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Tuesday, May 13, 2014



Nicholas Neufchatel, ”The Nürnberg Master Johann Neudörfer With a Pupil” (1561) Oil on canvas, in the National Germanic Museum (Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nürnberg)


Why is this 'in the Age of the Book?' I would suggest that the book the boy is holding is what the painting is actually about. The information he is getting, or should be getting, must be recorded in the book, so that he may later study the book and learn and retain what he has heard from the mouth of the teacher, his Master.  That is the purpose of the old man and the young boy being there. 

Why Gravitas? Because not only are both faces serious, grave, respectful of one another, but what the teacher is imparting, which is no doubt the knowledge of Geometry, is something serious in life, in preparation for life, and because learning is a serious matter, not an obligation or a burden of childhood but rather a preparation for life and adulthood in society. The process by which the older man is teaching the youngster about Geometry, and the fact itself that he is doing so, is also a matter of gravitas and respect and seriousness.  It is a Protestant painting.  

The color palette, mostly browns and reds and dark shadows, emphasizes the seriousness of the message the painting intends to convey.  The viewer first looks at the faces, most likely, particularly the more illuminated, and more attractive, face of the boy.  Then the hand, the hand that teaches and is the indicator of the Master's knowledge.  Then the eye goes to the book and the boy's hands.  A diagonal of light streams from the lowered head of the Master all the way to the boy's left hand, the direction of the learning process, from the mind of the Master to the book held in the boy's hands, and above this diagonal of light hovers the head of the child, the object of the teaching and learning process. The painting illustrates the German Protestant Paideia.

It has been suggested to me that the boy is actually not paying any attention to the Master, and that he is looking to an object or view at a distance, or simply looking away through boredom.  I reject that hypothesis because that would introduce into this simple obscure painting a note of irony which is inconceivable to me at the time and place of the painting's commission and execution, namely, Protestant Nürnberg in 1561.  I leave it to the reader's imagination to judge whether or not I am right. If this were an eighteenth century painting I would say, yes, and I would call it "The Bored Youth."  But it is not.  It is of the period of the Protestant revolution.

The Protestant Revolution, the period initiated in Europe in the early part of the sixteenth century (Luther's posting of his 95 Theses in 1517 is usually considered the beginning of the process) and the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, is also the age when the book became disseminated throughout Europe as a means of communication and learning. The invention of the mechanical movable type print (Gutenberg in Mainz in the 1400s) and the immediately widespread use of the mechanical printing press made books available to many people, urban dwellers, clerics and farmers throughout the continent, and made the dissemination of ideas and of religious dissent possible throughout.  There would have been no Reformation without books. Erasmus and the Humanists had wanted reform for decades and nothing had happened. The masses had to get involved and for that books had to be printed and sold everywhere.  It was the Age of the Book.  

The Book became a very serious thing, and perhaps the greatest book ever written, Don Quijote, is a book about books, written when books were still a novelty.

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