Albrecht the Great: Five Dürers at Te Papa

Albrecht the Great: Five Dürers at Te Papa

Dr Mark Stocker, Curator Historical International Art, explores five great Albrecht Dürer prints in Te Papa’s collection, and tells you all you ever wanted to know about Dürer’s most famous work, Melencolia I.

Albrecht Dürer featured prominently in Te Papa’s foundation collection, when Bishop Ditlev Monrad gifted nearly 600 Old Master prints to the Colonial Museum in 1869.

Subsequently our collection has benefited from the generosity of Sir John Ilott (1884–1973), who donated many fine quality prints, including a considerably better version of Melencolia I.

Currently the museum has over 40 works by the artist, so choosing a shortlist of five to discuss in this blog was challenging. Inevitably there are gaps in the collection and good Dürers do not come cheap, but I hope we can build on the vision of Monrad and Ilott by enhancing our holdings of one of the earliest and greatest printmakers in art history.

Apocalypse Now!

The Apocalypse, 1497-1498, by Albrecht Dürer. Purchased 1971 with Harold Beauchamp Collection funds. Te Papa (1971-0028-2)

The Apocalypse is a series of 15 woodcuts of scenes from the biblical Book of Revelation, published in 1498, which rapidly brought Dürer fame across Europe. Work on the series started during his first trip to Italy (1494–95). The set appeared at a time when much of Europe anticipated the second coming of Christ and his Last Judgement in 1500.

In Dürer’s native city, the Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493 was published with blank leaves for readers to record the final events of an age that was believed to be coming to a dramatic close. The four horsemen of the Apocalypse (c. 1497–98) is the third and most famous print in the series.

The four horsemen

The four horsemen present a dramatically distilled version of the passage from Revelation (6:1–8), where humanity is mown down before us. Dürer silhouettes and overlaps the powerful forms of the horses and riders – from left to right, Death, Famine, War, and Plague (or Pestilence).

Death rides a ‘sickly pale’ horse or nag; Famine’s scales are empty; War wields a sword and Plague a bow and arrow. Finally, at the left, Hades, the hellish creature at the side of the horsemen, who unlike them is at ground level, swallows everyone and everything in his enormous jaws that Death, the final rider, has passed.

There’s no escape!

The riders’ volume and strong diagonal motion enhance the impact of the image: plague, death and famine thunderously drive across from left to right, over the wretched humans, who are crushed beneath the hooves of the wildly stampeding horses.

Jesus’s warning to be forever watchful because you never know at what hour doom may strike has of course been ignored by the hapless victims. Three of the horsemen have grizzled beards, while the beard of Death is flame-like and worthy of William Blake, working 400 years later; his flesh is hideously emaciated. He prepares to lash out with a trident. No-one, certainly no sinner, can escape the onslaught of the four horsemen! 

What Nemesis Is

The American comic poet, Morris Bishop, ‘said, bewildered to the Missis/ I don’t get what this Nemesis is’. Let’s come to his aid.

Print of a powerful, middle-aged female figure, nude and winged, straddles a globe
Nemesis (The Great Fortune), circa 1502, by Albrecht Dürer. Gift of Sir John Ilott, 1952. Te Papa (1952-0003-150)

A powerful, middle-aged female figure, nude and winged, straddles a globe and moves suspended between the clouds, overlooking a broad valley landscape. This has been identified as Klausen (Chiusa), a village in the Tyrol, the Sound of Music country which lay on Dürer’s route of travel from Nuremberg to Venice. Its rendition reflects his mastery of aerial perspective, and the engraving itself is a tour de force of technical excellence.

Revenge and Fortune

The subject comes from the Latin poem Manto (Mantle) by the Italian humanist Poliziano, which Dürer would have encountered in the library of his learned friend Willibald Pirckheimer.

The poem combines the goddesses of Revenge (Nemesis) and Fortune (Fortuna). The famous writer on artists, Giorgio Vasari, in turn believed that it represented ‘Temperance, with magnificent wings, a golden cup and reins in her hands’.

The reins signify restraint from temptation that humanity should exercise – and her dominance – while the goblet signifies her generosity and the wings are a familiar symbol of victory. Dürer knew his goblets: his father was a goldsmith, and many engravers cut their teeth on this highly skilled decorative art.

Vitruvian proportions

The figure is proportioned according to the canon of the famous classical authority Vitruvius, who was also a major influence on Leonardo da Vinci; proportion was little short of an obsession for Dürer himself.

He intentionally made Nemesis heavier and not conventionally beautiful (note the ample belly and rump, which are traditionally given to Fortune), reflecting the fateful gravity of her domain; under her weight the clouds yield.

The large horse

As well as the human figure, horses played an important part in Albrecht Dürer’s lifelong obsession with beauty and proportions. Here he rivals masters of the Italian Renaissance like Pisanello, Donatello, Mantegna and Leonardo da Vinci.

Durer large horse
The large horse, 1505, by Albrecht Dürer. Gift of Sir John Ilott, 1962. Te Papa (1962-0001-9)

Although it’s called The large horse, this engraving is actually one of Dürer’s smallest prints (165 x 115 mm), the title referring to the way in which the animal’s muscular haunches dominate the image. 

A balanced equine temperament

It dates from the same year as The small horse engraving, not yet in the collection (1505). The monumental size of the horse’s body, stable position and calm expression convey a balanced equine temperament.

It’s also a study in naturalism, as Dürer has used great technical precision to render the sinews in the legs, the texture of the coat, the musculature of the head, and finely curled hairs of the mane and tail.

Muscularity and antiquity

The extreme foreshortening of the horse’s body, the flat architectural backdrop in the background and the raised ground on which he stands with his hind hooves, all increase the impression of muscularity and physical presence.

While the horse is standing calmly and firmly on the ground, the warrior with him is depicted striding energetically. The column to the left is actually a pedestal for sculpture, reflecting Dürer’s interest in antiquity.

Flicks, lines and curves

This is an engraving by somebody who knows exactly what he’s doing. Dürer describes both texture and space by varying the direction, density and arrangement of lines in controlled sections.

Short flicks mediate the transitions from highlighted areas to tonal areas, while the darkest shadows are achieved by short lines laid between two longer ones. Elegant s-curves travel across the forms to help create a sense of volume. A gorgeous print. 

A long-lasting Passion

The large Passion is named after the format of the series (39 x 28 cm). The whole series of twelve woodcuts (eleven scenes and a title page) didn’t appear till 1511 when Dürer published the cycle in book form, together with a poem by Benedictine theologian and monk Benedictus Chelidonius.

Christ in Limbo (a.k.a. The harrowing of Hell). From: The large Passion, 1510, by Albrecht Dürer. Gift of Sir John Ilott, 1966. Te Papa (1966-0005-2)
Christ in Limbo (a.k.a. The harrowing of Hell). From: The large Passion, 1510, by Albrecht Dürer. Gift of Sir John Ilott, 1966. Te Papa (1966-0005-2)

The first seven woodcuts were executed between 1497 and 1500, then the series was completed with five more in 1510, following his second visit to Italy.

A worthy subject

The pictures are distinguished by their strong emotions, naturalism and human treatment of the subject, distancing themselves from late Gothic depictions of Christ’s Passion.

Dürer considered this to be the subject most worthy of representation in pictorial art, and he portrayed it five different times – a sixth version remained unfinished at his death.

Christ in the underworld

Christ in Limbo is the 11th woodcut in The large Passion. According to Catholic beliefs of the time (this is on the verge of the Reformation), Christ descended into the underworld between his crucifixion and resurrection, where he rescued the souls of all the just people who had died, and who had been held in limbo since the beginning of the world. The episode is also known as The harrowing of Hell, an alternative title for the print.

Out, demons, out!

Christ is shown in the act of rescuing John the Baptist from his dungeon and is immune from the menacing demon brandishing his spear, surely one of Dürer’s most brilliantly fearsome creations. Christ’s triumph over this and other demons, and his successful release of Hell’s captives, is central to the story.

Almost half a century later, Giorgio Vasari, the famous Italian artist and writer on artists’ lives, was sufficiently impressed by the pose of the Christ figure to recycle it almost identically for a monastery fresco in Cortona.

Standing behind Christ is Dismas, the ‘good thief’, who was crucified at the same time, and who had joined him on his journey to the underworld. Adam, the first man that God created, holds Christ’s cross, and is flanked by Eve on the far left of the print.

The anatomy of Melencolia I

Melencolia I, 1514, by Albrecht Dürer. Gift of Sir John Ilott, 1959. Te Papa (1959-0023-1)
Melencolia I, 1514, by Albrecht Dürer. Gift of Sir John Ilott, 1959. Te Papa (1959-0023-1)

This is one of Dürer’s three Meisterstiche (‘master engravings’), representing him at the height of his powers in the mid–1510s. The other two are Knight, Death and the Devil and St Jerome in his study.

Almost every major institutional collection has an impression (copy) of at least one of these three prints, as do many private print collections. Te Papa has two impressions of Melencolia I but the others are not yet represented.

Mysterious, charismatic and compelling

Melencolia I is mysterious, charismatic and compelling to modern sensibilities. It has been more interpreted than almost any other print. Reproduction can make the image seem darker than in an original impression. This affects the facial expression of the female figure, which is more cheerful than in most reproductions – though many writers (especially those of a melancholic temperament) would disagree.

The title

The title comes from the archaically-spelled Melencolia I, the only one of Dürer’s engravings to have a title in the plate. The date 1514 appears in the bottom row of the magic square, as well as above Dürer’s monogram at bottom right. It denotes the date of the work, also the year of the death of his much-loved mother, Barbara.

The ‘I’ probably refers to the first of the three types of melancholia defined by the German humanist writer Cornelius Agrippa. In this type, ‘Melencholia Imaginativa’, which he believed affected artists, unruly ‘imagination’ predominates over cool ‘reason’.

Symbols of melancholy

The standard interpretation highlights the depressive or melancholy state of the human condition, and explains the many important symbols in the print.

These include:

  • The tools of geometry and architecture which surround the figure and are unused
  • The 4 × 4 magic square, with the two middle cells of the bottom row giving the date 1514. The square features the traditional magic square rules based on the number 34, and in addition, the square’s four quadrants, corners and centre also equal this number. It could be a talisman to attract the jovial Jupiter, the god who could heal the melancholic effects of Saturn.
  • The truncated rhombohedron (solid geometrical object). This shape is now known as Dürer’s solid; there have been numerous articles disputing the precise shape of this polyhedron.

Other symbols

These include the hourglass showing time running out, the empty scale (balance), the purse and keys (melancholics were often supposed to be miserly), the beacon (or comet) and rainbow in the sky; while the compass, scale and hourglass, like the magic square and rhombohedron, all denote mathematical knowledge.

The wreath over Melencolia’s brow is made of water parsley and watercress, and is supposed to counteract and help cure the dryness of the temperament. Try it the next time you get melancholy!

What do art historians say?

An autobiographical interpretation of Melencolia I has been suggested by several art historians. Iván Fenyo considered it a representation of the artist beset by a loss of confidence, saying: ‘shortly before [Dürer] drew Melancholy, he wrote: “what is beautiful I do not know” … Melancholy is a lyric confession, the self-conscious introspection of the Renaissance artist, unprecedented in northern art. Erwin Panofsky is right in considering this admirable plate the spiritual self-portrait of Dürer’.

Other interpretations

Melencolia features prominently in James Thomson’s famous poem City of Dreadful Night (1874). More recent writers who have responded to the winged figure include Jean-Paul Sartre and Gunther Grass. Guardian writer Patrick Wright notes how she wears ‘a dark and withdrawn countenance while Saturn radiates nocturnal light over the ocean behind’.

Melencolia’s dog

What about the shivering, quivering hound? Well, dogs are the most empathetic of creatures. Several centuries later, Edwin Landseer would paint the tear-jerking The old shepherd’s chief mourner – his sheepdog keeping vigil beside the coffin. And uniquely among the animal kingdom, dogs dream, not exclusively of bones or Purina, but of separation and loss from their owners.

The bat and the putto

The bat holding the title banner is associated with melancholic darkness. Boiled bats were traditionally recommended as a remedy for melancholy (yuck!) The putto is an earnest, scribbling servant, contrasting with the more decorative, playful and amorous putti commonly found in other art works.


There’s only one conclusion possible. Dürer deliberately made Melencolia I to baffle art historians for centuries to come, and here he brilliantly succeeded!

Coda: A New Zealand tribute

Shepherd The Great Piece of Turf (AD) (2016)
The great piece of turf, 2016, by Michael Shepherd (Milford Gallery, Dunedin)

Artist Michael Shepherd has been a Dürer fan since childhood. A passionate environmentalist, last year Shepherd painted a series of works on paper addressing the often negative effects of the agricultural revolution, with Aotearoa New Zealand representing its furthest reach.

What are European herbs in Dürer are weeds in the Southern hemisphere. Here is Shepherd’s revisiting of the famous watercolour, reproduced in my previous blog, The large piece of turf. Clearly Dürer’s legacy lives on and gets us thinking.



  1. Fascinating follow up to last week’s post – thank you Mark! I so enjoy your lively and erudite commentaries on these extraordinary works – all are dazzling, but I have to confess I can’t resist the sheer power and beauty of the Large Horse. More please!

    1. Many thanks, Alison. I will move on to other artists and themes in our collection, but I’m sure ‘Albrecht the Great’ will make a comeback appearance before too long! He is just so fantastic and accessible at whatever he does, and not at all intimidating, unlike other art historical ‘greats’ from Michelangelo to Poussin. Nor is there a religious barrier between him and us, unlike Bernini.

  2. Mark,
    Very good response. But surely, angels such as Gabriel and Michael are male?

    1. Author

      Indeed. There are precedents for heroic/ virtuous winged female figures – eg the famous Victory. And no shortage of them in Indian art. Melencolia (a female sounding name, surely!) isn’t a Christian angel. You’re right, though about how angels were just about invariably male until the 19th century. They were then feminised, amongst others, by Bouguereau, Julia Margaret Cameron and Evelyn de Morgan – interesting how the latter two were women artists. This opened the floodgates, so boy angels are a threatened species these days! A fascinating talking-point but I’m fully aware it doesn’t get to grips with Melencolia and ‘their’ identity. It would take a more learned iconographer than me, but an intriguing case could be argued for questioning his/her gender as you suggest, David!

  3. Thanks Mark. Why is it always assumed that the winged figure in Melencolia I is female? Caravaggio must have seen The Large Horse. He reproduced it on a grand scale in the second version of the Conversion of St Paul in the Cerasi Chapel at Santa Maria del Popolo. Keep them coming!

    1. Author

      Thank you, David. Firstly, the easy one. The link with Caravaggio’s painting is spot on. Yes, he must have seen The Large Horse. It shows you once again that highly original artists don’t invent things out of the blue, but brilliantly reinvent existing images, giving them a whole new meaning. Think Picasso and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and its links with Cezanne and Rubens.
      Your point about the gender of Melencolia I is intriguing – a simple question but far harder to answer. Let me have a go. Firstly, personifications – of the Virtues, Vices, Liberal Arts, etc., are overwhelmingly female. Secondly, with the amusing exception of his own self-portrait in the Prado (and even that is of course bearded), Durer isn’t into gender ambiguity in his figures. Melencolia I looks like a mannish female, but ultimately more female than male. That said, there is a lazy assumption that angels and most other winged figures are female. That really only became the norm in the later 19th century, but I’m sure it compounds everybody’s belief that Melencolia is female. Hope this makes sense and any other interpretations or challenges are most welcome.

  4. A few of us have really enjoyed the Durer posts. Two isn’t enough. More please!!

    1. Author

      Thank you Liz. I will definitely look at Durer again, but he needs a sabbatical for a while, not least because there are so many other fascinating and beautiful works in our collection. That said, ‘All I want for Christmas is a Durer’ is one possibility to consider, looking at his Life of the Virgin and Madonna & Child themes, as well as the NZ Christmas stamp of his Adoration of the Magi. Watch this space!

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