This easily overlooked gem, situated above the NGV’s blockbuster Napoleon exhibition, can be seen as a kind of grim companion piece: while Napoleon is steeped in the rhetoric of glory, The Four Horsemen: Apocalypse, Death and Disaster lingers on the suffering caused by unchecked human ambition. The exhibition exhaustively, and often grotesquely, documents the varied ways in which individuals can expire. Most of the exhibition’s artworks are untinted etchings and engravings, their monochrome palette heightening the theme’s stifling atmosphere and commanding a grave intensity that would be lacking in a more extravagant medium. Its dominant theme – life’s premature and arbitrary curtailment – is a reality from which modernity has largely protected us.

Fifteenth-century artist Albrecht Dürer is the exhibition’s central presence, with his Young Woman Attacked by Death/The Ravisher (1445) typifying his ambivalent attitude toward mortality. In this etching, a terrified young woman is violently groped from behind by a grinning skeleton, which tears at her clothing in a clear prelude to rape. Dürer offers the viewer a highly personified depiction of Death, the figure’s humanlike malice making the concept part of everyday life.

In Dürer’s most disturbing etchings, Death visits young, healthy and unsuspecting people. The artist delights in sensationally juxtaposing supple young flesh with putrescence and decay – his Young Couple Threatened by Death on the Promenade (1498), for example, has a rock-schlock quality that wouldn’t seem out of place on an Iron Maiden album cover. In this melange of eroticism and despair, the couple in the foreground are locked in a close embrace, the woman’s left breast pressing up against the man’s cloak; yet Death, who leers in the background with his hourglass, poisons the couple’s physical intimacy.

Dürer is the master here, but there are many other highlights. Hans Holbein the Younger (he of the definitive Henry VIII portrait) contributes a subversive triptych entitled The Duke/The Abbot/The Lawyer (1538), in which each figure’s soul is corrupted by impious behaviour. In Jan Sadeler’s Death Visiting the Poor (c.1597–1600), a destitute couple in a garret reach out to the figure of Death on the threshold, while emaciated children in rags scrounge in a cupboard. The work’s grimness derives from its ambiguity: have the couple mistaken Death for a saviour, or are they simply begging to be euthanised?

Perhaps the strangest of these portrayals is Govert Bidloo’s Human Skeleton with Hourglass (1685), equal parts medical diagram and freak show. Created two centuries before medicine even came close to becoming a ‘hard science’, this anatomical diagram stars a dancing, leering human skeleton. (Although all the bones are helpfully labelled, oddball descriptions such as ‘The Seven True Ribs’ and ‘The Five Bastard Ribs’ made me thankful I wasn’t born in the seventeenth century.)

After this satisfying macabre introduction, I felt a slight sense of anticlimax in the show’s ‘Disaster’ section – not because the horrors on display weren’t grisly, but because death is more expected in the context of warfare. Yet Dürer’s work here, inspired by the unprecedented carnage of the Thirty Years War, displays impressive technical control. His Landscape with Cannon (1518), for example, contrasts an exquisitely drawn foreground line of invading Ottoman Turks against a background of a sacked and smouldering city. This etching’s extraordinary detail and composition is truly cinematic, evoking Orson Welles’ meticulous deep-focus compositions in Othello (1952) and Chimes at Midnight (1965).

Some of the more disturbing entries in the ‘Disaster’ series include Jacques Callot’s Destruction of a Convent (1633) and Plundering and Burning of a Village, both of which depict a victorious military machine’s brutal destruction of a rural population. (The former is particularly disturbing for its depiction of soldiers carrying off nuns – soon to be rape victims – as spoils of war.) Yet despite the horrors, many of the ‘Conquest’ works have been robbed of their power to shock by endless cinematic depictions of warfare.

In the ‘Apocalypse’ section, the otherworldly feeling returns. Jacques de Gheyn II’s Three Witches in a Doorway (c.1600–10), for example, with its appalling depiction of three women ‘extracting something from the mouth of a corpse’, presents a unique mixture of cruelty and ugliness. The Masters aren’t above a bit of salaciousness, either: Dürer’s The Four Witches (1497) shamelessly prods his public’s baser instincts by casting the etching’s subjects as shapely young naked women, perfectly demonstrating the moral ambivalence of Catholicism’s obsession with evil.

Dürer’s fifteen-part Apocalypse series, centred on his famous Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1497–8), presents a truly grim vision of the ills suffered by humanity. Other entries in the series, while not as famous, are often intoxicatingly strange – including the odd Apocalyptic Woman (1496–7), featuring Dr Seuss–like dragons vomiting fire with comically hangdog expressions; and St John Devouring the Book (1498), depicting the bemused prophet being force-fed a substantial wad of parchment by a well-meaning angel. Dramatising the Bible’s deliriously insane final chapter gives Dürer free rein to come to terms with the utter strangeness of death. Viewed together, these superficially unassuming works undermine the comforting boundaries modern society has erected against death’s persistent presence.

The Four Horsemen: Apocalypse, Death and Disaster is at NGV International until 28 January 2013.

Timothy Roberts is a Killings columnist and a freelance writer living in Melbourne.