Self Portrait, Durer, 1500, oil on canvas.

Head of Christ, Petrus Christus, c. mid 15th century, oil on canvas

Christ Giving His Blessing, Hans Memlinc, 1478, oil on canvas

Self Portrait, Durer, 1498, oil on canvas

Man Holding Book, Roger van der Weyden, mid 15th century, oil on canvas

Portrait of Jan de Leeuw, Jan van Eyck, 1436, oil on canvas

The 1500 portrait of Durer is actually one of his most famous pieces. It’s a pretty blatant imitation of a portrait of Christ. Contemporary portraits in Northern Europe were pretty exclusively comprised of bust shots of the subject at three fourths view–even Durer’s 1498 self portrait conformed to this rule–but contemporary portraits of Christ showed him in a frontal pose. Often, these portraits of Christ also showed his hand in a blessing gesture, blessing the viewer.

Durer’s portrait shows himself in a frontal pose, with the long hair and beard of a portrait of Christ, and his hand blessing not the viewer, but himself.

Most people’s first reaction to Durer’s portrait is pretty aghast–what is he doing? It seems pretty egotistical to paint himself literally AS CHRIST. And…well, I won’t deny it was egotistical, but it isn’t quite so audacious and socially outrageous as it might appear. There’s actually quite a bit of context for this portrait.

When Durer painted this he was living in Nuremburg, which became increasingly important as the city of Humanists in the 16th century. The long and short of where he was and who he hung out with was that he was moving in very elite, intellectual circles that were shaping German thinking and social order. In addition, in Italy, the idea of an artist-genius was quite common, but in Northern Europe, artists were seen primarily as craftsmen. With this context, Durer’s act of showing himself as Christ comes off not as undiluted egotism and blasphemy, but as a manifestation of himself as an artist whose social class and god-given genius were on display. This portrait is in part Durer advocating for artists, showing that the artist has more nobility than a simple laborer might have.

The self-blessing gesture, then, is also more than sheer arrogance. It is an acknowledgement that God himself has blessed Durer with this artistic talent. Just as God had created all things, an artist also created.

And, what is to me the most powerful argument for this interpretation, is the concept of Imitatio Christi. Imitatio Christi is an idea that was particularly powerful at the time–and quite common in the art of the time, as well–that advocated for an individual to take Christ upon him so much that he would also become a Christ-like figure. This doctrine is well represented by Saint Francis who actually had the stigmata–nail prints in his hands and feet–in his body, and was celebrated for it. To a certain extent, showing himself as Christ showed Durer’s devotion to Christ.

So, egotistical and arrogant? Considering that no other artists that I’m aware of were painting themselves as Christ, yeah, probably. But utterly blasphemous and without context? Not so much.