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Apocalypse & Armageddon

Secrets of symbolism of Dürer’s apocalyptic engraving “Four Horsemen”: What the genius wanted to tell

Secrets of symbolism of Dürer's apocalyptic engraving "Four Horsemen": What the genius wanted to tell 1

Albrecht Dürer is a painter and printmaker who is generally considered the greatest German Renaissance painter. His work is rich in religious works, numerous portraits and self-portraits, and, of course, engravings on copper and wood. An interesting engraving “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, in which among the depicted chaos and horror of the end of the world, there is the author’s glimmer of hope.

Dürer was a German Renaissance master, the man declared by the Venetian Renaissance painters the best painter of the kingdom in 1506.

He was born the second son of the Hungarian jeweler Albrecht Dürer the Elder, who settled in Nuremberg in 1455, and Barbara Holper. Dürer began his training as a draftsman in his father’s jewelry workshop. His precocious abilities and exceptional talent are proved by the magnificent self-portrait painted at the age of 13, as well as “Madonna Crowned by Two Angels” (made at the age of 14). 

In 1486, Dürer’s father organized the practice of his son with the woodcut painter Michael Wolgemuth, whose portrait Dürer would paint in 1516. In 1490, Dürer completed his earliest known painting, a portrait of his father, which marks the familiar characteristic style of the mature master.

Self-portrait and Madonna Durer
Self-portrait and Madonna – Albrecht Dürer

Dürer’s talent, ambition, sharp and broad intellect won him the attention and friendship of the most prominent figures of German society. He became the official court painter of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I and his successor Charles V, for whom Dürer developed a number of artistic projects. In particular, for the Nuremberg town hall, the artist painted two panels depicting the four apostles with texts by Martin Luther that pay tribute to Lutheranism.

As an admirer of his compatriot Martin Schongauer, Durer revolutionized engraving, elevating it to the level of an independent art form. He expanded her tonal and dramatic range and gave the images a new conceptual basis. By the age of 30, Dürer had completed three of his most famous series of engravings on religious themes: Apocalypse, Great Passions, and The Life of the Virgin.

Dürer engravings
Dürer engravings

The impressive results in engraving led to the fact that Maximilian himself appointed Dürer a life pension – 100 guilders a year – paid from the sums annually contributed by Nuremberg to the imperial treasury.

The art of engraving reveals the talented soul of Durer, rich in images and secret accumulated treasures of the heart. Durer is the most profound and greatest poet-artist that art history could only know.

“Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”

There is a fantastic series of woodcuts in 1498 in Dürer’s work. Dürer’s Apocalypse was published as a book with 15 full-page illustrations, each directed to a page of text. The third print from the Apocalypse, entitled The Four Horsemen, is a dramatically revised version of a passage from the book of Revelation (6: 1–8). a part of which is the iconic work – “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”. 

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The approaching end of the 15th century gave rise to rumors about the approaching end of the world. Therefore, all natural and climatic phenomena in the form of comets, eclipses, floods and epidemics were certainly associated in the minds of the people with the end of the world. The scenes of the Apocalypse in The Four Horsemen only reinforced the prevailing eschatological mood.

Albrecht Durer Apocalypse
Albrecht Dürer – Apocalypse

Symbolism

A powerful engraving by Albrecht Durer from the late 15th century depicts the four horsemen of the apocalypse (death, famine, war and plague). The concept of the apocalypse runs through the writings of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. 

In this scene, the main message is traced – the punishment of God for the sins of mankind. Many, on the eve of the 15th century, lived under the impression that this sentence had come into force. That is why, taking advantage of the mood in society, Dürer in the period from 1496 to 1498 created 15 “apocalyptic” engravings, which were very popular. The engraving shows:

1. The first – the archer is the winner. His victory is symbolized by the white color of the horse. However, conquest brings not peace, but the tyranny of humanity. The dire consequences of this sin have prevailed in every generation since the Garden of Eden and can be seen in all walks of life (from government to family).

2. A rider holding a sword over his head symbolizes War. Scripture tells us that the second horse is bright red. This is the color of bloodshed. The rider wields a mighty sword. The tyranny seen in the first horseman leads to a large-scale lust for domination that brings the evil of war. Interestingly, Dürer represents the first two horsemen in Turkish hats, since the Turks were dangerous enemy invaders at the time.

3. Their third companion, Hunger, holds the scales. Dürer places the third rider and his black horse in the center of the engraving. He waves a scale to measure the volume of food as if it were a weapon. The engraving also shows the economic imbalance caused by human greed.

4. The fourth horseman is Death. The fourth rider is exhausted. He rakes his prey with a pitchfork. The horse here has a pale, terrible color. “His rider was called Death.” (v.8)

5. The monster crawling after them personifies hell, where all sinners will suffer after death.

In the Bible, these horsemen appear in turn. Therefore, the artists who illustrated it before always depicted them separately. Dürer first combined them in one composition

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Not a very pleasant plot. But Durer gives people hope! The whole sky shines with the Gospel! There is a sign of the presence of God on the engraving. The rays from His halo can be seen in the upper left corner. 

The Angel of the Lord hovers over the entire stage. The left hand practically touches the sword – and this is a symbol of the fact that although the destruction is great and sweeping, God sees everything. The angel’s hand blesses. The evil of sin will continue to the end of the ages, but God will not leave His children.

Looking at the work “The Four Horsemen” it is not difficult to imagine the furor and horror that the engraving caused among Durer’s contemporaries. In 1500, everyone lived in anticipation of the end of the world. The “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” amaze even now the imagination. 

It seems that the horsemen are about to descend from the engraving into the real world and begin to wreak havoc, destruction and death. But the main thing is a symbol of Dürer’s hope.

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