Copyright Dr. Elizabeth Garner All Rights Reserved
The most baffling aspect about Albrecht Dürer is not his art but that there is no paper trail. This is the invisible smoking gun that hangs over his life and his art. Almost everything that has been published about Dürer to date is speculative assumption, with very little solid proof to support exisiting conclusions. In part, this is because there is so little authentic documentation concerning Albrecht Durer’s life and Art.
Aside from one letter written by Dürer’s father and found hidden in the walls of Dürer’s parents homestead, no authentic record of anything about parents Albrecht Dürer the Elder and Barbara Dürerin and their eighteen children, exist. We can prove the existence of four of the Dürer boys, Albrecht, Endres, Hanns III and Carl from independent sources. The only authentic proof we have that Barbara had 18 children comes from a reference recorded on the one page of Albrecht’s personal diary which survived, known as the Gedenbüch (Gedenbüch is German for diary). It is also very bizarre that all of the other pages of the Gedenbüch perished. This one surviving diary page is, in itself, a mystery.
The one surviving page of Dürer’s diary is lettered; it has a “g” at the top of the page; who “letters” a page? But the strangest aspect is that it records the death of his father and his mother, which occurred 12 years apart, on the same page. In other words, Dürer purposefully came back to this one page in his diary to make sure the truth about how his parents died twelve years apart was known. And somehow this page was so special, Dürer contrived some method to make sure it would be preserved and found hundreds of years after his death.
Dürer was the German Master of the Renaissance, the man declared by the Venetian Renaissance painters as the best painter of the realm in 1506, the man who made a print so detailed and so lifelike, that the Pope declared one had to pay 10,000 gulden in indulgences to the Church to look at it (the Sudarium Held by Two Angels).
And yet, we only have a minutiae of evidence concerning his life outside of his art. The City of Nuremberg has a municipal library, called the Stadarchiv, which holds more than 13,000 meters of shelving of documents concerning anything that has to do with Nuremberg, starting as early as 1100 A.D. Even the Executioner’s diary of Durer’s time has been preserved. Yet, Dürer is an almost absent ghost in these archives.
Albrecht Dürer was Germany’s most famous Renaissance son with international reknown in his lifetime. Yet, besides the one page of the personal diary, the only other authentic documents are 10 letters he wrote from Venice in 1506-1507 to Willibald Pirkheimer. These letters were found hidden in the walls of the Pirkheimer house when it was renovated for a wedding in the 1800′s. The remaining authentic documentation is some bad poetry and some tax and material receipts. Where did the papers of a lifetime go? These things simply do not just fall off the edge of a planet.
About 100 years after Albrecht Dürer’s death, a document called “Die FamilieChronik,” (the Family Chronicle), which can never be authenticated, surfaced. It was a purported autobiography written by Dürer in 1524. Oddly, this document was copied a number of times and no historian knows which was the first version found. Five versions exist: a copy exists in the Bamberg Library, two copies in the Nuremberg Library, one in the Gotha Museum, and finally one in the Teutsche Acadamie der edlen Bau-, Bild- und Malereikünste. It appears that the same scribe wrote two of these documents but they all differ somewhat from each other. Scholars have heavily relied on this document for lack of anything else available.
When the narrative of the Family Chronicle is thoroughly analyzed, we find that all the information contained in it was public information, so anyone could have made up the story and had it written down.
The Family Chronicle starts with an introduction that Albrecht Dürer “the Younger” writes after Christmas in Nuremberg in 1524, claiming the information provided was assembled from his father’s papers. The father, Albrecht Dürer, called the Elder in this Chronicle, is said to have been born in the Kingdom of Hungary, in a little town called Etyas (Atjos in Hungarian) not far from a little town called Jula, eight miles below the major Renaissance German trading city of Wardein in Hungary (later known as Grosswardein in German and what is now Oradea, Rumania). Albrecht’s grandfather was named Anthoni Dürer, and became a goldsmith. Anthoni married Elisabeth, and they had a daughter Catherine, and three sons. The first son was Albrecht [the Elder]. Another son was named Lasslen [Ladislas] who was a saddler, and his son Niklas, called Unger [the Hungarian], a goldsmith, apprenticed with Albrecht the Elder as a goldsmith, and ended up living in Cologne. The third son was named Johannes, who was allowed to go to school. Johannes afterward became a parish priest in Wardein and stayed there 30 years.
Out of all this introductory information above, the only provable information is that Niklas Unger, Dürer’s favorite cousin, did apprentice with Albrecht the Elder as goldsmith with Albrecht and did live in Cologne, which the tax records show.
And, as it turns out, Dürer tells us in the prints that the above was true except for Johannis becoming a priest.
The next part of the Dürer Family Chronicle tells us a story about how Albrecht the Elder met Barbara, the mother. Albrecht the Elder supposedly had been among the Netherland artists for a very long time (all we can prove is that the Elder was in Nuremberg in 1444, from a military roster), happening to return to Nuremberg on St. Eloy’s day, the patron saint of goldsmiths, and The Elder happened upon Philippe Pirkheimer’s wedding which was taking place at the Burg castle, with a big dance occurring after that. Except there was no Philippe Pirkheimer in the historical records who could have been married on this day.
Then it is written that Albrecht the Elder went to work for a Jeronimus Holper, a goldsmith for “a long time”, (12 years) and married Holper’s daughter, Barbara, a 15 year old on June 8, 1467. Except Barbara’s original surname in this document was always thought to be Haller, a very politically connected and wealthy family. Because a researcher couldn’t find a Haller goldsmith in 1863, Barbara’s Haller name became Holper for eternity based on a phrase in the tax records, erasing any possible tracing of her lineage. But this researcher had no knowledge that Albrecht had painted the truth of her maiden name in the marriage coat of arms he painted on the back of his 1490 portrait of his father.
What was left out was that Albrecht the Elder was immediately made the City’s Silver Weigher upon their marriage in 1467, a job that required extensive political connections to obtain. Barbara was really a special goldsmith’s daughter OR a special political prize of a power elite and not a goldsmith’s daughter at all. Barbara’s father is not mentioned again but we are told that Barbara’s mother, Kunigund, was from the very rich and well-connected Öellinger Family of nearby Weissenburg.
The next paragraph in the Family Chronicle is amusing and almost nonsensical, given the structure of Nuremberg society. ‘Albrecht’ tells us that despite his extensive training as a goldsmith, Albrecht convinced his father by his diligence and talent, to allow himself to become an artist and that the father acceded to Albrecht’s wish. And so, Albrecht is re-apprenticed to Michael Wolgemut, who lived two doors away from the Dürers, and who happened to have the biggest book illustration contract from Albrecht’s Godfather, Anton Koberger. Koberger was one of the biggest publishers in Europe-think Rupert Murdoch.
In reality, there was a labor shortage in Nuremberg and Wolgemut needed illustrators, for the book that was being published was the Nuremberg Chronicles with an unheard of 1800 images to be included-mind boggling for the times. Once Albrecht was re-apprenticed, his father was given a goldsmith shop in the most prime area of real estate in Nuremberg for a token yearly rental. Albrecht Dürer the Elder was also given stock options in mining companies in Hungary with other power elites of the city.
Next we have the recording of the birthdays by Church feast day of the eighteen children of Albrecht and Barbara Dürer. None of this information is verifiable. There were eleven boys and seven girls born. We are told the names of the godfathers for all the eleven boys but one, and all these godfathers are traceable persons. These godfathers were very important men in the city. Only one of the six godmothers is traceable and she was a famous person in her own right, Kristina Pernhardin, the wife of the famous astronomer Bernhard Walthers. Walters owned the second observatory ever built in Europe. Albrecht Dürer bought it as his homestead upon Walter’s death in 1509; it is the Albrecht Dürerhaus in Nuremberg today.
One girl, child # 8, Margaretha, was a twin, a Capricorn, and according to the Family Chronicle, she was the second twin birth, died in childbirth, and was never assigned a godmother. This recordation erased her forever from history with the publication of the Family Chronicle, with no way to track her.
Until 1971, when the bell ringing death registries (Totengläut Bücher) for St. Sebald and St. Lorenz parish churches were published for the years 1439-1517. No one ever in Dürer’s lifetime expected these documents to be published.
However, Margaretha (Margret) had lived. I found her in 2008 recorded in the St. Lorenz death registry dying sometime between the day of her mother’s death (May 17, 1514) and August 24, 1514. If her birth date is accurate in the Family Chronicle, she would have been 38. Why would anyone need to erase Margret? That was the puzzle.
The rest of the Family Chronicle is more public information. We’re told Albrecht went away after Easter 1490 to Ostern (Austria) for his 4 years as a journeyman, being recalled to Nuremberg in 1494 to marry Agnes Frey, daughter of Hans Frey, on July 7, 1494. He was given 200 gulden as a dowry. Next we learn that Albrecht the Elder died in 1502, and Barbara died on the 17th day of May, 1514.
Finally we’re told that the mother-in-law, Anna Rummel Frey, the daughter of a very rich Nuremberg merchant Patrician got sick and died in Aug. 1521 and that his father-in-law, Hans Frey, died in 1523. As of 1524, we’re told there are only three Dürer brothers living, Albrecht, Endres, and Hanns III, which is independently verifiable.
And that’s it. Anyone could have made up this story. I wondered why anyone would bother.
Dürer was a regional artist only until around 1500 (6 years as a Master by then), his primary markets being Nuremberg, Frankfurt, Augsburg, and Regensberg, with no known apprentices working for him until 1501, which was bizarre. Once again I turned to the money trail, asking myself “Why would customers buy these strange pictures?” And why was the demand for these products sufficient enough that Dürer printed these strange images in quantity, especially his early compositions? Fame and talent were not sufficient to explain this phenomenon in his society. I found no scholarship that had broached this subject anywhere.
For a Renaissance artist to effectively market a composition at the city fairs, the symbols used, known as iconography, needed to be something that the customer recognized almost instantly, because there was much competition among artists. Even more perplexing was that Dürer’s images seemed to be economically astonishing for his customer base. Dürer was a merchant whose business was to make money by manufacturing and selling painted and printed images. Graphic prints were considered “product” more so than art. The skill and creativity that a print craftsman used to differentiate his product was subordinated to marketing efforts.
Renaissance print craftsmen did not have the luxury of creating images that would not produce income. Production cycles were long and needed to be synchronized with city fair schedules where the prints were mostly sold (fairs occurred a few times each year for three weeks in each city and these time frames are the source for the timing of print fairs today). Artists didn’t stray much from proven income-producing motifs, except to add their special flair to the subject. Italian Renaissance iconography and mythological themes were not big sellers in the north of Europe based on other German artists production.
Yet early in his career, Dürer risked creating so many strange images of such apparently low commercial appeal, the economic impact of such actions demanded scrutiny.
The existence of the Promenade neckline code required a major paradigm shift in thought and analysis of Dürer’s art. I had to look at his oeuvre with fresh eyes with no preconceived notions. I eventually discovered that Albrecht Dürer was often employing steganography in his prints, a methodology of creating hidden messages in a way that no casual purchaser suspected the existence of the message, a form of security through obscurity. Albrecht Dürer was encoding his art with secrets hidden in plain sight, getting away with it and selling it.
How did I make these startling discoveries? First, I rejected interpreting Dürer’s art according to Italian Renaissance iconographical systems, the default scholastic standard, because this system had never consistently or comprehensively explained Dürer’s images. Instead, I began searching for alternative symbol systems that might reveal the secrets hidden in plain sight.
Where to start? Since Dürer was at least half Hungarian through his father I began with Dürer’s ancestry. The marriage coat of arms Dürer painted on the back of his father’s 1490 portrait tells us that Albrecht the Elder was indeed Hungarian. I investigated medieval Hungarian symbols and found they were used repeatedly in the Dürer’s self-portraits and prints. I then looked to heraldry, the Renaissance language of personal identification. I discovered heraldic symbols from the Dürer family arms and the arms of contemporary Nurembergers repetitively used in the prints. I found symbols that correlated to esoteric information about the history and customs of medieval Nuremberg and medieval idioms and puns.
At the suggestion of an art librarian, I made a timeline, matching the date and apparent subject matter of suspect compositions to Dürer’s life events, the life events of everyone one who touched his life, and the concurrent social, political, governmental, legal, and technological events that may have influenced him.
That effort revealed the following patterns: 1. the Dürer family was very wealthy, probably from Hungarian nobility, and extremely well connected socially and politically in Nuremberg; 2. the publication of some of Dürer’s famous compositions correlated with contemporary political events 3. the publication of some of Dürer’s compositions correlated with events in his life and those of his family 4. There is an interrelationship of some images to each other, an idea never considered before.
I had to consider the improbable: was there a Dürer code? a Cipher? was Dürer secretly giving messages to as yet unidentified populations? The answer was yes. Was the use of steganography, hiding embedding messages in art a rarity in Renaissance art? The answer was no.
Renaissance artists always incorporated multiple levels of meaning in their work. Since art was the main source of visual stimulation, all elements of Renaissance art had hidden meanings. But when an artist had a message that was unacceptable or prohibited or they resented the proscription against signing their work, codes, hidden allusions, symbols and veiled references were often embedded in the art
Common Renaissance artistic steganographic methods included embedded coded protests and insults aimed towards commissioning patrons or political opponents, concealing forbidden knowledge gained through prohibited practices such as autopsies, utilizing esoteric knowledge aimed only at initiates (such as Masonic and hidden Jewish Kabbalistic symbolism), utilization of Renaissance deaf sign language (hand gestures, facial expressions, body positions) previously unrecognized by scholars, and amazing special effects achieved by trompe l’oeuil (painting to deceive the eye) and anamorphosis, the technique of making an image “morph” into something else when viewed from a different visual angle. What was extraordinary was that no scholar had considered that Albrecht Dürer could have been using steganographic techniques.
The next task was to determine how the Dürer Cipher worked. I found that Dürer often put his key clues in the center of the composition, where the brain of the viewer will usually not focus attention, a very deceptive but effective technique. I found that heraldic symbols, botanical symbols, Old Testament symbols and symbols associated with saints are often used to identify particular people. When a tree appears in the middle of a composition, it indicates that Dürer tells two stories in one composition. Boats appear to indicate the location of the action. Nudity appears to be used for marketing purposes only, nudity having the same promotional appeal then as now.
Dürer also used clever optical effects in his art, including scotoma, a technique where the brain of the viewer fills in missing optical or contextual information, seeing what it expects to see and not necessarily what is actually depicted. It became apparent that illusionary artistic techniques were used to deflect the viewer’s attention from the disguised stories or to entice the viewer to peer closer. I even speculate that the prints may have been sold with magnifiers, because there’s a very strange holographic effect in the Apocalypse prints and some engravings when seen under magnification (but I have no proof). Subliminal sexual images were embedded in prints when either the market for the product was limited or Dürer really wanted the print and the message to sell. The viewers who were supposed to receive the real message would recognize the encoding, while income could be generated from those from whom the real message should be disguised. There is also evidence for an even more intriguing message: a possibility that there was a co-artist.
But the most important consideration was that numerous symbols had dual Christian and Jewish connotations, something scholars had no reason to consider ever. It is accepted dogma that Dürer was a Christian, creating Christian art, because 2/3 of his oeuvre is overtly Christian themed, and because Nuremberg was politically directly involved in the Reformation. Before my discovery of a true hidden code in a print, there was no reason to ever hypothesize that Dürer may have been giving a Jewish message in some of his prints, and so there was no need to consider the duality of the symbolism. But adhering to a strict Christian interpretation of symbols had always resulted in incomplete interpretations and dead ends.
It was only when I applied the Jewish connotation of a symbol that confusion began to fade and consistent and coherent interpretations began to emerge. This was an even greater paradigm shift and startling event.
Why would Dürer be giving Jewish messages at all?
These are the basics of how the Dürer Cipher works. Article Three will be about Art Crime and James Bond and Albrecht Dürer.