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Video transcript

(jazzy music) Female: We're in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich and we're looking at Albrecht Altdorfer's The Battle of Issus. Male: Now, Altdorfer is a German artist that in this case was working for the Duke of Bavaria. Female: The Duke asked him to do a painting of the Battle of Alexander the Great against the Persian King Darius III. This was an incredibly important battle that had even been painted by the ancient Greeks. Male: This was a real turning point in history when the Persian Empire was stopped and Alexander was able to move eastward and enlarge his empire dramatically. It also took on a kind of outsized importance because this was seen as the triumph of the West over the East. Female: And therefore the triumph of Christendom over Islam. Male: Later, yes. That's really what this painting's about. The Persians were long vanquished, and of course Alexander was long gone by the time this painting was made, but the East and the West were still in tremendous conflict. At this point, the Ottoman Turks were pushing into Europe and would lay siege to the city of Vienna. The Duke of Bavaria was going to assist against the Turks. One can imagine how important this ancient subject would be because it not only shows how noble this enterprise is and how historic, but it also suggests that the West will be victorious. Female: And that that's God's plan; that there's a righteousness in that victory and Altdorfer really communicates that in so many ways. Male: I think it's really important to see this painting, and all of these ideas, as coming entirely from the European perspective. In a sense, Altdorfer is literally giving us the vantage point of the Europeans. We can see a city just by the coastline, perhaps the city of Constantinople, just at the border between Europe and Asia. Over on the right, across the Mediterranean, we can see the Delta of the Nile and we know that's Egypt. There is this tremendous ambition in this painting that means that this battle is critical for the entire world. Female: We have the sense of that in the cosmos, in the heavens itself; on the left, the moon ascending, and on the right, the setting sun. We've got the particularities of the battle. When we look close, we can see individual soldiers with lances and bows and arrows, and the tumult on the ground of battle. Male: And not just a few individual soldiers, but hundreds, thousands, of individual soldiers where the hairs of the feathers in the helmets are rendered with a kind of precision that is dizzying. Female: At the same time, as we get all of that detail, we also have this sense of almost the way a general would sit on a hilltop and direct the battle and send certain forces in certain directions, so we have a sense of tactics and strategy here by Alexander and Darius. Male: This is made for somebody who is goig to lead troops in battle. We do have an extraordinarily privileged view here. We can see the chariot of Darius fleeing even as the troops clash all around him. We can see that he's specifically fleeing from one mounted soldier, and that's Alexander. You can see that the troops behind Alexander are in orderly formation. There's discipline and strength; whereas, Darius' troops seem to be spinning and fleeing. You can see his standards, his flags, which are now in disarray. Female: There's this complete collapsing of time here, because on one hand, this is Darius and Alexander and this battle. At the same time, this is the Turks and the West. because the soldiers in Alexander's army wear the armor of contemporary soldiers. Male: There really is this conflation. Again, although I think the artist was trying to be very careful about the geography and actually consulted maps in order to put this together, we have to remember that this is not a historically accurate rendering in any sense. It is determined by its historical moment, it is a view that is meant to flatter the Duke. It's a view that is meant to flatter the West. Female: And to inspire the Duke and give him a sense of the righteousness of his cause. Male: And the fact that the cosmos itself, that God is on his side. (jazzy music)