Death Rides: The Apocalyptic Art of Albrecht Duerer

Somethings are probable archetypes: if you live long enough, you may fall in love.

You may have pets.

You may have children.

But one thing is certain: if you have drawn breath, there will come a time when you do not.

So, death is the one given – the one archetype that all of us must face.


This got me thinking – how do the ways we depict death effect the ways we perceive it?

Let’s begin start looking at the Inevitable, as per the 15-16th century artist, Albrecht Duerer:

Duerer, 1510


Albrecht Dürer (or Duerer) was a German painter, printmaker, and philosopher of the Renaissance. While not as well-known as Da Vinci, Duerer was a polymath who lived during an interesting time in Europe.

Having been born in 1471, Duerer was already established as an artist when the year 1500 approached.

Now, you might wonder, what was so great about being alive around the year 1500?

Apocalypse Fever…


Many Christians in Europe made a special interpretation of a line from the Book of Revelations, regarding “half-time after the time”: (Revelations 12:13-12:17, KJV):

13 When the dragon saw that he had been hurled to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. 14 The woman was given the two wings of a great eagle, so that she might fly to the place prepared for her in the wilderness, where she would be taken care of for a time, times and half a time, out of the serpent’s reach. 15 Then from his mouth the serpent spewed water like a river, to overtake the woman and sweep her away with the torrent. 16 But the earth helped the woman by opening its mouth and swallowing the river that the dragon had spewed out of his mouth. 17 Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring—those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus.”

Now, you might be hard pressed to get the year 1500 C.E. from the passage above, but the Christians of that era were not: time and a half meant a millennia and a half, which meant that the years leading up to 1500 were a good time to be…

an Apocalyptic artist.


Duerer’s contributions to the world of art are many, but it’s one work in particular that I want to call attention to, given the background just presented:

The Apocalypse, properly Apocalypse with Pictures, is a series of fifteen woodcuts published in 1498.

Printed and sold by Duerer, he became the first artist to publish a book and create a copyright. Yes, the dread copyright is another thing we owe to the German genius.

But of all the things, it is his vision of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse that has stood the test of time:

The First Seal—Rider on White Horse
Then I saw when the Lamb broke one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures saying as with a voice of thunder, “Come.” I looked, and behold, a white horse, and he who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer.

The Second Seal—War
When He broke the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying, “Come.” And another, a red horse, went out; and to him who sat on it, it was granted to take peace from the earth, and that men would slay one another; and a great sword was given to him.

The Third Seal—Famine
When He broke the third seal, I heard the third living creature saying, “Come.” I looked, and behold, a black horse; and he who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand…”

The Fourth Seal—Death
When the Lamb broke the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, “Come.” I looked, and behold, an ashen horse; and he who sat on it had the name Death; and Hades was following with him. Authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by the wild beasts of the earth.

Revelations Chapter 6, KJV


Let’s take a closer look:

Note the Dragon’s mouth in the left bottom (Hades) eating those that are being trampled by Death


The take-away?

This visual representation of the Apocalypse did a lot to cement the emerging theologies of Middle Ages European Christianity. Coupled with the advent of the printing press, the ability to mass produce illustrated books helped spread literacy and a growing wave of growing Protestant movements.

Curiously, Martin Luther, one of the chief architects of the Reformation, was never a fan of the Book of Revelations…however, when it came to print his Bible, not only did he include the Book, but he also added one innovation:

The Apocalyptic art of Albrecht Duerer, as reinterpreted by Duerer’s contemporary, Lucas Cranach the Elder.

Which is to say that however iconoclastic the Protestant reformation may have been…

Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words:

The Knight, Death and the Devil, Duerer, 1513.

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