Monday, April 24, 2017

Macabre Themes in German Renaissance Printwork

Located beyond the Alps and shielded from Italy, which was considered the fountain of art, Germany was late to the Renaissance. Up until the beginning of the 1500’s, German artists were still producing works in styles which has been discarded by other countries. By the time Italy had undergone the Early Renaissance and was moving into the High Renaissance, Germany was just beginning to depart from its more stylized and Gothic influences. As Germany’s artists began to travel and experience the movements going on in other European countries, their work shifted and evolved along with the times; interest in studying anatomy and depicting the human form naturalistically began to blossom.

    Even during these changes, though, German artists developed certain practices and themes which became distinct to their Renaissance. Germany became known for its woodcuts and engravings. This, along with the creation of the printing press caused a significant rise in mass produced art which was cheaper and more accessible to the general population. Printmaking was not the only distinctly “German” development during this period, as very specific subject matter was also present. Superstition and pessimism was fused with Christian themes, and there is much attention given to black magic and pagan myth. This sense of fear and dread serves as a sort of reminder for the viewer to understand the inevitability of death and damnation.
The Witches Sabbath, Hans Baldung Grien, 1510, Chiaroscuro woodcut in two blocks, printed in gray and black. 41.1.201
Three nude witches dominate this scene. They are seated on the ground, surrounded items which appear to be aiding in their sorcery. The woods have a dark and ominous tone as smoke billows up the left side of the scene, leading the eye towards another figure, also nude and seated on a goat which is hovering in mid-air. One of the pots is placed in a central spot, with the witch closest to the viewer tilting the lid open slightly, which is the origin of the smoke. The presence of both a cat and goat is explicit symbolism, as both these animals were feared and thought to be associated with dark magic. Heavy interest in witchcraft in Germany is demonstrated through works such as this, which shows a sense of apprehension, but also curiosity in such practices.

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Albrecht Durer, 1497/98, Woodcut. 40.139.6(5)

Four figures are mounted atop horses which gallop in a diagonal line across the picture plane, their hooves trampling people crumpled across the bottom of the scene. Above the riders, light is breaking through the rolling clouds. An angel hovers above the action below, his eyes turned towards the viewer with an intense expression. The detailed horizontal lines rushing across the backdrop create a sense of movement and intensity. Third and most well known in a series of woodcuts created by Durer titled, Apocalypse, this scene is a dramatization of the text from Revelation 6. The four horsemen (from left to right), Death, Famine, War and Plague (or Pestilence) represent the last judgment and are a form a symbolic judgment. 

The Nun, from The Dance of Death, designed by Hans Holbein the Younger, Hans L├╝tzelburger, ca. 1526, published 1538, Woodcut. 19.57.24

A young nun kneels in front of an alter, but turns to face a musician sitting on the bed behind her. A representation of Death as a skeletal hag with sagging, exposed breasts is behind them, moving forward with arm outstretched. Both of the figures seem oblivious to the presence of the hag, and instead seem frozen in place, with no obvious signs of movement. In the bottom right corner lies an overturned hourglass, a common symbol of death and transience.This woodcut is one out of a series designed by Hans Holbein the Younger which illustrates many different versions of Death appearing to people from all walks of life. This concept instills quite a sense of unease in the viewer.

The Count, from The Dance of Death, designed by Hans Holbein the Younger, Hans L├╝tzelburger, ca. 1526, published 1538, Woodcut. 19.57.31

A Count dressed in elaborate armor looks behind himself in terror as the figure of Death approaches. The Count’s helmet lies on the ground, as does a wooden flail, which it appears he might trip over as he tries to escape. Eyes wide, mouth open, the Count clasps his hands together as if praying for his life to be spared. The skeletal figure of Death, with a loosely draped tunic and a knife strapped to his belt, is holding the Count’s own shield, about to strike him with it. Another scene from Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death, this piece addresses similar dark subject matter as The Nun, yet is slightly more terrifying rather than merely unsettling. The use of the Count’s own shield in his execution is an interesting bit of irony. 

Knight, Death and The Devil, Albrecht Durer, 1513, Engraving. 20.46.23

A knight rides through a dark gulley looking straight ahead as the skeletal figure of Death comes alongside him on a gaunt horse. A grinning demon with an animalistic face holds a pike against his shoulder and stares at the passing knight with wide eyes. Death taunts the knight with the all-too familiar hourglass, holding it out towards the armored figure. A small frame with the date, 1513, rests on the bottom right, leaning against a rock. The knight is about to pass it. This scene is a grim reminder of the inevitability of death and our fate as mortals.

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