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The Triumphal Arch of Emperor Maximilian I

Triumphal Arch

Like many rulers, the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I had a fascination for large monuments, but instead of actually building them he romanticized them on paper. One of his most famous commissions was The Triumphal Arch, composed of 195 woodcut prints which, when arranged, formed a grandiose arch standing twelve feet high and ten feet wide. Maximilian commissioned other ambitious woodcut projects but The Triumphal Arch is the only one that was completed during his lifetime, and it remains one of the largest prints ever to be produced.

The arch was designed by a Tyrolean architect and court painter Jörg Kölderer, modeled after the triumphal arches constructed by the Roman Emperors. The iconography of The Arch was dictated by Maximilian himself celebrating his life and his accomplishment.

The arch features three gates entitled “Honour and Might”, “Praise”, and “Nobility”, each illustrated with scenes relating to Maximilian’s life, including political allegiances, marriages, familial bonds, major battles, as well as his personal triumphs and endeavors. Above the central arch is Maximilian’s family tree and depiction of the mythical kingdoms of Francia, Sicambria and Troia. These are flanked by towers containing busts of emperors and kings on the left, and Maximilian's ancestors on the right. Many panels contain descriptive texts, and a long inscription at the bottom describes the contents of the whole arch.

Triumphal Arch

Detail of pinnacle from a colored impression.

A large number of artists were involved in the making of the arch, as evident from the different styles, and this lack of uniformity causes the arch to have an “unbalanced structure” that—as The British Museum observes—“makes the work difficult to comprehend, and tends to overwhelm the excellence of some of the individual cuts as well as detract from the lesser quality of others”.

About seven hundred sets of impressions were printed in the first edition in 1517-18, and given by Maximilian as gifts, mostly to the cities and princes of the Holy Roman Empire. He expected them to paste the prints on walls of their palaces and city halls. Copies of the first edition now exist at the British Museum, the Albertina in Vienna, and museums in Berlin, Copenhagen, Prague, and elsewhere.

A second edition of about three hundred copies were printed by Maximilian's grandson, Archduke Ferdinand, after Maximilian’s death, and a third edition by Archduke Charles, Ferdinand's son, much later. By the late 18th century, many of the woodblocks had considerably wore out. In spite of the wear and missing pieces, prints continued to be printed as late as the late 19th century.

Of the original 195 blocks, 171 survive and are held by the Albertina, Vienna.

Triumphal Arch

The Betrothal of Maximilian with Mary of Burgundy.

Triumphal Arch

The Congress of Princes at Vienna.

Triumphal Arch

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