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Albrecht Durer, a master Northern Renaissance artist

The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, a wood cut engraving by Albrecht Durer and considered his masterpiece work.

The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, a wood cut engraving by Albrecht Durer and considered his masterpiece work.

Self-portrait by Albrecht Durer

Self-portrait by Albrecht Durer

Durer's colored drawings of nature.

Durer's colored drawings of nature.

Durer's famous engraving of the Praying Hands.

Durer's famous engraving of the Praying Hands.

While the Renaissance in Italy was going strong in such cities as Florence, Rome, Venice and Milan, the 'rebirth' of knowledge, classics, and the arts was slowly seeping into the northern countries of Europe, specifically Germany and the Netherlands.

And, the most gifted and versatile German artist of the Northern Renaissance period was Albrecht Durer, a German painter, engraver, printmaker, mathematician and theorist born in and from Nuremberg, Germany, in the Franconia region of the country.

Nuremberg, Germany had grown to become one of the strongest artistic and commercial centers in Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries and Durer made this city his permanent home, although he traveled extensively to Italy and the Netherlands during his lifetime.

Although, Durer was a gifted painter, draftsman, printer and writer, his greatest artistic impact was in the medium of printmaking. His masterpieces are engraved wood cuts and copper engravings and Durer revolutionized printmaking elevating it to the level of an independent art form. He expanded its tonal and dramatic range and provided imagery with a new conceptual foundation.

With the invention of the printing press in Germany around 1465, Durer was able to reach not just the German nobility with his work, but also the common man. Both literate and illiterate man could see and understand his prints and engravings. His appeal was to all men and women during the Northern Renaissance that flourished a bit after the Italian Renaissance.

Nuremberg continued to become a vibrant center of humanism and one of the first German cities to embrace the principles of the Reformation. Durer also had access to some of Europe's outstanding theologians and scholars especially Erasmus, Melanchton and Pirkheimer as Durer painted all their portraits.

Durer also embraced the principles of mathematics, perspective and ideal proportions and was an exacting painter using all three in his paintings. He authored Four Books of Human Proportion as well as an introductory manual of geometric theory for students. His was the first scientific treatment of perspective by a Northern European.

He also had a visual curiosity that extended to the whole of nature. He loved sketching and making prints of animals, people and natural landscapes. He also painted them in vivid watercolors.

He traveled to and visited Italy twice in his life, 1494-95 and again in 1505-07 and there he absorbed some of the great works of the Italian Renaissance and it was here he was greatly influenced by Leonardo da Vinci.

He also was influenced by the Venetian use of color and design in paintings and he began painting in Italy and then continued when back in Germany. He was able to incorporate Venetian breadth, light and color without sacrificing the precision of his drawings.

Durer became the official court artist of the Holy Roman Emperors, Maximilian I and his successor Charles V. Durer designed and helped execute a range of artistic projects for both men.

His talent, ambition and intellect earned him the attention and friendship of some of the most prominent people in German society. Hundreds of surviving drawings, letters and diary entries document his travels through Italy and the Netherlands 1520-21, and attesting to his scientific perspective and artistic judgment.

He painted several self-portraits, drawn, painted and printed that reveal a successful and self-assured master, eager to assert his creative genius and inherent nobility. He also became the first European landscape artist.

Melancolia, one of Durer's famous prints.

Melancolia, one of Durer's famous prints.

Durer's study in perspective and form indicates a very precise engraver and painter.

Durer's study in perspective and form indicates a very precise engraver and painter.

1471 - 1528

Albrecht Durer led an illustrious life of an artist and began his start at fifteen years of age by being apprenticed at the workshop of Michael Wolgemut, a principal painter in Nuremberg, Germany, of small works in late Gothic style. Durer learned painting, wood carving, and elementary copper engraving from Wolgemut and eventually, like other Renaissance greats, Durer's work surpassed his teacher.

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In 1490, Durer took his Wanderjahr, or gap year as we call it today, that actually turned into four years of traveling around Germany and working with different artists to learn more of his trade. He arrived in Colmar, Germany in 1492 to work with Martin Schongauer, a painter-engraver, but discovered he had died. So, Durer worked with the family in his workshop and learned metal engraving.

He briefly returned to Nuremberg to marry Agnes Frey, an arranged marriage made by his parents, and this was to be his only marriage during his lifetime.

By 1494, he again left Nuremberg for Venice, Italy to learn painting techniques of the Venetian School of painting during northern Italy's Renaissance. Venice was also the printmaking capital of Italy, and Durer refined his printmaking skills also while here in Venice.

Durer returned to Nuremberg in 1495 and remained there for the next ten years mostly producing his notable prints during this time. He worked in establishing Germanic and northern forms of prints but was open to the influences of the Italian Renaissance also. His best works in this period were his wood block prints.

It was during these years that Durer developed his famous series of sixteen great designs for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, his masterpiece carving, which he began carving in 1498. His prints during this period were very religious in nature and subject.

From 1504-05 he carved his first seventeen of a set illustrating the life of the Virgin. Durer was greatly influenced by Jacopo de Barbari who came to Nuremberg from Venice in 1500. He influenced Durer with new developments in perspective, anatomy and proportion.

Durer's Adam and Eve (1504) engravings show this new perspective he worked on with Barbari.

In 1505, Durer returned for a second visit to Italy and began painting a series of tempura-painting on linen painting portraits and altarpieces. It was also during this time that he painted Adoration of the Virgin (also called Feast of Rose Garlands) which was eventually acquired by Emperor Rudolf II and taken to Prague, Czechoslovakia. He also painted the Virgin with the Goldfinch and Child and other smaller works.

In 1507, Durer returned to Nuremberg and remained in Germany until 1570. By now, Durer was famous for his prints and paintings all over Europe and very popular with the public. From 1507-11 are considered the painting years of Durer's life.

In 1511-14, Durer returned to and concentrated on engraving using both wood and copper. He engraved and printed his famous Melancolia (1514) during this time.

When the Black Plague hit Nuremberg around 1520-21, Durer and his wife left the city and traveled to the Netherlands where he was received as a great artistic master. He wanted to be present at the coronation of Emperor Charles V.

After a year in the Netherlands he returned to Nuremberg, and worked on a series of religious pictures but produced little art at the end of his life. He died a natural death in 1528.

Adam & Eve engraving in color, by Albrecht Durer. 1504

Adam & Eve engraving in color, by Albrecht Durer. 1504

The Knight, Death and the devil, copper print 1514

The Knight, Death and the devil, copper print 1514

St. Jerome in his Study, copper print 1514

St. Jerome in his Study, copper print 1514

Durer's engravings

The Reformation in 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the doors of the Wittenburg castle church doors, split Europe in two. Nuremberg, Germany adopted Protestantism, which Durer converted to, and the city continued as a major trading center between east and west. The specific religion it adopted was Lutheranism and Nuremberg became a rich, beautiful, and cosmopolitan city. It oozed humanist ideals and learning from Italy.

Although, he painted, Durer's drawings, wood cutting and printing remain his primary media throughout his career. He was the first major artists to emphasize them and it is the reason why Durer was considered the first and greatest of the Northern Renaissance artists. He never lost his northern individuality and his obsession with line. HIs fame from his engravings caused Italian artists to look to Durer for engraving ideas.

Durer has been called 'the Leonardo of the North' by art historians for his scientific investigations though they were limited by da Vinci's standards and genius.

His engraving of Adam & Eve (1504) is one of the first he printed in color. Both figures are based on antique sculptures and are constructed according to the rules of proportion. Every detail of the print has meaning. The branch Adam holds has been interpreted to refer to the Tree of Life. And the animals represent the humours in their original harmony according to art historians. Durer applied the color on the engraving according to Italianate and classical themes.

Durer's great imagination and mastery of technique, richness of learning all combined to reach a peak in three great single copper plates completed around 1513-14:

  • The Knight, Death and the devil
  • St. Jerome
  • Melancolia I

Great detail in these prints brought together harmonious compositions. The Knight is an allegory of the Christian warrior fighting the devil and Death. St. Jerome is a great Christian Scholar and Melancholia is a meditation on the process of creation full of allusions.

Durer's wood cut of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is his greatest print and themasterpiece of his lifetime. The subject for this print comes from the Bible's Book of Revelation. The Lamb has opened the first four seals of the prophecy of the Last Judgment that there rode forth four horsemen, one after the other.

  • the first rider came with a bow on a white horse riding out to conquer
  • the second rider came with a great sword on a red horse to unleash destruction
  • the third rider came with a pair of scales on a black horse to symbolize justice
  • the fourth rider came on a pale horse symbolizing death and Hell following him, riding to kill in famine and pestilence.

Disregarding the mass of humanity under their hooves, all four horsemen stare out into the distance forming a chain across the sheet and contribute to a sense of movement. We can almost hear the thunder of their movement across the page, and this had never been expressed before or since in a mere woodcut.

The thunder of movement is reinforced by the contrast of light and dark and the linear agitation of the fluttering saddle, clothes and other garments. The absence of color in this wood cut signals its great technical accomplishment and precision.

The Apocalypse appeared first in 1498 in a German and Latin edition of the Bible. It was riveting because the prophecy at that time was that the world would come to an end in the year 1500 and it was generally believed by most people living in Europe. Many in Germany and areas where Protestantism took hold believed the Pope as not Christ's representative on earth but the anti-Christ of the Book of Revelation in the Bible.

However, Durer's engraving is not one of complete doom as the angels staying the four winds represent the elect which are ordinary people with whom the reader can identify. Here Durer's use of woodcut brings his technique to a remarkable pitch.

Another look at the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Durer's greatest wood carving.

Another look at the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Durer's greatest wood carving.

Adoration of the Magi (1504)

Adoration of the Magi (1504)

Adoration of the Trinity (1511)

Adoration of the Trinity (1511)

Durer's paintings

Durer's paintings are not considered as great as his engravings, but I don't always agree with that analysis. His paintings are clearly from the northern perspective and not always fully Italianate, although he certainly included the Italian perspective partly in his paintings. Most of his paintings were completed during one of his two trips to Italy where he worked with some of the greatest Venetian painters and artists.

His greatest painting years are considered from about 1507-11 and Durer is considered the first greatest Northern Renaissance artist. He was able to incorporate Venetian breadth of light and color without sacrificing the precision of his lines and of his drawings. He always maintained his individual talent in painting his works.

He painted the Adoration of the Magi in 1504. His starting point on this painting is northern style and on this he grafted Italianate gesture, grouping and color. He then turned his figures into his own independent style. The Virgin is painted distinctly northern in her features and proportions.

In his Adoration of the Trinity 1511, Durer achieves a more through blend with a magnificent synthesis of the northern and southern visions. Here, he includes da Vinci's influence in his painting of his huge crowd of individuals. The influence of Venetian color and design can be seen in this painting.

His greatest masterpiece painting are The Four Apostles, which actually was never completed. These two great panels are considered his greatest painted work. The majestic figures were intended as the wings of an altarpiece of the Italian type.

Since Nuremberg reformed religiously and became Lutheran during the time Durer painted this the saints have been interpreted as personifications of the four temperaments: choleric, melancholic, sanguine, and phlegmatic. All the while, the inscriptions spell out Durer's message to the faithful of the new Lutheran religion: "Hold fast to the Word and distrust false prophets."

The apostles monumental yet individual grandeur along with northern specificity is combined with the Italian tradition of figure drawing in these panels.

Because of the variety of his talents, and his workshop located in Nuremberg, Germany, Durer will always be remembered as the master of the Northern Renaissance, having ushered it in with his wood and copper engravings and Renaissance style paintings. His exactitude in his engravings are marveled even today by modern artists.

The Four Apostles (1526)

The Four Apostles (1526)

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2014 Suzette Walker


Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on July 26, 2014:

vishal: Thank you so much for reading and I am glad you enjoyed this. Durer is one of the great artists of the Northern Renaissance.

vishal bhushan yadav on July 26, 2014:

wow amazing series

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on May 12, 2014:

Carolyn: Yes, one of the delights in living in Germany was seeing these original works. I was able to travel some and I always checked out the art museums in the cities I visited. To see in person what I had studied in school was amazing. Thanks so much for your visit.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on May 12, 2014:

chef-de-jour: Thanks so much for your kind comments. Yes, Durer is such an interesting artist and he was talented in so many ways. I love his study of the hare also. It has become a classic. Thanks so much for the votes and share and I appreciated your visit.

Carolyn Emerick on May 07, 2014:

To see them in person.... AMAZING!

Andrew Spacey from Sheffield, UK on May 07, 2014:

I enjoyed your article immensely. What a talented artist this man was, ahead of his time you might say, and so innovative. The Hare is an all time favourite study of mine, beautifully portrayed.

You worked really hard to create this informative hub. Thank you.

Votes and a share.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on May 07, 2014:

Theresa: I am so glad you enjoyed reading this. I love his work too and his wood and metal cuttings are uncomparable in the world even today. I am so glad you admire him also. Thanks so much for your visit - most appreciated.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on May 07, 2014:

Carolyn: Thanks so much for reading this. I admire Durer and his works also. The detail and precision of his wood and metal cuttings is amazing and the time and effort it took to create these is amazing also. I lived in Germany back in the 80's and was able to see his works in the museums and in Nuremberg. That was quite an experience. Thanks so much for your interest - most appreciated.

Theresa Ast from Atlanta, Georgia on May 06, 2014:

Marvelous, marvelous hub. So full of information and such wonderful prints and paintings. I hale loved Durer for a long time and spend a good bit of time in class talking about him. I even have a print of his self-portrait framed and hanging on my office wall. :) Sharing. :) Theresa

Carolyn Emerick on May 05, 2014:

wonderful article! Durer was an amazing artist and I loved many of the images you chose to illustrate this :-) Upvoted and sharing!

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on April 14, 2014:

Hi Ashok: Thank you so much for your lovely comments and I am so pleased you enjoyed reading this. Durer was so talented and genius too, although probably not a match for da Vinci.

Ashok Rao from Mumbai, India on March 27, 2014:

This was an education. You made it so interesting. I think it was very informative and it looks like you have done a lot of research on it. I enjoyed reading it.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on February 24, 2014:

Anne: Thanks so much for reading this. I know, his detail on his engravings is phenomenal. I can just imagine the patience it took to complete these. They are so interesting and the detail makes them more so. Thanks so much for stopping by to read this and I am so pleased you enjoyed it. Thanks for your comments.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on February 24, 2014:

Hi Eddy: I hope you are drying out over there. Our snow is now melting and our rivers are quite high now. So we may have some flooding soon too. Oh dear! Thanks so much for reading this and I am so pleased you enjoyed it. This was a labor of love! LOL!

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on February 24, 2014:

hI jamie: I am so glad you enjoyed this one on Durer. I had forgotten about this great German artist and I had to do a hub on him. I am so pleased you read this and commented. Thanks so much for your interest.

Anne Harrison from Australia on February 22, 2014:

Just an amazing man, and his works are brilliant. I look at them, and don't know how they are done; I would have no idea where to begin. Thanks for an interesting article, voted up

Eiddwen from Wales on February 20, 2014:

Wow Suzette your obvious hard work has certainly paid off here. So interesting, well informed and presented. Voted up for sure and wishing you a great day.


Jamie Lee Hamann from Reno NV on February 18, 2014:

An incredible hub about an incredible artist. Thank you for this hub. Jamie

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on February 18, 2014:

Daniel: Yes, you were the inspiration for this hub! LOL! I had forgotten about Albrecht Durer, which I can't believe I did. He was such an important artist to Germany and the whole northern Renaissance movement. I agree with you - we both lived there when we were young and I know I didn't have the appreciation for all the art that was around me as I do now with a bit more maturity. Durer was so avant guard as you say. I enjoyed researching and writing this and I am so pleased you have enjoyed reading it.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on February 18, 2014:

Faith: Thanks so much for your lovely comments. I'm not writing a history book, but it is so wonderful of you to think this would be good enough for one. I love the Renaissance period in history - my favorite - and this i just another addition to that series. Thanks so much as always for your visit. Most appreciated.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on February 18, 2014:

Thank you beth: I have enjoyed writing this one so much. He is so talented and I think he is more remembered for his detailed engravings than his paintings, although, I love his paintings as much as his engravings. So glad you enjoyed reading this.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on February 18, 2014:

Phyllis: Thank you so much for your kind comments. I have enjoyed writing this as I lived in Germany and of course, have been to Nuremberg. He is so interesting and I find his engravings beautiful and genius work. The detail he was able to carve into those engravings is amazing. I am so please you enjoyed reading this and thanks so much for your visit.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on February 18, 2014:

Sinbadsailorman: I didn't know about the window hint in the eyes - that is interesting. I never came across that in my research but I will look out for that in his works. Thanks so much for sharing your Durer pieces with me. I have enjoyed that so much.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on February 18, 2014:

MGSingh: Thanks so much and I am so glad you enjoyed reading this. Durer certainly was talented in many areas.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on February 18, 2014:

Sinbadsailorman: Thanks so much for reading this and I am pleased you enjoyed it. I checked out your video. Quite interesting and you have some lovely Durer pieces. The engraving of the man looks like it is worth a lot and you were so fortunate to come across those works wherever you found them. The one portrait is of Durer - his self-portrait. I hope all your pieces are worth something. I enjoyed watching your video.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on February 18, 2014:

Thanks so much Bill. Just another addition to my interest in the Renaissance period in history - my favorite!

Daniel Wyvern from Athens, Georgia on February 17, 2014:

Suzette, I'm humbled after reading your Hub. I made a half assed attempt at illuminating Durer in a Hub last week, but could not do him justice. Your post about Nuremberg was my inspiration. I have spent too much time watching YouTube videos about him, there are a lot out there. The more I read and watch, the more of an enigma he becomes. Just so far ahead of his time. I wish that I had half the maturity I have now, when I was living in Germany. Maybe I could have fully appreciated him. My son is in Munich this week. He could not care less about visiting the Alte Pinoteck and seeing Durer's self portrait at 28. Life is wasted on the young! Thanks for posting this. I will take credit for prodding you to do so. Dan

Faith Reaper from southern USA on February 17, 2014:

Excellent hub on Albrecht Durer! This would make a great addition to any history book or even make the beginning of one. I always learn so much and enjoy your hubs. His art is superb and I love his wood engravings.

Up and more and sharing.

Have a great week,

Faith Reaper

Beth Perry from Tennesee on February 16, 2014:

A fantastic article about one of my favorite artists! And I agree, I believe his paintings tend to be underrated. I have often wondered if this is because his wood cuttings/engravings were so superb?

Voted up!

Phyllis Doyle Burns from High desert of Nevada. on February 16, 2014:

Suzette, I was delighted to find this hub and read every word, study the images, and remember my class in art history many years ago. For the semester final, we were given an assignment to write a biography on our any artist we had studied -- I chose Durer and received an A+ because, as my teacher noted, my passion and appreciation for the life and works of this great artist came through in my writing. I see your passion and appreciation for Durer has also come through and provided us with an awesome, very informational and interesting hub.

I so enjoyed reading about Durer again. Thank you, for a wonderful Sunday afternoon read.

Donald Beres Jr from Valparaiso, Indiana on February 16, 2014:

Just remembered that he was noted for painting a window hint into the eyes of his paintings. I believe this was him as he is the only one I have researched as much as I have more so than any of the others. His was a unique talent indeed. The one I have is life like better then a photo truly unique. and I got it for two dollars frame and all.

MG Singh from UAE on February 16, 2014:

Excellent post about an artist I didn't know much about.

Donald Beres Jr from Valparaiso, Indiana on February 16, 2014:

Nice Article I have Collected some of His Prints and When I was looking for info on him about ten years ago I could never Find It. Donald Beres Jr Some of my Other Collectibles: from my years of Garage selling and Junking Here on my facebook page is a few pictures of what I collected I spent about twenty dollars for all of it and a few pieces are worth thousands if they are what I think they are. Nice work AD is how he signed his works. thanks for the share I'll have to print this for my collection.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on February 16, 2014:

Genna: Thanks so much for reading and for your insightful comments. Durer's work, especially his engravings is amazing. The detail he was able to include is incredible. The time and patience that must have taken to draw and carve his engravings is hard to imagine. He truly was a hard worker. His paintings are just as good and his talent in both areas speaks to his own type of genius. Thanks so much for the visit and I am so pleased you enjoyed reading this.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on February 16, 2014:

Jodah: Thanks so much for reading this. Yes, he was an amazing artist. I had forgotten he engraved the Praying Hands and the Apocalypse. I remembered his paintings more than his engravings, but I enjoyed re-learning about him again. Thanks so much for your comments and I am so pleased you enjoyed reading this.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on February 16, 2014:

Thanks so much Jackie for your kind comments. I am so pleased you enjoyed reading this and found it interesting. So glad you stopped by and left comments.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on February 16, 2014:

VVanNess: Thanks so much and I am happy you found it interesting and informative. I enjoyed writing it as he is such a talent and genius in his own right.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on February 16, 2014:

I always learn something on your hubs, Suzette. Well done!

Genna East from Massachusetts, USA on February 16, 2014:

The detail in Durer’s prints and engravings are remarkable, and reveal a powerful depth of emotion and imagination that are stunningly revealing of subject and theme. His paintings have these same elements. I wasn’t familiar with this artist before reading your article…thank you for this well-written presentation. Voted way up and shared.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on February 15, 2014:

What an amazing artist direr was? He was one of the few great artists I knew very little about, although I do know some of his work like the Four Horsemen. His drawings and engravings are amazing, and his paintings as well. You can see the similarity with Da Vinci's work and can see Durer was inspired by him. Thank you for this well researched and interesting hub Suzette. Great pictures too.

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on February 15, 2014:

Wow, this is like a book! You have put so much into it and it is so well done! I really enjoyed it. Up +

Victoria Van Ness from Fountain, CO on February 15, 2014:

This was so educational and informative. I learned much that I didn't know about the Renaissance. Very nice! Thank you!

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