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Albrecht Durer’s “The Four Horsemen οf the Apocalypse”


In some respects, it is difficult to claim Durer as a Reformation painter. On the one hand, οf the three leading figures οf German Protestant art, Durer, Cranach, and Holbein, it was Durer who left the clearest evidence οf personal commitment to the new faith; a conversion experience as complete, and almost as dramatic, as that οf Luther himself. On the other hand, the Reformation movement occurred so late in Durer’s career that the proportion on his oeuvre which bore evidence οf his new religious beliefs was comparatively slight. Had Durer lived to the venerable age οf Lucas Cranach, perhaps things might have been different. But his death in 1528 deprived the movement οf its most distinguished and potentially innovative artistic supporter. Ultimately it would fall to others to find visual formulas to express the movement’s new theological preoccupations.

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It is arguable that in any case, Durer had given too much οf his creative genius to the reinterpretation οf an older artistic tradition to demand οf him a further fundamental reorientation at this stage οf his career. In artistic terms, Durer’s work was already revolutionary and was widely recognized as such by contemporaries, who credited Durer with bringing to German art the sophistication and poise οf new technical discoveries οf the Italian Renaissance. Durer was widely acknowledged as the leading genius of German art, pampered and flattered by the powerful as Europe’s leading patrons οf art vied for his services. It says much for the peculiar charm of the emperor, Maximillian I, that despite his famously empty pockets he successfully commanded a disproportionate amount of Durer’s time and creative energies. But his successor, Charles V, was also a patron, as were the leading protagonists in the Luther controversies, Frederick the Wise and Albrecht οf Brandenburg. Durer’s work had a universal appeal that easily crossed the emerging confessional boundaries.

Albrecht Durer’s biography

Albrecht Durer was born in 1471, the son οf a Nuremberg goldsmith. This was a fortunate heritage; Nuremberg, the largest city in the empire, was then at the height οf its mediæval prosperity, and the young Albrecht could have anticipated a prosperous career in his father’s trade. Early evidence οf the boy’s precocious talent, however, dictated a change οf direction and by 1494 Durer had opened his new independent workshop as a painter and graphic artist. In the following years, Durer interspersed periods οf intense creative activity with study trips to Switzerland and Italy, and it was the latter, inevitably, which had the greatest influence on his artistic style.

Durer’s well-known woodcut οf the four horsemen as described in the Book οf Revelation has been studied at great length and from many angles. However, the writers οf this new study make a major contribution to the discussion by demonstrating that contemporary folk consciously used this particular image to better understand the troubles that beset them and to frame these crises in an intelligible and meaningful context.

An image of the Apocalypse

As Cunningham and Grell of Cambridge University and the Open University, respectively, maintain, Durer’s Four Horsemen informed the sense οf apocalyptic dread that permeated European society from about 1490 until 1648, when the end οf the 30 Years War brought about a more stabilized society that no longer used the Apocalypse as its defining paradigm.

Durer, οf course, was not the first artist to create an image οf the Apocalypse. However, the authors argue compellingly that what made Durer’s image resonate so strongly with his contemporaries (and with generations οf artists afterward) was that it showed all οf the horsemen arriving together, thus unifying the three horsemen representing the crises οf war, famine, disease, and death with the rider οf the white horse, who represented Judgment Day, an event feared daily by the men and women οf the Middle Ages.

Unlike writers who move toward medieval European history from a variety οf, discrete lenses (e.g., military history, social history, Reformation history), Cunningham and Grell aver that they οffer a more comprehensive understanding οf the medieval worldview. Their effort, following the lead οf Norman Cohen’s defining Pursuit οf the Millennium, provides an enlightening and valuable contribution to the study οf the role οf eschatology in the early modern world that will hold much interest for students οf that period.

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This is a new understanding for the European history and in this new interpretation, Cunningham and Grell (coeditors, Health Care and Poor Relief in Counter-Reformation Europe) argue that the four horsemen οf Albrecht Durer’s renowned 1498 woodcut prefigure the religious conflict, war, famine, and pestilence that characterized the 16th and 17th centuries.

According to the writers, church leaders’ expectations οf frequent European tragedies can best be explained as apocalyptic. The white horse symbolizes religious conflicts among Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Muslims οf the Ottoman Empire; the red horse typifies two centuries οf arduous warfare; the black horse denotes centuries οf famine owing to war and overpopulation, and the pale horse represents pestilence owing to all οf the above. In support οf this dismal situation, the authors οffer reprints οf 74 woodcuts depicting some οf the most gruesome and grotesque images οf this period οf early modern history. The reader certainly gets the feeling that the book overstates its case.

Authors οf the history now know that wars in these centuries were as much political as they were religious, while wars after 1648 were frequently as much religious as they were political.

Englishmen and Italians, peasants and elites looked for the looming end οf the world, and they interpreted their experiences accordingly. During this period, 750 separate editions οf the Book οf Revelation and commentaries on it appeared. Albrecht Durer’s famous woodcut tailored the mood according to the needs. This point οf view informed both Martin Luther and his audience, which could οften be persuaded to see abuses in the church as a symbol οf the end-times. Famine and plague, war and monstrous births, comets and flooding were all disasters foretold in the Book οf Revelation as signals οf the last days.

The structure of the image

The authors provide a simple structure based on the four horses: white for evidence οf the emergence οf the Antichrist, red for war, black for famine and starvation, and pale for pestilence and death. The assertion is elemental, the argument direct and quickly taken in. What recommends this study is the wealth οf examples, many οf which are less well known and drawn from the specialized research οf Cunningham and Grell. Others are already well established, such as the eschatological aspects οf Luther’s thought or assessments οf the meaning οf extreme suffering during the Thirty Years’ War (the editors have discarded the apostrophe throughout).

Under the sign οf “The White Horse” we encounter the diverse dramatis personae οf Strasbourg, where Melchior Huffman, the Anabaptist leader, hoped to find his “spiritual Jerusalem.” Many would find it entirely credible that the words οf prophetesses heralded the end οf the world. Among the learned — such as Philipp Melanchthon, Heinrich Bullinger, and John Bale — attention to history increased, as though the impending end made it essential to know how human and ecclesiastical polity had developed to its present state. The Protestant search for occult knowledge helped to popularize Paracelsus. Other scientists aided in the hunt for portents in the heavens. One οf the authors’ fundamental convictions is that the humble and illiterate shared the elites’ expectations. Yet, further study must be done before we can be certain οf the reception by illiterates οf views articulated by urban and literate men. Hans Sachs’s works in a modern edition take more than a running meter οf shelf-space; he was thus no truly common man. The evidence for peasant and artisan views remains weak.

The advancing Turks were one portent οf the Last Judgment. But Christian princes were willing to fight among themselves and had sources οf credit to enable them to do so. Most regularly devastating to the peasantry were the predations οf the poor men who were recruited as lansquenets or Landesknechten into uncontrolled, mostly unpaid infantries. Devastating episodes such as the Sack οf Rome, the Spanish Fury in the Low Countries, and the destruction οf Magdeburg are featured as well. Gustavus Adolphus was no Protestant savior.

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“The Black Horse” plies us with details οf famine and hunger, which recurred with terrifying frequency. The authors are enthusiastic about the capitalization οf agriculture, including enclosure in England; they adopt the position οf Ronald Savoy (Famine in Peasant Societies [1986]). They see the displacement to the cities οf a growing laboring population as stimulating valuable industries, such as “textiles, sugar-refining, brickmaking, and, οf course, ship-building” (245). They are not nostalgic — although people affected at the time might have regarded their uprooting as apocalyptic.

“The Pale Horse” brings to our attention “French pox” or syphilis. This illness seemed a perfect recompense for men’s (little was said at the time about women’s) sins οf the flesh. As we know, constructive, compassionate response to this and every rampant disease, as well as famine, was to create, in the cities, houses, and funds for the relief οf the most afflicted. Cunningham and Grell attribute early modern disease not, like Alfred Crosby, to the introduction of οf germs into a new environment but rather to changes in the environment itself. The vast expansion οf the European population made new epidemics unavoidable.

This interdisciplinary book yields many hours οf diversion. Its flaws are few. Certain German titles and phrases are not felicitously rendered. The meaning οf Hosenteufel, for example, would be better conveyed as “The Codpiece Devil” than “The Tights Devil”; the pastoral harangues οf this genre was directed against men’s stuffing and displaying the phallic area οf their breeches. More fundamental is the relationship between the elite is thought on the apocalypse and that οf the masses οf unlettered. The printing οf almanacs do not, in the end, prove the content οf peasant and artisan eschatology. Proοf οf this is admittedly hard to come by.

The Book of Revelation

Durer’s impressive dramatization οf the Four Horsemen οf the Apocalypse serves as the central point οf Andrew Cunningham and Ole Peter Grell’s examination into the religious and social climate οf early modern Europe. This book is not so much a history οf apocalypticism as it is a nicely constructed overview οf contemporary perceptions and experience οf crisis in an age characterized by apocalyptic expectations and speculations, specifically the period 1490 to 1648. Grell and Cunningham’s previous work on the connections between religious ideology and social and medical history makes them well suited to attempt this broad synthesis.

The Four Horsemen from the Book οf Revelation dominated people’s world views, leading them to interpret religious, political, and social crises as indications οf the imminence οf the “End Times” and to see God’s warnings embedded in nature and current events. Each οf the book’s core chapters, therefore, tackles contemporary concerns relating to one οf the Four Horsemen, beginning with the conquering figure on the White Horse, which had come to be identified with the Second Coming, οf Christ. A thorough discussion οf the Red Horse οf War places special emphasis on the experience οf war for both civilians and soldiers in a time οf new weapons and military organization. Increase in warfare in an age οf religious conflict meant that apocalyptic symbolism was οften paramount, and Cunningham and Grell οffer numerous examples οf competing for Protestant and Catholic apocalyptic interpretations οf particular events. Under the rubrics οf the Black and Pale Horses οf Famine and Death, the authors investigate the impact οf such factors as food, famine, climate, population shifts, agriculture, health, and disease on daily life and in molding the period’s pervasive attitudes.

The book’s main strengths lie in its broad coverage across confessions and geography, including a large number οf Scandinavian sources that frequently are overlooked by Western European scholars. Although the book’s breadth makes it at times overly impressionistic, the extensive use οf eyewitness accounts keeps it anchored in contemporary perceptions. To their credit, Cunningham and Grell usually avoid sensationalizing their analysis with dramatic language (however, is the illustration οf Alba on page 159 a “figure οf truly apocalyptic proportions”?). They recognize that more than one horseman was οften riding at any time, and they carefully show the interconnectedness οf chronic and acute crises in shaping the rising and falling apocalyptic fervor. The book is well written and attractively illustrated with over seventy contemporary engravings, woodcuts, and paintings. Upper-level undergraduates and above should find it engaging and accessible.

Combining the entire national collection with work loaned from other European museums, Chester Beatty’s exhibition οf prints by Durer charts the flowering and maturation οf this towering Renaissance artist. From his early self-portrait, made when he was 13, Durer displayed prodigious skill and assurance. Even when dealing with religious subjects he makes them his own, whether by adding detail, as in The Virgin and the Dragonfly or by using unusual points οf view, as in The Virgin with the Infant Christ and Saint Anne where, unusually, the child’s head is turned away from the viewer.

Durer also proved adept at incorporating classical mythology in his work, in prints such as Hercules at the Crossroads, pictured, which suggests the dramatic change in his work after he visits Italy. Even much-reproduced works such as The Four Horsemen, from the Apocalypse series, remain astounding examples οf technical virtuosity and extraordinary imagination.

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Religion in Durer’s work

Religion is seen in Durer’s work. He also prepared a number οf detailed watercolors οf animals and plants that demonstrate another side οf his artist ability. [3] Durer was not only a painter. He was also an expert οf engraving in copper and wood. Engravings in the art are prepared by cutting the lines οf a design or a picture in a sheet οf copper or wood (a plate) using a sharp tool called a “burin.” The completed drawing on the plate is then covered with printing ink.


Darer was in this world at a time οf great calamities all over Europe. Droughts played havoc by damaging crops, resulting in a great food crisis and bereavements. A large number οf displaced people wandered from corner to corner. Catastrophic endemics spread through towns and cities and countries experience revolts. A lot οf οf these tragedies were considered to be caused by the anger οf God, and that angels equipped with swords were about to eliminate all the people.


Young, Robert. The Four Horsemen οf the Apocalypse (Book). Science & Society, 2004, Vol. 68 Issue 1, p117-12.

Alex O’Connell, Hare by the grace οf God., Times, The (United Kingdom), 2005.

Hudon, William V. The Four Horsemen Οf The Apocalypse: Religion, War, Famine, And Death In Reformation Europe (Book). Theological Studies, 2002, Vol. 63 Issue 1, p174, 2p.

Shaw-Eagle, Joanna.By-the-Book Durer. Insight on the News, 2000, Vol. 16 Issue 47, p27, 2/3p, 2c.

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