The Battle of Issus, 1529
The battle to end all battles
The Battle of Alexander
Alte Pinakothek, Munich
The Wittelsbach Duke Wilhelm IV was hardly one of the more important rulers of
his day. He governed Bavaria from 1508 to 1550, during the Reformation, but his
strategy of shifting alliances with the powerful Habsburgs, French king and
Protestant rulers brought him little advantage; he even made a vain attempt to
become German king. On the other hand, he did achieve two things with lasting
effect: Wilhelm ensured that Bavaria remained a Catholic land, and he
commissioned one of the most important German paintings, Albrecht Altdorfer's
The Battle of Issus.
The painter and architect Altdorfer lived in Regensburg, approximately sixty
miles north of the ducal residence in Munich. Though situated in the middle of
Bavaria, Regensburg was a Free Imperial Town, whose allegiances alternated
between the Emperor in Vienna and the Wittelsbach dukes. The same
might be said for the Regensburg citizen Altdorfer. Altdorfer
executed some 200 works for Emperor Maximilian, most of them
miniatures and woodcuts, but he created his masterpiece for Duke
Wilhelm in Munich.
Altdorfer must have been almost 50 when he received the commission
to paint The Battle of lssus. His exact age cannot be established,
since his date of birth is unknown. It is thought to have been c.
1480. However, documentary evidence does reveal that Altdorfer
quickly rose to wealth and prestige. In 1513 he bought a house "with
a tower and farmstead". In 1517 he became a member of the Outer Town
Council, in 1526 a member of the Inner Council, and on 18th
September 1528 he was elected Mayor. However, Altdorfer declined
this high office. His reason for doing so is mentioned in the annals
of the Regensburg Council: "He much desires to execute a special
work in Bavaria for my Serene Highness and gracious Lord, Duke
Wilhelm." This "work" was The Battle of Issus.
As an artist and member of the town council, Altdorfer became
involved in the conflicts of his age. He announced the town's
expulsion of its Jewish inhabitants, making a quick sketch of the
synagogue before it was destroyed. His connections to the imperial
court were such that, when Regensburg fell into disgrace with the
Emperor, Altdorfer was entrusted with the mission of apologizing.
When the Turkish army threatened Vienna, he was given the task of
fortifying the Regensburg defences.
As a member of the town council, Altdorfer had to interrogate
Anabaptists and sit in a committee to appoint a Protestant minister.
In his will, he declared that he had no desire for "spiritual
accessories", which probably meant that he rejected the
administration of last rites, or the holding of a mass. By the time
of his death in 1538, he was probably no longer a practising
The schism within the church and the military threat that sprang
from the non-Christian Orient were the two main factors determining
life at the time. Insecurity and fear were widespread. It is against
this background, too, that we must consider the genesis of the
The artist shows an event from the distant past, a battle fought
near Issus in 333 B.C. This he sets against a panorama of sky and
landscape; the battle in Asia Minor thus assumes the aura of a
natural disaster, or a scene from some cosmic Armageddon. In fact,
the battle was seen at the time as a turning point in world history:
the Greek Occident had defeated the Persian Orient.
The contemporary signifcance of the subject was obvious, and the
tablet proclaiming victory at the top of the painting assumed a
special significance in the face of the Turkish threat. The tablet
appears to descend from the vault of the heavens, and bears a
message in Latin: "The defeat of Darius by Alexander the Great,
following the deaths of 100,000 Persian foot-soldiers and more than
10,000 Persian horsemen. King Darius' mother, wife and children were
taken prisoner, together with about 1,000 fleeing horse-soldiers."
Women on the battlefield
The Battle of Alexander (detail)
Altdorfer provides details of military strengths and losses not only on the
large tablet, but on banners and flags. The painting was probably intended to
serve several purposes, one being to keep alive Alexander's strategic fame,
which derived from the Macedonian's defeat of an army many times
larger than his own. According to figures cited in the painting
itself, Darius commanded 300,000 foot-soldiers, while Alexander led
only 32,000; the Persian king had a cavalry of 100,000, his opponent
a mere 4,000. One of the great general's admirers was Napoleon, who,
in 1800, had Altdorfer's painting brought to Paris and hung in his
bathroom. As an artist, however, Altdorfer evidently felt little
obligation to illustrate the details he cited. There is nothing in
the painting to sugggest the numerical superiority of Darius' army;
nor has the artist followed historical accounts of strategic
deployment. On top of this, he has clothed the figures in the dress
of his own time. The cavalry wear heavy armour; some of Persians are
shown in turbans of the kind Turks were seen to wear. The women in
feathered toques look like German courtly ladies, dressed for a
That Altdorfer painted women at all on a battlefield must probably
be attributed to his passion for invention. The 16th century became
increasingly preoccupied with western civilisation, but this was not
necessarily accompanied by an interest in historic truth.
Investigative research into the past had not yet begun; archaeology
was a subject of the future.
One of Altdorfer's sources was probably Hartmann Schedel's "World
Chronicle". Most of the artist's statistics are identical to those
given by Schedel. The book had appeared in Nuremberg in 1493, 35
years before Altdorfer commenced work on The Battle of Issus.
Another source may have been an account written by Q. Curtius Rufus,
a document probably dating from the first century. However, neither
work makes mention of women entering the fray - one of Altdorfer's
A highly dramatic scene involving women is indeed related in
Curtius's account, only this takes place in a camp. According to
Curtius, Darius' mother and wife, taken prisoner in their tents,
suddenly began to wail: "The reason for this shocking scene was that
Darius' mother and wife had broken into loud and woeful lamentations
for the king, whom they thought killed. For a captive eunuch ...
recognizing Darius' tunic, ... which he had cast off for fear that
his clothing would betray him, in the hands of the soldier who had
found it, and imagining the garment to be taken from the king's dead
body, had brought false news of his death."
Heroes replace saints
The Battle of Alexander (detail)
Darius escaped with his life at the battle of Issus. He was certainly not
pursued by Alexander to within a length of the latter's lance, as Altdorfer's
painting suggests. At least, there is no mention of this in either historical
account. The artist was faithful to historical truth only when it suited him,
when historical facts were compatible with the demands of his composition.
It is not known what Altorfer's patron wished the painting to show: admiration
for Alexander's strategic prowess, the parallel with the Turkish threat, or -
since he was himself such an enthusiastic participant in tournaments - a
celebration of chivalry? All that can be said for sure is that Altdorfer's
painting reflected one of the chief preoccuptions of his age: the reappraisal of
Classical antiquity was a characteristic feature of the Renaisssance. During the
Middle Ages, saints had grown in significance over the legendary
figures of ancient Greece and Rome, and more value was attached to
relics of Christian martyrs than to antique manuscripts. However, a
change in attitude soon began to make itself felt in quattrocento
Italy, spreading north across the Alps during the century that
followed. The saints began to lose their exemplary status. Of
course, this process was linked to the decadence of the Roman
Catholic Church. Reappraisal of antiquity and the decline of the
Church went hand in hand.
Wilhelm IV commissioned not only The Battle of Issus, but a whole
series of heroic scenes: Hannibal defeating the Romans at Cannae,
Caesar besieging Alesia, the captive Mucius Scaevola burning his
hand to demonstrate to his adversaries the bravery of the young men
of Rome; eight paintings (of which Altendorfer painted only one) in
an identical, upright format. There is also a second series in
horizontal format - possibly commissioned for the Duchess -showing
seven famous women, many of them Old Testament figures: Susanna
bathing, before defending herself against the advances of two elders
who slander her and condemn her to death; Judith cutting off the
head of Holofernes, the enemy of her people; and Helen, Troy's rum.
All of these men and women had distinguished themselves in some way
or other. The interest they aroused during the 16th century was not
only a sign of the period's rediscovery of antiquity, it was the
mark of a new sense of self. During the Renaissance people no longer
saw themselves solely as members of a social group, as the citizens
of a town, or as sinners before God in whose eyes all were equal.
They had become aware of the unique qualities that distinguished one
person from another. Unlike the Middle Ages, the Renaissance
celebrated the individual. Altdorfer may have painted row after row
of apparently identical warriors, but the spectators themselves
would identify with Alexander and Darius, figures who had names,
whose significance was indicated by the cord which hung down from
the tablet above them.
The Battle of Alexander (detail)
The Battle of Alexander (detail)
German Donauschule, a tradition of landscape painting that developed in the
region of the Danube River valleyin the early years of the 16th century.
A number of painters are considered to have been members of the Danube school.
Chief among them was the Regensburg master Albrecht Altdorfer (c. 1480–1538),
whose real subject, although he often included figures in his compositions and
gave some of his paintings religious titles, was nature; he saw man's presence
in nature as more or less incidental. Altdorfer's interest in the changes caused
by light at different times of the day and the changes of the seasons of the
year, as well as the continuous cycle of growth, decay, and rebirth, link him
spiritually with both Baroque and the 19th-century Romantic landscapists.
The early works of Lucas Cranach (1472–1553) are also typical of the Danube
landscape style. Altdorfer's landscapes can be characterized as poetic and
enchanting, whereas Cranach's were expressive and dramatic in contrast. In
Cranach's work the mood of nature has been adjusted to complement the subject.
Other important painters of this school include the Austrian Wolf Huber and the
German Jorg Breu the Elder. Also notable was the German sculptor Hans Leinberger.
Schedel's World Chronicle was a seminal work, treasured not only for its
comprehensive survey of the historical knowledge of the age, but for its
detailed approach to geography. The book contained illustrations of the more
important figures of the Bible and Classical antiquity (naturally wearing
16th-century dress); it also showed the famous woodcut vedutas of towns executed
in Nuremberg after the sketches of travellers.
The World Chronicle thus not only reflected contemporary interest in the history
of civilisation "from the beginning of the world unto our own time", but also a
widespread curiosity about geography. In this sense, it is a typical product of
the age of discovery, an epoch marked by Columbus reaching America, Magellan
sailing around the world, and attempts by cartographers to find the appropriate
visual form in which to present distant parts of the world.
Altdorfer attempted something similar. His Battle of Issus is
set against the imposing panorama of the Eastern Mediterranean.
The inspiration for this was probably provided by a map in Schedel's
chronicle. In the detail belowr, Cyprus is shown as a
disproportionately large island, with the Red Sea above it to the
left. Above right is the Nile delta, identified by its eight arms
and by the lakes thought to be its source. The mountain range beside
the Nile has no equivalent in reality, but is featured in Schedel's
The town situated on the near Mediterranean shore is probably not
intended to be Issus. Issus was an unimportant town in Altdorfer's
day, and is not mentioned in Schedel's book. According to the
Chronicle, the battle took place in 333 B.C. near the town of
Tarsus. This, by contrast, was a name to conjure with, associated in
many readers' minds with a school of philosophy which, in Roman
times, had been as famous as the schools of Athens and Alexandria.
First and foremost, however, Tarsus was known as the birthplace of
the Apostle Paul, a place of significance in church history. Perhaps
this explains why Altdorfer - anachronistically - embellished the
townscape with church towers.
For in spite of the Renaissance, the prevalent geographical and
historical pictures of the world c. 1500 were still dominated by
church doctrine. This, too, is reflected in Schedel's book. The acts
of God in creating the world are there presented as no less factual
than the number of soldiers who took part in the Battle of Issus.
Because God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh,
Schedel divided the entire history of mankind into seven "ages":
"Now, seven is a perfect number, seven days there are to a week,
seven stars that never sink ..." According to Schedel's
calculations, the human race c. 1500 had reached the seventh, and
final, "age". The end of the world was nigh.
The end of the world is nigh
The Battle of Alexander (detail)
Many of Schedel's and Altdorfer's contemporaries were tormented
by the fear that the world was coming to an end. Even Luther
believed it. One of Luther's commensals reported: "the following day
he again spoke much of the Day of Judgement and of the end of the
world, for he has been troubled by many terrible dreams of the Last
Judgement this half year past ..." On another occasion Luther
complained: "Dear Lord, how this world is reduced ... It is drawing
to a close." Or: "When I slept this afternoon I dreamt the Day of
Judgement came on the day of Paul's conversion."
Dreams, premonitions and prophecies of the end of the world were fed
not only by calculations based on the "seven days" premise, as in
Schedel's work. Calculations of an entirely different order, those
of the prophet Daniel, seemed to point in the same direction. He had
predicted that four kingdoms would come and go, before the com-ing
of the kingdom of the Lord. The four kingdoms were thought to be
Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. This was problematic, however, for
the Roman Empire had long since passed away. A route out of the
quandary -was found by propounding that Rome still existed - in the
form of the papacy. By Luther's time, however, the papacy was so
much gone to seed that it really did seem on its last legs. Luther:
"Daniel saw the world as a series of kingdoms, those of the
Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans. These have passed away.
The papacy may have preserved the Roman Empire, but that was its
parting cup; now that, too, is gone into decline."
This comment, along with other examples of Luther's "table-talk",
was recorded in 1532, four years after Altdorfer began work on his
painting. Altdorfer was undoubtedly aware of the eschatalogical
preoccupations of his contemporaries. As a member of the leading
body of the town in which he lived, he was forced constantly to deal
with questions relating to the church.
If we take for granted that Altdorfer knew of these things, and that
he, too, sensed what it was to live at the end of Time, then the sky
over the Battle of Issus assumes a new meaning. In the original
work, the sky was bigger; the painting was reduced in size at a
later date when strips were cut from all four sides, with the
largest section removed from the top. The moon, too, originally
stood further from the corner of the painting. Even in its present
size, however, the sky covers more than a third of the painting's
surface. With its sharply contrasting lights and darks, dynamic
congregation of clouds and sun reflected in the sea, it suggests the
occurence of an extraordinary event.
The exact nature of this event was expounded by Daniel: the second
of the kingdoms anticipated by God and prophesied by Daniel cedes,
near Issus, to the third, as the Greeks defeat the Persians.
However, the change of power is, at the same time, a stage further
on the world clock, a step closer to the impending end of the world.
Viewed in this way, The Battle of Issus had a direct bearing
upon the present.
It is thought that Wilhelm IV wanted the painting to celebrate the
grandeur of the individual. He wanted a Renaissance painting. What
he got was a work whose view of the world was dominated in equal
parts by new ideas and medieval tradition: even the cleverest and
boldest of individuals cannot decide the course of world history -
that is the province of God alone.
A Battle that Changed the World
An eyewitness to a cosmic event
Dreadful he may be, but Alexander possesses supernatural powers.
If those eyes hadn't looked at me that way, that battle would not
have been lost. I would not have fled.
Monologue spoken by King Darius, in Klaus Mann's Alexander: A
Utopian Novel, 1929
Alexander in pursuit
Alexander, whom posterity styles "the Great", was twenty-three
years old when he and his Greek troops encountered an adversary old
enough to be his father, King Darius III of Persia. Battle was
joined on the plain of Issus, an old Mediterranean port near what is
now the Turkish-Syrian border, in 333 BC. The brilliant Alexander, a
pupil of the philosopher Aristotle, managed to break into the
Persian left flank. He is said to have looked so piercingly into
Darius's eyes that the Persian king fled. His troops panicked and
the massacre that ensued lasted until late that night.
During the battle Darius's mother, wife and children were captured.
Alexander treated them honourably, which earned him the respect of
the Persians. As hostages, however, they did influence Darius's
behaviour. Yet, when Darius showed readiness to compromise,
Alexander refused his offer. His decision made world history. He
wanted to conquer Persia, but much more he wanted to rule the world:
"Should you desire to know what my aim is, you should know that the
bounds of my new Empire will be those that God has set the earth."
After defeating Darius a second time, he conquered Egypt, the
kingdom of Babylon and eastern Persia, calling himself the "King of
all Asia." He drove the borders of his vast empire far beyond what
is now Pakistan, all the way east to India and the banks of the
River Bias. His victories were not merely political. More
importantly, he carried Hellenic culture with him everywhere he
went. He also promoted religious tolerance, including of Judaism.
Napoleon thought highly of him, admiring in particular Alexander's
ability to win the hearts of the peoples he conquered.
Albrecht Altdorfer was the first great painter to take landscape as
his exclusive subject matter. He represented the historic Battle of
Issus as one of his contemporaries, the German physician and scholar
Paracelsus, might have viewed it: an epic struggle of life and death
fought out on a cosmic scale, whose drama is reflected in the
swirling clouds above and the endless vista bevond.
The camp outside Issus, as Altdorfer imagined the scene