Durer’s Apocalypse plumbs depths of suffering, salvation

In our culture, emotional extremes – of terror or bliss – seldom exist out of the realm of personal experience: we know only what we can see firsthand. The extremes that we see expressed are usually couched in a second-hand perspective. The pillars holding up our emotional well-being rarely shift, and when they do, they crash down not on us, but on someone else: a statistic, a face, a friend of a friend. These extremes hit us head-on in Dürer’s Apocalypse (1498), a series of prints illustrating the Book of Revelations. Here all humanity is driven to the edge of experience, each voice raised in praise or agony, each face lighted by grace, razed by terror: stupefied, perverse, compassionate or mocking.

Dürer’s Apocalypse is the centerpiece of a special installation of over 30 woodcuts and engravings from the Clark’s collection. The exhibit opened Saturday, October 3; it runs through January 3. Celebrating the 500 year anniversary of the Apocalypse’s publication in 1498, the one-room exhibit divides the works into Dürer’s engravings of the period, the Apocalypse and some woodcuts connected with its 1515 reprinting. It offers an overview of the artist’s masterpiece and other important works associated with it.

Dürer’s work represents the zenith of both engraving and woodcutting in the West. The two media entail marking indentations in a smooth surface which is then used to print the image. In engraving the artist uses a copper plate; in woodcutting, the artist creates a sketch that is then given to craftsmen to replicate in wood. Engraving allows for greater detail, but a single woodcut can be replicated more easily. Thus, for the most part, the woodcut served the masses and dealt with simpler subject; Apocalypse is a rare and important exception.

Working clockwise around the room from the informative introductory panel into the engravings related to the 1515 edition, the collected engravings and woodcuts Durer produced while working on the Apocalypse serve as an admirable prelude. They show Dürer developing complexity of technique and subject matter, depicting varied themes from domestic situations to portrayals of Madonna and Child to the eerie and fantastic.

In contrast to the conventions of the Italian Renaissance the world that his subjects occupy is contemporary: the figures are all in German dress in German landscapes, not in the context of classical mythology. Even Dürer’s engraving of Hercules has a German castle in the background.

The Madonna with the Monkey (c. 1498) adheres to conventional portrayals of Madonna and child. Mary, at center, holds the baby Jesus; to her side sits a sullen monkey chained to her seat. The chained monkey corresponds to the carnality and sin released by Eve, which has again been chained by the birth of Jesus. This engraving shows realism and artistry unsurpassed among the early engravings, and reveals surprising depth within the figures’ portrayals.

Another highlight illuminates an opposing theme that illustrates Dürer’s creative force. The Ravisher (c. 1495) portrays the death of a beautiful young woman. Death, portrayed as an insane man, draws the terrified young woman onto his lap. Clothed in rags, disheveled, wiry with wrinkled flesh, a maniacal leer reinforced by tiny unfocused eyes, this representation of Death is a prototype for the portrayals in the Apocalypse.

The Apocalypse describes John of Patmos’s vision concerning the end of the world. It relates a series of events and images that pertain to the second coming of Christ: slaughter, destruction and damning of the damned, as well as praise, peace, majesty, triumph and salvation of the righteous. The book delivers a message of hope and fulfilled joy as well as a terrifying Jeremiad of complete destruction and the depravity leading to that destruction.

A source of hope for the early Christian community in the face of Roman oppression, in Dürer’s Germany Revelations was thought to speak of events imminent with the coming 16th century, according to the Clark Institute. Suffering through the religious, political and moral turmoil that would lead to the Reformation, Dürer’s audience was sympathetic to the urgency of the text.

The Apocalypse is made up of 15 woodcuts, 14 based on the text, with an introductory woodcut portraying the unsuccessful martyrdom of John of Patmos. The following 14 woodcuts each feature an appropriate selection from Revelations, again in a distinctly German manner. In every image of the damned there is a king, almost always a bishop or clergyman. Dürer grounds his Apocalypse, as so many other works, in his time.

Each woodcut is itself a masterpiece; as a series they overwhelm. It is nearly impossible to move past the Apocalypse: after having completely annotated all that I needed for this article I went down the line of incorrigible images several times more. Dürer depicts the weight of divine will, that weight drawn upon the brow of God; the grim acceptance or full hearted praise of angels, thankfulness of salvation, the manic despair of those destroyed. The works leap from the texts and soar as humanity’s self-inflicted destruction is played out under the Almighty’s grieving gaze.

The Four Horsemen is the series’ most celebrated panel. Above the four horsemen flies a smug angel; below, desperate men and women lurch about frantically. One crowned figure, dumb with terror, is about to be consumed by the maw of the abyss behind him. As powerful as this destructive image is, though, The Four Avenging Angels is an even more gripping narrative. God looks down from on high with a pained expression as four angels in the center slaughter human beings. What makes the woodcut so stunning is that the human visages of terror reflect in the face of the angels, anguished as if in severe crisis. Another angel holds a womans head down by the hair to receive his raised blade. The angels victims fall in terror and submission, many not even trying to escape.

The road to damnation is illustrated best in The Beast with Two Horns Lke a Lamb. Here, again under the visage of a pained God, men kneel before a grotesque many-headed beast. In the background another monstrosity, a sort of horned lion, appears. The heads of the first beast portray the idiocy of the perverse, the dull horror that is evil, entire negation.

The last woodcut, St. John Devouring the Book, explicitly portrays this entire negation. An angel possessing legs that are literally pillars of fire and a body made of clouds hands a book to the kneeling John, who eats it. In the accompanying text the angel says to John, “Take it, and eat it. It will turn your stomach sour, although in your mouth it will taste sweet as honey.”

The angel refers to the joy and hope born of the direct revelation, and the subsequent full horror of the fate awaiting most humanity. Knowledge of the end of the world must weigh heavy. In viewing the Apocalypse its artistry does taste sweet, and in contemplation what it speaks of the world does turn that sweetness to a more jarring flavor.

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