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Altdorfer's The Battle of Alexander at Issus: Subject & Style

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

You might have seen 'The Battle of Alexander at Issus' before, but can you say what it really depicts? Learn more about Altdorfer's artistic agenda as we investigate his style and subject in what most consider his crowning masterpiece!

Naturally Stylish: The Style of Albrecht Altdorfer

When was the last time you found yourself captivated by a painting of the seashore or a photo of the Grand Canyon? Whenever it was, you should've probably thanked 16th-century painter Albrecht Altdorfer, seeing as how he was the first artist since antiquity to focus on landscape painting, or the depiction of natural settings in portraiture with an absence of human subjects.

Though he included humans in a number of his works, Altdorfer often found natural vistas to be much more compelling subjects in his art. And he wasn't alone in this opinion. Altdorfer himself is credited as one of the founding members, but there were also several others who became part of what's known as the 'Danube School' (German: Donauschule). Sometimes referred to as an 'Alpine Renaissance,' this early 16th-century artistic movement based along the Danube River combined Italian and native German influences and frequently featured examples of 'pure' landscapes favored by Altdorfer and his disciples.

Regensburg Landscape (ca. 1510)
Regensburg Landscape by Altdorfer

Pieces such as his 'Regensburg Landscape' demonstrate that Altdorfer, in particular, had a fascination with the dense forests that surrounded his home, displaying them with deep hues and dark tones. However, we can start to see in the same painting that he was also drawn to large-scale depictions of natural views - and none get much larger than those in Altdorfer's masterpiece: 'The Battle of Alexander at Issus.' As we continue to discuss Altdorfer's most famous work, we'll uncover more specifics of his style at play in this grand piece.

Shifting Focus: Subject in Altdorfer's 'The Battle of Alexander at Issus'

The Battle of Alexander at Issus (1529)
The Battle of Alexander at Issus by Altdorfer

Watch a television police drama and you'll probably notice a lot of quick cuts between cameras or among specific characters. Though not as dizzying as these dramatic camera angles can be, there are also shifts in focus as we examine the subject of 'The Battle of Alexander at Issus' - from ancient clashes to contemporary conflicts and even their cosmic ramifications.

Clash of the Titans

Immediately from the title, we can identify the feuding armies depicted in the foreground as those belonging to two Titans of the ancient world: Alexander the Great and Darius III, king of Persia. However, without this title - which comes from the banner suspended above the battlefield - and tiny inscriptions on the leaders' gear, we would have no way of telling who these people were.

Detail of Darius III in a chariot bearing his name
Detail of Darius III from The Battle of Alexander at Issus

The battle scene Altdorfer painted is supposed to illustrate Alexander's victory over Darius at Issus in 333 B.C., which was the turning point that led to the legendary general's complete conquest of Persia three years later. Be that as it may, the soldiers are equipped with 16th-century weapons and armor, and architecture visible in the background is from the same period. So, whom are we really looking at here, then?

Turkish Skirmish

When Altdorfer was first commissioned to paint 'The Battle of Alexander at Issus' in 1528 by Wilhelm IV, Duke of Bavaria, their region of Europe was poised for attack from foreign invaders. To be exact, these forces belonged to Suleiman the Magnificent, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, and Altdorfer used his masterpiece to draw parallels between his time and Alexander's. For Altdorfer, Alexander's victory at Issus - located in present-day Turkey - was the perfect subject to reflect the conflict between East and West in his own day.

Accordingly, he depicted Darius' Persians wearing turbans and other garb worn by the invading Turks of his own time, while Alexander's Macedonians are dressed in distinctly European armor. He also showed both sides engaged in contemporary battle formations rather than ancient ones. However, if we pull back from the battle itself, we see that it's not even necessarily the main focus of the entire piece.

Cosmic Landscape

We might think it strange that the masterpiece of a landscape painter like Altdorfer would involve human subjects at all. But if we take a look at the broader canvas of 'The Battle of Alexander at Issus' we see that it's easy to lose sight of them amidst the epic landscape which surrounds them. In fact, 'The Battle of Alexander at Issus' is one of the finest examples of a particular type of landscape painting known as 'world landscape' (German: 'Weltlandschaft'), which depicts enormous, panoramic views of the sky and Earth's surface and was favored by Altdorfer and others of the 'Danube School.'

Detail of Cyprus and the Nile River delta
Detail of Cyprus and Nile delta from The Battle of Alexander at Issus

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