'Modernity and the Planes of Historicity' by Reinhart Koselleck (1981).

A Selection from Koselleck's essay Modernity and the Planes of Historicity, 1981.

'Modernity and the Planes of Historicity' first appeared in a collection of essays with the title Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time published in German in 1979 (although the author claims that the essays were written in the 60's and 70's) under the section 'On the Relation of Past and Future in Modern History'. Koselleck is also the author of Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society and The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts.

Authors Introduction

What follows will... speak, not of one historical time, but rather of many forms of time superimposed one upon the other. In the emphatic words that Herder aimed at Kant:
In reality, every mutable thing has within itself the measure of its time; this persists even in the absence of any other; no two worldly things have the same measure of time. [...] There are therefore (to be precise and audacious) at any one time in the Universe infinitely many times.

Modernity and the Planes of Historicity

In 1528 Duke William IV of Bavaria ordered a series of historical paintings which were to be hung in his newly built summer house at the Royal Stud. Thematically Christian-Humanist, they depicted a series of biblical events, as well as a series of episodes from classical Antiquity. Most well known and justly celebrated of these paintings is Albrecht Altdorfer’s Alexanderschlacht.
Altdorfer reveals to us upon a canvas of one and a half square meters the cosmic panorama of a decisive battle of world-historical significance, the Battle of Issus, which in 333 b.c. opened the epoch of Hellenism, as we say today. With hitherto unsuspected mastery Altdorfer was able to portray thousands upon thousands of individual warriors as complete armies; he shows us the clash of armored squadrons of horse and foot soldiers armed with spears; the victorious line of attack of the Macedonians, with Alexander far out at the head; the confusion and disintegration which overtook the Persians; and the expectant bearing of the Greek battle-reserves, which will then complete the victory.

  Alexanderschlacht by Albrecht Altdorfer (1529)

Altdorfer made conscious use of anachronism so that he could faithfully represent the course of the completed battle [editors note: i.e., captured in a 'moment'].
There is another element of anachronism which today is certainly much more apparent to us. Viewing the painting in the Pinakothek, we think we see before us the last knights of Maximilian or the serf-army at the Battle of Pavia. From their feet to their turbans, most of the Persians resemble the Turks who, in the same year the picture was painted (1529), unsuccessfully laid siege to Vienna. In other words, the event that Altdorfer captured was for him at once historical and contemporary. Alexander and Maximilian, for whom Altdorfer had prepared drawings, merge in an exemplary manner; the space of historical experience enjoys the profundity of generational unity. [...]The present and the past were enclosed within a common historical plane.

His battle thus is not only contemporary; it simultaneously appears to be timeless.

When Friedrich Schlegel came across the painting almost three hundred years later, he was seized “upon sighting this marvel,” as he wrote, by a boundless “astonishment.” Schlegel praised the work in long sparkling cascades of words, recognizing in it “the greatest feat of the age of chivalry.” He had thus gained a critical-historical distance with respect to Altdorfer’s masterpiece [editors note: i.e., by seeing it coming from, and as an exemplary expression of, the 'age of chivalry', a time which was no longer his own]. Schlegel was able to distinguish the painting from his own time, as well as from that of the Antiquity it strove to represent. For him, history had in this way gained a specifically temporal dimension, which is clearly absent for Altdorfer. Formulated schematically, there was for Schlegel, in the three hundred years separating him from Altdorfer, more time (or perhaps a different mode of time) than appeared to have passed for Altdorfer in the eighteen hundred years or so that lay between the Battle of Issus and his painting.

What had happened in these three hundred years that separate our two witnesses, Altdorfer and Schlegel? What new quality had historical time gained that occupies this period from about 1500 to 1800? If we are to answer these questions, this period must be conceived not simply as elapsed time, but rather as a period with its own specific characteristics.
...in these centuries there occurs a temporalization of history, at the end of which there is the peculiar form of acceleration which characterizes modernity. We are thus concerned with the specificity of the so-called fr├╝he Neuzeit-- the period in which modernity is formed.


Altdorfer’s image had, in other words, an eschatological status. The Alexanderschlacht was timeless as the prelude, figure, or archetype of the final struggle between Christ and Antichrist; those participating in it were contemporaries of those who lived in expectation of the Last Judgment.
Until well into the sixteenth century, the history of Christianity is a history of expectations, or more exactly, the constant anticipation of the End of the World on the one hand and the continual deferment of the End on the other. [...] The mythical investment of the Apocalypse could be adapted to a given situation, and even noncanonical prophecies presented little variation from the figures that were supposed to appear at the Judgment, such as the Emperor of Peace, the Engelsp├Ąpste, or harbingers of the Antichrist such as Gog and Magog who, according to oriental tradition (also then current in the West), remained confined to the Caucasus by Alexander until the time came for their irruption. However the image of the End of the World was varied, the role of the Holy Roman Empire remained a permanent feature: as long as it existed, the final Fall was deferred. The Emperor was the katechon [that which withholds] of the Antichrist.

All of these figures appeared to emerge into historical reality during the epoch of the Reformation. Luther saw the Antichrist in possession of the “holy throne,” and for him Rome was the “Whore of Babylon”; Catholics saw Luther as the Antichrist; peasant unrest and the growing sectarian militancy of diverse sections of the declining Church appeared to foreshadow the last civil war preceding the Fall. Finally, the Turks who stormed Vienna in the year of Altdorfer’s painting appeared as the unchained people of Gog.

“If we fight off the Turks,” said Luther at the time, “so is Daniel’s prophecy fulfilled, and the Final Judgment will be at the door.”2 The Reformation as a movement of religious renewal carried with it all the signs of the End of the World.
Luther frequently referred to the fact that the Fall was to be expected in the coming year, or even in the current one. But as he once added (and recorded for us in his table talk), for the sake of the chosen, God would shorten the final days, “toward which the world was speeding, since almost all of the new century had been pressed into the space of one decade.”3 Luther was speaking of the decade since the Reichstag at Worms, at the end of which period the Alexanderschlacht had, as we know, been painted. The foreshortening of time indicated that the End of the World was approaching with greater speed, even if the actual date remained hidden from us.