Charging in unison against an ominous sky, crushing all in their path from kings to clergy, Albrecht Dürer's Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Conquest, Famine, War, and Death, count among the most haunting and familiar images in the history of printmaking. As they stride across the print's unusual vertical format, Dürer's harbingers of doom seem compressed and barely contained within the picture frame. They are captured in a momentary snapshot, already irrevocably setting forth to new ground. As leading American Dürer scholar Jeffrey Chipps Smith stressed in a lecture delivered at the opening of the exhibition held at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in Melbourne from 31 August 2012 to 28 January 2013, Dürer's Apocalypse series marked an early keystone in the career of the Nuremberg artist. Its success rested on Dürer's astuteness in realising the market potential for an aesthetically and technically sophisticated illustration of the millennial fears among his contemporaries.
It comes as no surprise then that the mostly superb impressions of Dürer's Apocalypse in the NGV collection also formed the centrepiece of the show curated by Petra Kayser and Cathy Leahy in partnership with Charles Zika and Jenny Spinks of the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne. One hundred and twenty works, from single-sheet prints to book illustrations, manuscripts, and one painting taken from the NGV collection, with important loans from the State Library of Victoria and the Baillieu Library of the University of Melbourne, vividly illustrated the breadth of apocalyptic anxieties experienced in the early modern period. The exhibition coincided with an international symposium on 'Disaster, Death, and the Emotions in the Shadow of the Apocalypse' in early September 2012, which was convened by Spinks and Zika through the [End Page 157] ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. In conjunction, these events offered a comprehensive study of pictorial and textual strategies to record and interpret both natural phenomena and man-made catastrophes of fifteenth- to seventeenth-century Europe.
The exhibition catalogue follows (as did the exhibition itself) the four-partite division suggested by the respective horsemen. Dagmar Eichberger of the Universities of Heidelberg and Trier expands her discussion of the pale horse with spectacular depictions of Death in Northern Renaissance painting, manuscript illumination, and above all sculpture. The limewood Death on a Lion, also illustrated in Eichberger's catalogue essay, will surely remain etched on the minds of all who heard her engaging lecture on the occasion of the exhibition opening. Another catalogue essay by Larry Silver draws on the author's command of early modern print culture for an analysis of the red horse, War. The final two sections adhere less strictly to the established rider theme, reflecting instead on the interpretation of alleged portents of the Last Days in broadside and pamphlet literature (Spinks), and witchcraft as a popular explanation for disturbances in the natural order (Zika). Aside from building on the authors' research strengths, these subjects offer further cultural context for how manifestations of impending social and religious crises were rationalised.
In the choice of objects, the appeal of showcasing highlights of the NGV's renowned collection at times appears to have taken precedence over a firmer implementation of the exhibition theme. This could, for example, be argued for the inclusion of three sheets from Dürer's Large Passion or Amman's Parting of the Red Sea. The display afforded as much of an insight into the fears and obsessions of early modern Europe, as it did of the wealth of exquisite visual documents of these concerns preserved in Melbourne's leading institutions. Though sadly lacking entries for individual objects, the lavishly illustrated catalogue serves as a welcome memento of a truly memorable show. [End Page 158]