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Dürer’s paper triumph: the arch of the Emperor Maximilian

The British Museum


THE BRITISH Museum’s current Asahi Shimbun Display is Dürer’s paper triumph: the arch of the Emperor Maximilian and can be seen in Room 3 until November 16, 2014.

The display celebrates one of the most ambitious prints ever to be completed in the Western world. Printed from a staggering 195 woodblocks on 36 sheets of paper and measuring over 3.5 meters in height, The Triumphal Arch is one of the largest prints ever produced.

Designed by the great German printmaker Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) at the pinnacle of his career, the Arch took three years to produce. It was commissioned by the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I (r. 1486–1519), to advertise his achievements.

As Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian was the elected ruler of huge swathes of land from Austria to Spain, but he lacked the power and money to govern them effectively. The Triumphal Arch was commissioned and designed to promote the ambitions of his dynasty, the Habsburg family from Austria.

Maximilian was the first ruler to utilise the cheap but effective method of printmaking to promote his dynastic ambition. The triumphal arches of Roman antiquity, such as The Arch of Constantine in Rome, were famous across Europe throughout the medieval and Renaissance period.

Rather than rendered in sculpture or architecture, Maximilian’s Arch was produced on paper, a far cheaper option and one that could also be easily reproduced. It would have been coloured and used as wall decoration in the palaces and castles of Europe to emphasise the power and dynastic ambition of Maximilian and the Habsburgs.

The long inscription on Dürer’s Arch refers to a recreation of the ‘ancient triumphal arches of the Roman Emperors’, by which Maximilian sought to legitimise the imperial claim of his Habsburg dynasty.

The complex design of the Arch is a reflection of the close attention to detail that Maximilian took in its production. His virtues as a ruler are illustrated in details such as the ‘Portal of Honour and Might’, in the central section, which is flanked by smaller arches entitled ‘Praise’ and ‘Nobility’. Victorious military campaigns, major dynastic events and scenes from courtly life also appear.

Maximilian’s impressive genealogical lineage, which dates back to the first king of France Clovis I, is also depicted, while Maximilian’s personal emblem, a pomegranate, is shown throughout the design. This fruit has a hard skin enclosing many seeds, which represent the numerous lands unified by the Holy Roman Empire.

The production of the Arch involved many people. Dürer and his team drew the designs onto the woodblocks which then took three years to cut and print between 1515 and 1518.

Three small coats-of-arms at the front belong to those responsible for the interpretation of Maximilian’s ideas: the court historian, Johann Stabius devised the programme and wrote the inscriptions; Jörg Kolderer designed the overall appearance; and the third is that of Albrecht Dürer, who tactfully made his coat-of-arms smaller as befitted his lower social rank, but whose fame has far outstripped his collaborators.

Maximilian appointed Dürer (1471–1528) as his artistic advisor for the Triumphal Arch during a visit to Nuremberg in 1512, by which time Dürer was a painter and printmaker of considerable stature. Dürer specialised in the production of innovative, high woodcuts and engravings. By the time of his appointment by Maximilian I, the wide circulation of his prints had reached an international market and this commission was an imperial seal of approval.

This Asahi Shimbun Display shows an extremely rare complete set of prints of The Triumphal Arch alongside prints produced for Maximilian’s Triumphal Procession. This was a further ambitious project intended as a colossal frieze celebrating the Emperor’s achievements and aspirations which remained unfinished when he died in 1519.

Dürer’s contribution to the Procession is joined by two woodcuts by Hans Burgkmair, a contemporary of Dürer’s who contributed the majority of the designs for the Procession. Together with Dürer’s famous woodcut portrait of Maximilian, this display offers visitors the opportunity to appreciate the scale and complexity of these massive print projects within the context of the court of Maximilian and his patronage .

This display partly coincide with the exhibition, Germany: memories of a nation, which opens on October 16 in Room 35.

Admission: Free.

Related events:

Conserving Dürer’s paper triumph in Room 3 on Wednesday, October 29 (1.15pm to 2pm). Free, just drop in. A gallery talk by Joanna Kosek and Caroline Barry, British Museum.

Dürer’s organisation of printmaking in Room 3 on Wednesday, November 5 (1.15pm to 2pm). Free, just drop in. A gallery talk by Hilary Williams, British Museum.

Art and commerce: the prints of Albrecht Dürer in the BP Lecture Theatre on Monday, October 27 (1.30pm to 2.30pm). Free but booking is essential.

Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) was in many ways the first artist to achieve international fame, and this was mainly through his use of the medium of the print. In this lecture, Giulia Bartrum, British Museum, will look at how he introduced sophisticated Renaissance ideas to his prints, and how his background and contacts enabled him to create a market in which to sell them.

Also at the British Museum: Ming: 50 years that changed China – in the new Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery until January 5, 2015.

British Museum, Great Russell Street, London, WC1B 3DG