The Secrets of the Dogs of Dürer

Copyright by Dr. Elizabeth Garner, all rights reserved worldwide, September 28, 2012




Everyone loves dogs.

And so did Albrecht Dürer.  More than likely, Dürer included dogs in his prints because they were an integral part of medieval society as hunters and companions, and thus had the same marketing appeal as they do today. But is it possible that the dogs of Dürer illustrated secret messages?

Let’s take a closer look at the Dogs of Dürer.

The very first time that we find a dog in a Dürer print is in this print from 1496


One of Dürer’s earliest woodcuts. A Lansquenet was a mercenary soldier for hire. Notice the dog at the bottom of the print image.


And then again in this print of the Flagellation (Large Passion)

Durer Albrecht Christ sex Nuremberg Renaissance sex Passion Large Flagellation Portuguese water dog Michelanagelo sistine dragon tattoo
The Large Passion Flagellation, manufactured probably around 1496 but not published until 1511. Why is the dog included in a scene about the Flagellation?


And then again in the opening page of the image book that made Albrecht Dürer famous, The Apocalypse


durer albrecht sex apocalypse martyrdom st john
the same dog in the Apocalypse The Martyrdom of St John
The opening page of Dürer’s famous 1498 Apocalypse, called the Martyrdom of St. John the Evangelist. The same dog is present that we’ve seen in the last two prints

What kind of dog is this?  A Portuguese Water Dog.  The first description of this dog was found in a monk’s journal in 1297, where it was described as rescuing a dying sailor.  It is believed that poodles may have descended from this dog.

A handsome picture of a Portugeuse Water Dog sporting the type of grooming known as a lion cut

Fishermen prized this well-balanced working dog as a companion and guard dog.  He lived on the working boats where he was taught to herd fish into nets, to retrieve lost tackle or broken nets, and to act as a courier from ship to ship, or ship to shore.

Tasks required the dogs to be excellent swimmers and seafarers.  Dogs were capable of diving underwater to retrieve fishing gear and to prevent the escape of fish from the nets.  Constant swimming and working with the fishermen accounts for the remarkable muscular development of their hindquarters.  As noted in the breed standard, this dog of exceptional intelligence and loyal companionship willingly served a master well.


Dürer’s Portuguese Water dog sports what is called a lion cut coat. In the lion cut, the hindquarters, muzzle, and the base of the tail are shaved and the rest of the body is left full length. The lion cut diminished the initial impact and shock of cold water when the breed jumped from the boats, as well as providing warmth to the vitals. The hindquarters were left shaved to allow easier movement of the back legs and the breed’s powerful, rudder-like tail.

It is fascinating to find that even in Dürer’s day, dogs’ coats were groomed.

But why a depict a Portuguese Water dog, first of all, when many other dog breed types were available and more popular in Germany?  And why depict this dog in a print about Christ’s Flagellation?  Or in a print about the Martyrdom of St. John the Evangelist? It makes no sense.

The answer is that this dog was trained as a courier, one who could carry secrets and messages from boat to boat. Dürer is telling us that there are secrets in these prints.  Only those who were familiar with the dog’s purpose would recognize that the dog is a clue.


Even more interesting are the dogs in Dürer’s engravings.  We only find three instances of dogs in Dürer’s engravings. The first time is in the 1501 engraving Dürer titled Eustachium, seven years after he became a master and four years after he was internationally famous.


The 1501 engraving Durer called Eustachium, which made people think this is an image about St. Eustace. Eu-stace means “good fortune” in Latin

The next time we find a dog in a print is in Dürer’s 1513 print he titled Der Reuter and which is incorrectly known to the world as Knight, Death, and the Devil. (Please see my prior article called What’s in a Name?” )


The 1513 Der Reuter (the Rider)

In 1513, Dürer was working for the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian, and was quite ticked off that Maximilian was not paying him or had made him project manager.


The 1514 Melencolia. Notice how large the sleeping dog is in comparison to the other symbols in this print

The third and last time a dog is depicted is in the 1514 print known as Melencolia, published after his mother Barbara, and sister Margret had died.

Let’s look at these dogs more closely.

Eustachium. There are two types of Hungarian dogs portrayed, the Agar Hound on the left, and the Vizsla on the right

In the Eustachium, we have two sets of dogs.  On the left hand side are two Hungarian Agar hounds and on the right hand side are three Hungarian Vizslas.

In Melencolia, we have one sleeping Hungarian Agar hound.

Hmmm.  Hungarian dogs.  Dürer is ethnically half Hungarian by his father.


durer albrecht sex renaissance viszla hungarian hungary dogs art
The majestic Viszla hound



What do we know about Hungarian Vizsla dogs?

Historically the Vizsla is older than most breeds and its existence was known in 10th century. It has been established that the history of the Vizsla is closely akin to that of the early Hungarians, or Magyars, the ancient hunter-herdsmen who fought and lived in the great Carpathian basin one thousand years ago.

Primitive stone etchings, estimated 1,000 years old, show the Magyar huntsman with his Vizsla and falcons. The Vienna Chronicle, a manuscript of the early Hungarian codes and laws dating from the time of King Lajos (Louis) the Great (1342-1382), contains a chapter about the falconry of the nobility with a picture of the Vizsla. Hungarian historians mention the favorite Vizslas of their heroes. There is a little hamlet on the Danube that dates back to the 12th century, proving that many Vizslas were found in its environment.

The golden Vizsla was the favorite companion-hunting dog of the early barons and war lords and, with the evolution of the nobility and large landowners, the breed was preserved in its purity through the centuries. Only the aristocracy and the large estate owners were permitted by custom to breed the dogs.  Only the aristocracy were allowed the Vizsla.

In the Eustachium, we have two sets of dogs.  On the left hand side are two Hungarian Agar hounds and on the right hand side are three Hungarian Vizslas. In Melencolia, we have one sleeping Hungarian Agar hound.


The Agar Hound, beloved dog of Hungarians


Let’s look at the Hungarian Agar Hound:

The Magyar Agár is a long distance racing hound. He was bred to be a dispatcher of game shot by horseback riders on an open plain or open stand of hardwood timber. The Magyar Agár was expected to accompany the hunters for distances of usually 30 kilometers (19 miles) and up to a maximum of 50 kilometers (31 miles) in a day. The game in most cases was hare and deer.

Through most of Hungarian history the Magyar Agár was not solely owned by the nobility. Every Hungarian, if he so wished, could own and hunt with an Magyar Agár. Although the Magyar Agár was not limited to some cultural or aristocratic status, the Magyar Agárs found with the nobility were much bigger than those of the landed peasants. Magyar Agárs owned by the peasants were known as Farm Agárs or simply as Hare Catchers. These smaller versions of the Magyar Agár are now extinct.

So what are these dogs telling us?  Vizsla’s represent nobility, Agar hounds represent  nobles and non-nobles.  In the Eustachium, we have some sort of message about nobility on the right side,  and non-nobility on the left side.  In Melencolia, we have a large message about a Hungarian dog that could be used by both nobles and non-nobles.

Once we delve into all the secrets embedded in Eustachium and Melencolia, the message of the dogs of Dürer will  become clear.

In the meantime, I have yet to determine the breed of dog depicted in Der Reuter (Knight, Death, and the Devil).



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2 thoughts on “The Secrets of the Dogs of Dürer

  1. Great research Elizabeth,
    Many thanks for this invaluable information.
    Gives me inspiration to look further into the history of Schnauzer.

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