Art History and Horror – Albrecht Dürer

The world of horror continues to grow as more creatives contribute to the genre in new and experimental ways. Horror challenges our emotions by creating real examples of greatest fears or worst experiences. From William Castle to Mike Flanagan, film has evoked the power of horror in ways that many viewers experience in unique ways. Long before the first horror film, art history was using the same visual practice to shock viewers and tell stories of caution and evoke self-reflection.

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) was a German artist and theorist of the German Renaissance known for his Gothic works that depicted common apocalyptic motifs. As a member of the Catholic Church, Dürer used classic teachings of life, death, and the world to depict themes he was familiar with in religious practice.

The Knight, Death, and Devil depicts a Christian knight braving the path that may depict life and its challenges. The knight is surrounded by death and the devil but has not strayed from his virtuous path despite temptation. Anyone can choose to believe the teachings of their church and celebrate those teachings through art. As an atheist, it was always easy for me to appreciate the beauty in Dürer's work for the dedication to religious iconoclasm and the deep-rooted horror stories birthed from the Catholic and Christian church.

Death stands ahead of the knight, riding a horse afflicted by misery and suffering as the steed of Death's travels. Death looks longingly at the Knight, showing him the inevitable chance of their next encounter as the sand falls in the hourglass. The Devil falls behind, likely waiting for the temptation of Death to be more successful than his own. A skull at the foot of the Knight's horse offers a glimpse into the fate of previous travelers who crossed Death and the Devil. 

The Knight, Death, and the Devil, 1513

Four Naked Women received little written documentation from Dürer and remains speculated among art historians and scholars as what it signifies in religious meaning. The etching depicts an erotic image of four women in a bathhouse who are likely witches. Though the witch culture has changed over time, in religion, witches often represent personified sin and cautionary tales of sinful motives. The women in the etching stand in unison, a human skull and femur bone at their feet, likely from a victim of their temptations. A devil in the far left corner spies on the four women from behind a wall, representing their intriguing sexuality and the representation of sin.

Four Naked Women, 1497

Dürer's second and last depiction of the witch was created shortly after in 1500. Both images came after the widely popular printing of the guide to witch hunting, which likely caused the obsession of witches in Renaissance imagery. The Witch is depicted holding a broomstick in one hand and the other holding the horn of a goat that she rides backward. Far less beautiful than the women depicted in the previous etching, this witch is depicted as an old, shrieking hag. The witch is surrounded by cherubs, or more specific to their Renaissance depictions, putti, offering her a cauldron and a plant used for spells. The complete form of the goat and the putti creates a ring, thought to be a depiction of lust and an embodiment of the devil. A hailstorm broods over the witch as she looks on to its formation as witches were believed at that time to be capable of controlling the weather.

The Witch, ca. 1500