Visualizing Knowledge

Visualizing Knowledge: Prints and Paintings by Hans Burgkmair the Elder (1453-1531)

Ashley West

Hans Burgkmair was a leading painter and designer of woodcuts working in Augsburg, which along with Albrecht Dürer’s Nuremberg became one of the primary commercial centers of the Holy Roman Empire. The city was a favored residence of Emperor Maximilian I and home to the Fuggers and Welsers, whose banking and mercantile connections reached Venice and even India and the New World. The city’s sophisticated humanist community also provided a network of exchange beyond city bounds.

Through his prints and paintings Burgkmair participated in contemporary sixteenth-century humanist debates about the pursuit of knowledge, particularly as it related to poetry, documentation, and history. Humanist and pedagogical writings from the period reveal anxieties about recognizing "true learning" from false flattery, mere opinion, and deceit, as well as unease arising from the dislocation of virtue as the justification of that knowledge.

Burgkmair’s images not only track some of these humanist debates, but also mark shifting concepts of knowledge and modes of thinking. His works accommodate a syncretic, allegorical form of knowledge that privileges virtue and unity as its ultimate goal, and a particularizing, comparative type of knowledge that instead judges truth and falsehood according to standards relating to material evidence.

Ashley West considered the range of Burgkmair’s eclectic choice of styles—whether flamboyant Gothic, ornamental Italianate, or a reduced "non-stylish style"—as enabling the distinction between these different modes of knowledge and bearing particular ideological associations in the context of 16th-century Augsburg. At stake was the ultimate function of the artist, whether it be as a poet-philosopher capable of concealing and revealing universal moral truths; a witness with manual and visual expertise intent on separating visible information for categorization and analysis; or a poet-seducer who dangerously distracts the viewer from moral and material knowledge with competing claims of the printed or painted image as an object collectible for its own sake.