Big ideas can come in modest packages.
In an upstairs gallery at Harvard University's Busch-Reisinger Museum in Cambridge, Mass., fewer than 100 black-and-white etchings, charcoal drawings, and woodcuts line the walls and a display case. No spectacle here ... until you take a closer look.
Early Renaissance master Albrecht Drer (1471-1528) was fascinated by the Passions of Christ, the events in Jesus' life between the Last Supper and the Resurrection. Over some 34 years until his death, Drer created six versions of the Passion story, each series of works presenting new insights and artistic approaches - and each showing Drer's struggles to understand these events.
Thanks to an enterprising Harvard graduate student, Jordan Kantor, who conceptualized the show, the six versions are together in "Drer's Passions," made up of Harvard's holdings and works borrowed from museums in Britain and Germany.
Drer is widely considered the greatest artistic figure in Germany before the modern era and one of the greatest creative figures of the Renaissance. He was hugely famous in his own lifetime - the issuing of the Drer Passions were the "media events" of their day, says Prof. Joseph Koerner, who was teaching the history of art and architecture at Harvard when Mr. Kantor approached him with an idea for a Drer exhibition.
Not only are the events of the Passion complex, subject to various interpretations, so are Drer's motives for creating the six series. They were at once commercial, religious, and intellectual, says Marjorie Cohn, curator of prints at Harvard's Fogg Art Museum. Working with the somewhat new printing press, Drer could widely and fairly inexpensively sell copies of his woodcuts and etchings.
Artistically, Ms. Cohn says, the Drer Passions "expanded the notion of what prints could do." With his intricate etchings, he made subtle shades of gray appear from a medium of white paper and black ink. The fine etchings yield beautiful abstract patterns and designs.
Yet it's clear that Drer had more than making a profit - or even great art - on his mind.
Drer felt that "art, and the expressing of genius through art, honors God," Kantor writes in the exhibition catalog.
The Passions are like jazz solos, Kantor says, with Drer improvising on a set of well-known standards (the events of the Passion), but each time reinterpreting them to reveal new aspects. He was an early "modern" artist.
Drer found the Passion story to be "both psychological and physical, intellectual and visceral, considered and wild," Kantor says.
In his early versions, "Drer sought to picture Christ as if he were actually in ... the same personal space as the artist [and the viewer]," Kantor says.
But in a later work, "Agony in the Garden," Drer depicts Jesus face down at Gethsemane, "completely eschewing the possibility of an intimate encounter with him," Kantor says. Jesus seems almost to be floating above the ground. His "corporeality that had so permeated Drer's earlier conception of Christ has been completely evacuated."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society