The most important work in the entire history of printmaking must be the first edition of Albrecht Dürer's Apocalypse, a series of 15 woodcuts and a title page published in 1498. This series crystallizes the first mature style of Dürer, the father of the northern Renaissance; it was a revolution in the history of woodcut; and it has had an overwhelming impact on the artistic understanding of the apocalypse in all media—painting, drawing, print, sculpture, stained glass, and tapestry—throughout Europe and eventually America, to our own day. The Apocalypse woodcuts crystallize Dürer's new style based on his 1494–1495 trip to Italy to study the novel works of the Renaissance. He created the 15 Apocalypse images during the two years following his return to Nuremberg. Dürer drew upon late gothic northern traditions infused with the reality of spiritual events, biblical interpretation, and dense composition, as well as careful attention to naturalistic details of flora and fauna. With those he conjoined Italian Renaissance approaches to compositional clarity, three-dimensional modeling and perspective in figures, and panoramic breadth of landscape. He thus interprets Saint John's phantasmagoric and poetic visions by giving them a convincing physical existence.
By suspending laws of nature only where the biblical text necessitates, while simultaneously emphasizing realistic details of objects, Dürer makes Saint John's visions concrete and believable. The placid landscapes look real. Except for heavenly beings, figures are in contemporary dress. The figures' bodies are modeled in the round and they move in convincing ways. Details of lighting, weather, objects, and plants are accurate. In The Vision of Seven Candlesticks, every candelabrum is different, a precise and elaborate variation on exactly the work being produced at the time by goldsmiths in Nuremberg and Augsburg. Dürer eliminates most typical late medieval fictions such as rotund monsters with fanged mouths in their stomachs. The Fourth Rider of the Apocalypse is no longer a childlike fantasy of a smiling skeleton, as in an earlier Bible woodcut, but a perfectly believable emaciated man, as human as the terrible images of prisoners released from concentration camps. Certainly we do not expect to see figures struggling or praying while suspended in the air, but if they did, their bodies could be formed, their clothing could hang, their facial expressions and actions could look like those depicted here. When Saint Michael fights an evil dragon—a biological hybrid bat-man-lizard—in the air, he is unnaturally suspended. However, his body is bent in elegant Mantegnesque counterpoise to thrust his spear, his expression is intense with effort, and his hands, knees, and feet project toward us in an entirely credible perspective. If the biblical metaphor has the angel tell Saint John to eat (that is, ingest, internalize) a book, Dürer's Apocolypse shows Saint John actually cramming the pages into his mouth. Dürer thus begins with fantastic allegories and creates a believable Apocalypse, forging an artistic strategy used successfully, for example, in the past century by H. G. Wells and Stanley Kubrick. No wonder later visual artists who took up the theme of the apocalypse were overwhelmingly influenced by 's images.
Dürer's Apocalypse was published with woodcut images expanded over the full page. He faithfully included the entire biblical text of The Revelation to Saint John—Ã\u0082Â\u0094 one issue in Latin, the other in a German translation, but the text was printed on the back of the images. Turning the pages of a bound copy, the reader would first see the full image on the dominant right-hand side and then the text on the left. Dürer thus reversed the emphasis in a typical relation of text to image in this book, the first designed, made, and published by the same artist. Thirteen of the subjects of Dürer's scenes are illustrated in a bible published in 1483 by his godfather, Anton Koberger, and surely provided him with a beginning point. However, Dürer expanded the quaint little woodcuts in that bible into images five to fifteen times as large, even bigger than the largest single-page images in Koberger's famous 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle, some of whose woodcuts he may have helped design as a youth.
The larger size of Dürer's woodcuts allowed for greater richness of his pictorial field. Combined with inventive techniques of drawing and cutting the woodblocks, he created a revolutionary new level of artistic subtlety and flexibility. Typical earlier woodcuts had heavy outlines for relatively flat forms and figures, with occasional parallel hatching to create shadows; most were painted with watercolor to enhance and clarify the images. Dürer, by contrast, created much more supple lines that vary in length, proximity, curvature, and thickness. Thus, he was able to model forms more roundly, light them more convincingly, and vary their textures more widely. These supple lines made possible greater precision in the details of figures and objects, reinforcing his realism.
In addition, Dürer black-and-white woodcuts now had a vast range of shades, from brilliant light through varieties of grays to deepest black, creating a range of tones or "colors" that no longer needed added watercolor. The subtlety of Dürer's lines is so extraordinary that many scholars have concluded he must have not only drawn the images of his Apocalypse on the woodblocks but also actually cut the blocks himself—no professional cutter could have understood the artistic intent of every irregular variation in line and pattern. He also may have inked and printed the blocks himself to achieve the range and sophistication of tone we see in the final impressions. Dürer acknowledged his thorough work by signing every image with his monogram and by signing his full name as publisher at the end of the text. Here he showed all later artists what a flexible and amazing medium the woodcut could be.
Why did make this extraordinary breakthrough with a series of images on the apocalypse? Scholars frequently refer to late medieval ideas about the importance of the sesquimillennium, the year 1500, fears of a coming end of the world, and the threat of Turkish invasions into Europe. Yet the issue is more complex. The size and extent of this series, the sophistication (and thus expense) of its execution, the inclusion of the complete text of the book, and above all the character of its images mean it bears no relation to contemporary broadsides that do reflect the above themes with crude "news" about meteorological and other apocalyptic signs, Antichrists, birth deformities, and other portents of the end of the world. Further, such works to feed popular consumption had been in continual production for many years, not just as the end of the century approached. Another major problem with the historical theory is that at the same time Dürer was producing his Apocalypse he was also creating many other works on various themes from classical antiquity, contemporary genre, and much milder religious subjects. No contemporary artist's statement exists to show Dürer's reasons or intentions for any of these beyond our knowledge of his travels and wider interests, and of the works themselves. His Apocalypse cannot be reduced to late 15th-century popular fears, but speaks with a riveting force of timeless artistic and spiritual power.
This complete and coherent set of Dürer's Apocalypse in the first edition is exceedingly rare, and so far as we know, it is the last to remain in private hands. It has been in Swiss private collections since 1926, when it was purchased on the advice of Joseph Meder, the greatest 20th-century cataloguer of Dürer's prints. Only three other complete and coherent first editions are in American museums, all acquired more than 70 years ago—before the National Gallery was even opened. The Gallery already had many different types of separate impressions from several donors of Dürer's Apocalypse woodcuts, some in proofs without texts, some with texts from Latin as well as German first editions, a complete second edition (1511), and later impressions. This complete first edition, however, becomes the centerpiece of the collection. Combined with the variety of other impressions, this acquisition makes the Gallery a major resource for appreciating the development and aesthetic possibilities of Dürer's most astounding set of works on paper.