Sex Sells! Why isn’t Anyone Talking Albrecht Dürer and Sex?

Copyright Dr. Elizabeth Garner All rights Reserved                                    



Albrecht Dürer and Sex!  Today we’re going to talk about sex in art and specifically about sex secrets in Dürer’s art. It has always amazed me how scholars and art historians seem to purposefully avoid the issue of sex in art, especially nudity.  Instead they seem to gloss over the obvious, coming up with all sorts of complicated analyses and opinions as to why nudity exists in art other than to attract male buyers.

Often, the depiction of nude women in art is attributed to the resurrection of Greek and Roman themes, often called Greek Revival or Neoclassicism. Sex sells. Period.  We see this in any advertisement today.  Nothing has changed since homo sapiens came into existence.  Men love looking at the female nude body and will buy pictures of nude females. Period.  Artists got rich depicting nude females. Most art historians attribute Dürer’s depiction of nude female and male bodies in his art as  proof that Dürer was influenced by the Renaissance Italian painters.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art claims that “the rediscovery of Greco-Roman culture in the Renaissance restored the nude to the heart of creative endeavor. Nude figures based on antique models appear in Italy as early as the mid-thirteenth century, and by the mid-fifteenth century, nudes had become symbols of antiquity and its reincarnation.”

Sex sells, period. A Renaissance painter or artist could only get away with painting nude bodies for the visual pleasure of men by fostering this theory or suffer from the Roman Catholic Church’s punishment.  We have to remember that Dürer was manufacturing his art soon after the Inquisition was implemented. In the German part of the Holy Roman Empire there were strict clothing laws, called sumptuary laws, which regulated almost everything that people could wear, according to social class (I will have a separate blog on this subject). In northern climates, women had to be almost totally covered, whereas the southern Italians allowed more risqué type of dress, with low necklines and bodices that pushed up the breasts.  Thus, there was a pent up demand for nudity in the northern European climates. Recently, archeologists have discovered medieval bras in Germany, something that looks almost exactly like the undergarments women wear today.  Take a look:

Bra and Panty used in medival period
Medieval Bra and Panty found in Austria (even embellished with lace!) (clink for more information about this momentous discovery) When printed images became a marketing phenomena in the Renaissance, women were often depicted with their breasts showing, often in bed. Dürer’s employers took advantage of this marketing ploy frequently in the prints they required him to design while Dürer he was a journeyman from 1490-1494. Today we’re going to take a closer look at Dürer’s incredible skill in depicting nudes and one of the secrets no one has yet discovered until now.  Albrecht Dürer was using subliminal sex images to sell his prints.

The Penance of St. John Chrysostom - Albrecht Durer's painting
The 1496 Nursing Mother currently erroneously called “The Penance of St. John Chrysostom”

Dürer made this print in 1496.  The current title of this print is “The Penance of St. John Chrysostom,” although we have no idea what Dürer called it.  Almost nothing in this print maps to the story of St. John Chrysostom, and for hundreds of years, this print was called St. Genevieve (even though St. Genevieve didn’t have a child).  It’s true meaning has been obscured by ignoring what is actually depicted in this print. The nude woman nursing the infant has been considered one of Dürer’s most beautiful nudes.  The beauty of the nude woman should have been enough to attract any male buyer into buying this print except for the fact that Dürer depicts her as a nursing mother.  Nursing is not usually considered sexy.  Why even depict such a beautiful nude woman if he was going to also show her nursing a male child? It’s somewhat nonsensical.  How was he going to counteract the contradiction and sell this print?   What did Albrecht Dürer do?   He made sure that male buyers would want to buy this print.  He embedded into the landscape surrounding the nursing woman subliminal sex content.  Take a look again:

The Penance of St. John Chrysostom - Albrecht Durer
The right-hand side of the “rocky” overhang is secretly a nude female body in profile, exposing even her genitals. The left-hand side is a male phallus. Any hetero – or homosexual man would be attracted to this print. Sex sells!

What you see as part of the strange landscape surrounding the nude nursing woman is a female nude in profile, which makes up the right part of the landscape overhanging the woman.  The top part of the landscape has the nude torso in profile displaying breasts, and the bottom part of the of the right overhang shows somewhat large thighs and an exposed vulva.   A male phallus is depicted as part of the left part of the overhang.  And all this nudity is directly in the center of the print, where Dürer puts most of his important clues.  No one in over 518 years has discovered this extremely effective technique before me, so we can assume that most buyers wouldn’t have noticed it either. What male buyer was going to be able to resist such a blatant display of sexuality, especially when they probably even weren’t aware of what they were truly looking at?  There’s enough sex in this composition to satisfy any hetero- or homosexual desire.  That is an effective marketing technique. We can also assume that who ever this woman and male baby are, they were very important to Dürer, for he uses this subliminal sex technique when he really wants viewers to peer closely at his composition and pay attention to what is really in the image. Dürer leaves us a clue as to her identity.  Look closely at the rock jutting out over the upper right of the ledge. In the rock are two figures, which appear to be made of bones (a skeleton?), each waving some sort of cloth or waving something that looks like cloth.  Most probably this is some sort of heraldic symbolism that identifies who she  and the baby really are. I have yet to discover the meaning of this symbolism in the rock and I invite all to hunt for plausible theories. Let’s crack this Dürer code together.  

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4 thoughts on “Sex Sells! Why isn’t Anyone Talking Albrecht Dürer and Sex?

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    1. Thank you. Hope you’ll be back.

      I’m not quite sure what you mean by “apprentice” do you mean you want to be a Durersleuth? Just start looking for hidden clues in the art and contact he if you find something.

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      All the best,


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