The Apocalypse, Dürer's book of sixteen woodcuts on the Revelations of Saint John, appeared two years before 1500, at a time when many thought the Last Judgement imminent. This book, the first in history to be created and published by an artist himself, was a tremendous popular and critical success. Not only was it widely distributed and published both in Latin and in German, from early on it was praised for its innovations and established Dürer's reputation as a graphic genius.
When the humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam praised Dürer as an 'Apelles of black lines', he must have thought in particular of the woodcuts of the Apocalypse. Just before the artist's death in 1528, Erasmus wrote: "What does he not express in monochromes, that is in black lines? Shade, light, radiance, projections, depressions...He even depicts what cannot be depicted: fire; rays of light; thunderstorms; sheet lightning; thunderbolts...characters and emotions....These things he places before our eyes by the most felicitous lines, black ones at that, in such a manner that, were you to spread pigments, you would injure the work." (cf. G. Bartrum, Albrecht Dürer and his Legacy, London 2002, p. 13)
Indeed, prior to Dürer, the woodcut had been a relatively humble medium, mainly serving for book illustrations. These were mostly simple compositions consisting of outlines which were meant to be filled in and coloured by hand. Dürer used the whole picture plane and increasingly began to model the image from blank areas juxtaposed with densely worked areas, out of light and darkness. The woodcut became three-dimensional and alive, without the need of colour.
But Dürer not only transformed the medium of the woodcut. With the Apocalypse, as Erasmus remarked, Dürer pushed the boundaries of what had hitherto been thought possible in any medium.