Impossible! From Dissent to Disenchantment in the German Renaissance Print
“No one dares a greater thing than attempting to do the impossible.” Such a statement confronts the viewer of German artist Sebald Beham’s 1549 miniature engraving of a brawny man attempting to dislodge a tree from the earth with a morass of paradoxes: how does one undertake that which cannot, by definition, be done? Moreover, who would ever attempt such a thing? The rhetorical statement answers itself: no one. But the more the statement is read, the more that new meanings, and meta-meanings, spring from its internal tensions. This double-negating conundrum presents Mitchell Merback, an art historian at Johns Hopkins University and a spring 2009 Anna-Maria Kellen Fellow, with an opportunity for a stealthy hermeneutics of emerging Reformation morality.
Merback argues that Beham’s tiny engraving does not just present the viewer with a brainteaser. Rather, more broadly viewed, it reveals a dominating concern of Reformation Germany: “The discourse concerning the freedom of the human will and its role in salvation.” In this reading the image bespeaks, as such, “the human will's disenchanted vacillation between necessity and freedom.”
Merback's philosophic rendering of the Renaissance print hews closely to the debates surrounding its physical production: namely, a volley of Christian writings about human agency, freedom, arrogance, salvation, and indolence. After the Roman-Catholic humanist intellectual Erasmus published On Free Will , in 1524, it was viciously counterattacked by Luther’s On the Bondage of the Will , in 1525. The exchange continued, and the controversy over human agency produced multiple splintering factions. Though Erasmus and Luther began as mutual admirers, each relaying compliments of learnedness and humanity, remaining at loggerheads over the issue of free will dissolved their relationship irreconcilably. The latter’s radical reforms would create, as Erasmus suspected, a spiritually underwritten justification for the peasant uprising throughout Germany, foment Anabaptist disturbances, and initiate a wave of iconoclasm.
It is exactly this last point—iconoclasm—where Merback suggests that an image such as Sebald’s enters a new interpretive dimension. Images produced by a number of Reformation-sympathetic engravers, painters, and sculptors become, he suggests, symbols for the artist living through these conflicted times; that is, they are allegories of group identity. This opens up the theme to Merback’s larger project, “Radical German Renaissance,” about a selection of Reformation-age German artists whose artistic identities were formed by dissent, laying out the model of the artist in modernity.
Merback discussed in detail the work of several German artists he considered to have aesthetically formalized the Reformation’s radicalisms: Jorg Ratgeb, Jörg Pencz, and, of course, the brothers Barthel and Sebald Beham. Each of these artists in their various ways, Merback says, “embraced a radical dream of ‘Christian liberty’ that was at first Lutheran, and then anti-Lutheran, but then soon retreated from both, disillusioned and searching.” In so doing, he argues, “they adopted, in a strikingly modern fashion, a kind of disenchanted conservatism in which a compensatory ‘artistic freedom,’ and a newly liberalized conception of the image, encouraged them to put forth novel interpretations of biblical, classical, and vernacular subjects.”
It is within this ethos that the Kleinmeister , those masters of the small exemplified in the “Impossible” work of Sebald Beham, helped to etch out a new cultural and psychic space, allowing a new sort of self-reflexivity to blossom. In so doing, Merback says, they privileged “an attitude that preferred paradox over moralizing; game-playing over decorum; cynicism over social satire; and ethics over theology.” Far from doing the impossible, a generation of German Renaissance artists, then, placed invigorated, individualized invention into closer reach. rjm