Desiderius Erasmus (1467-1536) stands as a leading humanist in Europe during the time of the Reformation for exposing the abuses of the church through his various publications, most notably the Colloquia first published in 1519. The audacity and incisiveness with which he described the corruption of the church prepared men's minds for the work of Luther. In 1516 he published his annotated New Testament and in 1519 the nine volume work on Saint Jerome, in which his aim was to introduce a more rational conception of Christian doctrine, and to emancipate men's minds from the frivolous and pedantic methods of scholastic theologians. He spent his life moving between Paris, England, Italy, Louvain and Freiburg, and finally settled in Basel. When the Lutheran Revolution came, those of the old order thought of him as the author of the new troubles, whereas the reformists assailed him for his cowardice in refusing to follow up his opinions to their legitimate conclusions. During his last years, however, he enjoyed great fame, and was highly esteemed for his contributions to the Revival of Learning.
Drer had met Erasmus at least three times during his trip to the Netherlands in 1520-21. He recorded in his diary that during his stay in Brussels between 27 August and 3 September 1521, he made 'yet another' portrait of the humanist (probably the charcoal drawing in the Louvre). Yet no finished portrait of Erasmus by Drer is known to us, until he produced the engraving several years later. The print is the most elaborate and formal of Drer's engraved portraits, and it seems that the work was long awaited. Erasmus hinted directly to Pirckheimer in letters of 1523 and 1525 that he wanted his portrait done, and the artist's hesitation could be explained by his disappointment in the scholar's unwillingness to take up Luther's cause. Drer's personal opinion of Erasmus is expressed in the emotional passage in the Netherlands Diary, which he wrote having heard the false news that Luther had been kidnapped. He appealed to Erasmus to come to Luther's aid, and the plea shows how high were his expectations of the humanist. The engraved portrait certainly seems to denote respect in its formality and intricacy, as opposed to the softer and more friendly image he produced of Pirckheimer. The Greek inscription on the tablet behind Erasmus reads that 'His writings present a better picture of the man than this portrait'.