Dream Vision (Apocalyptic Dream): Albrecht Dürer, 1525. Watercolour on paper, 30 x 43 cm. Text written by the artist beneath the watercolour: "In 1525, during the night between Wednesday and Thursday after Whitsuntide, I had this vision in my sleep, and saw how many great waters fell from heaven. The first struck the ground about four miles away from me with such a terrible force, enormous noise and splashing that it drowned the entire countryside. I was so greatly shocked at this that I awoke before the cloudburst. And the ensuing downpour was huge. Some of the waters fell some distance away and some close by. And they came from such a height that they seemed to fall at an equally slow pace. But the very first water that hit the ground so suddenly had fallen at such velocity, and was accompanied by wind and roaring so frightening, that when I awoke my whole body trembled and I could not recover for a long time. When I arose in the morning, I painted the above as I had seen it. May the Lord turn all things to the best." (Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna)
One is unlikely to come upon many authentic dreams in texts from another time; I mean dreams that the dreamer himself has hastily noted down upon awakening. Some splendid dreams recorded by Leonardo in his Notebooks bear a curious resemblance to his drawings and paintings, but they give rather the impression of some oneiric experience extended into the state of waking or half-waking than of a dream properly speaking. The poignant dreams of Dante in the Vita Nuova and the great allegorical dreams of Cardano are located also within this intermediary zone -- between dream, dream perceived upon awakening, and visio intellectualis -- experienced by numerous poets, painters and philosophers from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, but into which modern man rarely ventures or, when he does stray into it, does so unprepared and without a guide.
Yet we possess from a man of the sixteenth century the extraordinary account of a dream which is nothing but a dream, and, what is more, accompanied by a supporting sketch. It is found in Dürer's Journal . . .
This dream is striking for its complete lack of symbols. A psychoanalyst would suppose that the great painter was obsessed by water, but that remains to be proved. Water is not very dominant in the paintings and engravings of Dürer, and when it does appear, it is never catastrophic. One thinks of the peaceful Inn, with its limpidity that fills us today with nostalgia, in which the walls of Innsbruck are reflected, or of the calm Adige lapping the walls of Trent, or of that darker, almost fiercely solitary pond in a clearing which also possesses an almost imperturbable tranquillity. Not only is the image of violent water almost totally absent from his work, but even this inundation seen in a dream doesn't at all correspond to the Biblical sort of Flood in which mankind's fear and despair dramatically predominate. The sole rain which falls in the Apocalypse, engraved some fifteen years earlier, consists of huge drops of water falling from a cloud in which there appears a dragon with a lamb's head, and this is a minor detail. What is surprising, moreover, is how little cosmic these images from the Book of Revelation are in Dürer, and perhaps also in St. John before him, despite the showers of stars, the flames and the clouds -- which are symbolic configurations of the merely human drama.
In his oneiric sketch, on the contrary, the visionary is a realist, and it is of a cosmic drama that he is the spectator. He has the precision of a physicist. At the shock of the first waterspout, he tried to measure how far away he was from the point of impact, and then to judge the others in comparison with it. He noted the apparent slowness, then the accelerating, dizzying speed of these downpourings from far above. What is rare in a dream, so far as I am aware, is that he felt the impact and heard the thunder of the falling water. One curious detail is that he says he was awakened by the shock of the first cataract, leaving us uncertain as to whether this awakening was part of his dream or whether he fell back asleep at once and was plunged again into the same cataclysm. In either case, the effect is one of natural disaster perceived without reference to any human concept as it might have been refracted in a block of crystal without any human eye's beholding it. The terror which shakes the sleeper is, to be sure, a human reaction, yet an animal might just as well have experienced it, and this physical perturbation is very similar to that of an earthquake.
Look closely at the sketch, or rather the wash drawing, which depicts this dream. The enormous waterspout like a mass of blue-black clouds involuntarily makes us think today of an atomic mushroom; but we must reject such an overly facile prefiguration. The landscape seems crushed in advance by the dirty blue floods that fall vertically from the sky; the earth and the water which has already fallen are mixed together in a muddy brown and murky gray: if one were obliged to identify this place with some spot on earth, one would think of the Lombard plain -- which Dürer crossed more than once -- because of the few scattered trees which are vaguely present in that atmosphere of catastrophe yet which one feels were planted and perhaps pollarded by the hand of man. Far off, made small by the distance, hardly perceptible at first glance, some brownish structures huddle at the edge of a bay, apparently ready to turn back into clay. What is about to be destroyed is not especially beautiful.
I repeat: there is no religious symbol in the margin, no avenging angels signifying God's wrath, no alchemical symbol of the "forces which descend," which would be pointless in the presence of the terrible gravitation of the cataracts. Nor is there any humanistic meditation, tragic as in Michelangelo or melancholy as it will be in Poussin, in the face of our greatness and smallness when confronted with the raging universe. Unless, perhaps, the best aspects of humanism are contained within this capacity, even in a dream and at the heart of a kind of ontological anguish, to persist in taking the measure of things.
The narrative itself ends on a pious formula, placed there by a man awakened from his dream. It reminds us, had we been tempted to forget, that Dürer was a Christian -- twice a Christian, as it were, inasmuch as he was the heir and sublime interpreter of medieval piety on the one hand, and a citizen of Nuremberg, on the other, who at the end of his life hailed the Reformation. It can be variously interpreted as a quasi-mechanical propitiatory formula, as the more or less sincere assertion of an optimism based on divine benevolence (as inconclusive as some casual sign of the cross), or, on the contrary, as a very conscious submission to the order of things, which is always characteristic of every authentically religious great spirit. Marcus Aurelius accepting what the universe wills, Lao-tse in harmony with the void and Confucius with Heaven. But to say "on the contrary" is too much. We imagine that simple faith and impersonal adherence are somehow joined within those depths of human nature where the principle of contradiction does not enter. As such, the Christian mantra no doubt helped Dürer to emerge unscathed from his dreadful dream.
Marguerite Yourcenar (1903-1987): from On a Dream of Dürer's, from Hamsa (second of two issues devoted to "L'Esotericisme d'Albrecht Dürer"), 1977, reprinted in Le temps, ce grand sculpteur, 1983; translated by Walter Kaiser in collaboration with the author in That Mighty Sculptor, Time, 1992
View of Kalchreut: Albrecht Dürer, c. 1511, watercolour and gouache on paper (Kunsthalle, Bremen)
Willow Mill: Albrecht Dürer, 1496-1498, watercolour and gouache on paper, 251 x 367 mm (Kunsthalle, Bremen)
Landscape near Segonzano, in the Cembra Valley: Albrecht Dürer, 1495, watercolour, 210 x 310 mm (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)