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Diverse ages captured in one lively arena

Albrecht Altdorfer's fabulous "The Battle of Alexander" is history retold as fairy tale. In it, the battle between Alexander the Great and Darius, King of the Persians, is depicted as though it were a 16th-century Northern European conflict between armies of armored knights taking place within a breathtakingly beautiful alpine landscape.

It depicts war as spectacle, as means to glory, as the final device leading to absolute power. It's how very young boys and possibly very old generals, remembering only its color and excitement, perceive war to be: all uniforms, beautiful weapons, and martial music -- without fear or pain or terrible wounds, and certainly without boredome or drudgery.

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It's an extraordinary painting, one of a series of historical pictures made for Duke William IV of Bavaria. It's thoroughly German. Only a German, and then only one with a particular kind of background and with a special understanding of late 15th-century Flemish art, would ever have conceived of such a work.

An artist of another region wouldn't have concentrated so hard on making the physical surface of the painting so vibrant and tempting to touch. The paint has been so lovingly applied, the lights and darks and the colors so sensitively arranged and built up, that one has the same urge to run one's hand over its surface as one does over exquisite embroidery or a sumptuous tapestry.

Now that focus on surface liveliness is a very Northern European and particularly German characteristic, and was especially marked in the paintings of that period. The Renaissance never quite took hold in this corner of the globe, where painting tended to be as much painstakingly executed craftsmanship as portraiture and storytelling, and where artists often had as much experience goldsmithing or engraving designs on armor as drawing or painting pictures. Even Durer and Holbein, the two great German masters of the late 15th and early 16th centuries who came the closest to grasping the ideals of the Renaissance, retained their love for surface ornamentation and embellishment to the very end.

If there was one thing Altdorfer could paint better than anyone else it was a deep, lush, dark green forest with its millions of trunks, branches, twigs, and leaves, its velvety mosses, its vines and occasional shafts of sunlight. An Altdorfer forest teems with precisely observed and carefully delineated plant life, and yet somehow manages to create such an aura of mystery and other- worldliness that we would not be at all surprised, were we ever to find ourselves in one, to come upon a unicorn or a dragon or some other mythical beast.

His touch was magical because he loved to make every detail as complex as possible, every color relationship as rich and dramatic as possible, every square inch of his surfaces as vibrantly alive and shimmering as possible. Flat areas of color and simple line drawing drove him to distraction. What he wanted was visual excitation and tactile stimulation.

And he certainly got what he wanted in "The Battle of Alexander," which teems and wriggles with life from top to bottom and in every section and detail. Every form has been so lovingly delineated, modeled, and highlighted that one senses that this picture is as much an inventory of every man, horse, weapon, tree, mountain, and cloud in it as it is the depiction of a historical event.

The marvel of it stems too from the fact that he conceived the military action as though it were a dense forest consisting of thousands of warriors, colorful banners, glistening pieces of armor, bristling lances, charging horses -- or as a gorgeous floral garden.

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But that isn't all. He has, as if by magic, contrived to make the entire magnificent panorama consistent and all of a piece. We don't feel that the composition is divided into exotic battle, mountain landscape, and dramatic sky, but, rather, that every detail and section is part of a unified whole, a crucial and essential component of a clearly conceived and precisely plotted world.

It is this ability to conceive a personalized universe and to populate it with creatures and landscapes totally in harmony with it which sets the truly imaginative artist apart from the merely clever one. And Altdorfer was one of the most genuinely imaginative painters in a period particularly rich in creative imagination.

One need only think of Bosch, Grunewald, Durer, Bruegel -- and literally dozens of others -- to realize that the years immediately preceding and extending into the first half of the 16th century were fertile ones for artists of rich and exotic imaginations.

For Northern Europe it was the time when medieval attitudes were coming to grips with Renaissance standards and ideals. When the mysteries and darknesses of the Northern Middle Ages were being challenged by Mediterranean philosophies and points of view.

"The Battle of Alexander" was painted a full generation after Leonardo's "Mona Lisa" and Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling, and yet it belongs to an earlier age and way of viewing the world and art than do those two great Italian works.

Only in the grand and spectacular conception of the composition, in its deep, open space, does Altdorfer reflect the Renaissance notion that man should look around him and pay more attention to thism world, should learn to understand and respect the laws of thism world.

When we look at the picture's foreground, at the dense confusion of the battle, we are still in the Middle Ages. But, as our eye ascends upward toward the landscape and the sky, we begin to feel something of the excitement, the opening-up toward startlingly new horizons, which was the keynote of the Renaissance.

This picture, then, represents one of those relatively rare moments when one age supersedes another and when both manage symbolically to coexist for one last moment in a work of art.

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