10 / The Natural World
|Artist / Origin||
Albrecht Altdorfer (German, 1480–1538)
Period: 1400 CE - 1800 CE
Oil on parchment attached to a limewood panel
|Dimensions||H: 11 1/16 in. (28.2 cm.), W: 8 7/8 in. (22.5 cm.)|
|Location||Alte Pinakothek, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich, Germany|
|Credit||Courtesy of Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz/Art Resource, NY|
|Larry SilverProfessor of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania|
Schama, Simon. Landscape and Memory. New York: Vintage, 1996.
Silver, Larry. “Nature and Nature’s God: Landscape and Cosmos of Albrecht Altdorfer.” Art Bulletin 81.2 (June 1999): 194–214.
Silver, Larry. “Primeval Forest: Albrecht Altdorfer and the German Wilderness Landscape.” Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art 13.1 (1983): 4–43.
Wood, Christopher S. Albrecht Altdorfer and the Origins of Landscape. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.
Saint George and the Dragon
Before the sixteenth century, landscape elements in European paintings were invariably secondary to figures constituting the primary subject matter.
Most often, these works were religious scenes or narratives for which landscape provided a historical or symbolic backdrop. Gradually, however, the prominence of landscape and the care with which it was rendered increased in some works to the point that it competed with the figural component for the viewer’s attention, and eventually landscape developed into an independent genre. The paintings of German artist Albrecht Altdorfer mark a significant step in this evolution.
The majority of Altdorfer’s 1510 Saint George is given over to the representation of a forest. To the right, two slender tree trunks help to define the space. On the left, another trunk, this one buried in dense foliage, is partially visible. But for a small opening onto a mountainscape in the distance, the image presents the forest as a thick and impenetrable wall. No bigger than a sheet of loose leaf paper, Altdorfer’s tiny work demands—and rewards—close-up examination. As one looks, individual leaves and blades of grass, carefully picked out by the artist’s brush, become apparent. More important, the central figures of Saint George and the dragon emerge in the foreground.
The theme of Saint George battling the dragon has a long history in art, where it has often been understood as a metaphor for the victory of the Christian spirit over the forces of evil. The forest in Altdorfer’s work not only sets the tone for this contest, but also seems to be an integral factor in it. Activated by the curving lines of leafy branches and dappled sunlight, the forest exudes anxious energy. A primeval testing ground for the saint, it is at once a sinister and dangerous world of monsters and an untainted source of purity and strength. Altdorfer, thus, approaches the idea that the forest itself might be a character worthy of representation and capable of expressing meaning in its own right. Within a decade of creating the Saint George, Altdorfer was producing, in paint and print, some of the first “true” landscapes in Northern Europe.