Monday, September 20, 2004

An Early Avatar: The Sick Durer

Sometime around the year 1512 Albrecht Dùrer was feeling unwell. In order to describe his ailment to a physician, who was presumably not in the vicinity of his actual body, he created this image of himself locating the pain in his left side between his thoracic and abdominal regions.

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), the illustrious German printmaker, painter, and designer, produced an intriguing pen and watercolour, half length self portrait. The Sick Dürer is small, 12 cm×11 cm, and on it Dürer wrote, “Do wo der gelb fleck is und mit dem finger drawff dewt do is mir we” (There, where the yellow spot is located, and where I point my finger, there it hurts”). Why Dürer used colour remains a mystery, but it could have been added for emphasis, just as his index finger draws attention to the painful part.
The picture was sent to an out of town physician whom Dürer had consulted. When it was painted is uncertain, and suggested dates range from 1509 to 1521.3 Dürer had been unwell on several occasions during this period, but it seems most likely that the picture relates to the illness he contracted in 1520. In the spring of 1521 Dürer recorded in his diary that, during a journey to the Netherlands the previous year, he had been seriously ill: “In the third week after Easter I was seized by a hot fever, great weakness, nausea, and headache. And before, when I was in Zeeland, a strange sickness came over me, such as I have never heard of from any man, and I still have this sickness.” The Sick Dürer—a Renaissance prototype pain map

I see this image as an early virtual body or avatar as they are called in 3D virtual worlds. It is a visual embodiment over distance designed to impart information concerning interior states of being. Not a diagram (the resemblance to the Christ figure is marked), and not a verbal note explaining the pain (although the text at the top of the drawing in German states "There were the yellow spot is and the finger points, there it hurts me."; reads almost like an inworld text message!)
The body as manifestation of self is a strong trope in Early Modern Literature.

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