Morality is a Venereal Disease -The Secret of the Coat of Arms with a Skull

Text copyright © June 9 2013 Dr. Elizabeth A. Garner, All Rights Reserved

“Morality is a venereal disease. It’s primary stage is called virtue, is secondary stage is called boredom, it’s tertiary stage is called syphilis”  Karl Kraus

The Coat of Arms with a Skull
The print called The Coat of Arms with a Skull



In 1494 and 1495 when Dürer fled to Venice to escape the Plague in Nuremberg, Italy was at war. Charles VIII, the Dauphin, the heir to the French Throne, had invaded northwestern Italy in the spring of 1494. Charles trampled over the Italians and marched down the coast of Italy, invading Naples by March of 1495. The Republic of Milan, which bordered the Republic of Venice, had sided with Charles VIII. Charles was pitted against the Vatican, the Holy Roman Emperor, and Spain, a world war.  Dürer and anyone who went with him would have been greatly affected by this war during the entire period he was in Venice.


For our purposes, it is most important to know that Charles VIII is credited with spreading syphilis throughout all of Europe because of these Italian Wars.  The scourge of syphilis quickly spread across Europe.  It was called the French Pox because of Charles and his troops but as it invaded each country the disease was known by a new name, the name of the country from whence it came.  By the time it got to Hungary, it was known to those peoples as the German Pox.

Syphilis broke out in  Nuremberg in 1496, subsiding in 1498. Although it claimed many lives, the majority of the victims survived, who continued to infect others, so syphilis remained an on-going scourge.

Often, the Imperial Free Cities of the Empire printed public health broadsides to circulate in the cities.  Dürer was commissioned to create one such broadside when syphilis hit Nuremberg in 1496, a picture of which you see here. It was a cheap method of social control.


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The Syphilitic Man public health broadside that Dürer was commissioned to do by the City Government

But the fact that syphilis swept through Europe so fast is bizarre because syphilis is a very slow growing organism; the exposure time that is needed for infection is very long.  Which gives us a very good idea about how much sex was occurring in those times, which is even odder because anyone who is in the first stage of syphilis is absolutely obvious.  They become covered with disgusting and putrid smelling pus sores, it’s a wonder that anyone could tolerate sex with a person so gross.  Stage one lasted about 12 weeks.  Some people died, many lived.

symptoms of stage 2 syphilis

The second stage of syphilis was the dormant stage, which lasted approximately 20 years.  The person was rarely infectious.  However parts of the body started to fall off as they did with leprosy.  The most conspicuous part of the body that fell off was the nose, so many people were walking around without noses.  But medicine came to the rescue.  Turkish doctors became the first plastic surgeons who figured out how to reconstruct noses (having gotten the experience in the battlefield) and rhinoplasty became a hugely sought out cosmetic procedure.

The third stage of syphilis killed the person.  By the time the disease had progressed to third stage, the organisms had invaded the brain, and people went mad; most of them injured themselves from this madness and died.

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It is believed that this depiction by Borzono is of a man suffering from stage three syphilis

For understanding the Dürer Cipher, the most important thing that we need to know about the entire disease is that it leaves very unique scarring in two places of the skeleton.  One type of scar is a  particular crack on the tibia bone of the leg and the other is a destructive bone lesion in the skull known as a “caries sicca.”


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The distinctive caries sicca crack on the skull of a syphilitic


So lets look at one of Dürer’s most famous prints, known as the Coat of Arms with a Skull. Dürer did not assign this title so we really have no idea it’s proper name.


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The 1503 Coat of Arms with a Skull

This is the second print Dürer ever dated (1503 is engraved into the rough slab of stone at the bottom center of the image), which is indicative of a specific event and significant for its meaning (the first print the artist dated is the 1497 Four Witches, another “event” print).

Scholars believe that this image was Dürer’s allusion to the fleeting nature of life, an allegory of the eternal polarity of love and death.  It has been called Wild Man with a Skull on a Coat of Arms, Coat of Arms of Death, The Dying Bride, and Love and Death.

This composition is one of Dürer’s greatest steganographic visual tricks, for the image on the shield is a skull that is “masked.”   On the right side of the masked skull is the distinctive syphilitic caries sicca crack, long ignored by scholars.

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The Schembartlaufin festival, Nurembergs version of Mardi Gras and Carnevale. It features dead cow masks because the festival was originally started by the butchers of Nuremberg

The mask is like a “Schembartläufen” mask worn in Nuremberg during the festival of Schembartläufen, the Nuremberg version of Mardi Gras or Carnavale.  The Schembartläufen originated as a political concession to the Nuremberg butchers in 1391, and the major type of mask worn by the butchers was that of a steer’s head with two teeth. We see the two teeth on the mask which covers a head underneath.

The woman’s dress is a direct copy of a drawing Dürer did of the costumes worn by Nuremberg women for different occasions found in his sketchbook.  This dress was labeled as a Dance Hall costume, something very fine and prestigious (which would be used as a wedding dress), because in 1521, the Nuremberg Patricians used entrance to the Dance Hall as a methodology of  segregating who were the power elite and in what tiers of power they were classified.  The Patrician Families of Nuremberg became the “First, Second, and Third” families, with associated political power and many who had danced at the Dance Hall were no longer able to do so. The woman in the print wears a bridal crown and the masked skull is connected with the identity of the bride.

The hairy figure who appears to woo the bride is a “Wildman,”  medieval German folk figures that lived in the forests.  The wildman and wildwoman symbolism was very popular in the Germanic countries and people often incorporated wildmen and wildwomen symbols in their coat of arms.  Wildmen and wildwomen were thought to have voracious sexual appetites. Dürer painted these wildmen as coats of arms for the Nuremberg Factor Oswelt Krell, a very powerful man in Nuremberg.

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Triptych of Oswelt Krell showing the wildmen of Germany

The huge eagle wings attached to the crest are associated with the eagle wings of the Dürer’ coat of arms, so we know that the event being depicted affects Dürer personally.  The helmet is Swiss, and is connected with the bride, who had relatives in Switzerland that Dürer visited.

Dürer tells us in this image that what is happening relates to his life.  His father-in-law, Hans Frey, the second largest publisher in Nuremberg, was co-chair of the Schembartläufen in 1486-1487. 1486 was the year Dürer was re-apprenticed to Michael Wolgemut. Thus the mask tells us that a Frey is in this image, in this case the bride.  Who is she?  Katherine Frey, Hans’ second daughter, Dürer’s sister-in-law.

Katherine Frey, a teenager, was betrothed in 1503 to a 40-year man named Martin Zinner, immediately after the death of Zinner’s first wife, Margaret, in 1503 (thus, the reason this print is dated). Zinner was known to be a promiscuous syphilitic, a wildman. Katherine’s marriage to Zinner would condemn her to a miserable death if she consummated the marriage. Margaret, the first Zinner wife, quite probably died from infection from Zinner. It appears the head “buried” underneath the mask represents the dead Margaret Zinner.

The hairy wildman represents Zinner and his syphilitic lifestyle.  Katherine Frey, a Dürer relative since 1494, and Martin Zinner married in 1504 or 1505, but Katherine remained childless, like her sister Agnes, Dürer’s wife.  Zinner died in 1526. Katherine died in 1547, extinguishing the lineage of Hans Frey.

To have published such an image about his in-laws would infer that Dürer had little respect for Hans Frey and his family, and  appears to give his commentary on what the Freys would do for money.  In the meantime Dürer was able to sell this print right under the Freys noses, making money as any shrewd businessman would do.





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