Analysis: Dürer’s “The Four Riders of the Apocalypse”

This renowned Albrecht Dürer woodcut—see Image File #59—widely accepted as visually articulating chapter six verses one through eight of the Book of Revelation, was made in 1497-98, about twelve years before his first Last Supper woodcut, subject of our previous post. By 1495, perhaps much earlier, Dürer had acquired the esoteric and heretical knowledge that became embedded in his works for those patrons who had the eyes to see. By our reckoning, his “Apocalypse series” of fifteen woodcuts was begun no later than 1496.

The Four Riders of the Apocalypse—the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse of St. John—emerge in Revelation as the first four of seven seals open. But here, as with many other artworks, intentionally or not, the title draws attention away from a greater message rooted in chapter seven verses two through eight. Dürer’s main focus is not on the four destructive entities but, instead, on the angel who has power to bless and seal certain inhabitants of Earth—the servants of the Creator—in order to preserve them from the forces intent on unleashing harm on one-fourth of the planet. Dürer himself was such a servant and messenger, and the woodcut expresses, more than anything else, a message of hope and a reminder to Mystery School initiates that negative consequences and bad karma are avoidable. Throughout history, a “remnant” survives every large-scale disaster.

Note that Dürer presents the Horsemen all in one woodcut, in descending order, with the first placed beneath that uppermost figure: the angel who blesses the action while also blessing the viewer. The four ride together in this woodcut, the significance being that these riders—interpreted by Christians as representing the Antichrist et al, or four angels, or four stages of destruction, or four unique aspects of a mission of mass destruction—represent instruments of the same Creator who cleansed the world via the Great Flood. The four ride as one because they are facets of the One. Numerologically, fours and sevens in sacred writings are Time and Space expressions of the first dimension of Consciousness (in NoetiTaoism™) as borne out through numerological addition: 4=1+2+3+4=10=1+0=1. The fourth dimension of Omniverse is the first dimension of Time, through which all things manifest and then decay.

Although there is no precise proof that Dürer consciously intended the entire foregoing revelation-via-woodcut that we perceive, it is obvious from other works, such as Melancholia I (see our January, 2010 post: “Analysis: Dürer’s Melancholia I,” and appended comments) that Dürer had unusual expertise in numerology as well as “occult” matters in general. That at least some such knowledge was acquired from Magi masters of the Italian Renaissance is beyond question.

Dürer understood Hermetic Philosophy and knew too the occult values of colors, so he would have recognized that the Bible description of the coloration of the horses represented a double-opposition: white versus black and red versus “pale”/green—a cross-work opposition that yields deeper understanding when viewed astrologically (i.e., the initiatory seasonal equinoxes, cardinal signs, horoscopes, and more). The degree to which Dürer grasped the astrological information presented to John is uncertain, and, in any case, the astrological significance of the Four Horsemen is a topic better left to a separate writing on Revelation. We mention it here because here again we find the familiar four-ness inherent in a single overall process that Dürer certainly understood, based on our examination of his larger body of work.

In the Tarot, present during the Renaissance, the thirteenth Major Arcana card corresponds to the number four (13=1+3=4): “Death.” Not coincidentally, the Death card shows a rider on horseback. The Book of Revelation is an archetypal story the meaning of which is known to initiates and ranges beyond the Christian interpretation that varies from denomination to denomination where it is used to evoke fear and obedience rather than to deliver enlightenment.


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