Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) and
Matthias Grunewald (1475-1528)
On July 6, 2005 I was writing an essay that mentioned the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse described in the Book of Revelations. A few hours later I was looking at paintings in a book on the history of art and there on the second page dealing with the engravings of Dürer was his very powerful engraving of the dramatic, plunging horses and the violently flying garments of the mounted, surrealistic figures of war, famine, pestilence and death.
Seeing Dürer’s engraving of the pandemonium surrounding the Apocalypse, we can’t help feeling that he was sensing that the worldview which provided the context for Europe emerging from the Middle Ages was not a healthy one. Further, the identity of the individuals contained in the paternalistic and controlling church was about to change.
The Protestant Reformation during which Dürer himself left the Catholic Church was about to usher in an era of pandemonium. The Reformation was no solution for human suffering and today we still await the awakening of humanity enthralled by its own inner demons.
To further emphasize the synchronicity of my two essays is a quote by the book’s author describing a Dürer engraving in his series The Apocalypse: The Whore of Babylon. “She sits on a beast … and conversing with her are the kings of the earth and also merchants—all the rich, powerful and worldly. Their oncoming destruction is apparent behind them, in the exploding sky.”[i]
In today’s world, those same “rich, powerful and worldly” are inviting famine, pestilence, war and death. The dark forces held captive in the repressed shadow of humanity are about to be unleashed on the human community—just as Dürer so eloquently depicted it.
Medieval artists such as Dürer and Grunewald were teachers of the illiterate peasants in Europe. Under the patronage of the “princes” of the Roman Catholic Church they and artists like them created works of art such as altar pieces for churches that depicted the message that the church wanted communicated. Many of these violent and gruesome works must have frightened the simple and ignorant minds that beheld them. Not only did the church use fear to exercise control over its devoted adherents—but communicated its own fear of being unable to control the people on whom it depended for its power.
One of the churches goals was to keep the people illiterate to further consolidate its hold over them. Another goal was to accumulate material wealth through the sale of salvation to the faithful and their loved ones living or dead.
In the art of Dürer and Grunewald we see the expression of the unconscious soul of the church in its striving for security and wealth, control and power and addictive self-indulgence of the powerful church hierarchy. The common people who have only centuries before evolved out of the Dark Ages are entering another Dark Age of horrific religious wars. In the context of the worldview that dominated medieval Europe and still dominates our modern world today only “Dark Ages” are possible.
 The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are commanding the central roles that they played in the darkest scripts of human history. Refer to “Absurdity in the Middle Ages” in Art and Simple Reality, Vol I, by Roy Charles Henry, Chapter 11—Painting.
[i] Piper, David. The Illustrated History of Art. Octopus Publishing Group, London. 1986, page 152.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.