like John, so he is equally brought forward. Mark is watching the viewer suspiciously with one eye turned towards us. He seems a nervous man; he is on his guard. He is the doubter, the inquisitive, the one who is looking in all directions. Mark is not innocently studying the bible as John. He holds the book well closed and firmly in his hands. He is guarding the Bible. Mark and Paul seem to work at a plot, they look as if there was a special link between them. They were no apostles and they came not from the apostles’ original grounds. Paul was a Roman citizen, Mark a doctor who spoke Greek. They stand apart from John and Peter. Jews stand on the left side, gentiles on the right. Paul and Mark are the future.

Mark is dressed in a wonderful flowing white cloak, which answers John’s red dress. Dürer in this painting blended styles. The long, elongated form of the panels and the clear lines refer to International Gothic style. The wonderful colours could have been learnt both from the Gothic pictures and from Italian painting. The way of representation of the passionate characters is German. The design of the picture is strong as Florentine art. The four figures are connected by their hands and by the two Bibles, which are at the same level to each other. The visual affect is as of a cross.

Most striking about these panels is the representation of the figures. They are turned inward, though Paul and Mark maybe less so. The figures seem oblivious of the viewers; they have their own inner life that shows on their faces. This aptitude and tendency for inward, melancholic reflection on one’s own mind and motives is maybe the most important characteristic of the German mind. Martin Luther reflected on himself and his own feelings as a human confronted with the Christian teachings. Then he drew the necessary conclusions and defended them with the fierceness of his unbridled, passionate German nature. Still in our own century, Pope John-Paul was most criticised by the German theologians, who like Eugen Drewermann invited to new possible explanations for Christianity. Dürer perhaps tried in this way to capture and represent some of the German soul that still lies at the basis of German theological revolutionary reflections in the Catholic Church.

Filippino Lippi's paintings of Philip

The Golden Legend tells that Philip preached for twenty years in Scythia. After that time the pagans thrust Philip before a statue of Mars and forced him to sacrifice to the god. Then a huge dragon emerged from the base of the statue. The dragon killed the pagan priest’s son, who tended the fire for the sacrifice, and slew two tribunes whose men held Philip in chains. The dragon infected the bystanders with the stench of its breath so that all became ill. Philip then said to the people that they had to worship the true Lord, for the dragon to disappear and the sick to be cured. The suffering cried out that if they would but be cured they would smash the statue of Mars. Philip commanded the dragon into the desert; he cured the sick and even brought the three men that had been mortally wounded by the dragon back to life. All the people present then accepted Philip’s faith.

When Philip was eighty-seven years old the infidels seized him and nailed him to a cross. The Golden Legend quotes again Isidore, who wrote that Philip was crucified and stoned at Hierapolis in Phrygia. Philip was buried there together with his daughters.

Filippino Lippi used these two stories from the apocryphal Gospels to illustrate scenes from the life of Saint Philip in the Strozzi Chapel of the church of Santa Maria Novella of Florence. This chapel had been commissioned by Filippo Strozzi. Filippino Lippi completed here his frescoes of the lives of Saint Philip and Saint John in 1502. Filippo Strozzi was buried in the chapel. His porphyry tomb, made by Benedetto da Maiano, still stands behind the altar. Strozzi must have asked scenes from the life of Saint Philip because Saint Philip was his patron saint, of the same name, and we may wonder whether it was a coincidence that also his painter had the name of Filippino, from Filippo, his own name.

The fresco ‘Saint Philip at the Temple of Mars’ is an excellent example of how well the Middle Age and Renaissance painters knew the apocryphal texts, such as their compilation in the ‘Golden Legend’ of Jacobus de Voragine. All the details of the narrative are shown. We see the statue of the Roman deity Mars, the god of war, in a sumptuous monument. The god holds the Roman symbol of the wolves with his left hand, whereas in the other he brandishes the flame of war high. The statue looks down on Philip, who commands the dragon. The story tells that the dragon broke out from under the temple and indeed, stones are broken from that marble stairs. The dragon is not the huge monster from the Golden Legend, since that would have taken up too much space in the painting and have been too ugly a scene for a refined fresco. But the son of the priest of Mars lies lifeless in the arms of oriental bystanders on the right. Filippino read that the story played in Scythia, so he let his imagination loose on the robes, cloaks, headdresses and even faces of the infidel people that came to sacrifice to the Roman god. Rome is present also on the left of the painting, where a centurion holds the standard of its army.

Filippino chose a scene of action and he painted Philip at the moment of highest drama in the story. Around the soldiers people are either suffering under growing sickness, such as the forefront old man with the white-grey hair, or they are pinching their noses at the stench of the dragon. In the centre, Philip commands the dragon and the miracle, whereas the priest of Mars looks in awe at the slumping body of his son. Lippi made a picture of action, a narrative in a painting, in the very old tradition of church frescoes that wanted to instruct the pious into the wonderful religious stories of the Bible and the lives of the Saints.

Filippino Lippi made this fresco in the middle of the Renaissance period, but we see that this art style of painting was evolving already towards a more complex, sumptuous kind of representation. We feel with this fresco that the Renaissance was ending, and in a state of transition to another style. Expression of ideas, simple but forceful display of figures in a scene was not enough anymore. Lippi added a wealth of decoration. The monument of Mars is so loaded with statues, vases, friezes, free-standing Corinthian columns, false arches, golden decoration and symbols, that we might recognise a fully Baroque or even Rococo mindset. The Roman standards on the left and the Scythian standards on the right also are painted in this fantastic, extravagant vision, and so are the decorations on the extreme sides of the painting. Filippino Lippi was raised by Sandro Botticelli, but whereas his master always held his fecund and strange imagination in check, Filippino Lippi wholly surrendered to the magic of ornament. More than the contents, Lippi astonished his audience by this display of wealth and outwardly, imaginative overdose.

Lippi remained in all this show of details however a master of rigid structure. In his composition he drew a horizontal scene of figures, a band about a third of the fresco’s dimensions high. The statue of Mars is planted in the centre and at about two thirds of the frame’s width. It is positioned as the vertical counter-balance of the band of horizontally placed figures. Lippi furthermore introduced symmetries around the central axe, as much as he could, in forms and in colours. Thus the monument of Mars is wholly symmetric around the central axe and so are the high walls of black and white marble on the sides. The figures are in two groups, symmetrically placed on the left and on the right. We remark how also the golden to brown colours respond on either side. Saint Philip wears a green cloak and he faces the right side. In that right scene we find the green colour back in two figures: in a woman and in the oriental man holding the priest’s son. Some green is also to be found on the left, but in much smaller proportion. On the other hand, the priest of Mars is dressed in golden-brown robes and cloak and this mass of colour is balanced on the left by the same colours in the sick man. This figure on the left looks remarkably like the priest of Mars. Maybe Lippi has indicated here just an image of the same priest at another point in time and as an even more suffering man, suffering also from the sickness brought by the dragon. Finally, the priest’s son is also dressed in a golden-coloured dress so that the link father-son is madder more explicit for the viewer. Here Lippi used a little bright blue in the boy’s cloak, as if to indicate the boy’s youth and innocence.

Most remarkable are the details of the Scythian people on left and right. Filippino Lippi drew them in fresco – a difficult medium – with a wealth of differing colours, forms and movements. Any viewer cannot but be very impressed by the skills and imagination of the new vision of Filippino Lippi. But then Filippo Strozzi knew what he was doing when he chose this painter for his chapel and Filippino Lippi was obliged to show his best art and skills in one of the main churches of Florence, where already other masterpieces decorated the walls.

The ‘Saint Philip at the Temple of mars’ announces an evolution of the Renaissance. We now know that the Renaissance evolved into the force of the depiction of the human body, as proposed by Michelangelo, and into the force of harsher visualisation of figures and of cruder colours of Jacopo Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino. Had Michelangelo and Pontormo not existed, the Renaissance might well have evolved towards pictures in which decorum would have prevailed over force and intensity. Filippino Lippi used strong structure in his fresco and that structure is quite apparent so that the fresco remains controlled and solemn. It would have sufficed for the painter to break the symmetries to have reached baroque features fully.

Filippino Lippi could however also paint simpler and immediately expressive scenes. His fresco ‘The Crucifixion of Saint Philip’ in the same chapel of Santa Maria Novella is such a picture. Here there are fewer figures, less decorative elements and the attention of the viewer is more easily held on the central theme. The depiction remained naïve, straightforward and feels somewhat old for a Renaissance representation. Lippi must have concentrated here his mind on the message of the scene only, more than on the painterly expression or than even on his painterly skills. Again however, the details are fine and betray a master painter and draughtsman of Florence.

Other paintings:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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