Print Culture, Death and Disaster in the Early Modern World


Stefano Della Bella, Death on a Battlefield (c. 1646-48), Baillieu Library Print Collection, University of Melbourne, Gift of Dr. Orde Poynton, 1959


Current Research: Jenny Spinks


Dr Jenny Spinks, a new lecturer in early modern history at the University of Manchester, has been working for the last several years on an exhibition project that recently opened at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia. Titled ‘The Four Horsemen: Apocalypse, Death and Disaster’, the exhibition uses over one hundred rare prints and books from c. 1450-1800 to tell the story of how early modern people came into contact with death and disaster on a daily basis. Early modern visual print culture is filled with skeletons and skulls, floods and plagues – all framed within a religious understanding of the world that attempted to account for the endemic warfare, terrible weather patterns, religious conflicts, and other dramatic experiences that shaped this period of history.


The four horsemen of the Apocalypse, described in the biblical Book of Revelation as terrifying harbingers of destruction and punishment, trampling across people from all levels of society, act as a motif that runs through the whole exhibition. One of the stars of the show is a cycle of late fifteenth-century prints depicting scenes of the Apocalypse by German artist Albrecht Dürer, and drawn from the exceptional collection of early modern European prints held in the National Gallery of Victoria. Other images and books were borrowed from the State Library of Victoria as well as the Special Collections of the Baillieu Library at the University of Melbourne. A particularly striking image from the seventeenth century, at the close of the Thirty Years War, depicts a single horseman riding across a battlefield: the rider and his horse are skeletal figures of death, and across the battlefield similar figures form equally gruesome reminders of the horrors of war.



Research towards the exhibition and a range of associated project was funded by a large grant from the Australian Research Council. Jenny worked with three colleagues to curate the exhibition: historian Charles Zika of the University of Melbourne, and print curators Cathy Leahy and Petra Kayser of the National Gallery of Victoria. A central task was to co-edit a richly-illustrated catalogue, which includes essays by Jenny, Charles Zika, Dagmar Eichberger and Larry Silver on the themes of death, soldiers and warfare, monsters and disastrous signs, and witchcraft. A scholarly symposium on ‘Disaster, Death and the Emotions in the Shadow of the Apocalypse’, with additional supported from the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, brought new material to light and will lead to a an edited book. The whole project – in planning since 2008 – came together in August 2012 with a series of public lectures that offered a chance for historians, art historians, and the wider public to collectively appreciate and explore the early modern world through its rich print culture.


Editors Note: This is an archived blog post from 18-10-2012

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