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Coat of Arms with a Skull

Albrecht Dürer
Coat of Arms with a Skull

An original Albrecht Dürer engraving.


Original engraving printed in black ink on laid paper

Signed in the plate with the artist’s monogram on a tablet lower center, also dated lower center. A superb 16th century Meder “a” impression of the second and final state, printed after the appearance of the diagonal line across the skirt of the woman, showing rich contrasts throughout, printed sometime between 1540 and 1550.

Catalog: Bartsch 101; Dodgson 36; Panofsky 208; Meder 98.II.a; Hollstein 98.b; Strauss 40; Schoch/Mende/Scherbaum 37.II.a.

The scholar Richard Bernheimer (Cambridge, 1952) asserts that this engraving is, in fact, a marriage print, connected with the wedding feast and visits, expected at the festive time; therefore the crown is a bridal crown and “the print is an allegory of the eternal polarity of love and death.” The subject seems, however, to be more reasonably connected with the Bavarian War of 1503. Duke George the Rich had died that year without male issue. Contrary to Imperial law, he left his lands to his daughter. This led to the War of the Bavarian Succession, in which the city of Nuremberg was deeply involved. Her army captured much of the surrounding territory and Nuremberg became the largest of the “free cities” of the Empire. This engraving appears to be an allegory of this war, which ended badly for the ill-advised titled lady. The Emperor deprived her of her lands, while Nuremberg was permitted to retain the conquered territory.
This engraving was singled out for particular praise by the preeminent 19th century British art critic John Ruskin in his Elements of Drawing of 1857:
Provide yourself, if possible with an engraving of Albrecht Dürer’s. This you will not be able to copy; but you must keep it beside you, and refer to it as a standard of precision in line. If you can get one with a wing in it, it will be best. The crest with the cock, that with the skull and satyr, and the Melancholy, are the best you can have, but any will do.

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