The Secrets of Emperors and Sea Monsters

Text copyright © Oct 7, 2012 Dr. Elizabeth A. Garner, All Rights Reserved




Emperor Maximilian is a person who figured prominently in Dürer’s life, especially as his patron. Here is a painting Dürer did of Maximilian.


The painting of Emperor Maximilian by Durer
The Emperor Maximilian as painted by Dürer

But there is a connection in Dürer’s prints about Maximilian that no one has discovered before.  To understand this connection we have to know about Maximilian’s biography and political events.  You can find additional information about Maximilian at:,_Holy_Roman_Emperor

Maximilian I was born March 22 1459, the son of Frederick III, the Holy Roman Emperor and Eleanor of Portugal.  He married Mary of Burgundy in 1477, the heiress to the Duchy of Burgundy. With Mary, he had two children, Philip I, who became King of Castile through marriage, and Margaret, the Archduchess of Austria (also called Mary of Burgundy). He became the King of the Romans (over the Germanic part of the Holy Roman Empire, which included Nuremberg, Dürer’s home city) in 1486, the same year that Dürer was re-apprenticed from goldsmithing as an artist to Michael Wolgemut.

Michael Wolgemut, Master


Maximilian became Holy Roman Emperor in 1508 upon his father’s death. He was always troubled by financial shortcomings. For this reason he was forced to take substantial credits from Patrician German banker families, especially from the families of Baumgarten of Nuremberg, Fugger, and Welser (originally of Augsburg and then from Nuremberg ), and thus the Nuremberg Patricians held considerable influence over Maximilian. The Fuggers, who dominated the copper and silver mining business in Tyrol, provided a credit of almost 1 million gulden for the purpose of bribing the prince-electors (who really held most of the power in Europe) to choose Maximilian’s grandson Charles V as the new Emperor when Maximilian died in 1519. At the end of Maximilian’s rule, the Habsburgs’ mountain of debt totalled 6 million gulden; this corresponded to a decade’s worth of tax revenues from their inherited lands. It took until the end of the 16th century for this debt to be repaid.


Painting of Margaret, Daughter of Emperor Maximilian
Margaret of Austria, Maximilian’s daughter and Regent for his grandson, Charles V, after Maximilian’s death

Maximilian’s daughter, Margaret, was betrothed to Charles VIII, the Dauphin of France in 1483 and was sent to be raised in the French Court.  Maximilian became betrothed to Anne of Brittany and married her by proxy in Rennes on December 19 1490.

Painting of Anne of Brittany
Anne of Brittany, also called Anne de Bretagne, the most sought after heiress in Europe

But the French were fearful since it would place Maximilian and his family, the Habsburgs, on two French borders; Brittany was invaded by the French army, Maximilian was unable to help, and Anne of Brittany was forced to renounce Maximilian (whom she had only married by proxy), and agree to be married to Charles VIII instead on December 19, 1491.  Anne showed up for the wedding with two marriage beds!

In effect Charles VIII, Dauphin of France, cuckolded Maximilian twice: he stole Maximilian’s wife and married her, and repudiated his marriage to Maximilian’s daughter Margaret. Even worse, he kept Margaret a prisoner in France until 1493, where the legend has it that Margaret in despair, ran through the streets of France in her nightgown when she learned that father Maximilian would not rescue her.  Margaret was ultimately returned to Germany in 1493.

Painting of Bianca Maria Sforza, wife of emperor Maximilian
Bianca Maria Sforza, the wife Emperor Maximilian settled for after he was cuckolded by the Dauphin of France, Charles the VIII

Maximilian then married Bianca Sforza, daughter of the Duke of Milan, in 1494, who brought Maximilian 400,000 ducats as a dowry. The marriage was unhappy and they basically lived apart most of their lives.  Bianca became Empress of the Holy Roman Empire when Maximilian assumed the title of Emperor in 1508.



Charles VIII, The Dauphin of France
The enemy, Charles VIII, the Dauphin of France

Because Charles VIII had stolen Maximilian’s wife, Charles became Maximilian’s arch enemy. When Charles VIII died in 1498, Anne of Brittany was forced by French law to marry his brother, the new Dauphin of France, Louis XII. Maximilian still held his grudge against whomever was the Dauphin of France.


So how did Dürer figure into all of this?  Durer, who was fleeing a plague outbreak in Nuremberg shortly after his marriage to Agnes Frey on July 7, 1494, fled this plague to Venice and ended up studying with the Italian painting masters, especially with Giovanni Bellini.

And while in Venice, Charles VIII , who claimed to be the King of Naples, decided to invade Italy with 25,000 troops, reaching Naples on February 22, 1495.  Not only was Venice terrified that Charles would attack Venice, he also brought with him the soon to be scourge of Europe, syphilis.  Dürer lived through this threat of war almost the entire time he was in Italy, trapped from escaping anything that might occur by winter.

If Dürer had been so entranced with the revival of Greek and Roman themes that he had learned in Italy, as it is claimed by historians, it would make sense that we would see this type of Greek and Roman artistic theme in his prints immediately upon his return to Nuremberg, but we don’t.  Instead we see prints like this:

Engraving of Madonna with a Monkey
The Madonna with the Monkey engraving. Albrecht’s skill was so great with the burin engraving tool that the monkey looked lifelike

Then, in 1498, he published the Apocalypse

Apocalypse durer four horsemen
The 1498 Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Dürer’s second most famous image

And in the same year he published this print  (See my previous article called What’s in a Name) that Dürer called “The Sea Monster.”


Since Dürer did title this print, we have to stick with the name and assume the composition has something to do with a Sea Monster.  What was the Sea Monster in Dürer’s time?  It was the dolphin, and even though the dolphin was smoothed skinned, it was depicted with scales as you see here.

The Sea Monster
The 1498 Sea Monster. the “Sea Monster of Renaissance times was the smooth skinned dolphin depicted with scales

This is a highly encoded composition. And Dürer was the master of deception. There are actually three figures in this print:  the woman, wearing a Milanese crown, the bearded man holding the tortoise shell shield and sporting cuckold horns on his head, and the scaly sea monster that bears up the woman.

The implement the bearded man holds behind the tortoise shield is the jawbone of the ass of Samson, considered by biblical scholars to be the most powerful weapon of the Hebrew bible.  Dürer had used this symbol before and uses it after he made this print to signify the person in the composition that has the most power. So we know the bearded man has the most power.

We’ve seen that Dürer uses heraldric symbols in other compositions.  Who was associated with a dolphin?  None other than the Dauphin of France, Charles VIII; the dolphin appears on his coat of arms.  Dauphin means dolphin in French.  Thus the sea monster was the Dauphin.

Who is the woman?  If you were paying attention to the history lesson above, it should be easy to guess.  But also notice that this woman’s foot is backwards.  This clue becomes extremely important in later compositions, as there are many “backwards” symbols and monograms in other Dürer prints that can’t be understood until this woman in this print is identified.

The castle in the background is of the Nuremberg “Burg” before it was remodeled in 1500, however Dürer tells us that the action is taking place in Italy, by the ship that is in the background, far right middle. The Turk and the swimming ladies have to do with the Sea Monster.

And finally, this print is connected to The Rider, done in 1513 (Please see my previous article What Time is It?)

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3 thoughts on “The Secrets of Emperors and Sea Monsters

  1. Hi Elizabeth. Thank you so much for this fascinating insight into The Sea Monster. I am fortunate enough to own one of Frets prints of this work and I can now look at it with even more fascination. I have one question … I am assuming the naked lady is the Duke of Milans daughter who married Maximilian. I am confused as to why she is being rescued from Charles by Maximilian in terms of the historical link. Can you help? Many thanks.

    1. The woman stands for 3 people-the crown is indicating the Duke of Milan’s daughter that Maximilian married. She also represents Margaret of Burgundy-his daughter and Margret Duererin.



  2. Apologies for the spellchecker on my last post. The word Frets should of course be Durers

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