The Great Piece of Turf

7:00 AM

The Great Piece of Turf would make a terrible superhero name. Good thing Dürer is his own favorite superhero.
Albrecht Dürer, The Great Piece of Turf, 1503

Leave it to Albrecht Dürer to make grass look divine.

Really, in almost any other context or with any other painter, a painting of turf would be exactly what you'd expect it to be--lifeless, plain, or insubstantial. But left to Dürer (read: Jesus), being a self-styled king among artists, it gains a depth, weight and an unexpected experimental edge that no one would've expected otherwise. But to anyone not looking deeply enough, it's turf. Gorgeous turf, but turf nonetheless. But let's just get one thing clear before going on:

Not looking is a grave mistake.

The most immediately interesting thing that Dürer presents comes in the form of the plants themselves. Full of life and variety, the collection lacks the uniformity of "regular" grass. While there are patches of similarity, they're punctuated by smaller sprouts that pop up and vie for the sunlight. Dürer captures this push for life perfectly, even without including external imagery like a sun or a sky. In addition to that, each plant is rendered in painstaking detail, to the point where even modern photographic technology struggles to match it. It's amazing even now to think of the hours, the days, that Dürer spent gazing at the ground, hoping to God (read: himself) that he could render it correctly.

But aside from this, there can't be anything else interesting about this painting, right?

Wrong.

Aside from the variety Dürer brings to this turf, there's also a wonderfully subtle degree of depth lent to the painting that helps it feel real, in a way that many nature paintings (or Renaissance paintings in general) lack. The leaves of the plant (please excuse my dearth of horticulture knowledge) sit elegiacally at the front of the painting, contrasting with the urgency that the sprouts provide.
Good god look at the depth!
Albrecht Dürer, The Great Piece of Turf (detail), 1503

There's almost a spiritual component to it in that the hierarchies that prevail throughout nature feel so perfectly rendered and accepted. Even the dirt, created using jarringly experimental watercolors, feels in place. Despite featuring an amazing amount of variation and detail, the painting never feels cluttered or forced, everything is in its right place. But aside from that, there's a certain tranquility to zooming into any part of the painting and finding a new layer or new bit of detail.

Ultimately, this painting demonstrates a lot of things. First and foremost would be, to most, Dürer's outstanding ability as a painter (mind you, this is post Jesus-self-portrait), but it also showcases a lot of the ways that the Northern Renaissance represented a mindshift.

In the North, there was a greater shift towards tangible, secular ideas, a recognition of science and economics and brutality. But this shift wasn't absolute, and there are bits of spiritual and religious tradition that slip into a lot of otherwise secular paintings. But this painting demonstrates the merging of the two traditions, that there could be something divine, something transcendent, about an absolutely scientific painting of grass.

All of that in a painting of grass, and you'd be crazy not to look deeper.

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