Brass of the Month

July 2010 – Duchess Zedena, 1510, Meissen cathedral, Saxony, Germany


Click here for the Brass of the Month feature


Copyright © 2007 Monumental Brass Society (MBS)

Page last updated 04 March 2015

Copyright: Hubert Allen

    This month’s brass seems to have a significance that has perhaps escaped notice. At the close of the 15th century monumental brasses in Europe were characteristically Gothic memorials – either in the elegant Flemish style of Branca da Vilhana [1] or in the rather overloaded ‘High Gothic’ of Duke Frederick the Good of Saxony.[2]  But when in 1510 the distinguished Vischer workshop in Nuremberg was asked to produce a brass for another member of Duke Frederick’s family, they seem, not unnaturally, to have turned to a fellow townsman, Albrecht Dürer, who had done much work for the current Duke, Frederick the Wise.[3] Moreover, works such as his Prodigal Son (1498), St Eustace (1501) and Adam & Eve (1504) meant that by this time Dürer had become the most renowned engraver in Europe.


    Now between 1505 and 1507 Dürer had been based in Venice; and during this and a shorter visit to Italy ten years earlier he had been absorbing the ideas of the Italian Renaissance, with its admiration for the art of classical antiquity. Consequently the design for the new brass was in that tradition – revolutionary in northern Europe at so early a date. On her brass in Meissen cathedral, instead of the familiar stiff formal pose, full face and bolt upright, Duchess Zedena is portrayed as a three-dimensional figure in motion, in front of a “cloth of gold” curtain against a receding background based on the principles of perspective which Dürer had been studying in Italy. To cite Malcolm Norris, this is “among the very finest engraved brasses of the early sixteenth century in Europe”; and he continues: “Zedena is shown as a pensive and gentle person, her eyes cast downwards towards the beads held in her praying hands. Her dress consists of a gown, mantle and long scarf and is dignified but not ornate. Her headdress of a tightly-bound veil and wimple is plain, and the effect is arresting against the curtain background and skilfully arranged windows. The canopy is little more than a circular arch with two cherubs flying above”.[4]

    In the Vischer workshop, whether or not Dürer in person designed and perhaps even engraved all or part of the Duchess Zedena’s brass[5], his influence has been shown to be considerable.[6] But, more important, perhaps, is the fact that - whoever the artist - this month’s brass can plausibly claim to be the Europe’s first truly Renaissance memorial north of the Alps in any medium.


Notes


1. Evora (Portugal), c.1490: illustrated in Norris: Monumental Brasses: The Memorials (Phillips & Page, London, 1977): Fig.118, and description p.102.


2. Meissen (Germany), 1464: ibid. Fig.134, and description p.114


3. Notably in 1496 a portrait of the Duke himself, in 1504 an altarpiece (The Adoration of the Magi) for his castle chapel in  Wittenberg, and a few years’ later mural paintings in the castle itself. For details see e.g. Steck, Max: Dürer & his World (Vienna,  1957; trans. Brownjohn, London, 1964); and Wolf, Norbert: Albrecht Dürer – the Genius of the German Renaissance (Cologne, 2006).

 

4.  Norris: Monumental Brasses: The Craft (Faber & Faber, London, 1978): p.117.



5. At least one leading scholar thinks that he did: see Lemper, E.H.: Das Christliche Denkmal – der Dom zu Meissen (Berlin, 1962, pp.56-58): cited in Norris: ibid.: p.106. However, it seems doubtful that Dürer, left to himself, would have been content to retain the traditional blackletter for the inscription: he would surely have preferred classical Roman script, in keeping with the simple “classical” arch with which he has replaced the conventional pointed form of the Gothic era.


6. Thus Norris points out that the “representations of Saints Albert and Stanislaus depicted on the brass of Cardinal Fryderyk at Kraków Cathedral are a very close copy of two figures from the Dürer woodcut of Saints Nicholas, Ulrich and Erasmus”: ibid., pp.99f and Figs.82-84. The woodcut dates from 1507/08, and that brass was engraved in 1510.



 

Photograph © Martin Stuchfield