By Albrecht Durer
One element of an artist’s greatness is the ability to reimagine old themes with
new depth and power. Albrecht Durer, a Renaissance artist from Germany in the fifteenth
and sixteenth century, embodies the imaginative aspects of the artist’s craft. His famed woodcut, Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, which he completed at the age of twenty-seven, summarizes both Durer’s mechanical skill and seething imagination. This piece is inspired by the apocalyptic book of Revelation. In the left foreground, hollow-eyed, wasted Death rides on a skeletal horse, sweeping kings and peasants into the open mouth of the monster Hades. Next, Famine rides beside him, brandishing an empty set of scales. War rides into battle with a drawn sword, while Plague gallops beside him, bow drawn to shoot down victims with his deadly diseases. Below this dynamic composition of destruction, prone bodies of the dead and dying pile up in this grisly enactment of the world’s end.
Durer’s power to shock and awe viewers up to the present day relies on two intertwining traits: impeccable craftsmanship, and unparalleled imaginative power. Influenced by Italian masters such as Leonardo da Vinci, Durer was able to coaxan unmatched delicacy and detail from the medium of woodcut printing. The sense of space that he evokes through fastidious crosshatching and repetitive line gives the viewer the sensation of looking into a moving, breathing story. Perhaps encouraged by his contacts with some of the greatest Renaissance intellects, such as the humanist Desiderius Erasmus, Durer also injected his works with exciting new interpretations of biblical and classical stories. His ability to capture the character of an individual or even a monster is evident in this piece, from the gleeful sneer on the face of Death, to fear and despair of his victims. It is this exceptional realization of both artistic skill and imaginative power that makes Albrecht Durer consistently relevant to artists in any century.
Woodcut printing is an ancient artistic technique that involves carving a design into a wood block, then inking the block and putting it through a mechanical press to transfer the design to a suitable substrate. In this technique, the desired design must be carved in reverse, as ink will adhere to any wood that is left uncarved. This principle can be observed today in such items as rubber stamps.