World’s largest Renaissance woodcut was an act of imperial self-promotion

Might and Glory. Dürer in the Emperor’s Service
The National Gallery of Denmark
5 March – 21 June 2015

In 1515 Albrecht Dürer created the largest woodcut ever made during the Renaissance era. The work was commissioned by Emperor Maximilian, who wanted to celebrate himself, demonstrating and validating his power to as many people as possible. In the spring of 2015 the work will be put on public display at the National Gallery of Denmark.

Anyone who watches it becomes fascinated by this work. It impresses by virtue of its sheer size as well as by the beauty of its form. And the many battle scenes, landscapes, strange creatures, and mysterious symbols pique our curiosity and demand explanation.  For what were the intentions behind this vast, 3.5 x 3m woodcut called The Arch of Honour of Maximilian I, which Albrecht Dürer and his workshop created in 1515 as a commission work ordered by the emperor? That is the question addressed by the spring exhibition Might and Glory. Dürer in the Emperor’s Service.

The first example of mass communication in history
The Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I of Habsburg was King of the Romans, later Holy Roman Emperor from 1493 until his death in 1519. This Arch of Honour is one of several examples of how he would use the art of printmaking to raise awareness of his position.

In the mid-15th century the German inventor Johann Gutenberg invented movable type that could be used to print books. This made the production of books (which could be illustrated by means of woodcuts) fast and cheap. For the first time in history it was possible to convey the same message to many people in a consistent manner. Emperor Maximilian was probably the first to truly realise what this new technology could be used for. And he employed the new techniques to promote the imperial office, the Habsburg family, and himself as an emperor. For being able to legitimise their power was important for the rulers of the day.

Imperial self-promotion
The Arch of Honour includes an image of Maximilian surrounded by symbols of the countless virtues and talents that nature had bestowed on him. For example, the crane in the background holding a stone aloft in one foot is a reference to his ceaseless vigilance. The naked feet in water underneath Maximilian’s own feet mean that the emperor can do what would be impossible to others. 

The family tree of Maximilian in the middle of the print is a pomegranate; its fruits appear throughout the image. In the text below Johannes Stabius, Maximilian’s court historian, explains why the emperor chose the pomegranate as a symbol: like the emperor himself, the pomegranate is not particularly pretty or fragrant on the outside, but beautiful on the inside, full of lovely, well-shaped seeds.

The Arch of Honour of Maximilian I explains and documents why Maximilian is the emperor – he is quite simply the best suited for the job. The imagery and devices used in the emperor’s service in this artwork help shed light on how powerful people use self-promotion to demonstrate and maintain their position – then and now.

In addition to The Arch of Honour the exhibition will also present a number of other works by Dürer as well as works by other artists from the era which relate to and provide perspective on the Arch

About Albrecht Dürer
Albrecht Dürer was one of the pre-eminent artists of the Renaissance. Art history sees him as one of the “great geniuses” of the period on a par with Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael. The Arch of Honour of Maximilian I is one of his masterpieces – and indeed one of the most important works within 16th century graphic art.

The Royal Collection of Prints and Drawings owns two complete sets of this work, which comprises prints made by a total of 195 carved wooden blocks onto 36 large sheets of paper. One of these sets has been mounted: the sheets were glued onto canvas in the mid-19th century. The other set has remained untouched: the 36 sheets are stored as loose leaves in a binder. These individual sheets will be presented in frames hung at eye level, enabling visitors to inspect the work at close quarters, seeing a wealth of details than cannot be fully appreciated when looking up at the very large mounted version. In the autumn of 2014 the large, mounted Arch was restored by the conservator team of the National Gallery of Denmark, prompting the open studio sessions launched under the heading Dürer under the Knife!

Might and Glory. Dürer in the Emperor’s Service
The National Gallery of Denmark
5 March – 21 June 2015

Images available now

For further information, please contact:

Hanne Kolind Poulsen
Curator, Senior Researcher
T +45 2552 7217

Karen Ormstrup Søndergaard
Press coordinator
T +45 2552 7203