The Art of Albrecht Dürer

Albrecht Dürer and others, The Triumphal Arch, c. 1515, woodcut printed from 192 individual blocks, 357 x 295 cm, Germany © Trustees of the British Museum.


By Dr. Sally Hickson, Dr. Bonnie J. Noble, and The British Museum / 02.28.2017
Hickson: SOFAM Director, Associate Professor of Art History, University of Guelph
Noble: Associate Professor of Art History, University of North Carolina, Charlotte


By The British Museum

Albrecht Dürer was born in Nuremburg and apprenticed to the painter Michel Wolgemut. He travelled widely from 1492 to 1494, visiting Schongauer, the leading German painter and engraver at the time, in his workshop in Colmar. From 1494-5 he visited northern Italy, where the works of artists such as Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini had a powerful influence on him.

A painter, printmaker and theorist

In 1495 Dürer set up his own workshop in Nuremberg, specializing in the production of paintings and innovative, high quality prints, such as the Apocalypse series of 1498. From 1505 to 1507 he revisited Venice, where he painted the Feast of the Garlands for the German merchants (National Gallery, Prague). Dürer’s revitalization of print-making techniques attracted the attention of many Nuremberg scholars and patrons. They informed Dürer about the intellectual studies of the Italian Renaissance and advised him on subjects for his art. He later published his ideas on art theory.

His woodcuts inspired the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I, to use the medium for colossal commemorative projects, in which Dürer played a leading part. Dürer excelled at a variety of drawing, painting and printing techniques. His Europe-wide fame rested on his graphic art. The Renaissance scholar and writer, Erasmus (1469-1536), called him “the Apelles of black lines,” a reference to the most famous ancient Greek artist. The British Museum’s collection of Dürer’s prints and drawings is one of the world’s finest and is representative of his entire career. The Museum also houses some of the blocks for his woodcuts.

The Triumphal Arch

The Triumphal Arch (top of page) is one of the largest prints ever produced. It was commissioned by the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (1459-1519). The program was devised by the court historian and mathematician, Johann Stabius, who explains underneath that it was constructed after the model of ‘the ancient triumphal arches of the Roman Emperors’.

Figure of Sicambria—Maximilian’s genealogical tree is traced back to the first King of France, Clovis I, and the three female representations of the nations of Troy, Sicambia (in the lower Rhine) and Francia), detail, Albrecht Dürer and others, The Triumphal Arch, c. 1515, woodcut printed from 192 individual blocks, 357 x 295 cm, Germany © Trustees of the British Museum.

Above the central arch, entitled “Honor and Might,” is a genealogy of Maximilian in the form of a family tree (above). Above the left arch, “Praise,” and the right arch, “Nobility,” are represented events from his life. These are flanked by busts of emperors and kings on the left (image, left), and a column of Maximilian’s ancestors on the right. The outermost towers on either side show scenes from the private life of Maximilian.

Rudolf I (1217-1291) was the first Habsburg to be crowned King of the Romans. He played a key role in raising the status of the Habsburg family among the German feudal dynasties of central Europe (detail), Albrecht Dürer and others, The Triumphal Arch, c. 1515, woodcut printed from 192 individual blocks, 357 x 295 cm, Germany © Trustees of the British Museum (detail), Albrecht Dürer and others, The Triumphal Arch, c. 1515, woodcut printed from 192 individual blocks, 357 x 295 cm, Germany © Trustees of the British Museum.

The architect and painter Jörg Kölderer designed the overall appearance of the structure, and Dürer designed the individual scenes and architectural elements, some of which he sub-contracted to his pupils Hans Springinklee and Wolf Traut, and Albrecht Altdorfer of Regensburg.

The date 1515, which appears on the Arch, refers to the completion of the designs; the blocks were cut by Hieronymus Andreae of Nuremberg between 1515 and 1517. This impression belongs to the first edition of 1517-18 when about seven hundred sets were printed, but they are today very rare. It is undecorated apart from the word Halt in the German Halt Mass (“Keep to moderation”) which is gilded.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

By Dr. Sally Hickson

Albrecht Dürer, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, 1498, woodcut, 15-1/4 x 11-7/16″ / 38.8 x 29.1 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Cowboy movies

Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, always reminds me of my lifelong love of Hollywood cowboy movies. American westerns are almost all predicated on Christian themes, and riddled with simple symbolic numbers. Maybe you are familiar with the 1960 Western The Magnificent Seven and their connection to the Seven Virtues? And in terms of the Seven Vices, in the 2007 remake of 3.10 to Yuma, the ‘villain,’ Ben Wade, is trailed by six members of his outfit who try to free him from his captors—his release would restore their numbers to seven (and need I point out that ten minus three—the 3.10 of the title— is seven?). In the original poster for High Noon, Gary Cooper confronts four villains. This is why, for me, Durer’s Four Horsemen, drawn from the Book of Revelation (the last book of the New Testament which tells of the end of the world and the coming of the kingdom of God), have always been the sinister apocalyptic cowboys of world-ending destruction; Conquest, War, Pestilence (or Famine) and Death itself.

Of course, that’s not at all what Dürer intended. The image was made as one of a series of fifteen illustrations for a 1498 edition of the Apocalypse, a subject of popular interest at the brink of any new millennium.  In 1511, after the world had failed to end, the plates were republished and further cemented Dürer’s enduring fame as a print-maker.

Detail, Albrecht Dürer, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, 1498

The horsemen

In the text of Revelation, the main distinguishing feature of the four horses is their color; white for conquest, red for war, black for pestilence and/or famine, and pale (from ‘pallor’) for death (Clint Eastwood, Pale Rider, anyone?). The riders each arrive armed with a rather obvious attribute; conquest with a bow, war with a sword, and a set of balances for pestilence/famine. Dürer’s pale rider carries a sort of pitchfork or trident, despite the fact that he’s given no weapon in the Biblical account; he simply unleashes hell.

Here’s the text from Revelation, chapter 6:

The First Seal—Rider on White Horse
Then I saw when the Lamb broke one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures saying as with a voice of thunder, “Come.” I looked, and behold, a white horse, and he who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer.

The Second Seal—War
When He broke the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying, “Come.” And another, a red horse, went out; and to him who sat on it, it was granted to take peace from the earth, and that men would slay one another; and a great sword was given to him.

The Third Seal—Famine
When He broke the third seal, I heard the third living creature saying, “Come.” I looked, and behold, a black horse; and he who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand…”

The Fourth Seal—Death
When the Lamb broke the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, “Come.” I looked, and behold, an ashen horse; and he who sat on it had the name Death; and Hades was following with him. Authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by the wild beasts of the earth.

The quality of Dürer’s woodcut is breathtaking; one hears and feels the furor of the clattering hooves and the details, shading and purity of form are astonishing. Dürer’s unique genius as a woodcut artist was his ability to conceive such complex and finely detailed images in the negative—woodcut is a relief process in which one must cut away the substance of the design to preserve the outlines. Before Dürer it was often a rather crude affair. No one could draw woodblocks with the finesse of Dürer (much of the cutting was done by skilled craftsmen following Dürer’s complex outlines). The images are astonishingly detailed and textural, as finely tuned as drawings. So influential was Dürer’s graphic output, in both woodcut and engraving, that his prints became popular models for succeeding generations of painters. He was no mean painter himself, producing a varied and articulate array of self-portraits, as well as religious works, and turning his mind and his hand to the production of an influential book on perspective. He was a humanist, painter, print-maker, theorist and keen observer of nature and is therefore often referred to in popular discourse as the ‘Leonardo of the North’—although his actual output was considerably greater than that Italian Renaissance master.

Detail, Albrecht Dürer, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, 1498

Dürer’s particular genius here is the translation of the distinctive colors of the horses into a black-and-white medium, which he achieves by very distinctly drawing their various weapons and by placing them in order from background to foreground, slightly overlapping, so that they ride across the composition in the same order as they appear in the text. This places the apparition of Death, a skeletal monster on a skeletal horse, in the foreground, trampling the figures in his path.

Detail, Albrecht Dürer, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, 1498

Adam and Eve

By Dr.  Bonnie J. Noble

Is there anything left to say about Adam and Eve, quite literally the oldest story in the book? The engraving of Adam and Eve of 1504 by the German renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer recasts this familiar story with nuances of meaning and artistic innovation. In the picture, Adam and Eve stand together in a dense, dark forest. Far from the garden evoked in Genesis, this forest is distinctly German, the dark woods of the devils and spooks of Grimm’s fairy tales. Foreign and unexpected motifs intrude into this German wood.

Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, 1504, engraving (fourth state), 25.1 x 20 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The figures

Tropical bird and sign announcing artist’s name (detail), Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, 1504, engraving (fourth state), 25.1 x 20 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Despite the chill of the forest, the two human figures appear nude. Their bodies are frontal, and they stand in a classical contrapposto, or counterpoise, where the weight of the body is shifted onto one foot. The corresponding shift in hips and shoulders creating a convincing illusion of a body capable of movement but temporarily at rest. Despite this apparent naturalism, their heads are turned to the side as they gaze at one another. This twisting configuration of head and body is distinctly artificial. The naturalizing contrapposto clashing with the artificiality of the rest of the pose establishes a pattern of contradictions that run throughout the picture. A seemingly astutely observed tree becomes distinctly odd, as we recognize that Eve is plucking an apple from a tree with fig leaves. A parrot, a tropical bird, perches on a branch to the viewer’s left. Six other animals stroll disinterestedly through or stand about—an elk, ox, cat, rabbit, mouse, and goat.

Graphic identifying the placement of animals (detail), Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, 1504, engraving (fourth state), 25.1 x 20 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The cartelino or small sign hanging from branch Adam grasps contains its own contradiction. It proudly identifies the artist as a citizen of the Franconian city of Nuremberg (Noricus), but does so in Latin, the language of the Mediterranean, of the Roman Empire and of the Italian Renaissance. How does this curious blend of motifs further the story of Adam and Eve?

A departure from Genesis

The answer is that the picture tells us primarily about the Renaissance, about Germany, and about Dürer himself rather than the text of Genesis, from which it departs most strikingly. The poses of the two human figures are contrived to show off this German artist’s knowledge of classical (Greco-Roman) proportions. Based on the ideals of the Roman architect Vitruvius, the proportions of the face—for instance the distance from forehead to chin—determine the ideal proportions of the rest of the body. Dürer sacrifices naturalism to showcase his mastery of Vitruvian ideals.


Colorful, tropical parrots were collectors items in Germany, and they were also symbols in art. The call of the parrot was believed to sound like “Eva-Ave” —Eve and Ave Maria (“Hail Mary”—the name of a prayer in honor of the Virgin Mary). This word play underpins the Christian interpretation of the story of the Fall of Humanity by characterizing the Virgin Mary, mother of Christ, as the antidote for Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden. The other animals bear other symbolic meanings. The elk, ox, rabbit, and cat exemplify the four humors or human personality types, all of which correlate with specific fluids in the body.

  • Melancholic: elk, black bile
  • Phlegmatic: ox, phlegm
  • Sanguine: rabbit, blood
  • Choleric: cat, yellow bile

Only Adam and Eve are in perfect balance internally. After the Fall, one humor predominates in everyone, throwing our temperaments into imbalance. Dürer’s placid animals signify that in this moment of perfection in the garden, the human figures are still in a state of equilibrium.  The cat does not yet chase the mouse, and the goat (a reference to the scapegoat of the bible) is still standing on his mountain perch.

A German enthralled by the classical tradition

The print allows Dürer to express his personal and cultural concerns. Proud of his German identity (Albert Dvrer Noricvs or “Albert Dürer of Nuremberg”), the artist is nonetheless enthralled by Italian and classical tradition. The German forest is ennobled by classically proportioned figures who actually reference Greek sculptures of Venus and Apollo, and anchored in tradition with the symbolism of the humors. In Renaissance fashion, the perfect physical proportions of the body correlate with the interior harmony of the humors.

Mechanical reproduction

The advent of mechanically reproducible media, both woodcuts and intaglio prints, was a revelation for Dürer and his entire world. Into a world where each image was handmade, one of a kind, and destined for one location, mechanical reproducibility offered something entirely different. Pictures made in multiples, such as the Adam and Eve engraving, meant that the ideas and designs of a German artist could be known in other regions and countries by large numbers of people. German artists could learn about classical art without traveling to Italy. More kinds of people could afford more pictures, because prints are easier to produce and typically less expensive than paintings. The traditional, direct contract between artist and patron, where one object was hand-produced for one patron and one place, gave way to a situation where multiple images could be seen by unknown viewers under an infinite variety of circumstances.

A scientific mind

Like his older contemporary Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer had a curious intellect and scientific mind in addition to being an artist. Also like Leonardo, Dürer’s surpassing skill and inspiration made him a leading artist of the Renaissance. After his trips to Venice and his encounter with the Italian Renaissance, Dürer embraced the ideals of the Renaissance that he experienced first hand while continuing to celebrate his German heritage. Dürer was to master painting and surpass all others in printmaking, both relief and intaglio. Ultimately he would rely on his prints for profit and recognition. Dürer not only experienced the transformation from Gothic to Renaissance, he was an agent of that change.


By Dr. Bonnie J. Noble

Albrecht Dürer, Melencolia I, 1514, engraving, 24 x 18.5 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Albrecht Dürer is the rare artist who truly deserves to be called genius. Genius, however, is tricky business. Dürer’s intellect, introspection, and unrelenting perfectionism may have driven him to a state of melancholia—what is now known as depression. Dürer’s famed Melencolia I engraving of 1514 has been called the artist’s psychological self-portrait, and indeed the image does convey the terrible struggle of high expectations and debilitating inertia, when excessive introspection paralyzes the imagination. 

Sunken in despair

This personification of melancholy is strong and capable yet immobile, chin in hand, the figure appears sunken in despair. Building tools are scattered about—compass, saw, nails, plane—yet the figure leaves them there untouched.

The figure is androgynous; the female pronoun is used here in keeping with the gender of the word melancholia, but some art historians believe the figure to be male. Her strong, muscular, substantial body and delicate wings epitomize her dilemma. She aspires to flight, yet is too heavy for her tiny wings to lift. Perhaps this is an allegory of hubris—the dangerous conceit that a mere human may become like a god. Flight is only for gods—as the unfortunate Icarus learned when he flew too close to the sun and the wax in his self-fashioned wings melted. The limits of mass and volume, of being a person in the world, prevent Melencolia’s flight—physical or creative. In a more prosaic fashion, this situation is familiar to anyone facing a demanding project. The desk is clear, the computer is on, books are in arm’s reach…and nothing happens.

Personification of Melacholy (detail), Albrecht Dürer, Melencolia I, 1514, engraving, 24 x 18.5 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Melencolia’s inertia has created chaos and neglect. Her creative frustration renders her unable to accomplish the simplest of tasks, such as feeding the malnourished dog who has grown thin from neglect. The image exudes physical and intellectual vertigo. Like the artist, we cannot quite figure out what to do, or where to look, or where we are. Are we indoors or out? Where does the ladder start? And where does it stop? If we compare the Melencolia to another of Dürer ’s master engravings, Saint Jerome in his Study, the chaos of Melancholy’s predicament comes into high relief. 

Albrecht Dürer, Saint Jerome in His Study, 1514, engraving, 24.6 x 18.9 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Jerome’s well appointed study glows with light, peace and calm. The saint works in the pleasant warmth of his study on his translation of the Bible from the original languages into Latin. Objects are orderly, though not rigidly so. The saint’s work is meditative rather than burdensome. He is unhurried—indeed the skull and hourglass, reminders of death and the passage of time—create no urgency or fear. Jerome has come to accept mortality and without fuss or worry, and he occupies himself exclusively with the matter at hand.

Jerome (detail), Albrecht Dürer, Saint Jerome in His Study, 1514, engraving, 24.6 x 18.9 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Order and confusion

Polyhedron (detail), Albrecht Dürer, Melencolia I,1514, engraving, 24 x 18.5 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Compare the order of Jerome’s study to the scattered tools and scattered mind of Melencolia. Space itself is thrown into confusion. The polyhedron in the center of the composition turns the picture into a parody of a neatly organized Renaissance picture constructed according to the laws of one-point linear perspective. The polyhedron conceals the horizon, the starting point for linear perspective, a subject Dürer wrote about and used with aplomb. Rather than tidy orthogonals converging in vanishing point, the lines implied by the edges of the polyhedron zoom in all directions like scattering mercury.

One can imagine Melencolia tripping should she try to stand up because the space itself is in turmoil. Jerome’s contented lion and Melencolia’s neglected dog exemplify the contrast of productive calm and agitated disfunction. (Legend says that Jerome plucked a thorn from the lion’s paw and the he became Jerome’s trusty companion forever after.) 

Melancholy and artists

Albrecht Dürer, Self-Portrait of the Artist Holding a Thistle, 1493, 56 x 44 cm (Louvre)

Melencolia I is a flagship picture for Renaissance melancholy, a temperament that was increasingly tied to creativity and the construction of the artistic personality. During this period, Melancholy was divided up into three types; the Roman number I in this print likely refers to the category associated with artists.

While melancholy was seen purely as illness in the Middle Ages, the result of too much black bile, Renaissance thinkers began to see it as a badge of honor—the mark and burden of genius. This evolving notion of melancholy and its implications for the “artistic temperament” are evident in Dürer’s growth as an artist. His early self-portrait of 1494 (left) bears the inscription “My affairs must go as ordained on high” (“1493 (D.H.); MIN SACH DIE, GAT ALS ES OBEN SCHTAT”—top center).

This phrase, emphasizing fate and duty, perfectly expresses the late Gothic mentality of fulfilling divine and parental obligations rather than seeking fulfillment as an individual person. Individuality becomes particularly poignant for Dürer after his encounter with the Italian Renaissance in Italy.

Dürer’s diaries tell of his fascination not only with Italian art but with the status of the Italian artist. Italian artists were conceded expressive identities and rewarded with status and regard as intellectuals, while in Germany artists often remained respectable but anonymous artisans.

Such a diminutive social niche could not contain Dürer’s accomplishments or expectations.

Additional Resources and Suggested Reading

G. Bartrum (ed.), Albrecht Dürer and his legacy (London and N.J., The British Museum Press and Princeton University Press, 2002).

E. Panofsky, The life and art of Albrecht Dürer  (Princeton University Press, 1945, 1971).

G. Bartrum, German Renaissance prints (London, The British Museum Press, 1995).

Work on The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Short video on this print from the Clark Art Institute

Print in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Dürer, Melencolia at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Dürer, St. Jerome in his Study at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Dürer, Self-Portrait of the Artist Holding a Thistle at the Louvre

Dürer on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

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