Albrecht Dürer's suite of Woodcuts known as "The Apocalypse"
Albrecht Dürer's suite - which is widely known, in the modern English-speaking world, as The Apocalypse - was originally published under the Latin title of Apocalipsis cum Figures (or, "The Apocalypse with Pictures") in 1498. For the First Edition published in 1498, the suite (composed of 15 Woodcuts) was published in Latin and German. At that time that suite was published, Dürer was aged just 26.
Dürer's designs for The Apocalypse depicted scenes from the Biblical book of "Revelation" - an account of florid revelations attributed to St John the Evangelist - in a manner that was entirely complementary to the associated text and as such, they are widely regarded as among Dürer's most creative and inspiring Woodcuts.
The publication of the Woodcuts within The Apocalypse had a profound effect on Dürer's career, for it was with this suite that his reputation as a Master of the Renaissance was made throughout Germany and the wider Latin-speaking world.
That his reputation was established thus, with reference to a series of Woodcuts, is particularly profound. Until that time, Woodcuts had been considered only partial pieces of art, requiring completion with hand-coloring to be considered truly worthy. Dürer's approach to the Woodcuts for The Apocalypse, which included the integration of close cross-hatching to produce contrast shades of light and dark, was so revolutionary that they were able to transcend the then-dominant paradigm applied to Woodcuts and be considered Masterworks in their own right.
The 15 Woodcuts by Dürer included in The Apocalypse are known as:
- "The Martyrdom of St John the Evangelist";
- "St John's Vision of Christ and the Seven Candlesticks";
- "St John and the Twenty-four Elders in Heaven";
- "The Four Riders of the Apocalypse";
- "Opening the Fifth and Sixth Seals";
- "Four Angels Staying the Winds and Signing the Chosen";
- "The Adoration of the Lamb and the Hymn of the Chosen";
- "The Seven Trumpets are Given to the Angels";
- "The Battle of the Angels";
- "St John Devours the Book";
- "The Woman Clothed with the Sun and the Seven-headed Dragon";
- "St Michael Fighting the Dragon";
- "The Sea Monster and the Beast with the Lamb's Horn";
- "The Whore of Babylon"; and
- "The Angel with the Key to the Bottomless Pit".
While we have provided links for various products available through Amazon throughout this Hub, you may also like to consider the wider range available at the Albrecht Durer Collection shown at the 'Spirit of the Ages' Museum.
"The Martyrdom of St John the Evangelist" by Albrecht Durer
The first of the suite of Woodcuts for The Apocalypse, "The Martyrdom of St John the Evangelist", is a curiosity in itself, for it depicts a scene that is not described in the Biblical book of "Revelation" - the attempted martyrdom of the Saint following the orders of Emperor Domition - and interestingly, it is understood to be one of the last Woodcuts prepared by Dürer for this seminal publication.
Dürer depicts St John in this Woodcut seated naked in a cauldron being stoked by flames and having oil poured over his by an executioner - all this occurs immediately before the Emperor Domition and before an assembled crowd. Tellingly, the attire of Emperor Domition is in the Turkish style while that of the crowd is more reminiscent of then-contemporary German clothing. Furnishings are also shown, including a decorated tapestry immediately behind the Emperor Domition and the architectural surroundings are characteristic of Western Medieval structures.
"St John's Vision of Christ and the Seven Candlesticks" by Albrecht Durer
The second of the suite of Woodcuts for The Apocalypse, 'St John's Vision of Christ and the Seven Candlesticks' is associated with the text of Chapter 1 of the book of "Revelation" - that dealing with 'The First Vision'.
Features of 'The First Vision' from the book of "Revelation" include: Christ addressing St John directly (commanding St John to record his vision and send it to the churches in the East of the Roman Empire ["Asia"]); the appearance of Christ in the midst of seven candlesticks; specific references to Christ's appearance (wearing a full length garment with a golden girdle), such as his hair (white like snow-white wool), his eyes (like a flame of fire) and his feet (like fine brass burning in a furnace); seven stars being stationed at Christ's right hand; a two-edged sword emanating from Christ's mouth; and Christ's countenance appearing as strong as the Sun.
Dürer has presented a pictorial version of the relevant text from "Revelation" in enigmatic form while remaining close to the text. While there is no overt depiction of Christ's feet, St John is shown in reverence to Christ (rather than falling "at his feet as dead" and the instruction to St John to record his visions is shown metaphorically by a book that is placed in Christ's left hand, the Woodcut by Dürer retains all the other features of the recorded Vision (save, of course, the inclusion of golden color to Christ's girdle).
"St John and the Twenty-four Elders in Heaven" by Albrecht Durer
The third of the suite of Woodcuts for The Apocalypse, 'St John and the Twenty-four Elders in Heaven' is associated with the text of Chapter 4 of the book of "Revelation" - that dealing with 'The Throne in Heaven'.
Features of the scene described in the associated text from "Revelation" include: the Throne in Heaven (the Being seated on the Throne had the appearance of Jasper and Ruby - and a rainbow encircled the Throne); an encirclement of a further twenty-four thrones (occupied by crowned Elders (who were dressed in White); flashes of lightning; seven Lamps; and four winged creatures (each with different looks [a lion, ox, a man and an eagle]).
Dürer's Woodcut of this scene shows the Earthly realm at the base (represented by a wooded mountainous landscape populated by a small castle and more distance townscape that is typical of Renaissance imagery), with St John "transported" to Heaven in consultation with one of the Elders from the scene (in the Middle of the Woodcut) and the Throne of Heaven to the top of the design. Each of the figurative elements mentioned in the associated text from "Revelation" is shown (but, of course, for those requiring color [that element is dealt with through a close-hatching treatment to imply color]).
"The Four Riders of the Apocalypse" by Albrecht Durer
The fourth of the suite of Woodcuts for The Apocalypse, 'The Four Riders of the Apocalypse' is associated with the text of Chapter 6 of the book of "Revelation" - that dealing with 'The Seals'.
As related by "Revelation", upon the breaking of each of the seven Seals by the Lion of Judah (also referred to as the "Lamb"), an apocryphal event occurs - the breaking of the seven Seals is a precursor to the "Second Coming" (the time of Christ's second and eternal return and reign on Earth). The breaking of each of the first four Seals is associated with the appearance of one of the Riders of the Apocalypse: the Antichrist (the first Rider who appears at the breaking of the first Seal); Warfare (the second Rider who appears at the breaking of the second Seal); Famine (the third Rider who appears at the breaking of the third Seal); and Death (the fourth Rider who appears at the breaking of the fourth Seal).
The physical features of each of the Riders - as described in "Revelation" - follow:
- the Antichrist - a crowned Rider on a white horse holding bow;
- Warfare - a Rider on a fiery red horse with a sword;
- Famine - a Rider on a black horse carrying a set of scales; and
- Death - a Rider on a pale horse with Hades following behind.
Once more, Dürer's design for the associated Woodcut is consistent with the physical descriptions provided of the four Riders of the Apocalypse by "Revelation" - and he has interpretation is both powerful and frightening in a manner that is complementary to the text. Each of the Riders is attired in a manner typical of the late 16th Century with the first Rider shown with somewhat of a regal countenance (as may be expected of the Antichrist), the second has chainmaille under his clothing and he is holding a cruciform sword that was still used at the time, the third is dressed as wealthy merchant (and carrying set of scales) and the fourth appears as a cadaver (his horse is galloping over people who are then being consumed by a figurative representation of the mouth of Hell).
Dürer has dealt with the issue of coloring the horses with variations of a hatching technique (the red horse of the Warfare having some hatching, while the black horse of the Famine being shown with much heavier hatching).
"Opening the Fifth and Sixth Seals" by Albrecht Durer
The fifth of the suite of Woodcuts for The Apocalypse, 'The Opening of the Fifth and Sixth Seals' is associated with the text of Chapter 6 of the book of "Revelation" - that dealing with 'The Seals'.
The book of "Revelation" provides the following description of the vision experienced by St John upon the opening of the Fifth and Sixth Seals: martyred Souls appearing under the altar (these appear following the opening of the Fifth Seal and are subsequently clothed in white); and an apocalyptic event (involving an earthquake so powerful that "every mountain and island was moved from its place", the Sun being effectively destroyed; the Moon transforming; Stars raining down to the Earth, Heaven receding) that was was followed by a mass exodus of all elements of society to hide in the mountains and caves (this followed the opening of the Sixth Seal).
Dürer has dealt with the figural aspects of the related text by creating a two-part design - the upper portion accurately depicting the scene described following the opening of the Fifth Seal (Angels are shown distributing garments to the martyrs), while the lower element depicts the scene described following the opening of the Sixth Seal (the two elements are delineated by anthropomorphic representations of the Sun and Moon that are shown with "angry" faces).
"Four Angels Staying the Winds and Signing the Chosen" by Albrecht Durer
The sixth of the suite of Woodcuts for The Apocalypse, 'The Opening of the Fifth and Sixth Seals' is associated with the text of Chapter 7 of the book of "Revelation" - that dealing with 'God's People Will Be Preserved' (as referenced in the King James variant).
The passage from "Revelation" most closely related to Dürer's Woodcut (Revelation: 7, 1-4) follows:
And after these things I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, nor on the sea, nor on any tree. And I saw another angel ascending from the east, having the seal of the living God: and he cried with a loud voice to the four angels, to whom it was given to hurt the earth and the sea, Saying, Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads.
Dürer depicts each of the four Angels responsible for staying the Winds armed with large cruciform sword (in one case, an Angel is also shown opposing the Winds with a Targ [a form of Medieval Shield]) - the grouping is arrayed defensively with their backs to each other. Each of the four Winds are depicted in an anthropomorphic manner typical of Medieval and Renaissance art. In the case of the Angel that is described as ascending from the East and carrying the seal of the living God, it is shown in the upper right of the Woodcut carrying a Cross. A sixth Angel is shown adjacent to the group staying the Winds performing the ceremony of Sealing those identified as "God's People".
"The Adoration of the Lamb and the Hymn of the Chosen" by Albrecht Durer
The seventh of the suite of Woodcuts for The Apocalypse, 'The Adoration of the Lamb and the Hymn of the Chosen' is associated with the text of Chapter 7 of the book of "Revelation" - that dealing with 'Praise from the Great Multitude' (as referenced in the King James variant).
The passage from "Revelation" most closely related to Dürer's Woodcut (Revelation: 7, 9-12) follows:
After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands; And cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb. And all the angels stood round about the throne, and about the elders and the four beasts, and fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God, Saying, Amen: Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honour, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever. Amen.
Dürer depicts the figural elements of that passage from Revelation in a typically powerful and inspirational manner. In doing so, he has captured all the critical features of the text - the Lamb, the adoring multitude, Angels and the four beast - in addition to conveying the direct conversation noted between St John and one of the Elders.
"The Seven Trumpets are Given to the Angels" by Albrecht Durer
The eighth of the suite of Woodcuts for The Apocalypse, 'The Seven Trumpets are Given to the Angels' is associated with the text of Chapters 8, 9 and 11 of the book of "Revelation" - that dealing with 'The Seventh Seal' (Revelation: 8, 1-5), 'The First Four Trumpets' (Revelation: 8, 6-13), 'The Fifth Trumpet' (Revelation 9, 1-12), 'The Sixth Trumpet' (Revelation 9, 13-21) and 'The Seventh Trumpet (Revelation 11, 15-19) (as referenced in the King James variant).
Once more, Dürer's design for this Woodcut is utterly masterful in conveying an array of vast figural elements, including: a destructive rain of fire (associated with the First Trumpet); a cataclysmic event that destroys ships and ocean life (associated with the Second Trumpet); the fall of the mythical Star known as "Wormwood" (associated with the Third Trumpet); the darkening of the Sun, Moon and the Stars (associated with the Fourth Trumpet); the opening of the "Bottomless Pit" (associated with the Fifth Trumpet); the destruction wrought for the Four Riders of the Apocalypse (associated with the Sixth Trumpet); and the signs of the temple of God being opened in Heaven (associated with the Seventh Trumpet).
"The Battle of the Angels" by Albrecht Durer
The ninth of the suite of Woodcuts for The Apocalypse, 'The Battle of the Angels' is associated with the text of Chapter 9 of the book of "Revelation" - that dealing with 'The Sixth Trumpet' (Revelation 9, 13-19). That passage follows:
And the sixth angel sounded, and I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar which is before God, Saying to the sixth angel which had the trumpet, Loose the four angels which are bound in the great river Euphrates. And the four angels were loosed, which were prepared for an hour, and a day, and a month, and a year, for to slay the third part of men. And the number of the army of the horsemen were two hundred thousand thousand: and I heard the number of them. And thus I saw the horses in the vision, and them that sat on them, having breastplates of fire, and of jacinth, and brimstone: and the heads of the horses were as the heads of lions; and out of their mouths issued fire and smoke and brimstone. By these three was the third part of men killed, by the fire, and by the smoke, and by the brimstone, which issued out of their mouths. For their power is in their mouth, and in their tails: for their tails were like unto serpents, and had heads, and with them they do hurt.
Dürer approached this Woodcut in two parts - the upper portion illustrates the sounding of the Sixth Trumpet and the release of the army of horsemen, while the lower portion shows the four Angels in the midst of their righteous slaughter. Interestingly, the swords used by the four Angels vary widely, including hand-and-half, two-handed and transitional swords (each of these was in contemporary use at the time of Dürer's design.
"St John Devours the Book" by Albrecht Durer
The tenth of the suite of Woodcuts for The Apocalypse, 'St John Devours the Book' is associated with the text of Chapter 10 of the book of "Revelation" - that dealing with 'The Angel and the Small Scroll' (specifically, Revelation 10, 9-11). That passage follows:
And the voice which I heard from heaven spake unto me again, and said, Go and take the little book which is open in the hand of the angel which standeth upon the sea and upon the earth. And I went unto the angel, and said unto him, Give me the little book. And he said unto me, Take it, and eat it up; and it shall make thy belly bitter, but it shall be in thy mouth sweet as honey. And I took the little book out of the angel's hand, and ate it up; and it was in my mouth sweet as honey: and as soon as I had eaten it, my belly was bitter. And he said unto me, Thou must prophesy again before many peoples, and nations, and tongues, and kings.
The figural representation of the Angel by Dürer in this Woodcut is, perhaps, the most abstract that appears within The Apocalypse insofar as the Angel appears standing "upon the sea and upon the earth" on fiery pillars (rather than legs) and is also, otherwise, disembodied, but for hands and head (the Angel's body is displaced by clouds and radiant burst of light).
"The Woman Clothed with the Sun and the Seven-headed Dragon" by Albrecht Durer
The eleventh of the suite of Woodcuts for The Apocalypse, 'The Woman Clothed with the Sun and the Seven-headed Dragon is associated with the text of Chapter 12 of the book of "Revelation" - that dealing with 'The Woman and the Dragon' (specifically, Revelation 12, 1-6). That passage follows:
And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars: And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered. And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born. And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne. And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days.
The Woman described in this portion of "Revelation" is regard as Mary (Christ's mother) and Dürer's depiction of that Holy figure is suitable reverential and powerful (Mary is shown crowned and with spectacular Angelic wings [the very Moon - in crescent form - is beneath her feet). Dürer depicts Mary with a serene countenance, even before the fearsome and utterly fantastic Seven-headed Dragon.
"St Michael Fighting the Dragon" by Albrecht Durer
The twelfth of the suite of Woodcuts for The Apocalypse, 'St Michael Fighting the Dragon' is associated with the text of Chapter 12 of the book of "Revelation" - that dealing with 'The War in Heaven' (specifically, Revelation 12, 7-9). That passage follows:
And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.
This Woodcut is regarded as one of the most powerful within an otherwise spectacular suite prepared by Dürer - and with good cause, as it captures the defeat of Satan by St Michael and his fellow Angels. While St Michael and the Angels are depicted with an idealized human form (armed with contemporary military equipment including a bow and arrow, a sword and a halberd), Satan and his minions are completely transforms into diabolical beasts (stripped of any humanity).
"The Sea Monster and the Beast with the Lamb's Horn" by Albrecht Durer
The thirteenth of the suite of Woodcuts for The Apocalypse, 'The Sea Monster and the Beast with the Lamb's Horn' is associated with the text of Chapter 13 of the book of "Revelation" - that dealing with 'The Beast out of the Sea' (specifically, Revelation 13, 1-4) and 'The Beast out of the Earth' (specifically, Revelation 13, 11-13).
The passage concerning the Sea Monster (Revelation 13, 1-4) follows:
And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy. And the beast which I saw was like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion: and the dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority. And I saw one of his heads as it were wounded to death; and his deadly wound was healed: and all the world wondered after the beast. And they worshipped the dragon which gave power unto the beast: and they worshipped the beast, saying, Who is like unto the beast? who is able to make war with him?
The passage concerning the Beast with the Lamb's Horn (Revelation 13, 11-13) follows:
And I beheld another beast coming up out of the earth; and he had two horns like a lamb, and he spake as a dragon.And he exerciseth all the power of the first beast before him, and causeth the earth and them which dwell therein to worship the first beast, whose deadly wound was healed. And he doeth great wonders, so that he maketh fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men.
Dürer's design for this Woodcut is, once more, consistent with the florid text of "Revelation". His depiction of the Sea Monster is utterly terrifying - as is also shown on the faces of the population cowering in subservience while otherwise being "guarded" by the "Beast out of the Earth".
"The Whore of Babylon" by Albrecht Durer
The fourteenth of the suite of Woodcuts for The Apocalypse, 'The Whore of Babylon' is associated with the text of Chapter 17 of the book of "Revelation" - that dealing with 'The Woman on the Beast' (specifically, Revelation 17, 3-6). That passage follows:
So he carried me away in the spirit into the wilderness: and I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet colored beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet color, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication: And upon her forehead was a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH. And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus: and when I saw her, I wondered with great admiration.
Dürer, again, displays masterful skills in depicting the figural elements of the related text from "Revelation" (save for those requiring color) in this Woodcut, in addition to representing the ongoing destruction and Heavenly wrath associated with this vile vision.