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The Ecstatic Vision of History in a Dürer Woodcut



Albrecht Dürer, The Vision of the Seven Candlesticks from the Apocalypse of St. John (ca. 1497-98)

Is the history of humankind to be understood as something cyclical, or is it to be seen as progressing in a linear fashion? That was an important issue debated by the philosophers of antiquity, and an issue for the theologians of the Middle Ages. And with the passage from the Middle Ages to the era of revived attention to the classics, the issue once more seemed important. It may be the philosophical question lurking behind this amazing woodcut by Albrecht Dürer. But then again, it might just be that Dürer’s work is best understood from the perspective of a humble artisan, doing his best graphically to portray a text.

In 1497, Albert Dürer undertook the production of what he called a “large book,” a set of fifteen large-scale woodcut illustrations for St. John’s Apocalypse, with the text reproduced in parallel German and Vulgate Latin texts. This was probably a commercial project, seeking to take advantage of the rising commercial class which could afford some luxuries, and among them an illustrated Biblical text was highly prized. This work contains some very famous woodcuts—certainly the dramatic Four Horsemen ranks among the best known of all of Dürer’s graphic works. But I want to look a bit at a less known, but intriguing work called “The Vision of the Seven Candlesticks.”

Here is the passage from Revelation ch. 1 which is illustrated:

???????? ?? ???????? ?? ?? ??????? ?????, ??? ?????? ????? ??? ????? ??????? ?? ?????????
????????, ? ??????? ?????? ??? ??????? ??? ?????? ???? ???? ??????????, ??? ?????? ??? ??? ??????? ??? ??? ???????? ??? ??? ???????? ??? ??? ??????? ??? ??? ??????????? ??? ??? ?????????.
??? ????????? ??????? ??? ????? ???? ?????? ???’ ????? ??? ?????????? ????? ???? ??????? ??????,
??? ?? ???? ??? ??????? ?????? ???? ????????, ??????????? ?????? ??? ????????????? ???? ???? ??????? ????? ???????
? ?? ?????? ????? ??? ?? ?????? ?????? ?? ????? ??????, ?? ????, ??? ?? ???????? ????? ?? ???? ?????,
??? ?? ????? ????? ?????? ??????????? ?? ?? ?????? ??????????, ??? ? ???? ????? ?? ???? ?????? ??????,
??? ??? ????? ?????, ????? ???? ???? ????? ????? ?? ??????? ??? ?????? ??? ?????? ????? ??’ ??? ?????, ?? ?????? ??? ???? ? ?????? ??? ? ???????,
??? ? ???, ??? ???????? ?????? ??? ???? ??? ???? ??? ???? ?????? ??? ??????, ??? ??? ??? ????? ??? ??????? ??? ??? ????.
?????? ??? ? ????? ??? ? ????? ??? ? ?????? ???????? ???? ?????.
?? ????????? ??? ???? ??????? ??? ????? ??? ??? ?????? ???, ??? ??? ???? ??????? ??? ??????? ?? ???? ??????? ??????? ??? ???? ????????? ?????, ??? ?? ??????? ?? ???? ???? ????????? ?????.

And here is the King James text:

I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet, Saying, I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last: and, What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia; unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergamos, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and unto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicea. And I turned to see the voice that spake with me. And being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks; And in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle.
His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire; And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters. And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength. And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last: I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive forevermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death. Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter; The mystery of the seven stars which thou sawest in my right hand, and the seven golden candlesticks. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches: and the seven candlesticks which thou sawest are the seven churches.

The composition of this woodcut is unusual for Dürer in several respects. First it is extraordinarily light and airy; the amount of uncovered space is the greatest in the series, the amount of ink used the least. It also follows a severely geometrical organization. In fact its organizational principle is discussed later in Dürer’s treatise, Unterweysung der Messung. Dürer addresses there what he calls the “Delian problem,” namely how to double a cube? In antiquity and the Middle Ages a number of mathematicians presented solutions to the question. Dürer may be drawing on one or more of these, but he postulates the “net” of the cubocathedron truncum, a mathematical solution to the doubling of a cube. Dürer’s “net” when superimposed on the “Seven Candlesticks” shows that the doubling of a cube is the organizational principle for the composition. The design proceeds from a center which is unfolded, and key design elements are linked to them. Dürer’s solution posits eight secondary “unfolded” squares about the center, and these are the candlesticks, the supplicant body of St. John, the head of Christ and banks of clouds.

The riddle of the unfolded cube is linked to Greek mathematicians starting at least from Pythagoras. So what does it mean for Dürer to draw on a work of pure science from classical antiquity as a principle for the organization of a hallucinatory vision from the most ecstatic and arguably least rational of the Christian scriptures? This is not coincidental of course. It can best be understood in the context of Dürer’s work and his diligent scholarship, his desire to bridge the religious fervor of the Age of Faith with the commanding reason and wisdom of the ancients that the Renaissance sought once more to unlock.

The next thing to notice is the stunning achievement in depth. Christ sits floating in banks of clouds. It is exceptionally difficult to create a sense of depth in a woodcut, and even few other works of Dürer’s command the amazing spatial sense of this one. It really presents the sensation of figures and objects floating in the sky, suspending the rules of physics. But it is a woodcut. It is a study in contradictions, both stressing the notion of spatial depth and reminding that this is an illusion. In doing this it models the ecstatic moment of the book it is describing, of John’s vision at the cave on Patmos.

The seven candlesticks are rendered with the attention to detail of a master goldsmith. Each of them is distinctive. Each is a colossal work of art, the sort of candlestick that might sit on the altar of a great cathedral, perhaps. And there is an usual element to their design, in that each seems to shift between being a fruit-bearing plant and a utensil or artifact. This is of course to bring the candlestick closer to the image that they present: each stands for one of the seven churches in Asia. The churches cannot be fairly presented as something static or inanimate; they must be filled with life, with the potential of growth, but also of death. Another small mystery is presented by the candles. Normally such massive candlesticks would be topped with massive cylindrical candles. But Dürer uses slender elegant tapers, which would be quickly consumed — but of course the rules of the physical world are suspended here. These candles are not consumed, though they burn with bright, flickering flames. Note how those flames bend in response to a wind which animates the drawing but cannot otherwise be presented. The presentation of the candles and their flicker is another signal to the viewer that the rules of space and time do not apply to this vision, it exists in another, an internal dimension.

Why the superdimensional presentation of the candlesticks? Erwin Panofsky (The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer, p. 56) says this is because the candlestick must challenge the eyes of John the Divine before he sees Christ. St. John’s calling is to the churches. So the artistic presentation must match this. Note also the grace and elegance of the supplicant figure of John the Divine, captured in a massive, wondrously contorted folds of a robe with only three details of his body to give keys to a human presence: meticulously rendered, inward curving bare feet, fine and beautiful shoulder-length hair much like that which appears in Dürer’s later self-portraits, and hands in devotional repose, also a subject to which Dürer gave special study. The body of St John, and particularly the intricate folds of his robe, remind me of works of Dürer’s great contemporary and fellow Franconian, Tilman Riemenschneider, the greatest sculptor of the age. Riemenschneider worked in wood, but he was able to render figures as fine and graceful as Dürer does in this graphic medium. This is one of several works that convinces me of the existence of an artistic dialogue between these two great masters who must have known of one another.

Dürer’s attention to the text, his fidelity to it, is quite amazing. Note the seated figure of Christ, “clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle. His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire.” You can imagine how this might be portrayed and then look and see how Dürer does it. The artistry of his conceptualization is stunning. But then we come to the impossible elements, “his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters.” Of course where the King James text says “brass” the original ???????????? (“shining copper”) would probably be something more like “bronze,” but then how does one portray feet “like” molten metal in a furnace? Dürer takes the more pragmatic solution of giving him a nice pair of slippers. And the last elements, “in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword” are also faithfully presented.

What significance is to be given these seven stars, paralleling the seven candlesticks? From the perspective of antiquity, the stars represent something aspirational. Christ says they are the “angels of the seven churches,” and of course modern scholarship is still unclear about the meaning of this word ???????. It certainly has nothing to do with the cherubic figures that will appear on the thousands of cards circulating this week. It may be more a reference to a messenger or teacher, or even a representation of the potential–what the seven churches might become. And the sword? That is also a well established image of antiquity. The double-edged sword would be presented beside the face of Justitia, the personification of Justice, often with the motto Pro justitia tantum – “Only for Justice.” This meant that the sword, the resort to violence, was permitted only in the interests of justice, or righteousness.

All of this interpretation flows in a fairly straightforward way from the images of the passage of Revelation and the historical understanding of the author and his contemporary audience. But as I noted, there is also a telling historical aspect to this work. For the philosophers of antiquity, man lived in cycles marked by cultural birth, evolution and relapse. This manifested itself in things like the Platonic notion of the Great Chain of Being from Timaeus or the legends of the Golden Age, or in the political concept of the ??????, or cycle of governments. And perhaps, some speculated, drawing closer to the view that Vico later took, man’s path described spirals rather than cycles, taking note of passage between different ages and the possibility of retention of wisdom, experience from history and thus progress. But note that in Dürer’s work there is a variance from the word of Revelations. Christ holds a text, in a form modern to Dürer’s time, namely a bound book. The text is of course the Evangelium, the Gospel. This in not an insignificant detail, but rather some artistic license which is of ultimate significance to how Dürer understood the text he was illustrating.

The correct sense of this is, I believe, given by Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan in his book Jesus Through the Centuries:

”The time is fulfilled. . . in these last days”: it is obvious from these and other statements of the early generations of Christian believers that as they carried out the task of finding a language that would not collapse under the weight of what they believed to be the significance of the coming of Jesus, they found it necessary to invent a grammar of history. Categories of the cosmos and of space, and not only categories of history and of time, were pressed into service for this task; and before the task was finished, the followers of Christ had managed to transfigure the systems of metaphysics that they had inherited from Greek philosophy.

Hence, Jesus declaring himself “the first and the last” needs to be understood in terms of history, the beginning and end of humankind and of the World. The vision that John sees on Patmos is timeless, or perhaps suspended in terms of human perception of time and space. It marks a different understanding of the spatial and temporal continuum that govern the existence of humankind. The appearance of Christ and the appearance of the Gospel are presented as a dividing point in humanity bounded on both sides by the figure of Christ, the alpha and omega, the beginning and the ending of the text. And this, precisely, is what Dürer has conveyed—just as he has superimposed the figures and images of an apocalyptic vision upon the pattern of a Greek mathematical solution for the doubling of a cube. The realization of the vision is a near perfect replication of recorded words of John, but beyond that it is filled with valuable keys to use to unlock his broader and deeper meaning in the history of ideas. And Dürer’s plain objective is the accomplishment of an inner harmony between the doctrine and theology of the church and the vision and understandings of classical antiquity. He presents an apocalyptic vision as an ultimate act of harmony and reconciliation. It is a rare and powerful vision.

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