The Observant Pedestrian and Albrecht Dürer's Promenade

Mark A. Meadow
Department of History of Art
University of California at Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara, CA 93106

Text = ca. 8500 words
Footnotes = ca. 2500 words

The observant pedestrian, crossing the Spreuerbrücke from one side of Luzern to the other, discovers something unusual as soon as he enters the protection of the wooden roof which extends the length of the bridge. Above his head, lodged on the first supporting crossbeam of the peaked roof, is a triangular image depicting a macabre group of dancing skeletons (plates 1-2). This panel painting, the pedestrian realizes as he continues on his way, is merely the prelude to an entire series of images which will accompany him on his way across the river and back again, as a backwards glance confirms the existence of the second half of the series mounted back to back with the first. The dark images are at first difficult to make out in the dim light of the covered bridge, but as the viewer's eyes adjust it becomes apparent that the subsequent images continue the theme set by the first. The next painting to address the viewer is of the Expulsion from Paradise, the moment when Death entered the world and claimed man as his legitimate victim. From this image onwards the paintings form the systematic sequence of the Dance of Death, showing the animated skeleton/corpse of Death personified confronting in rigorous hierarchical order the representatives of all the various stations, professions and ages of the living, from Pope, Emperor and Cardinal through Pedlar, Fisherman and Farmer. The end of this procession of mortal encounters parallels the initial images which explain the presence of Death in the world, by depicting the Last Judgment, in which the dead (as opposed to Death personified) rise from the grave, and the temporal cycle of life and death comes to an end in the everlasting Life of salvation or in the torments of Hell.

The viewer may only follow the sequence of images comprising this Dance of Death, however, by retaining his original role of pedestrian. Due to the manner of the bridge's construction, each panel blocks a complete view of its successors, and it is only by taking a few steps forward that the viewer/pedestrian brings the next image fully into view, while he simultaneously loses sight of that just seen. It is thus a peculiar property of this illustrated bridge that the process of viewing is irrevocably linked to the physical procession of the viewer.

Indeed, this relationship between visual and physical process(ion) is inherent in the theme of the picture-cycle itself. The transition from life to death, the decaying of the physical components of human life, are themselves definable as processes. So too must we consider that the subject is a dance of Death, in which part of the impact of the picture-cycle is the disturbing and paradoxical spectacle of an animated corpse appearing in each and every image as it makes its way from the highest ranks of society to the lowest, the presence and progress of the Death-figure within the images seemingly parallelling that of the viewer/pedestrian in front of him. It is the realization that the two lines representing the moving paths of the viewer/pedestrian and Death must inevitably converge that is the message of the bridge.

The perception of meaning in the picture-cycle is intrinsically linked to the fulfilment of this dual role as viewer and pedestrian. His progress across the bridge, his every step, will bring him closer to the recognition of the inevitability of Death, who without prejudice claims all of mankind as his legitimate prey. The perambulation across the bridge becomes itself a meditation upon human mortality and its personal implications, each step bringing the viewer/pedestrian to yet another manifestation of Death, each step bringing the viewer/pedestrian perhaps closer to that image in the series which most nearly represents his own station in life, each step bringing the viewer/pedestrian one step closer to the knowledge and the actuality of his own demise and the finality of Judgement Day.

These twin processions of the viewer and of Death invoke and inhabit the dimension of time. Through the presence of the first and last panels, those which depict the introduction of Death into the temporal world and the invalidation of Death brought about by the end of that world, the Dance is placed in the narrative context of history, literally bounded by the beginning and end of time as defined by worldly human existence. Initially, the series would seem to delineate in a quite straightforward manner past, present and future. The Expulsion marks that moment in the past when human history began; the Judgement, that inevitable future moment when life, death, history and time as we know it will cease to exist. This leaves the Dance of Death itself as representative of the present condition of the world. It depicts a grim and unending cycle whose rhythms will repeat themselves variously and uniformly until the end of the dance is called by the sound of trumpets.

For the living viewer/pedestrian, however, for whom the world-history of the cycle becomes a metaphor for his own personal history, the perception of the moment in the Dance is not simply that of the present. Each panel viewed shows Death already in possession of his victim, already shading present into past. At the same time the continually renewed promise of each imminent but as yet unviewed image belongs still to the realm of the future: Death remains in abeyance until the viewer takes his next step forward through time and space. Thus the present resides only in the moments between the images, only with the viewer/pedestrian himself as he is accompanied across the bridge by the ever recurring figure of Death. The procession through the bridge has become a reenactment of the withering process of time: the claims already effected by Death, the images already seen, serve as signposts for the inevitability of those to come. The almost numbing repetition of scenes, each different yet also identical, can lead only to the conclusion that Death does claim all, that eventually the viewer/pedestrian must reach that hypothetical panel on which his own demise is shown. The passage of time, the elusive transition of future into past which is the present, is made palpable through the elementary acts of walking, looking and contemplating.

The Luzern bridge, whose picture cycle dates from 1626-1635, appears very late in the long tradition of the pictorial Dance of Death, but we can discover the above-described linkage of form, function and meaning, of the processes of creating, viewing and understanding the art, already in its earliest manifestations. While a debate exists concerning the origins of Dance of Death imagery --there are arguments for poetic, dramatic or pictorial primacy -- the form first becomes grounded in northern European visual culture in the fifteenth century. The Dance of Death apparently initially arose as architectural ornament, most notably for our purposes in the cemetery of the Dominican cloister in Basel of 1440, since Dürer visited that city during his Wanderjahre, but it was probably first seen in the Paris Cemetery of the Innocents, ca. 1424-25. Here too we must speak of a viewer/pedestrian, because the normal positioning of these murals immediately beside an ambulatory again allows only one scene at a time to enter the field of view of the beholder, despite the usual art-historical assumptions about the simultaneous availability of the continuous wall surface.

A glance at a detail of the right wing of Simon Marmion's St. Omer Altarpiece (plate 3), for example, can illustrate the manner in which such murals would have been viewed. Through an open doorway of the building which occupies the foreground of the painting, one can see the bright colours of a Dance of Death decorating the walls of an open cloister. The painted walls, and the path beside them, are protected by an overhanging roof. To the right two well-dressed figures sit restfully beside the central garden, but to the left another pair can be seen in the act of contemplating the macabre scenes on the wall. One figure points out to his companion a detail of the composition, while below each scene explanatory verses await their reading. The divisions between scenes are made pictorially and not architecturally as is the case on the Luzern bridge. Continually repeated macabre personifications of Death alternate with those mortals subject to his claims. To reach each in the series of Death's victims the viewer/pedestrian must walk past the animated skeletons which both link and divide them. It is only through the repeated perception and acknowledgment of death that the viewer may proceed through the image cycle, just as it is via his procession through the cycle that he comes to perceive the significance of Death's presence.

When the Dance of Death was transferred into printed form in the mid-fifteenth century, a similar pattern still linked the physical process of viewing to the process of interpretation, and to the process of Death which was its subject. The Dance of Death appeared in illustrated books very soon after its inception in the visual arts, first in woodcut blockbooks and then in engraved form. A German blockbook version appeared in Heidelberg ca. 1465, and two engraved editions were produced ca. 1485 in Paris and Heidelberg, published respectively by Marchand and Knoblochtzer. While we can no longer speak of a literal viewer/pedestrian in reference to the reader of such a book, there is an equivalent physical dimension to the viewing process. In a printed Dance of Death each page of the book usually contains only a single encounter between Death and one of his victims (see plate 10 and plate 12). In the earliest printed forms of the book each page was printed on one side only, and thus the viewer is required to turn the pages to follow every step of the sequence. Exactly as in the bridge in Luzern, the progress through the series sequentially reveals a further aspect of Death's power and simultaneously requires the obscuring of the image just seen. Again it is only by following the sequence, by passing from image to image, from page to page, from the past to the present, with the future continually and inevitably implicated, that we may comprehend the meaning of the Dance of Death.

In each of these examples, process and procession are inherent to the act of viewing and understanding an ordered series of images. It is the manner in which these series are constructed, quite literally so in the case of the Spreuerbrücke, which determines the nature of the viewer's interaction, both physical and intellectual, with the images. But can there be an analogous phenomenon within a unitary image? Clearly, the dimension of physical interaction is in this case greatly curtailed, if not wholly irrelevant. Yet it should be possible, by examining the semantic fields drawn upon and generated in such an image -- and by thus reconstructing the consequent mental, as opposed to physical, process of viewing demanded by the art itself -- to arrive at some understanding of how a complex of meaning is generated through interactions between that single image and its viewer.

It is the intention of this paper to demonstrate such interactions in an early engraving of Albrecht Dürer, the Promenade of ca. 1498 (plate 4). This print shares much with the Dances of Death discussed above: themes of life and death, process and procession; an exploration of the complexities of narrative time elicited by the exigencies of Death; the presence of less easily definable, but no less inexorable, demands placed on the viewer's participation in the creation of meaning. Dürer, however, drew upon a broader range of themes and sources than just those offered by the Dance of Death, and in so doing created an image of surprising subtlety and of great novelty. This diversity of reference complicates the process of precisely delimiting meaning in the work, a complication abetted by the very novelty of the print, which would have deprived contemporary viewers of a comfortable and established model for its interpretation.

Indeed, I shall argue that Dürer's Promenade effectively denies the possibility of a circumscribed definition of meaning: that the artist drew upon a range of diverse sources and themes, constructing intentional ambiguities to create a composition which resists attempts to fix its meaning precisely. Rather, the question which must be addressed is how meaning itself is construed in this engraving. While drawing on iconographic material in my argument, this study is not intended to trace the origins or histories of iconographic elements. I intend instead to show how a diverse group of such elements, available to the artist, were used to structure an image which invokes a different order of participation on the part of the beholder than that demanded by the images upon which he drew. In particular, I wish to show how Dürer has adopted and adapted specific artistic traditions to create an image which cannot be treated as a type of rebus -- a picture puzzle to be deciphered into a straightforward aphoristic message -- but instead overtly manipulates the viewer, shifting the arena of signification from the domain of the image into the mind of the beholder.

This shift is enacted through what I see as a very manipulative use of artistic traditions, including earlier works of Dürer himself. The Promenade draws upon a variety of themes: the unequal couple, the world-upside-down, the Fall of Man, Love and Death. In Dürer's manipulation of images of strolling lovers and the figure of Death he has constructed a composition dependent not only on the viewer's awareness of these iconographic traditions, but further on his self-awareness for its generation of meaning.

Dürer pursued innovation throughout his career, particularly in the realm of the graphic arts, and was concerned with issues of invention at all levels of the artistic process. He worked, moreover, during a period in which the interpretation of images itself became an increasingly problematized issue. Through examining a single engraving from the beginning of Dürer's career, as seen in the context of a small number of related images of geographical and chronological proximity, we gain some understanding of the manner in which his complex approach to creating an image results in a work which places complex demands on the individual viewer's role as interpreter.[1]

The engraving depicts a couple on a stroll in the country. The man is quite young and is very elegantly garbed. He wears a beret with an ostrich plume affixed, a short cape, a jerkin with puffed sleeves, tights and a codpiece. Prominently displayed is the young man's sword, placed suggestively, phallus-like, in front of his crotch.

The phallic dagger or sword hilt has, of course, a long tradition. It was well established in German print culture before Dürer's time, as may be seen in images such as the Lovegardens by the Master E. S., and in such works as the Housebook Master's Young Man and Death, to be discussed below in a different context. The frank substitution of a hard, upright object for the male member (seen again in a more playful context in the Men's Bath-house by Dürer of ca. 1497), lends these images, as it does the Promenade, an erotic, as opposed to a romantic or idyllic, air.

The young man's hat can be found in another early print of Dürer's, the Lady on Horseback and Lansquenet of ca. 1497 (plate 5). Identical down to the ostrich plume, it is found in this image not on the lansquenet's head, but instead on the lady's. The young woman's placement on the horse above the soldier, her wearing of his hat and the distressed expression on his face make this print an example of the 'world upside-down', or the reversal of the accepted roles of man and woman. Both figuratively and literally, the woman holds the reins. The exchange of glances and grasps testifies to the amorous nature of this print, as does the overtly phallic sword hilt, another shared feature with the Promenade.

The woman in the Promenade, shown in profile, appears to be older than the man. She wears the headgear of a Nuremberg matron, which differs from the long free hair or braids of an unmarried maiden.[2] She is costumed in an elaborate dress with slashed sleeves, a low bodice and a long and very full skirt. Her footwear has long points at the toes, which show her to be more old-fashioned than her companion, whose shoes lack these points. This work appears to be the last print in which Dürer includes such long-pointed shoes, fashions having changed around this time.[3]

This costume, most particularly the headdress, is first seen on the German woman depicted in Dürer's drawing of a Lady in Venetian Dress Contrasted with a Nuremberg Hausfrau of ca. 1495 (plate 6),[4] which shows a slightly less elaborate dress, but with similarities in the fall of the skirt, the chain-like band securing the low bodice and the over-long sleeves. Both women wear similar long-pointed slippers. In the print Dürer has noticeably rendered the woman ugly -- most notably in the goiter-like protrusion of her breastbone, her strongly pronounced chin, heavy lips, coarse features, and sagging posture -- no doubt to stress the difference in age between her and her companion. Her age is confirmed by a visual analogy set up by Dürer between her slipper and the leaf of the grass plant to the left of the youth. The plant is no longer in bloom, but has already gone to seed. Both the plant and the woman are shown as past their prime, and together bracket the young man.

The drawing, made during the first trip to Italy, displays Dürer's interest not merely in observing details of fashion and costume, but also in using these observations to compare and contrast figures analytically. This type of analytical comparison of costume has been put to use in the Promenade as a means of further suggesting disparity in age, particularly as evidenced by the subtle contrast of shoe styles.

The young man clasps his companion around the waist with his left hand, while gesturing with his right to the unseen space to the left of the image. He gazes fixedly at her, while her glance is directed abstractedly into the distance. His touch, gesture and glance appear to be intended to lead the woman on, although it is not certain from the image whether she is willing or not. Her passively crossed wrists suggest modesty and reticence, a pose which is probably deceptive in nature, as I will discuss below, and her troubled eyes appear to weigh the prospect of continuing on their path.

As in scenes of the Lovegarden the pair are situated in nature, though not the controlled nature of that genre. The two figures stand on a grassy knoll, placed in the extreme foreground of the composition. Behind the knoll a landscape stretches into the distance. The vista includes houses, trees, a river and even a few minuscule figures. The landscape is in the distant background and is seen from above. The knoll obscures any middle ground and the distance between foreground and background is extreme. The sense of distance is heightened by the use of aerial perspective, this effect created through the comparative lightness of the lines used to render the scene behind the knoll. Next to the man's thigh is a bridge with two figures, both of whom would easily fit into one of the spaces left by the cross-hatching on his leg, a juxtaposition which serves further to separate the couple from the world behind them.

The isolation of the couple from the social world, represented by the distant settlement behind them, creates both a sense of freedom and of threat. The possibly illicit relationship between an older woman and a younger man takes place outside the boundaries of the world of human society, amidst the fertility and potential menace of the natural world. This latent peril is dramatically present in the third and most disturbing figure of the image.

Directly behind the couple is a large, almost bare tree trunk which rises beyond the top of the picture. Half-obscured by the tree lurks a figure not at first apparent to the viewer, a figure of Death unobserved by the couple. Death is depicted as a partly fleshed skeleton, possessing hair, eyes and enough facial flesh to allow a derisive grin. The figure is wrapped in a loose, cloak-like garment -- the shroud of the dead -- and holds an hour-glass above its head, a macabre counterpoint to the elaborate headgear of the young man and his companion. Unlike the amorous couple, Death is shown as an active figure, vigorously thrusting himself around the tree trunk, knees flexed and garment waving in the breeze. The figure is so positioned that the upright, bare tree trunk rises between his legs: Death is not merely animate, but is virile in the extreme.[5]

His clasping fingers on its trunk echoing those placed by the young man on the small of the woman's back, the macabre figure twists serpent-like around the tree. In recognizing this allusion, the viewer is now offered a new theme, a new semantic field to add to those already considered. Combined with the general theme of temptation, this makes reference to the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden, but it is a reference strangely skewed in that here it is apparently man who tempts woman, and the interaction with the serpent as Death has not yet occurred. This reversal of roles presents a curious example of the world-upside-down. The man, in assuming the culturally normative role of the active party in a courtship, and therefore in a sense the role of a seducer, paradoxically violates the established role of Adam as the seduced in the Eden narrative.[6]

Interestingly, however, the proximity of the woman to the serpentine figure of Death, which awakens the associations with Edenic imagery, suggests for the viewer that despite her apparent passivity she may retain her role as seductress. Her compositional centrality between Death and the youth lends weight to her temporal centrality within the dynamics of the narrative scene. The contrast between the relatively explicit, active gesture of the young man and the possibility of an implicit, passive control by the woman creates for the viewer a scene of unexpected psychological tension, of unspoken and as yet unfulfilled desires and actions.

There is, in fact, in the whole composition a sense of implied or imminent movement. The breeze which animates Death's cloak also blows the large grass plant below the man's outstretched hand and the other, smaller blades of grass in the direction of his gesture.[7] All three figures face approximately to the left, the woman fully so. The sweep of her dress, part of it still to emerge from the right, rises to the centre of the image , where the strong horizontal created by the detailed passage of her hands, the pommel of the sword and the young man's gesturing hand also lead the viewer outside the image to the left.

This movement is thwarted, however. The woman is shown treading on her own dress, pulling the fabric sharply downward and inhibiting her further progress while the young man's legs are pressed so firmly together against his sword that movement is impossible. Although the lurking threat of the figure of death seems to urge escape out of the picture, the figures have immobilized themselves.

Dürer has emphasized the gazes of all three figures, but none meets that of the others. The man gazes at the woman, she glances out beyond the frame and the figure of Death watches the pair unseen. Only the threatening and hideously amused expression of Death is readable with any certainty; those of the other figures are indeterminate. Panofsky would have us see the youth's fixed gaze as one of 'tragic gravity,' and while I would argue that the phallic sword leaves that gaze open to quite another interpretation, both readings remain projections. In fact, the interpretation of this expression varies in the course of viewing -- it may be read one way when seen in the context of strolling lovers, another way when seen in relation to the lurking figure of death.

Panofsky included a brief discussion of this print in his Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer, an account which is well worth addressing here:

A pair of happy lovers has stopped on a stroll through blossoming country; the young man points out to the girl the beauty of the scenery, but both his gesture and the splendour of the sunlit landscape are belied by the tragic gravity of his eyes which rest upon his companion with an expression not unlike that of Death in the Housebook Master's unforgettable dry point Death and the Youth.[8] For É the young lover has sensed the awful presence that lurks behind the tree, invisible to the eye but overshadowing the soul of man when he rejoices in an hour of bliss.[9]

This account of the Promenade as an idyll is compellingly written and raises an important question: what led Panofsky, so acute a viewer of art, to this reading of the image? The question is phrased in a way which suggests its own answer, that the engraving sets up expectations for the viewer, expectations which only after protracted examination reveal themselves to have remain unfulfilled. The dramatic nature of the print, the imminence and implications of the encounter between Death and the couple, prompt the viewer into reading gazes and facial expressions as already manifesting awareness of the impending event. Panofsky, in reading the youth as already aware of Death's presence, in placing the scene at a later point in the narrative than I suggest, must situate the image in an entirely different iconographic tradition.[10] In a similar fashion, the theme of strolling lovers in the country, here not overtly caricatural in its manner, does not immediately suggest to the viewer the tensions between the couple or the moral dimensions of their tryst. Without acknowledgment of the differences in age between the two, of the added dimension of the semantic field of the unequal lovers, Panofsky again must place the image in an idyllic tradition which significantly postdates it.

The woman is almost certainly not a pretty MŠdchen, but is instead a not very attractive matron. The headgear that identifies her as from Nuremberg also replaces the long free hair or braids that belong to an unwed girl. The concept of the two as 'happy lovers' is contradicted by her abstracted glance and passive hands. She does not rebuff the advances of her companion, but also does not actively return them.

In Dürer's ouvre the motif of strolling lovers is first found in one of his earliest drawings, the Young Couple Taking a Walk (plate 7), which shows two figures more equal in age than those of the Promenade, both still young and attractive.[11] The couple exchange glances as they walk and clasp each others' left hands, and the man has his arm about the girl's waist, as in the engraved Promenade. Although the couple is amorous, the drawing is not as overtly erotic as the print. The young man has a dagger at his waist, but its off-centred position on his belt somewhat belies an explicit phallic analogy. The young woman, whose braided hair identifies her as unmarried and the scene as one of courtship, obviously returns the youth's affections and the drawing is here perhaps more appropriately termed idyllic, without the unease and tension of the print.

The theme of strolling lovers has been combined in the Promenade with one from a different tradition, first encountered in a woodcut possibly by Dürer from Sebastian Brandt's Narrenschiff of 1494.[12] Entitled the Star Fool, the print illustrates false instruction, the leading of a companion down a figurative and literal path (plate 8). In the context of the series of images and verses which comprise the book, the woodcut illustrates the foolishness of the study of astrology, showing the Fool of the title leading a student astray. The Fool walks in the countryside beside a young man, grasping him by the shoulder and gesturing toward the sun, moon and stars overhead. Beyond the evident similarities in pose among the figures of the two images, there is an equivalent stress placed on the leading, and misleading, of one figure by the other and on the relative passivity of the figure being led.

Another related work by Dürer is the Peasant Couple of ca. 1497 (plate 9). Here we see a loutish and apparently intoxicated peasant haranguing a female companion. Although very different in mood, this print shares some striking similarities with the Promenade. There is a parallel in the gestures of the two men and in their dominating, insistent leading of the female figures. The unusual positioning of the hands of the women and their seeming reticence are also common to both images. This gesture conveys an impression of passivity, the crossed wrists in the Promenade particularly evoking a sense of submission, even while paradoxically suggesting sexual complicity.

The drawing of The Pleasures of the World, which might or might not be from Dürer's hand, contains our couple from the Promenade, shown in mirror image toward the centre of the drawing. Death too is present, found in the lower right hand corner. The young man's gesture is here quite explicit in meaning; he offers his companion the delights of wining, dining, music and lovemaking, depicted in great profusion throughout the drawing.[13]

All of these works share the common themes of instruction, initiation or temptation, always with the implication of falseness. The man's, or fool's, demonstrative gesture seeks to convey knowledge -- the false knowledge of the stars, the confused knowledge of the drunkard, or the vain knowledge of the sensual pleasures of the world. In the Promenade the strolling lovers and the strolling conversants have been conjoined, love and knowledge, perhaps false love and false knowledge, made one. These in turn have been linked with another source of signification, another source of knowledge of immediate visceral impact for the viewer: that conferred by Death.

Two types of Death imagery, which I have termed the dramatic and the juxtapositional, appear to be combined in Dürer's Promenade. The essential difference between the two lies in the nature of the various permutations possible in the relationships among the beholder, the figure of Death, and the other figures in the image.[14]

The first of these, the dramatic type, is typified by images of the Dance of Death, a late example of which, the Spreuerbrücke of Luzern, I discussed in the introduction to this article.[15] In this thematic tradition, the figure of Death is shown paired with examples of various classes, occupations and types, the implied moral being that all must inevitably die and be made equal by death, regardless of power, wealth or beauty. In the dramatic type, Death actively menaces or claims his victims in the image, reminding the viewer of the eventual struggle that will signify his own end.

This iconographic tradition may be exemplified by the Dodtendantz of ca. 1485, published by Heinrich Knoblochtzer in Heidelberg (plate 10 and plate 12).[16] In this series of woodcuts, Death is shown paired with a series of figures in descending social order from the pope and kaiser to the merchant and 'everyone'. In each case the figure of Death is shown as highly animated, dancing vigorously to the music he provides on a constantly changing series of musical instruments. The figures he confronts display a range of reactions, from the apparently slight perturbance of pope and cardinal, and the oddly amused look on the face of a nun, to the expressions of horror, fear or distress of such characters as the doctor, scribe and maiden.

The Dance of Death differs from Dürer's Promenade in its sequential character and in its connection with an accompanying text. Its dramatic nature is heightened by the verses providing a scripted statement for each figure to recite in an alternating counterpoint with Death. In a sense, the images thus function as particularized illustrations of a written dialogue. Dürer's engraved Promenade, independent as it is of a text or a canonical, associated body of images, must rely on subtler pictorial means to engage and affect the viewer.

One of Dürer's earliest engravings also exemplifies the dramatic type of Death imagery reduced to a single image, and has already linked the type with a sexual theme. In the Woman Attacked by Death, a woman in a Nuremberg costume is shown seated on a rustic bankseat, similar to those found in garden love scenes by the Master E.S., beside an emaciated and hideous naked male figure (plate 13). As the woman struggles to free herself from his grasp, her face contorted in anguish, he tears at her dress, the ravages of death and of sexual frenzy made equal.

This dramatic type of Death imagery is a narrative mode of depiction in which the viewer's understanding of the theme is conveyed by the gestures and actions of the figures in response to each other. Essential is the figure's cognizance of their situation, the look of horror, worry or dismay on the part of the living; and the threatening gestures and sardonic leers of the dead.[17] These provide the viewer with an already delineated scenario and a pre-determined reaction to the horrors of death.

A second type of Death imagery relies for its effect not on narrative action, but rather on the beholder's recognition of, and subsequent contemplation upon, an analogy between live, youthful figures and their dead, decomposing counterparts. The former remain characteristically unaware of the existence of their macabre equivalents, although they do frequently engage the viewer by a direct gaze. These analogous figures may occur on one or more panels of a painting, as in the 1487 Double Portrait of Hieronymus Tscheckenbürlin in Basel, or on opposite sides of the same work as in the Ulm Standing Bridal Pair of ca 1460-70 (plate 14). The viewer must recognize the dead as the transfiguration of the living, and is left to draw the conclusion that he will be subject to the same fate. As this involves a mental equation of the two versions of the same figure, this may be called a juxtapositional or inferential type.

The Ulm panel, now split between Cleveland and Strasbourg, is characteristic of this type. The front of the panel shows a pair of young lovers in a bower, smiling as they gaze into each others' eyes, the young man with his arm around the lady's waist. The couple are young, handsome, happy and wealthy -- enviable in every manner.

The reverse side of the panel, however, shows the two in a macabre transformation. Instead of two young lovers, the beholder sees two rotting corpses. The bodies swarm with snakes, toads, scorpions and other vermin. The pretty faces have shrivelled into grimacing, skull-like masks. Their fine clothing is changed into the sack-cloth of the dead and their bower of leaves and blossoms has become a desolate wasteland.

The couple on the front of the panel are oblivious to the impending fate depicted on its back. It is the beholder who is forced to realize the vanity of the mundane world; to recognize his own equatability with the two lovers; to realize that his youth, power or wealth will not avail against the ravages of Death; to contemplate the inevitability of this transformation of the flesh. Two disjunct moments of time are presented in juxtapositional images such as this: a prior state of health and youth and a subsequent state of corruption and decay. Crucially it is here the viewer who in his mind must bridge the temporal gap between the two versions of the couple, imagining the process by which the metamorphosis occurred and thereby relinquishing the peace of mind which is only possessed by the painted figures through their obliviousness to their fate.

The contemplative nature of the juxtapositional type of death imagery is perhaps best illustrated by its use on rosary beads. In several sixteenth-century examples, individual beads, or the pendant attached at the base of the rosary, are carved with two faces back-to-back, one of a living figure, the other a death's head (plate 14). An instrument of meditation, the rosary here carries the added message of the transformation brought about by Death. As he contemplates one visage, the user of the rosary must touch its counterpart, and can with the flick of a finger enact the transfiguration from life to death and back.[18] Important to note, however, is the more purely abstract nature of the juxtaposition as manifest in the rosary beads. Unlike the figures found in paintings such as the Ulm panels, the bodiless heads of rosary beads lack the explicit carnal implications of those images.

By the end of the fifteenth century these themes began to be modified, and often combined into new and more evocative images. An important example, and one likely known to Dürer, is the Young Man and Death of the Housebook Master, ca. 1485-90, which belongs primarily to the dramatic type of Death imagery, but contains elements of the juxtapositional type as well (plate 15). The print shows a well-dressed young man in hose and doublet, with long pointed Schnabelschuhe and a phallically suggestive dagger and purse hanging at his belt. His youthful state is emphasized by the spring flowers seen behind him. His companion in the print is a sober, shrivelled corpse who clasps the young man by the shoulder. This is not the generic personification of Death as known from the Dance of Death, from which the format of the work is derived, but the young man himself, transformed by age and decay.[19] As in the Ulm panel, the rich clothing is changed to sackcloth, the luxurious curls of hair into sparse strands, and the handsome face into a shrivelled skull. The long, fashionable toes of the young man's shoes are visually paired with the tail of a snake and the flowers of spring with the grass gone to the seed of autumn.

Most important is the relationship between the two figures. While it adheres to the format of the Dance of Death in showing them confronting one another and Death grasping the youth by his shoulder, there is a psychological difference between this print and the earlier types. The youth does not recoil in horror and Death does not threaten or leer. The glance they exchange and their facial expressions are not easily decipherable. Rather, the two appear absorbed in meditation of themselves and of their mutual confrontation.[20]

For the viewer, whose own predicament is here so vividly imaged, this confrontation raises expectations of a dramatic reaction which remain unmet and thus create tension. The youth crosses his arms on his breast, echoing a traditional pose assumed by the dead in funerary statuary. He seems almost to smile, reminiscent of the nun in Knoblochtzer's Dodtendantz. Death places his hand on the youth's shoulder, but the gesture does not appear to be appropriative, but instead exhortatory, almost consoling, in mood.

This ambiguity of expression and gesture forces the viewer, in a much more effective way than either the standard dramatic or juxtapositional type of image, to meditate on both the image and his own mortality. In projecting emotions and thoughts onto the figures the beholder is presented with the opportunity to envision the inevitability of his own death and take stock of his own mortality. As opposed to the images of the Dodtendantz, the figures in this print do not act out a scene of confrontational engagement -- of threat and horror, violence and resistance, or force and capitulation -- but instead demonstrate a model of calm meditation for the viewer to imitate. This in turn represents a modification of the juxtapositional mode seen in the panels by the Ulm Master. Here the location of the two figures within the same pictorial space, the elaborate visual counterpoint between the two which establishes their existential equivalence, the physical contact of the man and his dead counterpart, and the psychological engagement registered by the unwavering meeting of their eyes, all serve to make the act of juxtaposition inescapable on the part of the viewer.

Thus the Young Man and Death, while adhering to the format of the dramatic type -- showing the figures in physical confrontation with one another -- relies on the psychological impact of the juxtapositional type. The conflation of the two types results in an image of far subtler and more complex impact on the beholder. The figure of the youth, in confronting and contemplating his own demise, in effect acts out for the viewer not the horror and tragedy of the sudden onslaught of Death, but rather the meditative reverie meant to be invoked by juxtapositional images of death in general and this print in particular.

Dürer likewise conflates these two types of death imagery in the Promenade. While sharing many characteristics with the Housebook Master's Young Man and Death -- the contemplative gazes and expressions of the two young men, their lack of movement, the intimations of sexuality -- Dürer's work proceeds from our second type of death image, the juxtapositional. The Promenade, too, combines aspects of both, but the conflation is much more complete and includes aspects of other themes in addition.

Absorbed in their own actions, the lovers are unaware of the figure of Death lurking behind them. Dürer has placed the Death figure in hiding behind the tree where it cannot be observed by the couple and must be found by the viewer. In this way the image operates in a manner similar to the juxtapositional type, requiring the beholder to link the lovers with Death and supply the sense of meaning to the work.

In contrast to the juxtapositional images discussed earlier, this figure of Death is not comprehensible as a temporal transformation of one of the figures. He holds above his head one of the attributes of Death personified, the hourglass. The visual correlations between the Death figure and that of the youth serve to contrast the figures and not equate them. The extremely evident sexuality of Death presents a grotesque parody of the more modestly endowed youth. Moreover, this figure of Death is an active one, in contradistinction to the young man's self-imposed immobility. Death is shown moving around the tree, wearing his familiar rictus, with his gaze is clearly directed at the couple. In this respect, the figure is rooted in the dramatic tradition of Death imagery.

Together with the implied, although thwarted, movement of the couple, this dramatic quality of the Death figure lends the print the sense of a narrative, as does his physical presence within the same pictorial space as the two lovers. Because the beholder sees the couple before Death has threatened them, the confrontation remains potential in nature. Crucially, it is again the beholder who must not only make the juxtaposition between the lovers and Death, but who must also, in this image, envisage their eventual confrontation and thus augment the dramatic aspects as well. Unlike the dramatic images of the Dance of Death, the viewer is not given a pre-determined scenario of action and reaction between the dead and the living, but is faced with a set of incomplete events which evoke reflective resonances as their outcome is considered.

Furthermore, the viewer must take into account additional aspects of the work. While Death and the couple do not confront one another, the youth and his companion do; the nature of their impending relations, the disparity in their ages, the tensions implicit in their unmeeting gazes and self-impeded movement all contribute to an unease in the viewer which evoke issues of morality and social behaviour. Further still, the apparent difference in age between the lovers raises not only issues of morality, but also of mortality. Read from left to right, in the opposite direction of the implied movement of the image, the figures progress from youth through middle age to death, the sequence comprising the three ages of man. Like the hands of the youth crossed on his breast in the Young Man and Death, the lowered and crossed hands of the woman in the Promenade reiterate a familiar pose of the dead in funerary statuary. The woman's stance suggests that her intermediate position between youth and death should be read temporally as well as spatially.

Where the Housebook Master's Young Man and Death takes a narrative mode of imagery but treats it contemplatively, Dürer's Promenade does the opposite and dramatizes, or converts to narrative, a juxtapositional type. Dürer requires the beholder to engage actively in an imaginative interaction with the Promenade, thereby invoking a stronger and more individual response to its moral implications. The viewer must not only locate Death in relation to the lovers, but anticipate in his mind the resulting drama of their inevitable meeting. And again, as in the work of the Housebook Master, it is the viewer who must project emotions and thoughts onto the expressions of the couple, further heightening his personal reactions to the issues raised by the print.

In the end, many aspects of Dürer's print remain ambiguous or paradoxical, and others require close and prolonged inspection before they become apparent. What seems at first to be two young lovers strolling, turns out to be a young man and an older woman who are impeding their own progress. The man gestures demonstratively, yet the object of his gesture is obscure. The scene is one of seduction, but it is unclear which of the two figures is tempting and which is being tempted. Gaze is emphasized, yet no glance of any figure meets that of another or of the viewer. The blank expressions on the face of the man and his lover are left open to our projections. Death threatens the pair, but only the viewer is aware of his presence. Dürer has carefully constructed these interpretive ambiguities to ensure the viewer's involvement in the formation of meaning.

In an image which becomes increasingly more complex and elaborate the more it is examined, we are prevented from neatly summarizing meaning or content. This is in large part because so much of the formation of meaning is to be provided by the individual viewer -- it does not reside in the image to be identified and codified. And surely it is significant that Dürer treats a theme of Love and Death in this manner: diversity of reference, complexity of meaning, and the self-referentiality of the reading of this image are peculiarly appropriate to the themes of Love and Death, which are interrelated in a deeply psychological sense, linked to one another and to man in his most fundamental myths.[21]

The Promenade is an image which thematizes questions of knowledge. The couple are contemplating sexual knowledge; Death threatens to expose knowledge of mortality. Both ways of knowing did not exist before the Fall in the Garden of Eden. When man ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, sensuality and death were simultaneously made possible, were inextricably conflated. Death and temptation are coterminous; the figure of Death is twined about the tree like the serpent of temptation. Death does not threaten the pleasure of the couple, but rather awaits it -- the print is poised on the cusp of the moment when the woman will accept the offer of her lover, when Death will move from his place of concealment.

Where Panofsky has seen Love and Death to be in opposition to each other, perhaps as a result of the shifted temporal framework in which he situates the work, I prefer to see an apposition. As I have attempted to show, Dürer's approach to the construction of meaning in this work is a reflexive one -- making reference to previous works and traditions of art including his own, combining and conflating structures of signification to create new modes of meaning. Dürer, in the Promenade, forces the viewer to be self-conscious, to participate actively in shaping the meaning of the image in a personal and isolated interaction with Love and Death.[22]

This article began with a stroll across an unusual bridge decorated with a Dance of Death. In the course of the walk the linear movement through the covered bridge became for the pedestrian a meditation on the history of the world as defined by the presence of Death, which in turn served as a metaphor for his own personal history. The bridge is a manifestation of the inextricably linked processes of making, viewing and interpreting art, which in its very structure embodies the message it is meant to convey.

The Promenade lacks such an elaborate and effective external structure with which to make its impact on the viewer. Instead, it substitutes a complexity of reference and subtlety of expression which require a heightened order of participation in the formation of meaning: the viewer must now make a journey mentally rather than physically through and beyond the image, envisioning actions and reactions, events and their consequences. The small engraving is intimate not only physically but also temporally. Where the bridge encapsulates the entire history of mundane human existence, the Promenade remains entirely within the realm of personal history, conflating past and future into the poised moment of the present. Dürer offers enough to the viewer to suggest the Edenic associations which explain both Death's presence and the potentially immoral relationship between the couple, but does so without violating the moment of the image. The course of future events is similarly hinted at without a disruption to the tension and balance of the scene.

Depending as it does on resonances rather than references -- the Edenic imagery is implicit, not explicit, for example -- the Promenade is subtler in its demands on the viewer. The bridge conveys its message only through the physical complicity of the viewer, who proceeds through the structure as a pedestrian and in so doing sets in motion the machinery of time and death. The print substitutes a depicted promenade for an actual one, but it is no less integrally linked to the mechanisms of temporality and mortality. The processes of the inexorable approach of Death and of the physical ageing which distinguishes the woman from her companion are made contingent on the procession of the couple and the progress of their courtship. These in turn are dependent on the mental projection of the viewer, on his active engagement with untangling the web of associations raised by the image. It is paradoxically through the curtailment of the physical dimensions of the viewer's participation, by the incorporation of these into the image itself, that he is compelled to undertake a mental procession more individually profound in its implications.


I am deeply indebted to James Marrow, whose insight and assistance were invaluable to the process of writing this article. Svetlana Alpers and Randolph Starn provided critical responses to varying stages of the project, for which I am most grateful. Finally, I thank Laura Hollengreen, Sarah Cahill and Erika Naginski for their help and support in sorting through problems both of writing and of interpretation.

1. It is not insignificant that these complexities occur in a graphic work. The medium lends itself to technical innovation through the rapidity and inexpensiveness of production, which in turn grant the artist greater freedom in experimenting with new subject matter. For the viewer, the small size and cheapness of printed objects of art allow for the individual and private interaction with the images discussed here, an interaction that is literally "hands on" in nature. Deprived of the inherent value and signification of expensive materials and lacking the physical uniqueness of the individually crafted painting or sculpture, printed images substitute a novelty of subject matter and an enhanced personal engagement with the viewer. The relevant issues of a developing print culture in late medieval/Renaissance Germany, while beyond the scope of this paper, are discussed in M.Chrisman, Lay Culture, Learned Culture, 1480-1599, New Haven and London, 1982, which also provides an extremely helpful bibliography. A more general treatment of the rise of a print culture is found in E. Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, Cambridge, 1979. An unfortunately brief, but provocative, essay on Dürer and the printed image as a separate phenomenon of print culture, is found in C. Talbot, "Prints and the Definitive Image", Print and Culture in the Renaissance, Cranbury, 1986.

2. This point may be illustrated by an earlier example of comparative fashions. In the sequential pair of images from Knoblochtzer's publication of the Dodtendantz representing Death confronting a matron and a maiden, the older woman is shown with her hair covered, while the younger displays an elaborately braided coiffure (plate 11).

3. One of the more puzzling aspects of the costume are the letters written around the bodice of her dress, spelling out MARIA (or MORIA?). Whatever reference this may have had is now lost to us. It is interesting to note that in his copy of this print, Israhel van Meckenem omits these letters and in their place substitutes his initials, thus indicating both his observance of their presence and possibly his ignorance of their significance. Also curious is the apparent lack of any critical comment on this aspect of the work, despite the usual art-historical preoccupation with texts or inscriptions in images.

4. The costume, or or a variant thereof, is found in other of Dürer's early prints, notably in the Woman Attacked by Death, and the Unequal Couple, both of 1495. The age of the women in these images is clearly younger than that of the woman in the Promenade, and their physical charms more evident. This does not diminish the significance that they are clothed as Nuremberg matrons, which would seem to suggest an anxiety concerning changing social behaviour in the urban and commercial milieu of Nuremberg. See I. Veldman, "Lessons for Ladies", Simiolus, vol. 16, nos.2-3, pp. 113-28, for a discussion of an analogous issue in Dutch prints of the 16th and 17th centuries.

5. To my knowledge this is the first image to depict unequal lovers together with a figure of Death. A. Stewart, Unequal Lovers, New York, 1977, p. 98, cites a 1492 image of father-daughter incest with a demonic Antichrist as the first example of "the presence of evil in an Unequal Couple".

6. A similar relationship between Death and a Paradisial allusion is to be found in the St. Omer Altarpiece of Simon Marmion (plate 3), discussed above. The monastic cloister, as an enclosed garden, intrinsically possesses an Edenic reference. The opposition in Marmion's image of the two pairs of viewers, one absorbed in contemplation of the garden and the other in examining the painted Dance of Death serves to remind the viewer of the significance of the Eden narrative in explaining the presence of Death in the world, and to emphasize the loss of Paradise due to the sins of his progenitors.

7. Could this be a reference to Isaiah 40:6 : "All flesh is grass"?

8. see plate 15 for the Housebook Master's print.

9. E. Panofsky, The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer, Princeton, 1971, p. 69.

10. Idem. Panofsky sees this image not as a simple moralistic allegory of earthly vanity, but rather as a restatement of that theme in a manner that has "given way to a softly elegiac feeling prophetic of the later evocations of the 'Tomb in Arcadia'".

While this association of the print with Poussin's Et in Arcadia Ego carries with it the problems of any such anachronistic reading, Panofsky is fundamentally correct in avoiding a simplistic iconographic reading of the work. For a further discussion of this tradition of death imagery see also "Et in Arcadia Ego: Poussin and the Elegiac Tradition", in E. Panofsky, Meaning in the Visual Arts, Chicago, 1982.

11. The resemblance noted by many between the young man in this drawing and Dürer himself adds a piquant twist to the artist's use of this image as a source for the morally problematic print.

12. Precedent to Dürer we find the theme of strolling conversants, already associated with the connotations of false knowledge, in an image of Martin Schongauer, the engraved Two Turks in Conversation. Like the Promenade, in this print we see two figures strolling outdoors, the man farthest from us gesturing beyond the space of the image in the direction towards which they are headed. The nearer of the two is shown in profile to allow the artist greater possibilities for caricaturing his features. The artist has accented their foreign qualities by drawing attention to their prominent, curved weapons, one of which is decorated with a crescent moon. Their discussion is alien to the viewer, as are their costumes, weapons and features.

13. See Strauss, The Complete Drawings of Albrecht Dürer, vol. 6, no. XW.163, New York, 1974.

14. This typology of Death imagery is not meant to be complete. Death has a long and profound visual history in our culture, one certainly not exhausted by this discussion. The two types of Death imagery discussed in this paper were selected both for their aptness to the prints under discussion, and because they were dominating modes in this period and location. We have already encountered another type, in Panofsky's evocation of Poussin's Et in Arcadia Ego. See note 7 above.

15. See A. Reinle, Die KunstdenkmŠler der Schweiz, vol. 2, no. I, pp. 94-103. For a general introduction to, and an extremely broad historical discussion of, the Dance of Death, see S. Cosacchi, Makabertanz. Der Totentanz in Kunst, Poesie und Brauchtum des Mittlealters, Meisenheim, 1965. Also of interest in this context, as for general issues of late medieval death imagery, are J. Wirth, La Jeune Fille et la Mort, Genve, 1979; and H. Rosenfeld, "Der Totentanz als europŠisches PhŠnomen", AusgewŠhlte AufsŠtze, Gšppingen, 1987.

16. This version of the Dance of Death was selected for comparison with Dürer as it is the most likely to have been available to the artist and best serves to illustrate the dramatic tradition discussed. Reproductions of the images and text of the Knoblochtzer Dodtendantz may be found in vol. XIX of A. Schramm. Die Bilderschmuck der Frühdrucke, Leipzig, 1936.

17. There is a variant type of the Dance of Death in which the figures confronted by Death remain completely unmoved by their situation. In this case the viewer's reaction is determined by the unexpected contrast of a highly animated figure of Death with seemingly inanimate "live" figures, but the image remains intrinsically dramatic in its presentation to the viewer. Marchand's Paris edition of ca. 1485 typifies this variant.

18. The similarity in function between these objects of religious practice and the secular images under discussion raises the question of the relation between the response demanded by these images and the contemporary practices of devotional piety. Certainly, the meditative absorption elicited by the Promenade or the Young Man and Death resembles that of devotional imagery, and the moral implications of these prints derive some of their impact from religious ethics.

19. Hutchinson also notes that the Youth is not confronted by Death personified, but is instead "accosted by the vision of his own death and decay". She goes on to note the proximity of the sentiment thus expressed to that of such contemporary poets as Villon and Chastelein. See J. Hutchinson, The Master of the Housebook, New York, 1972, pp. 54-5.

20. We have seen something like this before. In image XXI of Knoblochtzer's Dodtendantz, the scene of Death and the Youth, the young man is very similarly portrayed (plate 12). He stands almost casually in repose, neither resisting nor recoiling from his ghastly companion. He gazes reflectively at his assailant, displaying none of the emotion so vividly portrayed by many of his companions in the series. Death differs markedly from his counterpart in the Housebook Master's image, however; here he is still an unnaturally active personification and, in the context of the Dodtendantz, not to be seen as the temporal transformation of the youth. It is this context that requires the viewer to see this as yet another variation on the theme of a dramatic interaction between life and Death and not a separate formulation. The two prints are of roughly contemporaneous date, the Dodtendantz possibly a few years earlier.

By comparison, the Young Man and Death of Master BR (plate 16), despite its compositional similarities to the images of both Knoblochtzer and the Housebook Master, belongs firmly within the dramatic type of death imagery. Death, portrayed again as a living corpse and standing literally with one foot in the grave, grasps by his cloak the youth, who stands with his back to Death and his hands raised in a gesture of protest and despair. The banderoles above the two figures make clear the dramatic nature of their encounter: Death's reads "hie her Gij midt" (come you with me) and the youth's "ach got wat sal ich" (oh God, what shall I do). Death is given less common attributes -- gravedigger's tools, worms and a coffin replace the usual hourglass or scythe of death personified -- but the sense is of a narrative moment, of the instance of death, rather than the conflation of present and future which characterizes the Housebook Master's variation on the dramatic type.

21. See J. Koerner, "The Mortification of the Image: Death as a Hermeneutic in Hans Baldung Grien", Representations, vol. 10, Spring 1985, pp. 52-101, for a provocative discussion of the essential linkage between Love and Death in German Renaissance visual culture. In Koerner's compelling account, Baldung, in his Death Overtaking a Knight of ca. 1510-12, displaced the interpretive moment of judgment from the end of time to the instant of personal, worldly mortality, "into time and human history." Arguably, Baldung's teacher Dürer had already engaged in similar explorations into the personal implications of death in the Promenade before the close of the fifteenth century.

22. While beyond the scope of this paper to address the issue fully, it is important at least to consider possible explanations for the appearance of an image of this complexity at this particular moment, as well as for the motivations of both artist and viewer in establishing an image which demands a direct and personal engagement with one's own mortality.

It should be kept in mind that the technical aspects of the production of the Promenade cannot be separated from its social and cultural circumstances. Technical revolutions in printing in the mid-fifteenth century led to an explosion of available visual material. This meant on the one hand that Dürer had an enormous body of material on which to draw, and on the other hand that his audience would have had an unprecedented familiarity with a broad range of images. Dürer could rely on his viewers to possess a visual sophistication capable of appreciating the novelty and nuance of his invention. He must also have felt considerable pressure to be innovative both technically and intellectually so as to distinguish himself from his competitors in the emerging market economy for printed images, and to engage his viewers at the ever more subtle levels they required. We must imagine that both artist and viewer would have found simple moral allegories inadequate and unsatisfying.

As mentioned in footnote 1 above, printed images are inherently personal in nature: small, affordable and accessible. The response they elicit from their viewers cannot be separated from changes in devotional practices which coincided with the rise of the graphic media in the fifteenth century. Indeed, devotional images formed the vast majority of those produced at that time. The images of death discussed in this paper should not be taken as evidence of a quantitative change in preoccupation with the subject -- western culture has always been obsessed with death -- but a qualitative one. The requirements of the Devotio Moderna that its practitioners abandon the kind of contact with the divine provided through intercession, or even mystical encounter, in favor of personal empathy and identification with holy figures -- the Imitatio Christi -- is inextricably linked to the revolution in printing of both texts and images. The shift we have seen in how images of death engage the viewer, a shift from an expository to a participatory mode, parallels this change in devotional practices, dependant on the new skills of both artist and viewer.

Dürer's linking of the theme of death with moral concerns raises other issues. The rapid emergence of an urbanized economy in fifteenth-century Germany must have carried with it considerable social and moral anxieties, as people lived in ever closer proximity and as new patterns of labor and social life separated members of families from constant contact. Similarly, the infusion into Renaissance German society of classically derived philosophies and ideologies which competed with Christian moral teaching must also have provoked questions concerning social behaviour. Strictly dogmatic responses to radical shifts in the structures by which a society defines its values are not the only ones possible. Indeed, an initial phase of exploring a variety of alternatives, of exploring the complexities of social order and identity, frequently precedes the firm delineation of new structures. I would suggest that it is in this light that we should view the ambiguities and complexities of Dürer's Promenade.

Miriam Chrisman, in her article "From Polemic to Propaganda: The Development of Mass Persuasion in the Late Sixteenth Century", Archive für Reformationsgeschichte, 73, 1982, pp. 175-195, discusses the shift during the course of the Reformation from using printed words and images to foster a relatively open dialogue on religious issues, to using them as a means of demonizing irreconcilable opponents. A similar phenomenon may be seen in the sixteenth-century Lowlands, where despite, or perhaps because of, the social and religious upheavals which persisted through the century, there was a curious resistance to embracing unequivocably one or another of the new religious sects. See Barbara Haeger "The prodigal son in sixteenth and seventeenth-century Netherlandish art: depictions of the parable and the evolution of a Catholic image", Simiolus, vol. 16, nr. 2/3, 1986, pp. 128-138, on the paucity of sectarian images in the sixteenth-century Netherlands.

Finally, as Koerner suggests, we must understand the engagement of the viewer with his own mortality as intrinsically related to the birth pangs of the "individual" in western culture. The isolation of Dürer's figures in their moment of decision, and the ambiguities of the print itself, are manifestations of the disquieting loss of established interpretive authority already evident on the eve of the Reformation. J. Koerner, "The Mortification of the Image: Death as a Hermeneutic in Hans Baldung Grien", Representations, vol. 10, Spring 1985, p. 71.