Work Departure for the Sabbath
Department of Prints and Drawings: 16th century
Le départ pour le sabbat
Prints and Drawings
Cataloged at the beginning of the nineteenth century as the work of Albrecht Dürer, this remarkable drawing was attributed to Altdorfer in 1923. Since then it has been universally acclaimed as a masterpiece by this leading exponent of the so-called Danube School. One of Altdorfer's earliest known drawings, dated 1506, it already displays his remarkable genius in its combination of lyricism, fantasy, and mystery.
A fantastical scene
In the foreground of the picture, four half-naked witches (three standing and one seated) are depicted in a forest setting, while others soar into the sky on the backs of goats. In the background, to the left, a few village dwellings are partly concealed by the fantastical cavalcade. The unnatural character of the scene is emphasized by the inclusion of a number of odd or unusual elements: the animated figures of the witches in the foreground with their alternately raised or lowered arms and bodies bent awkwardly to the side or twisting backwards; the rising movement of the riders, their forms gradually dissolving into the sky; and the free-flying hair and elongated draperies. Gradually, the realistic setting changes into a visionary landscape.
A stylistic manifesto
Two other drawings by Altdorfer, similar in style and format, bear the same date of 1506: Allegory: Peace and Minerva (Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin), featuring a figure identical to the witch seated in profile here, and Samson and Delilah (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Of the three, the present drawing is generally held to be the most characteristic of Altdorfer's early style. The chiaroscuro effects achieved through the use of a tinted ground, the nervous line, and the strongly emphasized white highlights plunge the viewer into the artist's fantastical imaginary world. Two contemporary engravings, of Mars and Flora, show similar artistic preoccupations: the figure of Mars inverts the pose of the witch facing front, with the same bold line and taste for the fantastic.
Witchcraft and humanism
The Departure for the Sabbath is one of many works reflecting the sixteenth-century interest in witchcraft. The originality of Altdorfer's scene lies in his use of a realistic landscape setting, conveying a narrative or anecdotal feeling. The picture is also, apparently, the first example of a new witchcraft iconography combining a group of female witches with a cavalcade of air-borne animals and their riders. The theme was treated by a number of German artists, including Dürer in 1497 and, most notably, Baldung Grien, in a chiaroscuro engraving of the Sabbath dated 1510, drawings dated 1514 (Albertina, Vienna), a drawing of the Witches' Sabbath (Musée du Louvre, Paris), and a painting of 1523 (Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt.) The present picture is very different in character, however. While Baldung emphasizes his scenes' erotic potential, Altdorfer's figures are markedly asexual. The young artist seems to have sacrificed anatomical accuracy in favor of lyrical evocation. Some art historians have linked the sixteenth-century taste for witchcraft to the emergence of humanism and the growing interest in nature and the Wild Man. Such beliefs were not necessarily inimical to religious faith, and Altdorfer may well have found them attractive.
BibliographyBacou Roseline, in Dessins du Louvre. Écoles allemande, flamande, hollandaise, Paris, Flammarion, 1968, n 17.
Mielke Hans, in Albrecht Altdorfer : Zeichnungen, Deckfarbenmalerei, Druckgraphik, Kupferstichkabinett Berlin, Museen der Stadt Regensburg cat. exp. Berlin-Ratisbonne, Reimer Verlag, 1988, notice 7.
Sérullaz Arlette (Calvet), in Le XVIe Siècle européen, dessins du Louvre, cat. exp. Paris, musée du Louvre, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, octobre-décembre 1965, notice 51.
Söding Ulrich, "Hans Baldung Grien in Freiburg : Themenwahl und Stilentwicklung", in Hans Baldung Grien in Freiburg, cat. exp. Fribourg-en-Brisgau, Augustinermuseum, 2000-2001, p. 41.
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Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1991, notice 114.
Viatte Françoise, in Il Paesaggio nel Disegno del Cinquecento Europeo, cat. exp. Rome, Villa Médicis, Académie de France à Rome, 1972-1973, notice 19.
Albrecht ALTDORFER (Regensburg, 1480?-1538)
Departure for the Sabbath
Pen, black ink, and white gouache highlights on prepared brick-red paper
H. 18 cm; W. 12.4 cm
Saint-Morys collection; confiscated as the property of emigrés, 1793; returned to the Museum, 1796-97
Due to their fragility, works on paper are not on permanent display in the museum.
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