Albrecht Dürer was a German artist living in the late 1400’s and 1500’s, who became very famous as a painter and theorist during the German Renaissance, however the thing that brought him to widespread attention in his twenties was a woodcut art print series. Although he later produced prints from engravings, during the early part of his career his woodcut works were gothic masterpieces that revolutionised the potential of the woodcut medium,
At just 15 he studied as an apprentice under Michael Wolgemut, Nuremberg’s leading artist of the time and an expert in woodcuts, and followed this up with four years of travel to work with goldsmiths, painters, and sculptors, advancing his artistic skills across many mediums. He began regularly producing work around the turn of the century, focusing heavily on woodblock art prints. Dürer exploited his range of expertise to design pieces that pushed woodblock print to it’s limits, often working with specialist craftsmen to get the finest possible detail.
Many of his pieces featured religious iconography and stories, but things took a huge leap forward in 1498. As Europe worried over social unrest, plague, an invasion of the Ottoman Empire, and many Christians worried about a last judgement coming in the year 1500, Dürer produced sixteen designs illustrating scenes from the Biblical book of Revelation, and called the collection Apocalypse.
An art print series visualising the end times for a widespread audience
Though recognised today as the work of a great artist, at the time this was also very commercial art; anything designed for printing was, by definition, intended for wider consumption than a single art gallery audience. And even where an engraver like Rembrandt slaved over methodologies of greyscale to achieve remarkable lighting and atmospheres, Dürer dived into pouring as much terrifying and shocking detail as possible from the rich Biblical imagery into each page.
The majority of the woodcuts squeeze details, people, and activity into almost every inch of the paper, all delivered with exquisitely fine linework more often seen in metal based engraving than woodcut prints. The craft, concept, and design of each image was exceptional, and full of topical and political references to the Ottomans amidst the Christian apocalypse. These were compelling artworks, delivered with a touch of marketing genius at the perfect time to strike a deep chord with people.
The most famous piece of the collection of art prints was that featuring the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Pictured trampling over a mass of people, the direction of the lines of shading and design of clouds behind them injecting a dynamism and motion to it all, whilst down in the bottom left corner some kind of monster prepares to devour someone who has fallen before it.
Finding the reality in the dramatic visions of a dream
Most people at the time were illiterate, and only knew the Bible they heard in church or at school, and would have had very little visual reference for anything outside of their imaginations. Previous depictions of the events of Revelation did exist, but often felt from within a world of fantasy, but Dürer delivered a more reality based vision; Death is an emaciated old man rather than a skeleton, landscapes and weather are depicted in an everyday manner rather than distorted or dramatised for effect. This was an apocalypse that existed in our world, and widely available for people to see.
The distribution of the work was also very unique; prints had existed for some time, but largely only as individual prints. Dürer decided to publish Apocalypse as an art print series in a book, with the images taking pride of place, and accompanied by the text of the book of Revelation; he was the first artist to publish a book and own a copyright, and can perhaps lay claim to creating the “coffee table” art and photography book format of today.