Visual Arts: The Medium of Travesty and Glory In Equal Measure

The visual arts, since a time long forgotten, have been our greatest means of interpreting a time of war in a light of great glory and strategic detail, or in a darkness of chaos and disgust. Indeed, many works have been dedicated to showing us the beauty and the ugliness, the order and the disorder, the kleos and the lack thereof, in war. The visual arts are a dynamic interpretation of an event, the artifactualization of a perspective unique to the piece and to the event in a way that words can sometimes fail to do. Such is the case with the Sacking of Magdeburg, a historical event during the thirty years war that many pieces of glory and chaos pertain to in such a manner that even the mayor of Magdeburg could not do as he watched flames and soldiers alike engulf his city. The visual arts are the most adept tools at our disposal for understanding different perspectives of war, as seen with the Sacking of Magdeburg.

The Visual Arts can often provide insight to an event that can “encapsulate” the feelings and ideas behind that event in a way much different then just the written work (Izenburg). Indeed, a visual art depicting war shows not just an image, but an entire range of perspectives that are being conveyed to a viewer to relate a message. The work, “The Sacking of Magdeburg”, provides the viewer one such an example where the true destruction and violence are depicted, capturing the graphic nature of this horrifying event in such a way that it was claimed how “words alone cannot adequately describe these acts nor tears adequately bemoan them” (Guericke). This is not only an image of a town burning to the ground, of an act of violence across a shaded background, but the very encapsulation of the horror being expressed in a way that can only be described as heart wrenching. Smoke filling the air, people being razed down by cannon fire, endless destruction and ruin all in an image meant to show just how horrifying this tragic nightmare is in a manner to show the underside of war. This depiction is Merian’s way of describing to the audience how a war truly is: monstrous.

“The Sack of Magdeburg” by Matthaus Merian (1632) Created a short time after the event depicted.

That is not to say, however, that all depictions of war are these grisly scenes of dismay and disorder. Many a depiction look at war in a manner to show that there is glory and triumph to be found in war and the fight. These depictions in the visual arts will often look down upon a battle, making the viewer seem almost godlike as they watch all of the finer pieces of war. For the same event described above, another work was made with the same title by the student of the above artist. This work shows a more graceful and majestic side to a war that many look upon with a feeling of pride. These Visual pieces work to encapsulate this idea of war as a maker of the kleos, the undying glory of a hero.

“The Sack of Magdeburg” by Johann Philipp Abelin. The image was created twenty-seven years after the actual siege.

Thus, we have our perspectives detailing to us how the visual arts conceptualize the different perspectives of war. These pieces, such radically different views of the same event, only prove that the arts are a means to understand different viewpoints of war and what a war stands for, or what it stands to gain. The purpose of these images, their “ekphrasis”, is to define an event to a viewer in such a manner to capture these virtually opposing views. The visual arts, then, are our gateway into what can be either a graceful ordeal of miniature men walking into each other and the world around them gently accepting their scuffle, or a tormented hell where the only respite for the living is often death as chaos paints the air with a miasma of horror.

Works Cited

Izenburg, Oren. “The Ends of the Iliad.” Humanities Core. HIB 100, Irvine. 13
Oct. 2015. Lecture.

Merian, Matthaus. The Sacking of Magdeburg. 1632. Illustration.

Abelin, Johann Philipp. The Sacking of Magdeburg. Apr. 1659. Illustration.

Von Guericke, Otto. “A Local Apocalypse – The Sack of Magdeburg.” 1631. German
History in Documents and Image. German History in Documents and Image. Web.
27 Oct. 2015. <


  1. Meghan · November 11, 2015

    It is amazing to me how different artistic depictions of the same event can leave the viewer with such different ideas and thoughts about it. I agree that the first image you show is truly a “monstrous” depiction of war and its great amount of destruction, while the second image shown implies a very organized and “majestic” event. Both are an accurate depiction of war, however they both use the technique of subtraction to display a different message. The first image displays the Siege of Magdeburg from a perspective of chaos and destruction which is accurate however it subtracts the great amount of planning and organization that goes into an attack, an idea that the second image better encompasses.
    I also agree that visual arts can evoke feelings different from that of written work. I think the best example of this is the first image which overwhelms the viewer with extreme chaos at a first glance. In a picture, as Izenberg said, everything is revealed at once, which contributes to the feelings overwhelm that a viewer may experience after looking at that image. This feeling of overwhelm would be hard to replicate in writing because writing often requires several lines if not more to evoke a similar mental image.


  2. Daniel · November 21, 2015

    Although the visual arts are important depictions of warfare, one must remember that they are not all-encompassing. They too are inherently limited in that they exist as a frozen moment in time, stripped of its surrounding context. One can view the chaos and the glory of battle with ease, but it becomes harder to identify the underlying causes of war or the series of historical events preceding or succeeding the battle. We gain a visceral insight into the emotions and turmoil contained within warfare, or even the world surrounding the battle, but this depiction cannot stand by itself. A pure analysis of Merian’s and Abelin’s work is insufficient in portraying the Sack of Magdeberg, much as Peter Hagendorf’s diary entry and Otto van Gurericke’s eyewitness account fail to provide a thorough overview of the course of the battle. The decontextualized portrayal of war through these visual depictions therefore seems to be more of a “window” than a true “gateway” into the beauty or horror of battle.


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