Text copyright © Dec 12, 2012 Dr. Elizabeth A. Garner, All Rights Reserved
BUY THE BOOK! CRIMES IN THE ART: THE SECRET CIPHER OF ALBRECHT DÜRER
The Knights Templar were the most famous of the medieval military knight orders connected with the Crusades, whose sudden and violent disappearance continues to fascinate millions of people. Since the 18th century, Freemasonry incorporated Templar symbolism into their rituals, and their legends and secrets have been connected to the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant. Popular novels such as The Da Vinci Code, The Lost Symbol, and Foucault’s Pendulum, modern movies as National Treasure and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and video games such as the Assassin’s Creed and Broken Sword have added fictional embellishments to the Templar story. Every day we can watch some TV show or YouTube video that features the history of the Templars, speculating what happened to them.
About one hundred years after the destruction of the Templars, another knight order eclipsed the fame of the Templars and became all powerful in Europe. This knighthood group was called the Order of the Dragon (Societas Draconistrarum in Latin, lit. “Society of the Dragon”).
The order was founded in 1408 by Sigismund, King of Hungary (who was born in Nuremberg), later the Holy Roman Emperor, and was organized like the military orders of the Crusades, especially to fight the Ottoman Turks who continually threatened Eastern Europe. The Order of the Dragon flourished during the 15th century, especially in Germany, Italy and Eastern Europe. In Hungary, the birthplace of Albrecht Dürer’s father, only nobility (from barons upwards) and magnates were allowed to join this order. The Order of the Dragon still exists and many of Europe’s current royalty belong to it.
The symbol of the order was the dragon as you see here:
Vlad Dracul III the Impaler, commonly known as Dracula, Prince of Wallachia (then part of the Kingdom of Hungary) was a member of the Order of the Dragon, and the name Dracula, which means “little dragon,” is derived from his membership in the Order of the Dragon. Vlad’s father was initiated into the Order of the Dragon in Nuremberg, Albrecht Dürer’s birthplace, and Vlad III was initiated into the order in Nuremberg at age 5. From this we can be surmise that medieval Nurembergers were very familiar with the Order of the Dragon and would recognize the order’s insignia.
So what is the connection between this knight order and Albrecht Dürer’s art? Let’s take a look.
Albrecht Dürer’s father, known as Albrecht the Elder, emigrated to the Imperial City of Nuremberg from Atjós, Hungary (now Oradea in Romania), thus we know for sure that Dürer was ethnically at least half Hungarian. Atjós, which means “door” in Hungarian, was translated to “Dürer,” which means door in German, and adopted as the family’s surname.
Little is recorded about the life of Albrecht the Elder. The first time he appears in any historical record is 1444 in Nuremberg, where his name is found on a military roster. We do know that he had to have some extremely good political connections, because upon his marriage to his wife Barbara, he was made a Master goldsmith, and was made the official Assayer and Weigher of Silver and Gold, an extremely prestigious and powerful position in Nuremberg society.
When Albrecht the Elder finally aquired his own home in 1475, he purchased in the neighborhood of some of Nuremberg’s most powerful and richest families, who called themselves the Patricians. The Dürer family was living among the highest society of Nuremberg, who did not allow just anyone to be their neighbors.
Albrecht the Elder was also appointed to other important city positions and by the 1480’s was a shareholder investor in the mine at Goldkronach, owned by the Burggrafen of Nuremberg (the city’s “monarch”) and the Markgrafen of Ansbach-Kulmbach. Later he partnered as shareholder with other Patricians in other mining companies. In a society as class stratified as Nuremberg, Albrecht Dürer the Elder could never have come from humble Hungarian roots as the current myth asks us to believe.
In other words, Dürer’s father was one of the “1%” of Nuremberg society and probably one of the top 5% richest people in the Holy Roman Empire. Albrecht Dürer was not “a poor boy that made good.”
In 1490, Albrecht painted his mother and father’s marriage coat of arms on the back of the portrait he did of his father before he left Nuremberg for his journeymanship training, which you see here:
Dürer knew that no one would have ever see the back of this painting during his lifetime or his parent’s lifetime, so he could paint truthful information about his family here. If we take a look at the upper left corner of the Dürer marriage coat of arms, there is a large figure of a dragon, although it is difficult to see because the painting was damaged. How do we know it’s a dragon?
It does not have horns. In medieval art, one of the differences between a dragon and a devil was the use of horns on the figure. Dragons were portrayed as serpent-like scaly creatures that rarely flied despite having wings. Devils in art derived from early Pre-Christian goat figures, which is why devils have horns in art.
Thus, Albrecht is telling us in this painting that his family has some connection with a dragon. Could it be the Hungarian Order of the Dragon? Could Dürer be telling us his ancestry is nobility?
Why is this distinction important? Because the animal symbols in the following Dürer compositions have been misidentified as devils and are really dragons, and thus the current interpretations as to their meaning are wrong. Let’s take another look:
This Dürer print is currently titled the Four Witches. The animal in the lower left of this print has been interpreted as a devil and thus scholars believe the four naked women are witches. However, when this print was made in 1497, witches in medieval art and printing were not portrayed naked. Since symbolism in medieval art (called iconography) had to be instantly recognizable by the buying customers, it would be nonsensical to believe that these are witches, for no one in the society would interpret them as such. It wasn’t until late in the Renaissance that naked witches appeared in art or prints. Actually, one of Dürer’s famous apprentices, Hans Baldung Grien, was one of the first artists who illustrated naked witches.
So if these women are not witches, who are they? And why are they associated with a dragon? Could they be connected with the Hungarian Order of the Dragon?
Yes. The clues that tell us this is are the letters on the ball suspended over their head and the veil on the woman on the left. There is a relationship of these women to each other, to Dürer, to Hungary, and to a dragon.
Let’s look at another at another image:
I have previously published here how the Dürer Cipher unravels the meaning of this image. The figures are Dürer’s Hungarian relatives, his uncle Ladislas (Larwence), his aunt Katherine and his cousin, their son, Niklas, who apprenticed as goldsmith along with Albrecht under the tutelage of Albrecht the Elder.
The animal flying in the air putting a bellows into the man’s ear has also been identified as a devil. But once again it does not have horns and therefore it’s a dragon. Recognizing this animal as a dragon is a further clue to decoding the true meaning of this print. In Hungary, the Dürer family would have been members of the Order of the Dragon and Dürer tells us that they were members often in other prints.
However, the Patricians, who came from non-noble ancestry, had great enmity towards nobility. To be economically successful, the Dürers would have had to suppress the knowledge of their linkage to this knight order. Yet, Albrecht would not let this connection be forgotten. This membership in the order apparently was of great importance to him which is probably why he keeps reminding us of this connection in his prints.
It goes a long way to explain why Dürer wrote in 1506 in his letter from Venice to Willibald Pirkheimer “Oh, how I shall freeze after this sunshine! Here I am a gentlemen, at home only a cockroach.” (Heaton, The Life of Albrecht Dürer of Nürnberg, 98.)