Copyright Dr. Elizabeth Garner All Rights Reserved
We do not really know the title of this print because Dürer did not assign this title; it is the opinion of a past historian.
This penitent motif of the Prodigal Son was new for the Renaissance and it was not known to be a money maker for artist/printers. Before this rendition, the proven motifs that sold well were scenes of the man reveling or in compromising situations. Dürer took a radical economic risk with this image before he was famous, and unusual move for a young merchant who could not yet support a workshop with apprentices.
While this image is explicitly depicting a scene about the Prodigal Son among the Swine, it appears that the composition has a disguised alternative meaning about one history- changing vote made by the Nuremberg City Council in 1496 (the local government, controlled by 46 Nuremberg families known as the Patricians). The Nuremberg Jews, legal property of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian, who was their protector, were not completely subject to the Nuremberg City Council’s authority. The Patricians had been lobbying with Maximilian for years to expel the Jews, ready to fill their economic functions (banking and cattle trading). Suddenly in 1496, Maximilian agreed to this exodus but refrained from actually signing the writ of expulsion until 1498. When the Jews were ultimately expelled in 1499, these Patricians took over their real estate and businesses.
The pigs appear to be Hungarian boars, known for their ferocity. Five large pigs and five small pigs are depicted. The organization of the City Council was very convoluted, but the top five positions of the City Council were selected by five “Electors”, also Council members, once a year. It appears the five small pigs represent the Electors of the City Council and the five large pigs represent those they elected to the top positions. In 1496, the ten men responsible for the expulsion of the Nuremberg Jews were the five Electors (small pigs) Niclas Grolandt, Ulrich Gruntherr, Peter Nützel, Gabriel Müffel, and Hans Tetzel the Elder, who elected (large pigs) Paulus Volkamer, Gabriel Nützel, Ortlöff Stromeyer, Anthoni Tücher, and Hieronymous Schürstab.
Scholars have posited two theories as to whom the kneeling man represents. He is considered to be either a self portrait of Dürer or to be an “Italian” because of the moustache and the shape of the nose. If it’s a self-portrait, the question is raised as to why Dürer would have considered himself someone who needed to beg forgiveness for being among these “swine” and depicted himself as such. If this is an “Italian,” this could be a veiled reference to a member of the City Council, whose surname meant “the Italian,” Jacob Welser. In medieval German, “wels” was the word for “Italian,” so Welser meant “the Italian.” The Welsers were an extremely wealthy and powerful Augsburg German dynasty, who sent Jacob Welser to establish their businesses in Nuremberg in 1493. Because of Welser’s wealth, the City Council had no choice but to induct him into the City Council in 1494, where his presence as a controlling interloper was much resented by the native Patricians. Welser was involved in the vote for Jewish expulsion in 1496.
The double wheel and the rooster in the middle of the print, and nailed-down snake tail below the harrow at the left side of the composition are insignia from the arms of, respectively, the Nuremberg families of Volkamer, Rummel, and Münzer. Paulus Volkamer was the “President (the Losunger in German)“, of the City Council in 1496. Hieronymous Münzer (whose insignia shows up in other Dürer prints) was first elected to the City Council in 1493. Hans Frey, a Rummel relative and Dürer’s father-in-law, was first elected to the City Council in 1496. Dürer appears to want to single out these men’s role in the vote of expulsion particularly. The hind quarters of a bull at the left of the image seems to be Dürer’s derisive commentary on this political event.
The landscape is a depiction of a particular Nuremberg farm called Himpfelshof, located west of the city walls. We will never know exactly why Dürer chose to depict this farm, but the area west of the Nuremberg city walls was populated by Jews.
A turnip is depicted in the lower center of the image. This root vegetable was a common Hungarian emblem, suggesting an association yet to be understood. It was also a common symbol of contempt, possibly indicating a personal comment.