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Dürer’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse Nowadays

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Albrecht Dürer was the first German artist to become an international authority during the Renaissance: science-oriented, well-traveled and widely admired for his visual and technical literacy, he appropriated the high ideas of Italian Renaissance into pioneering techniques and brought the modern Humanistic style and ideas to his own country. Graphic artist and painter, he preferred woodcutting, printing and drawing as the ideal media to express his great force and inventiveness, and above all an aesthetic dynamism characterized by spectacular climaxes.

Already at the age of 27, the young painter had accumulated enough experience, erudition and artistic ability to take up a very ambitious project for his time, namely to graphically edit and publish the Book of Revelations. At the time, printed books were not only scarce (the most of them being Biblical or religion-derived), but also the illustrations or general graphic work implied great investment and a laborious and long process of crafting the negative of the image. The more aesthetically complex the design, the more difficult the process of block cutting and thus the longer and more expensive the publishing. However, Dürer persevered in this ambition, completed the task and realized a triple breakthrough: inaugurated a new stage in the development of illustrated printed books, found an open and reproducible medium to express his vivid religious imagery and also assured a stable income for the rest of his life, which enabled him to perform his art in security[1]. The success of the series was palpable, since his impressive illustrations were re-edited several times in many copies independently or together with the book, were disseminated through the whole Germany, were exposed to a wider public and had an even better visibility than traditional commissioned masterpieces.

Dürer’s style not only crystallized, but also culminated in his famous series of 14 woodblock prints known as the The Apocalypse Cycle, the epitome of which being The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1498). According to all sources, his basis of inspiration was one of the most allegorical and tragic episodes of the Gospels, namely St. John’s visions of the Revelation (6:1-8), a scene of enormous visual expressivity. The artist interpreted the content of eight symbolic verses into a print describing the Judgment Day descending from the skies by the four horsemen. Dürer presents a terrible vision of Doomsday personified by the compact attack of the four riders bringing mayhem onto human kind: (from background to foreground) Pestilence drawing his bow, War wielding a sword, Famine menacing with empty scales, while the most salient is skeletal Death in the very foreground sweeping people (and a king or a bishop) into the jaws of Hades. It seems that humankind lives its last day being crushed by the merciless forces of a supernatural punishment that wipes everything off with an insatiable lust for massacre. The whole nature participates:  the rays of light and the clouds seem material and sharp, the archangel above gives a cosmic surveillance dimension to the whole scene, the running people look doomed to failure. The scene is intensely dynamic and like a perpetual memento it has a tragic magnitude.

Dürer’s print evidently augments the suggestive power of the episode by deploying an authentic mise-en scene of optical and almost tactile effects perfectly adapted to the limiting nature of black and white prints. To my view, it is the pronounced sketchiness of the engraving that makes the scene more salient than a painting, in the sense that its sublimated graphics is restoring the essence to this universal notion of devastation, if you will – the quintessence. Its air of encrypted myth and the critically caustic contours give not only credibility, but also an aura of gothic mysticism to the scene, as if we were in front of a forbidden prediction.

Technically, the evocative force of Dürer’s style in woodcutting is due to very subtle and learned work: “Durer converts the primitive contrasts of black and white into a gliding scale of light and shade, achieving a quality of luminosity never before seen in woodblock prints”[2], the light and dark tones are emphasized with parallel or crosshatched lines. The detailed embellishment work for the clothes, hair, the horses’ manes give vibrant textures to this tableau that seems to fall out, to invade our space due to its three-dimensional qualities. The forms slide one into another giving depth and relief to the implacable and unified movement of the four horsemen that descend obliquely in a movement of fatality.  But are these four horsemen obsolete? Is this iconography still valid? I believe it is, due to its symbolic force.

Undoubtedly it was this quality that touched me so deeply, beyond the aesthetic dimension, some five hundred years later, in a museum in Houston, Texas, in a time that has little (or too much?) in common to the German artistic Renaissance of the 15th century. Seeing the print last night at the MFAH meant a violent leap in time, a disruption from everyday experience and an irrefutable blow of tragedy in between the teeth of Hades. There were two figures in my mind, a 9 -11 in New York, a death icon invoked by another death icon. The same visual and almost tactile mood plunged me into the horror and helplessness shed on earth by some merciless decision that wipes life off with an insatiable lust for massacre… and almost seemed as if the world was coming to an end. The cutting lights plunging from above with stabbing planes, the man-eating fire, smoke taking shapes of beasts just before swallowing the world as we had known it. Pestilence, War, Famine announcing Death and the worlds turned “disjoint and out of frame”[3]. One can almost hear the noise, the screaming, the appalling tempest.

Beyond time and cultures, Durer’s allegorical print managed to grasp in a universal way all the “ends” of the world, irrelevant of the particular conflicts or plagues that render those worlds or communities extinct. Utterly modern, this work framed something collectively memorable, the abomination and the feeling of THE END at the touch of your fingers, the smell of death of the loved ones in the blood flow – and that nothing will be the same afterwards:

“But let the frame of things disjoint, both the worlds suffer.
Ere we will eat our meal in fear, and sleep
In the affliction of these terrible dreams
That shake us nightly


“Albrecht Dürer: Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (19.73.209)”. In Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.

http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/durr/hod_19.73.209.htm (October 2006)

“Albrecht Dürer.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 4 Apr 2008, 19:39 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 5 Apr 2008 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Albrecht_D%C3%BCrer&oldid=203355730>

Gardner, Louise. Art through the Ages. 8th edition. Orlando: HBJ, 1986. 688-689.

  1. Panofsky, The life and art of Albrecht Dürer. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Shakespeare Online. 2000. (April 4, 2008) <http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/hamletscenes.html>

Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Shakespeare Online. 2000. (April 5, 2008) <http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/macbethscenes.html>

[1] E. Panofsky, The life and art of Albrecht Durer. Princeton University Press: 1971.

[2] Gardner’s art, pp. 688.

[3] William Shakespaere, Hamlet. Act 1, sc. 2, line 20.

[4] William Shakespaere, Macbeth. Act 3, sc. 2, lines 16-19.

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