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Familiar are Albrecht Dürer’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (c.1497–98) — pestilence, war, famine, and death charging down on the bewildered masses, all cross-hatched in a meticulously detailed woodcut. Less known is that this illustrated 15th century Book of Revelation was self-published by a 27-year-old who saw the potential for the developing book market.
A 1511 edition of Dürer’s Apocalypsis (The Apocalypse) is just one of the many literary and artistic achievements in Marks of Genius: Treasures of the Bodleian Library now at the Morgan Library & Museum. From Euclid and the Magna Carta, to constellations of the Islamic world and Mary Shelley, the exhibition has spirited over the Atlantic some of Oxford University’s Bodleian Library’s most precious manuscripts.
Dürer in particular deserves some recognition for his entrepreneurial spirit with his macabre illustrations of the end times. He paid for the initial publishing of the book himself in 1498, commissioning woodcuts of the 15 illustrations that merged several doomsday verses into each scene. As Denise Alexandra Hartmann of the University of Toronto wrote in a 2010 issue of Marginalia: “Dürer was a pioneer; he acted as both printer and publisher while exercising full control over the form and content of this work.”
Books were just becoming something accessible to the masses (albeit those who could afford them), and at the end of the 15th century, Bibles in particular started illustrating the Apocalypse. Dürer took the dark popularity of the Revelation illustrations and expanded them into his own edition, experimenting with a new artistic precision with developing printing technology, which would continue to influence later work like Martin Luther’s Wittenberg Bible. Dürer’s Apocalypse hit the right nerve and it made him famous across Europe. As the British Museum puts it: “He secured for himself a new source of income, transformed the appearance of the illustrated printed book, and found an outlet for his religious imagination.”
Only the page with the Four Horsemen is open in the Morgan Library (you can zoom in close on the Marks of Genius site), but you can see more images of the Apocalypse from Dürer below via the British Museum. And more of Dürer’s early experiments with woodcut printing will soon be on display in Manhattan at the Museum of Biblical Art, which will show his print and block for the 1498 “The Martyrdom of St. Catherine of Alexandria” in an exhibition opening next month.
Marks of Genius: Treasures of the Bodleian Library continues at the Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) through September 28.