with its true voice/
out undissembled,‘Be as I am’/
in its wildest/
New York Dolls
When Martin Luther
nailed his Ninety-Five
Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences to the front door of
the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg in 1517, the Protestant Reformation had
officially begun. Although Luther’s criticisms were directed mainly toward the
Church’s policy on the sale of indulgences, his actions sparked a widespread
feeling of discontent among Europeans in regard to the Catholic Church, the
Pope, and even the idea of an intermediary between God and man. Individuals
began to seek a closer, more personal connection with the Divine by engaging
with the natural world beyond the confinement of church interiors and several
artists took note. Dieric Bouts (c.1410-1475) and Lucas Cranach (1472-1553)
became famous for their pioneering efforts in the drawing and painting of
landscapes, and Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), the preeminent artist of his day,
wished to transcribe the natural world for he believed that true art was
However, it was a
German artist named Albrecht Altdorfer who pushed landscape into the foreground
of painting. He emphasized the natural world like never before with his
utilization of elaborate brushstrokes, flamboyant displays of colour, and
grandiosity of scale.
accentuating specific qualities in his depiction of landscapes with an unusual,
almost dream-like style, Altdorfer was able to reflect the social, cultural,
and religious changes that were taking place during the first half of the
sixteenth century. These
significant events included the rise of humanism, the Protestant Reformation,
and the creation of a German national identity.
Altdorfer was born near
Regensburg, Germany, in 1480 and lived there until his death in 1538. The
city’s proximity to the Danube and Regen rivers as well as the Bavarian forest
to the east may have influenced the artist’s preoccupation with nature.
Altdorfer’s creativity was broad and wide-ranging; he mastered both painting
and printmaking, and even pursued several architectural commissions for the
city. The presence of a number of academicians living in Regensburg at the time
contributed to the artist’s tutelage in culture and philosophy. This group was
comprised of Johannes Grünpeck, a renowned philologist and scholar, Johannes
Stabius, a cartographer and member of the Sodalitas Danubiana (an
intellectual circle associated with Emperor Maximilian I), and Bavarian
historian Johannes Aventinus. A
citizen of Regensburg for most of his life, Aventinus supported the
establishment of German as a written language and helped spur the decline of
Unfortunately, very little was written about the artist during his lifetime;
his work was largely explored posthumously. Joachim von Sandrart (1602-1688) was one of the first art
critics to examine Altdorfer’s work and he left a portrayal of the artist in
his biographical compilation. Although the critic praised Altdorfer for his
“highly personal, original vision” and for his sharp intellect, Sandrart was
quick to dismiss the artist’s diligent craftsmanship and style.
predominantly positive review of Altdorfer’s work did not boost the artist’s
popularity. In fact, his paintings have been both in and out of vogue
throughout the years. By the eighteenth century, the artist was all but
forgotten as tastes shifted and art began to serve the needs of the imperial
aristocracy. A renewed interest in Altdorfer’s work occurred during the
nineteenth century when German Romantic poet and philosopher Friedrich Schlegel
opined about the Victory of Alexander the
Great over the Persian King Darius at the Battle of Issus of 1529 (Figure 1). Schlegel considered the work
a masterpiece and was especially impressed by how it transcended academic
classification in its combination of landscape and historical painting.
The nineteenth century Romantics equated the Middle Ages with the spirit of
chivalry; consequently they believed that this painting fulfilled a desire for
an older, more romanticized time when both combatants were equally honoured.
During the twentieth century, the nostalgia would subside as Germans decried
Altdorfer’s self-indulgent tendencies. His sensual, fantastical visions were
considered to be the antithesis of Dürer’s “heroic self-control.”
A good way to begin a
discussion of Altdorfer’s style and how it represents the natural world is to
contrast it against the style of his more famous contemporary, Albrecht Dürer.
of the Arco(1495),
with its attentiveness to colour and sensitivity to the organic structure of
the land, conveys a sense of spontaneity that differs from Altdorfer’s
meticulously detailed Landscape with a
Footbridge of c.1516-1518 (Figure 2).
The use of watercolour permitted Dürer to capture an immediate impression of
the landscape while Altdorfer favoured oil paint because it allowed him to
carefully shape the painting to his liking. The chronicler Raselius had
complimented Altdorfer “in the visual sense, especially in connection with the
description of [a] particularly lush, green, pleasant landscape or
Altdorfer’s Landscape with a Footbridge features a footbridge that
towers over the viewer, stressing his or her insignificance in relation to the
grandeur of the forest. The artist’s brushstrokes depicted the central tree as
a cascade of greenery while the sky has been painted a deep turquoise and the
foliage a dark, menacing green.
Dürer, Altdorfer wished to capture not only the look and feel of nature, but
also its inherent mysteriousness.
scenes—their pastoral beauty magnified by the deft handling of colour,
texture, and proportion—embody the notion of “topothesia”, a term that
roughly translates into “poetic license.”
A painting by Altdorfer titled Danube Landscape (c.1522-1525) explores this term as it applies to the German landscape (Figure 3). The image is framed by two
large trees in the foreground and features a trail that winds towards a
countryside village behind which he painted opaque mountains and the Danube
River. The various shades of blue and green give the landscape a cool, wistful
tone while the forest bears a dense, forlorn quality. The trees enhance the
verticality of the painting and the horizon is set low, which allows the viewer
to feel as if he or she is physically positioned within the landscape itself.
Conversely, Netherlandish landscape paintings like Joachim Patinir’s Rest
on the Flight to Egypt (c.1520) or Hans Memling’s Life of the Virgin (c.1480), feature high horizons that
imply a certain detachment from the scene. By omitting human figures (which
would have implied a narrative), the focus remains on the natural world and the
viewer’s relationship to it. Altdorfer’s paintings, with their vertical formats
and low, narrow horizons grant the viewer a more empirically plausible and
familiar point of view.
stylistic choices express his discontent regarding the Church’s position as a
suffocating middleman between heaven and earth. He aligned himself with his
fellow Germans who had long believed that their forests were imbued with a
divine presence and that the “contemplation of nature [was] the highest good,
because it leads to [a] fuller appreciation and knowledge of that divinity.”
Consequently, the tall trees that reach
beyond the upper frame combined with the low horizon line suggest that a
towering, omniscient presence exists within the viewer’s own physical space.
The verticality of his paintings suggests a connection between heaven and
earth; the dripping firs flow down from the sky above while the trees imitate
soaring church spires. The artist’s depiction of these gigantic, isolated trees
would have been interpreted as an idolatrous act by the Catholic Church, who
often suppressed Protestant gatherings due to their outdoor settings.
In conclusion, there is no apparent dichotomy between man and nature in his
paintings; the trees, mountains, and human dwellings all fit comfortably within
the same space. With trees shooting upward into skies awash in blue and white,
dark green foliage, and translucent mountains in the far distance, Altdorfer’s Landscape
with a Footbridge and Danube Landscape display a natural beauty that
helped contribute to a new religious fervor.
focus on the landscape did not shift when he introduced human subjects in his
paintings. Instead, he invented a personal language of vegetation that would
serve him in both narrative and landscape paintings.
George and the Dragon (1510) features a wild, luxurious display of
deciduous foliage and explores the mystical nature of the forest. This oil
painting depicts both the dragon and the saint almost entirely concealed within
a massive grouping of trees. The forest, richly detailed with dense, thick
layers of colour and leafy surfaces, imposes its magnificence on both of
Altdorfer’s subjects. Saint George is shown looming over the dragon (who
appears puny and unthreatening) thereby making the forest a reflection of the
knight’s power and strength. While the dragon is bound to the earth, Saint
George “seems to dissolve into the details of the forest and merge visually
with the natural setting.”
is not merely a background setting in this image; instead, it directly
correlates with the dramatic scene unfolding in the foreground. The impressive
display of foliage, which emulates Italian Renaissance architectural ornament
in its detailed richness and complexity, gives the painting a quality that is
worthy of religious worship. Altdorfer depicts a natural world in which “the
seen is the garment of the unseen.”
settings and lavish colouring bring out the emotional urgency in his paintings.
This becomes evident upon examining the artist’s altarpiece for the Collegiate
Church of Saint Florian, which presents eight scenes from the Passion of
Christ. The first panel in the series, Agony
in the Garden (c.1518),
shows Christ amid a hard, rocky terrain with dark, looming clouds. Christ’s
violent fate is foreshadowed by the orientation of the menacing stalactites, as
well as by the jet-blacks and bloody reds that guide the viewer’s eye
throughout the painting. In the Resurrection (c.1518) panel, a large tree frames the scene like a Roman arch while Christ’s
halo shines as bright as the sun. Both panels reveal how Altdorfer could employ
a similar colour for different symbolic purposes. While the artist’s tumultuous
red sky in Agony in the Garden can be
interpreted as a chilling premonition of Christ’s violent crucifixion, the
glorious red sunrise in his Resurrection painting reflects the hope and optimism associated with Christ’s rebirth.
Altdorfer evinces the new Christian age in all of its
splendour and glory in one of his finest paintings titled Battle of
Alexander. It is similar to the Saint Florian altarpiece in that he
combines story and setting in a highly expressive fashion. Due to the renewed
interest in classical art and philosophy at this time, Duke Wilhelm IV of
Bavaria commissioned a series of paintings depicting events of classical
antiquity. Altdorfer’s particular contribution features Alexander the Great’s
victory over Darius and his Persian army in the year 334 CE. The fact that this
painting was created the same year that the Ottoman Turks were laying siege to
Vienna makes it reasonable to purport that Altdorfer used this image to ignite
Christian faith and national resolve against these invaders.
The viewer witnesses the significant historical event from an abnormally high
vantage point; a perspective that Altdorfer does not typically employ within
his paintings. Altdorfer utilizes the expansive sky to reflect the gruesome
battle on the ground; the swirling mass of threatening clouds in the upper half
of the painting echo the churning hoards of soldiers below. As the Greeks expel
the defeated Persians, a bright sunrise (a symbol of Christianity) chases away
the crescent moon (a symbol of Islam).
All of the essential elements come together within this
painting to create a cohesive scene of epic proportion.
landscape painting has played an important role throughout the history of art,
Albrecht Altdorfer’s contributions to the genre are worthy of investigation.
His expressive colour palette, pronounced vertical scale, and mastery of oil
paint allowed him to treat nature with unprecedented intricacy. His legacy as a
Northern Renaissance artist endures due to the beauty of his landscape
paintings and the feeling of rapture they bring to his viewers. His forests
seem to radiate a mysterious power that even an atheist cannot help to
acknowledge. Every one of Altdorfer’s paintings is, to paraphrase film critic
Roger Ebert, not what it is about, but how it is about it.
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