In 1498, Albrecht Dürer published his Apocalypse, the first book to be planned, illustrated, and published by an artist. It was an audacious undertaking for a 27-year-old. No doubt he hoped to cash in on the anxiety that the world would end in a round-numbered year, 1500 in his case, but there was no guarantee of success for such a new departure. For one thing, Dürer's illustrations claimed the front sides of each page, while the text flowed in a continuous stream on the reverse, not necessarily in direct juxtaposition to the scenes illustrated. That is, the illustrations were trumps, and the biblical text secondary.
. . . on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden girdle round his breast; his head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters; in his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth issued a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.
Art historians love to find visual sources borrowed by their artists. Dürer drew on the earlier German Bible of Anton Koberger (1483) for his composition: a rather minimalist and literal rendering of the text in woodcut, with the vision set inside a conventional mandorla of clouds. But in Dürer's hands the same image becomes hallucinatory and surreal.
Master of the Woodcut
What is it that makes Dürer's image so compelling? Partly it is his mastery of the woodcut medium, even though it is at best an intractable one. In order to lock into the press and print with typeface, each line in the woodcut must be raised in relief. That is, all of the area that prints as white must be cut away by the artisan's knife, leaving behind narrow raised ridges that hold the ink and print as black lines.
In the early days of printing, most woodcuts were no more skillfully done than Koberger's. But Dürer, who trained with his father as a goldsmith and only later turned to art, transformed the language of the medium and made a new range of effects possible. Dürer drew with a broad-nibbed pen directly on the pearwood block, and, at the beginning, he was probably the only one skilled enough to cut his own designs.
By the time Dürer composed and cut the Vision of the Seven Candlesticks, he had gained full mastery of the woodcut line and its possibilities. He was able to make exact renderings and multiple copies of his autograph drawings: we, in the age of the Xerox machine, fail to realize the revolutionary impact of the early print media. From Dürer onward, printing would never be the same.
We should look a little more closely, then, at Dürer's Vision. The two figures, John and the Holy One on the throne, are fully articulated in space and speak an eloquent emotional language of gesture. Dürer by this time had been to Italy and absorbed the lessons of the budding Italian Renaissance. But the space his figures occupy is clearly the realm of the imagination and the supernatural, with its floating lampstands and startling effects of light around Christ's head and hand.
Here the artist must face the challenge of giving visual form to what is essentially unseeable. The mysterious sword which issues from Christ's lips points us to the book he holds: the sword of John's metaphorical vision is the Word of God, which separates truth from falsehood, good from evil, joint from marrow. Here, then, the two-dimensional aspect of the page, in tension with the three-dimensional figures, resolves itself into a flat pattern of triangles and circles, mystical forms with symbolic significance: John's metaphorical language has both a literal and an abstract form on the page.
Dürer's publishing venture was a huge success. The financial gain it brought him allowed him to escape the old patronage system, under which the subject, the scale, and even the details of a commission were often determined by the man paying the bill rather than by the artist.Self-expression was not yet accepted as a driving principle of the arts; in Dürer's newly independent hands, this was about to change.
The Vision probably contains a hidden element of self-expression as well. Dürer's Evangelist may be a self-portrait: John's long, hooked nose and tumbled curls are very like the artist's own, and the candlesticks may refer to his early training as a goldsmith. Further, his youthful choice of a difficult subject and his bold handling of it make a statement about self-expression and the artist's vision that rival the Evangelist's.
In 1500, Dürer painted another self-portrait (Figure 3), an even more audacious statement. Here he styles himself in the image of Christ, based on the traditional icon and known to him in contemporary renderings of Christ as Salvator Mundi. Dürer identified himself deeply with Christ: in his own writings, he tells us he followed the Imitatio Christi, and in his art, he recognized that his creative powers derived from those of God, and that God is honored by the expression of that creativity in art. For Dürer, the artist, by special favor, conforms himself to Christ, and his expression of himself is, Deo gratias, an expression of the divine. •
Mary Elizabeth Podles is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She and her husband Leon, a Touchstone senior editor, have six children and live in Naples, Florida.
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