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Leisure • Art/Architecture • Small Pleasures

Albrecht Dürer and his Pillows

One of the most beautiful and unexpectedly moving sketches in the world was completed by the German artist Albrecht Dürer in 1493, when he was twenty two years old and apprenticed in his native Nuremberg. It shows six pillows, probably his own, in a variety of shapes and positions.

Albrecht Dürer, Six Pillows, 1493

On the other side of the paper, Dürer drew himself, looking at us with penetration and inquisitiveness, alongside a version of his hand — and, at the bottom, for good measure, another (seventh) pillow.

A pillow has no distinguished place in the order of the universe. We are unlikely ever to have paid much attention to this modest household object. We take its existence for granted, we owe it no special gratitude and are unlikely ever to have been detained by its qualities. Like so much else that we are surrounded by, we see it without noticing it; it belongs to a vast category of things which we rely on without for an instant stopping to wonder at, or deriving any satisfaction, from them. We are — for the most part — wholly blind.

In the face of our customary inattention, it may help us greatly that, a long time ago, a genius should have arrested his gaze in order to tell us that, among the neglected detritus of a household, there might be something worth bothering with, that a pillow properly considered might be as interesting as a castle or as nuanced as a poem, that we have all along been putting our heads down on a treasury. 

It matters too — though it shouldn’t ideally — that Dürer’s work is highly acclaimed, that the pillow image is stored in a special temperature-controlled room in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, that it has been the subject of extensive study by elaborately-trained art historians and that it costs more than a sports car. We are, by nature, immoderately snobbish creatures; we appreciate principally what we have been excited to be curious about by the most prestigious voices in society — which means that we spend a lot of time thinking about fame and glory, and no time at all attending to most of what lies closest to us, which includes not just our pillows, but also the lemon on the sideboard, the light at dusk, an afternoon free of commitments, the flowers in the garden, the laughter of a child, the kindness of a friend, a history book on the shelf and the many small moments of harmony and satisfaction that — despite our many difficulties — we have already witnessed.

One of the most acclaimed artists of the European Renaissance lends us his immense prestige in order that we might in turn learn to draw pleasure from thoroughly unprestigious things. We declare our lives to be worthless, we cast envious glances at the achievements of our rivals, but all along, we trample on what keener, more alert eyes would know how to feast on.

Throughout his career, Dürer looked at ordinary life and saw it for the unlikely ecstatic jewel-filled pantheon it is. A few years after the pillows, he completed a study of a range of ordinary plants and grasses and wondered at the capacity of the smallest clod of earth to give life to so much beauty and interest.

Albrecht Dürer, Columbines, 1526

Nothing could be further from the realm of worldly ambition than a bunch of columbines; such flowers grow freely in any stony, seemingly unpromising soil; there’s no market in them, no one has ever boasted of owning what is — more or less — a weed. But for Dürer, such spectacles of nature were among the most serious sources of pleasure that exist, worth as much as a coat of arms and more likely to satisfy us than a love affair. He relished the delicacy of shoots, he admired the individuality of petals and the subdued yet subtle colours of new leaves. Fulfilment — which we are taught exists only in a good reputation, financial achievement and costly decorative objects — may be already here, waiting for us in a crack in the pavement or in a window box. 

We may not have Dürer’s talent but we don’t — in this instance — need it. We’re not trying to become artists; we’re trying to become people who have reasons to live. And in this regard, Dürer is generous. He is reminding us that there are reasons everywhere; in the way the light falls on a cup, in a few words with someone who still cares about us, in a banana cake we might make tomorrow. The lesson is not to focus on exactly the same things that Dürer studied (though we might do this too), it’s to take his attitude of generosity, openness and modesty and apply it to our own circumstances. We might find our version of his satisfaction in a pattern of lichen on an old stone wall or in the refined elegance of a boiled egg.

So compelling was Dürer’s skill as an artist, he came to the notice of the rich and powerful of his day, including — most consequentially — the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. Maximilian loved horses, wars, armour and pageantry. Most of all, he loved himself — for all the grand and important things he had done (expanding the Habsburg Dynasty to Spain, recapturing Austria, checking the power of the French). He asked Dürer if he might make a work of art that could fully celebrate his achievements, his character and his place in history — and urged him to make it as big as possible. Money was no object. The result was one of the largest prints ever made, three metres high, laid out on 36 gigantic sheets of paper from 195 separate wood blocks.

Albrecht Dürer, Triumphal Arch of Maximilian, c. 1515

The central arch was called ‘Honour and Might’, the right arch ‘Nobility’ and the left arch — quite simply — ‘Praise.’ Each one was densely packed with illustrations highlighting Maximilian’s wisdom, courage, strength, popularity and good nature. In one area, there was a complicated family tree that traced his lineage back to Clovis I, the first King of the Franks — and in another, a table that equated his achievements with Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great.

Maximilian was delighted, he praised Dürer to all the aristocracy and had copies of the work delivered to every corner of his lands. But the artist was less content; he had done it for the money and his heart wasn’t remotely in such bombast. Too much in his character went in other directions: towards the everyday, towards humility and towards an awareness of how disaster might strike each one of us, even or especially the mighty ones, at any moment.

Albrecht Dürer, The Four Horsemen, from the Apocalypse 1498

Dürer’s mind was dominated by terrifying visions of what fate might have in store: disease, famine, injustice and war laying waste to our dreams and ambitions. In his self-portraits, he never disguised his anxiety. In a second early work, he showed himself holding in his right hand a shrivelled thistle, a symbol of pain, decay and defeat. His look of suspicion and wariness is directed not at us, but at himself. He knew how quickly, and with how few wrong moves, we can all be undone.

Albrecht Dürer, Self-Portrait 1493

Ruin or disgrace may well catch up with us. Things collapse, plans turn sour (shortly after the arch was done, Maximilian fell into a depression and, inconsolable, insisted on sleeping in and being carried around all day in a coffin; he died four years later). But we don’t always need the very large elements of our lives to succeed in order for existence to be bearable; we can survive and in distinctive ways thrive through a disciplined focus on the smaller elements around us that lie more reliably within our command and that offer us pleasure without exacting envy or punishing effort. We can nourish ourselves on the sight of flowers, on the smell of freshly baked bread, on an evening writing our diary or on a walk around the park. We can take pleasure in an apricot, in a hot bath, in some flowering weeds — and, not least, in our own set of pillows that have so often and so generously in the wake of our disappointments, received our tears.

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