Altdorfer, Albrecht

Image The Battle of Alexander at Issus

1529; Limewood panel, 158.4 x 120.3 cm; Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Image The Battle of Alexander at Issus (detail)

Image The Battle of Alexander at Issus (detail)

This is the most famous painting of Altdorfer. Its subject is the victory of the young Alexander the Great in 333 B.C. over the Persian army of King Darius III in the battle of Issus. Issus was an ancient town in southeast Asia Minor near modern-day Iskenderum, Turkey. The battle in fact took place in Turkey, however, on this painting it is shown in the rocky environment of the Alps with German cities in the background. Altdorfer, a painter, engraver, architect and leading member of the Danube School of German art, is considered the first true landscape painter and a pioneer of copperplate etching.

Without the text on the tablet suspended in the sky and the inscriptions on the banners, we could not possibly identify the subject, Alexander's victory over Darius. The artist has tried to follow ancient descriptions of the actual number and kind of combatants in the battle. To accomplish this, he adopts a bird's-eye view, so that the two protagonists are lost in the antlike mass of their own armies.

Moreover, the soldier's armor and the fortified town in the distance are unmistakably of the 16th century. The picture might well show some contemporary battle, except for one feature: the spectacular sky, with the sun triumphantly breaking through the clouds and "defeating" the moon. The celestial drama above a vast Alpine landscape, obviously correlated with the human contest below, raises the scene to the cosmic level. This is strikingly similar to the vision of the Heavenly Host above the Virgin and Child in the Isenheim Altarpiece by Grünewald, who influenced Altdorfer earlier in his career. Altdorfer may indeed be viewed as a later, and lesser, Grünewald. Although Altdorfer, too, was an architect, well acquainted with perspective and the Italian stylistic vocabulary, his paintings show the unruly imagination already familiar from the work of the older master. But Altdorfer is also unlike Grünewald: he makes the human figure incidental to its spatial setting, whether natural or architectural. The tiny soldiers of The Battle of Alexander at Issus have their counterpart in his other late pictures, and he painted at least one landscape with no figures at all--the earliest "pure" landscape we know of since antiquity. (Dürer's sketch, Italian Mountains, after all, is not a finished work of art.)

© 14 Oct 2002, Nicolas Pioch - Top - Up - Info
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