The inaugural exhibition in the European works on paper rotation space (on view until March 20) explores the Renaissance in Germany. Comprised completely of prints from the collection of the Milwaukee Art Museum, you can find engravings by Heinrich Aldegrever (1502–ca. 1561) and stipple engravings by Hans Sebald Beham (1500–1550). But you can’t study printmaking in the German Renaissance without a serious consideration of Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528). And we’re lucky enough to have 14 prints by the master! This is the first of a series of posts related to Dürer’s prints.
Albrecht Dürer is often considered the father of the northern Renaissance. He traveled to Italy twice, bringing the Italian Renaissance’s interests in art and culture back to Germany. Not only was he a well-respected visual artist, but he was also a widely published author on humanistic thought and scientific topics. Also, he was engaged in debate on religious issues. Serving as the first court artist to Holy Roman Emperors Maximilian I and his successor Charles V, Dürer had access to some of the highest social circles of Europe. Accordingly, he embraced the Renaissance idea of the artist as a creative genius whose gifts were bestowed by God rather than as a hard-working craftsman.
One way that Dürer influenced the artistic trajectory of the northern Renaissance is through his masterful approach to printmaking. His exploration of the unique way that prints can show light and dark, as well as how they can tell a powerful story, made printmaking an artwork in its own right rather than just a way to illustrate printed books. Today we begin a series that explores Dürer’s role in the history of printmaking by looking closely at some of his prints on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum.
A good place to start is St. John’s Vision of Christ and the Seven Candlesticks. This print was published in 1498 as one of 15 illustrations for the Bible’s Book of Revelation. If you look closely at this artwork in the gallery, you can see the printed text on the other side of the piece of paper. This series of prints is now known as Dürer’s The Apocalypse.
Because the Book of Revelation was St. John’s vision of the end of the world, Dürer’s challenge was to produce images of fantastic scenarios while still making them seem realistic. Just reading the passage that pairs with St. John’s Vision of Christ and the Seven Candlesticks shows how difficult this could be:
I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet, Saying, I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last: and, What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia; unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergamos, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and unto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicea. And I turned to see the voice that spake with me. And being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks; And in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle.
His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire; And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters. And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength. And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last: I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive forevermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death. Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter; The mystery of the seven stars which thou sawest in my right hand, and the seven golden candlesticks. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches: and the seven candlesticks which thou sawest are the seven churches. (King James text, Revelation 1:10–20)
I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t know where to begin! Dürer, on the other hand, produced an image that has all of the key elements mentioned in the passage: seven candlesticks; St. John; Christ with his long robe and metal belt; a double-edge sword coming from Christ’s mouth; and a hand with seven stars.
Despite all of these details, Dürer’s composition is clear and understandable. Let’s take a closer look at a few aspects of St. John’s Vision of Christ and the Seven Candlesticks and see why he is such a great artist.
First, although the location of this image is otherworldly, Dürer gives us a sense of depth. He uses an exceptional amount of white space to depict clouds. The clouds are supposed to be weightless and puffy. But Dürer masterfully uses those inkless areas to support the figures and the candlesticks, grounding this vision within real space.
Also, there are those fantastic candlesticks. Each one is different. The variation in design would make just one candlestick a creative tour-de-force, and here Dürer gives us seven! Dürer is also offering a visual clue to the meaning of some of the biblical text. The seven candlesticks represent the leading churches: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. Accordingly, Dürer depicts a different candlestick for each, to show that each is important.
Finally, there is a mathematical underpinning to Dürer’s composition. Trace all the triangles, squares, and rectangles among the elements and you’ll see what I mean. This is evidence of his interest in science but also his quest to combine the laws of the natural world with the wisdom of God’s creation. He is pointing out that even the fearful chaos of the apocalypse is built upon a meaning and a structure–and this should be of comfort to the faithful.
In all of the prints from The Apocalypse series, Dürer reflects the current worries of 1498. In the years leading up to 1500, Europeans believed in warnings that the turn of the century would usher in the end of the world. But in creating these large-scale, complicated, and dramatic images, Dürer was also using his incredible imagination and flexing his artistic muscle. It was the first illustrated book to the planned, executed, and published by the artist alone. It made his name as a printmaker and aided him in increasing esteem for prints as fine art.
Next time, we’ll look at an engraving by Dürer that dates from about the same time as St. John’s Vision of Christ and the Seven Candlesticks. Then, we’ll use Dürer’s prints to understand the differences between woodcuts and engravings. Stay tuned!
Catherine Sawinski is the Assistant Curator of Earlier European Art. When not handling the day-to-day running of the European art department and the Museum’s Fine Arts Society, she researches the collection of Ancient and European artwork before 1900.