I was introduced to this watercolour as an undergraduate, and it has stayed with me ever since. It is an image and handwritten account by perhaps the greatest artist of the Northern Renaissance – Albrecht Dürer – describing an intense, apocalyptic dream that he had on the night of 7-8 June 1525. In his vision, Dürer writes that he saw a huge deluge fall from the sky, with rushing torrents and gales, which flooded the countryside around him. At the end of his description he writes: "When I arose in the morning, I painted the above as I had seen it."
This image is probably one of the earliest realistic depictions of a dream. A decade earlier Dürer had written: "How often do I see great art in my sleep, but on waking cannot recall it". This picture is not a considered, deliberate composition developed over time, but Dürer’s effort to recall and picture his vision with urgent immediacy.
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His choice of watercolour as a medium is apt – not only for the subject it depicts, but for its freedom and rapidity of expression. The contrast between this hastily-executed memory and Dürer’s famously meticulous prints, is stark, and all the more moving for the intimate insight it gives us into the artist’s imagination.
I know I’m not alone in experiencing dreams more vividly than usual at the moment – apparently it’s a common side-effect of the lockdown. Dürer had his dream during a period of great uncertainty in Europe. I find it reassuring to see that our emotional responses to such times are the same now as they were almost 500 years ago. And perhaps we should all use Dürer’s example as encouragement to give those feelings a creative outlet!