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Brad Morosan is a second-year student majoring in Museum and Curatorial Studies at UWO.  He is especially fond of Northern Renaissance and Baroque art.  Upon completing his undergraduate degree, Brad hopes to attend graduate school and ultimately work for a museum or art gallery. 



Nature with its true voice/

Cries out undissembled,‘Be as I am’/

Revealed in its wildest/

Most generous incarnation  

-           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 imbedded therein. [1]  

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. [2] By 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 Latin-based education. [3] 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. [4]

Alas, Sandrart’s 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. [5] 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.” [6]

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. Dürer’s View 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). [7] 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 countryside.” [8] 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. [9] Unlike Dürer, Altdorfer wished to capture not only the look and feel of nature, but also its inherent mysteriousness.   

Altdorfer’s landscape 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.” [10] 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. [11]  

Altdorfer’s particular 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.” [12]   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. [13] 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.

Altdorfer’s primary 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. [14]   Saint 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.” [15] The forest 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.” [16]  

Altdorfer’s ominous 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. [17] 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). [18] All of the essential elements come together within this painting to create a cohesive scene of epic proportion.  

Considering that 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.



Benesch, Otto. German Painting: From Dürer to Holbein. Translated by H.S.B. Harrison. Geneva: Editions d’Art Albert Skira, 1966.

Brion, Marcel. German Painting. Translated by W.J. Strachan. New York: Universe Books, 1959.

Janzen, Reinhild. Albrecht Altdorfer: Four Centuries of Criticism. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1980.

Silver, Larry. “Forest Primeval: Albrecht Altdorfer and the German Wilderness Landscape.” Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art 13 (1983): 4-43.

Smith, Alistair. Early Netherlandish and German Paintings. London: William Collins and Sons, 1985.

Wood, Christopher S. Albrecht Altdorfer and the Origins of Landscape. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.



[1] Christopher S. Wood, Albrecht Altdorfer and the Origins of Landscape (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 13.

[2] Ibid., 23.

[3] Reinhild Janzen, Albrecht Altdorfer: Four Centuries of Criticism (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1980), 13.

[4] Ibid., 25.

[5] Ibid., 30.

[6] Ibid., 66.

[7] Otto Benesch, German Painting: From Dürer to Holbein, trans. H.S.B. Harrison (Geneva: Editions D’Art Albert Skira, 1966), 16.

[8] Ibid., 24.

[9] Alistair Smith, Early Netherlandish and German Paintings (London: William Collins and Sons Ltd., 1985), 88.

[10] Wood, 160.

[11] Ibid., 49.

[12] Larry Silver, “Forest Primeval: Albrecht Altdorfer and the German Wilderness Landscape,” Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art 13 (1983): 28.

[13] Ibid., 186-187.

[14] Wood, 166.

[15] Silver, 23.

[16] Marcel Brion, German Painting, trans. W.J. Strachan (New York: Universe Books, 1959), 54.

[17] Ibid., 33.

[18] Ibid., 34.


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