It is almost impossible now to appreciate the impact Dürer had upon the field of printmaking, and the woodcut technique in particular, at the turn of the 15th-16th centuries. Hitherto, the craft had in large part been confined to the creation of stylized devotional images. The results were often stiff and formulaic and frequently subsumed within text. Dürer transformed the medium, enlarging the scale so that the image stood alone on the sheet, introducing scenes of dynamism and movement set within extensive landscapes.
The present composition is perhaps the finest of five great woodcuts produced in 1496-98 and exemplifies Dürer's achievement. Exactly who cut these early monumental blocks has been the subject of considerable debate. Albert Ivins, along with many others, argued that such is their calligraphic beauty Dürer himself must have cut the design. More recent commentators have backed down from this. Wherever the truth lies, these blocks are works of art in their own right. They have a sculptural beauty, while at the same time show great understanding of how the block will print on paper. Not only are the lines cut with confidence and fluidity, they have been cut to different levels - some standing higher on the block than others. In the present composition this device has been employed in the clump of trees at the right, the lion's mane, Samson's shirt and the flock of birds. But Dürer also clearly understood where this technique would not be appropriate - in densely worked areas such as the lion's mouth, heavily impressed lines would have lost their impact through being grouped closely together, and muddied the composition. Here the lines are close to the surface of the block and result in a flatter, more even line on the paper.
The composition itself concerns one of the most famous exploits of Samson - an Old Testament judge better known for his feats of strength. A Christian counterpart to Hercules (whom the early commentators thought was the subject of this print) Samson's encounter with the lion is clearly symbolic and widely interpreted as signifying the battle between Christ and the Devil, or between good and evil. Dürer is sparing in his use of his strong sculpted line. Large areas of the paper are left blank, and play a descriptive role - as sky, water and distant landscape - as well as acting as a dramatic counterfoil to the bold, linear design. His models for the lion were likely to have been the statues he encountered in Saint Mark's Square on his trip to Venice, and the carefully described clump of trees to the right echo the watercolors executed on the same trip. A lesser artist might have been content with a group of generic trees, but Dürer takes care to make each one different. Every element of the composition earns its place - the nettle at the lower left was recognized as one which lost its sting if grasped firmly.
Hard and unyielding though a woodblock is to cut, it is an inherently fragile medium. The blocks are prone to cracking and later impressions are poor testament to an artist's skill. Only early examples such as this afford a rare opportunity to appreciate why Dürer occupies the place that he does in the cannon of western art.
This superb impression is one of the finest to have appeared at auction in recent years.