Building work through the ages – northern renaissance

Oil on lime panel, 155 x 126 cm (central), 151 x 61 cm (each wing)

Durer's non-confroming works

DÜRER, Albrecht   Paumgartner Altarc. 1503   Oil on lime panel, 155 x 126 cm (central), 151 x 61 cm (each wing)    Alte Pinakothek, Munich

The purpose of this fine piece was to publish a timely warning to those planning to carry out building works without obtaining the appropriate statutory approvals.  The agents of state enforcement are represented in formal style by the two figures in separate panels to each side: the left hand one representing the ‘Building Inspector’ a formidable armoured character complete with banner and holding the corpse of a recently-slain monster, now believed to represent the errant contractor.   On the right, the medieval ‘Conservation Officer’ cuts a fine profile.  Note the small bugle on his belt for attracting the attention of workmen and signaling that work must stop immediately.  The spurs confirm that he would usually be on horseback enabling him to race from site to site and so carry out surprise visits before word was out of his presence in the locality.

 The center panel of course represents a very sorry state indeed.  The red-cloaked figure – a local magistrate – is gathering evidence from the distressed lady who has erred by commissioning the non-conforming works.  She is the victim of her own folly: the works remain incomplete, are being overgrown by vegetation and are clearly in a dangerous state.  Worst of all, the sorcery – still today associated with illegal building works – has resulted in the members of her household being shrunk to a fraction of their normal size.  Now she is a social pariah – and all for the want of following the correct procedure.  A harsh lesson indeed.

Sir Doric Port-Cochere:  the practice retained fine-art critic

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