- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 11, 2000

Remember the anxiety over potential year-2000 problems last year?

In 1498, German artist Albrecht Durer capitalized on similar fears, of a midmillennium apocalypse. He issued "The Apocalypse," the first of his "large books" illustrated with sheets from 14 woodcuts.

Depicting St. John the Divine's "Book of Revelations," it is the appropriate centerpiece for the exhibit "Book Arts in the Age of Durer" at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA).

The display of more than 100 Renaissance books and prints marks the cooperation of several Baltimore institutions: BMA, Walters Art Gallery and Sheridan Libraries of the Johns Hopkins University.

It also celebrates a long history of collecting in the city. Collectors included William and Henry Walters, Etta and Dr. Claribel Cone, Blanche Adler and T. Harrison Garrett, who contributed the Apocalypse prints exhibited in this show. (Miss Adler was an honorary Baltimore museum curator who filled in gaps in the Print Room with her own purchases.)

Henry Walters opened the Walters gallery in 1909 and personally amassed some of the works in the exhibit. In 1905, he found a bookseller's shop near the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy, and bought the dealer's entire stock of more than 1,000 early books. He donated about 5,000 publications to the city when he died in 1934.

Visitors to the BMA show can see the bound copy of Durer's "The Large Passion" with 11 sheets from it. The curators also included early editions of Durer's "The Life of the Virgin."

The Durer works are the high points, but other prints illustrate the book arts preceding him. The time was the great "rebirth," or Renaissance, in Europe.

Herbals of flora and fauna, surgical treatises with anatomical drawings and maps showed an emerging and intense interest in the natural world. Second-century Alexandrian astronomer and geographer Ptolemy wrote the "Guide to the Delineation of the World" based on his observations in Egypt, though his treatise only reached Italy about 14 centuries later.

Printers in Bologna, Italy, created the first atlases in 1477. One of the exhibit's woodcuts — "View of Venice from Peregrinatio in Terram Sanctam (Journey to the Holy Land)," printed by Erhard Reuwich in 1486 — demonstrates the new interest in rendering topographical correctness.

Reuwich accompanied Bernard von Breydenbach, dean of Mainz Cathedral, on his pilgrimage and recorded places they visited. "View of Venice" is one of a series of large and detailed foldout topographical views of cities along the journey.

Much work was still done by hand, as "The Entombment" from a "Book of Hours" (circa 1465-70) illustrates. It is created in the medieval illuminated manuscript tradition.

"Blockbooks," or bound codices, represented a major advance. Printers created the pages of books — both the illustrations and text — from single blocks of wood. One in the exhibit is "Resurrection" from the colorful blockbook "Biblia Pauperum (Poor Man's Bible)" (1470). Susan Dackerman, BMA curator of prints, drawings and photographs, says it was hand colored with stencils.

Johann Gutenberg (circa 1400-68) of Mainz revolutionized bookmaking by inventing movable type around 1456. He used movable type to print a Bible with 42 lines per page. The Walters gallery " 'Leaf' From the Gutenberg Bible: 2 Maccabees" is a sheet from Gutenberg's Bible, the first to be printed.

Gutenberg produced books using interchangeable and reusable parts. Printing had originated in China and Korea but was not known in Europe at this time. Gutenberg concentrated all his energies on printing the entire Bible, a great technical accomplishment.

The printing press made possible more copies of books that could be printed faster and cheaper, and book production increased like never before.

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Durer came along at just the right time and had the right connections. Anton Koberger of Nuremberg was his godfather. Koberger had built up a large print network throughout Europe. A particularly handsome leaf showing "The Creation" from his most ambitious project, the "Nuremberg Chronicle" of 1493, stars in the exhibit.

Koberger also knew how to raise money and find the right craftsmen. Perhaps Durer learned entrepreneurship from him. Koberger employed the great woodcutter Michael Wolgemut for the "Nuremberg Chronicle." Durer was apprenticed to Wolgemut between 1486 and 1489 and learned his woodcutting skills from him.

Trained as a goldsmith — as was also Gutenberg — Durer tried to fuse his native German style with that of the Italian Renaissance. He was not always successful. Durer was the first Northern European artist to travel to Italy to study Italian art.

Durer possessed great technical ability both with the burin for engraving and the knife for woodcutting. With these techniques he produced a body of graphic work unrivaled since for quality and quantity. He illustrated books but also sold printed single sheets that ordinary people could buy.

His early and highly successful printing of "The Apocalypse" illustrates the terrifying visions of doomsday and the events preceding it on 14 large sheets. He chose the Revelation of St. John, the last book of the Bible.

"The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," the fourth print in the series, shows humans trampled by the terrible four during the world's last days. It shows, from foreground to background, "Death Killing a Bishop, Famine Swinging Scales, War Holding a Sword and Pestilence Drawing His Bow."

The picture drives forward from left to right with a multitude of figures and details. Durer retains some medieval characteristics, such as the angularity of figures and forms merging into one another. He learned, however, the drastic foreshortening of the trampled foreground figures and the head of "Famine."

The apocalypse remains essentially northern in its complexity and crowding of shapes and forms. Other frightening subjects are "The Opening of the Fifth and Sixth Seals," "St. Michael Fighting the Dragon," "The Seven Angels With Trumpets" and "The Babylonian Whore."

From 1500 on, Durer became more and more interested in the theoretical foundations of Italian art. The series of prints making up "The Large Passion" (1497-1511) show the evolution of the artist's style.

"The Passion of Christ" depicts the final days of Christ's life, from the Last Supper to the Resurrection. Durer chose scenes that show Christ's most intense physical and mental suffering.

The first group of seven woodcuts are stylistically like prints from "The Apocalypse." They are crowded with many figures and landscape and architectural details. The last four from 1510 are less crowded and show a greater modulation from black to white.

"The Life of the Virgin" (circa 1502-10), the last of Durer's "large books," is a more intimate illustration of family life. Views of Mary's parents' lives, her youth, her life with Joseph and Christ's childhood are the focus. Durer had immersed himself in the study of vanishing point perspective from 1502 to 1505 and uses it to show the complex architectural settings of many of these scenes.

"Book Arts in the Age of Durer" does more than survey the graphic output of the great German Renaissance artist. It chronicles the shift from medieval bookmaking and illustrating to that of the Renaissance through works from three of Baltimore's museums.

This period was one of change, and it is exciting to view the transitions in this impressive exhibition.

WHAT: "Book Arts in the Age of Durer"WHERE: Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive, BaltimoreWHEN: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekends, 5 to 9 p.m. the first Thursday of each month.TICKETS: $6 for those 19 and older and $4 for seniors and students. Free the first Thursday of each month.PHONE: 410/396-7100

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