Altdorfer’s The Battle of Alexander at Issus is arguably the best-known painting by one of the most notable masters of the German Renaissance. While the title claims to depict a particular historical episode – one of Alexander the Great’s victories against Darius III of Persia – the symbolism of the work seems to go far beyond one particular event. Composition, color, and perspective divide the work into two horizontal halves, and deliberate anachronisms further emphasize the difference between the passing nature of political struggles and the eternal laws of the Universe.
One of the first things that catch the eye about The Battle of Alexander at Issus is the composition of the piece. The painting is neatly and symmetrically separated into two horizontal halves, roughly equal to each other in size. The lower half depicts the titular battle, with untold thousands of soldiers advancing in strict formations. Apart from the multitudes of warriors, the lower half also offers a wide variety of landscapes. While armies fight in a grassy meadow, there are picturesque ruins immediately behind the battlefield, followed by a castle on top of a hill, a towering mountain, a military camp, and a sprawling city in the distance. The upper half changes the scope dramatically, as it depicts not merely individual landmarks, but entire islands, seas, continents, and, eventually, the sky with the sun and the moon. This spatial separation across a clear horizontal axis divides the painting into two parts and immediately attracts the viewer’s eye.
The work’s horizontal symmetry is all the more notable due to the artist’s use of color. The lower half is generally dominated by a wide variety of browns and greens. Admittedly, the steely gray of the knights’ heavy armor or the bright spots of flags and banners sprinkle the palette here and there. Still, the brown of the withering grass under the horses’ hooves and the green of lush forests on the far right or on the mountain slopes remain the most prominent colors in the lower half of the painting. The upper one, however, is all blue, beginning with the dark waters of the sea and ending high above with the azure skies. Even the mountains in the distance are not grey but covered by a blue mist that distinguishes them from their lower half counterparts. Thus, even if someone would miss the geometrical organization of the painting, the color would still drive the point.
Yet even this is not the last way Altdorfer used to separate the painting into two horizontal halves, as the author’s use of the perspective serves the same role. The lower part is relatively realistic, and more or less corresponds to what a person could reasonably see from a certain elevation. Starting in only a short distance from individual warriors fighting, it then encompasses entire regiments clashing with each other and, as the viewer’s gaze travels upward, offers a view of majestic landmarks in the distance. The upper half, on the other hand, drops all pretense of being realistic and allows seeing islands, mountain ranges, and even the curvature of the earth. The difference is once again striking: while the lower half is down-to-earth, the upper one demonstrates the world on a truly cosmic scale.
Apart from the compositional separation, Altdorfer’s painting is also highly anachronistic. It does not take a connoisseur of history to see it: Alexander’s soldiers are clad in plate armor and riding atop barded steeds, while Persians wear turbans. The black-and-yellow banners with eagles and lions also remind of the heraldry of the Holy Roman Empire rather than that of Macedon. It is not entirely clear whether Altdorfer meant to refer to the events of his time, such as Europe’s struggles against its Muslim opponents, but it is safe to say he was not preoccupied with historical accuracy.
When put together, the aforementioned elements present a united symbolic effect by juxtaposing meager political struggles and the world’s immensity. The armies of the lower part and the lands they fight for are dwarfed by the sheer grandeur and scale of the upper half. The battlefield’s mudded greens and browns contrast with the serene blue of the peaceful seas and skies, where the sun and the moon perform their eternal movement. Even the anachronistic features of the painting emphasize the message. It is not important whether it is Alexander fighting Darius or Europeans fighting the Ottomans since all these wars are but momentary glimpses when compared to the cosmic majesty of the Universe.
To summarize, Altdorfer’s The Battle of Alexander at Issus employs multiple elements to emphasize the passing nature of political conflicts as compared to the eternity of the Universe. Composition divides the painting into two horizontal halves, and color and perspective solidify the difference further. The painting is also deliberately anachronistic, as if Altdorfer, contrary to the title, did not care about history at all. It may well be the case, as the stylistic unity of all the elements showcases how even the grandest political strife is small and insignificant compared to the entirety of Creation.