by Liliane Baab
Painted in 1528-29, "The Battle of Alexander" by Albrecht Altdorfer depicts the battle of Alexander the Great against the Persian king Darius at the Battle of Issos in 333 BC. The technique is oil tempera on lime wood and the work is now in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. Albrecht Altdorfer, Nuremberg painter, engraver and master builder of the Renaissance created this commissioned work for Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria in the heyday of his creative period. Today, the work is considered one of the most important works of Old German painting. Altdorfer is known for his detailed landscape painting, to which he seems to pay the greatest attention even in religious subjects. He always succeeds in capturing the light in a special way, and he made the colors on his canvas really glow. With his striking painterly and graphic expressive quality and his lively brushstroke, he created new illusionism and originality, proving again and again his valuable individual style.
The central motif of the work represents the historically relevant and significant Battle of Alexander, which can be observed by the viewer from a divine panoramic perspective. A stone tablet hangs from above and describes the scene in Latin words. The viewer's far-reaching gaze opens to him a fantastic landscape of the world and the heavens. The viewer's gaze is so wide that he can see the sun and the moon. In the wide and flowing foreground, hundreds and thousands of warriors are depicted in meticulous detail. The Greek warriors wear white and blue uniforms while the Persians mostly wear red. Turban bearers, knights and armies of national servants in modern dress and period armor. The soldiers, on foot and on horseback, are equipped with all kinds of pennants as well as weapons such as spears and lances. Some of them carry inscribed flags and there are also other small inscriptions on the picture. In the back, a ruin, a castle in front of a high mountain, a village and a tent camp can be seen.
In the middle ground Altdorfer shows a piece of the rest of the wide world due to the distance held in blue. The tower of Babylon, the island of Cyprus, behind it the Red Sea, to the right Egypt with the Nile, distant mountain and Mediterranean landscapes. Further back, the city of Tarsus is depicted. The final background is formed by the sky and the meaningful cloud formations with the fine ruffled cloud edges, on which the light of the brightly shining sun refracts, as well as the silver-white shining moon.
Darius and Alexander can be made out in the center of the battlefield. Darius on a chariot drawn by three white horses and Alexander riding on a white horse. The two are identified by nameplates attached to the chariot and the horse's harness. Darius seems to want to leave the scene and moves towards the edge of the picture. Alexander rides in the same direction and follows Darius. The manner of depiction suggests that Darius has just decided to flee. The already determined numbers of the dead, which can be found in the picture as hints, indicate in advance the great victory of Alexander and are to be understood as a reading aid for the viewer. That the individual soldiers are literal bearers of meaning is known only to the "all-knowing" and "all-seeing" viewer, whose knowledge is historically ahead of the current narrative time of the event. This creates a closeness and at the same time a distance between the event and the viewer.
The stone tablet, raptured high in front of the vault of heaven, is, as it were, a symbol of history and a monument to historical consciousness itself. The flags indicate how many soldiers slain the two rulers in this battle:
"ALEXANDER M(AGNVS) DARIVM VLT(IMVM) SVPERAT CAESIS IN ACIE PERSAR(VM) PEDIT(VM) C(ENTVM) M(ILIBVS) EQVIT(VM) VERO X M(ILIBVS) INTERFECTIS MATRE QVOQVE CONIVGE; LIBERIS DARII REG(IS) CVM M(ILLE) HAVD AMPLIVS EQVITIB(VS) FVGA DILAPSI CAPTIS"
"Alexander the Great defeats Darius the Last after 100,000 men on foot and more than 10,000 horsemen were slain in the ranks of the Persians and the mother, wife and children of King Darius were captured with no more than 1,000 horsemen fleeing in disintegration.
The unique painterly style of representation that Altdorfer uses for this painting creates a deep pictorial space. He plays with light and shadow, showing day and night, sun and moon in one sky, over one scene. According to the transmitted reports of the Battle of Issos, the event took place near the sea in November 333 BC and lasted from morning until nightfall. Altdorfer processes this information in the picture and tells the story of the entire battle. The Persian king Darius, despite his numerical superiority, surrendered and while he fled, his family fell into captivity. Alexander, with his small but extremely successful army, spared Darius' family, however. Thus, the victorious Alexander battle became a symbol of virtue of princely magnanimity and the successful ruler and battle leader Alexander became the model for many rulers in history, including the client of this painting, Duke William IV of Bavaria.
Albrecht Altdorfer - The Battle of Alexander
Oil tempera on lime panel, 1528-29, 158 x 120 cm , Alte Pinakothek in Munich