Unraveling the Dürer Cipher – The Road Not Taken

Albrecht Durer Art


Many have asked me how I came to discover the Dürer Cipher, which I decided to do in a three part series. This first article will offer the background and talents acquired throughout my working life (hopefully without sounding arrogant) that became vital to use. This is necessary in order to understand the second installment, the Methodology which was used – The Smoking Gun.

Before anything, I must thank all the Dürer and Renaissance art historians that have gone before me, for without their extensive research (although lucky for me, some didn’t check their footnotes) and dedication to find the truth, I would not have been able to crack the Dürer Cipher.

It should also be noted that no art historian could have cracked this Cipher until 1971, for the critical clue that allowed the unraveling was not available to anyone until then.  That’s when the City of Nuremburg in their publication, the Nürnburg Forschungen, dedicated their entire publication to the 500-year anniversary of Dürer’s birth.  Along with this publication, the City of Nuremberg published the Nürnberger Totengläut Bücher death registries (really the bell ringing death registries) of the two major parish churches, St. Sebald and St. Lorenz, for the years 1439-1517.  In 2008, I flew to Nuremberg to obtain copies of these death registries, and the proof was blatant, if one was looking for it.

By 1971, the myth of Albrecht Dürer was set in concrete and no one appeared to be paying attention to new data, for there is almost nothing that scholars have had to understand Dürer’s life that is authentic and legitimate.  Also, without the power of the internet, no one, not even me, could have put this all together. It simply could not have happened.

Every person is a collection of their experiences, their beliefs, and parental training.  I was fortunate to have a mother that was an art aficionado, who started taking me to art museums at age 4.  My grandfather made me start reading the dictionary at age 5, he was a very clever man, and I loved to read.  I devoured the entire encyclopedia by age 6 and my parents had an 11 volume set on mythology, which I inhaled after that. I’ve always been a voracious reader, but science has been my passion before Dürer, which is what Dürer really wanted to be remembered for: as a scientist and mathematician.

I happen to have an almost photographic and prodigious memory, something I always thought was normal and which everyone else had. Most importantly, I have a unique talent of pattern recognition, honed by the work experiences I have had.

So let’s get to my work background because that is how most people choose to classify anyone. Together with a B.S. in Finance and a Doctorate in Law, I’ve almost completed my fine arts degree and a nearly completed Masters in Psychology, which was interrupted by divorce.

My career was international computer consulting, including 8 years as a computer auditor (which really came in handy for cracking the Dürer Cipher, for the computer is never wrong, a good thing to know, and Dürer made no mistakes either), I’ve practiced Law as a Tax attorney and Veteran’s Disability attorney. The industries in which I have worked have been banking (which actually was very important to know with Dürer), manufacturing, nuclear, insurance, aircraft and space, printing (very important to the Dürer story).

Never in my wildest dreams would I have ever thought that I would become a Dürer art collector or trip across the Dürer Cipher.

In 2002, my husband died, as did the rest of my family.  I didn’t know what to do with myself so I went back to school in an attempt to pick up a lost dream and to become a biotechnologist, however, I couldn’t pass chemistry (I was acing every biology course).  Schade. My counselor suggested I become a fine art student, I happily agreed, I really wasn’t looking to do that much work at my age. I had no idea that art courses were harder than any of the science courses, and the art supplies cost twice as much as textbooks.

And because of one of my worst traits, I am always late, as in always, I was late to Drawing  class.  The professor had handed out all the homework for the semester to copy, and because I was late, I never learned the name of the artist.  I thought it was artists, plural-many artists,  I was copying, but it turned out my professor’s favorite artist was Albrecht Dürer, so all of the homework was Dürer drawings.  For an entire semester I was copying Dürer, and his technique was imprinting on my brain subliminally.  I began to find myself strangely drawn to Dürer’s art and had no idea why.

Shortly thereafter, I found myself at one of the most beautiful galleries I have ever seen, and before I knew it I had bought a Dürer print.  It wasn’t cheap, and after the purchase, I thought I must be mad.  Why was I spending this much  money on a print without knowing anything about the artist?  So I asked the dealer (who was a distinguished retired English Professor ) to become my mentor; I was impressed that he had the largest private library of medieval and Renaissance original books through the 20th century that I had seen outside of a major academic institution.  That showed me he really cared about everything and was precise in his approach.

This decision would change my life.

Under his tutelage, I began devouring everything that had been written about Dürer.  I acquired every catalog raisonné published about his art, and every book others had written about him. I read every line, every footnote, every expert’s opinion, I studied, I studied every composition, comparing everything.

And I began having a serious problem.  I would look at a composition, read what the experts said, and shake my head, for I was seeing something totally different, and I couldn’t find out why.  I kept saying to myself “that’s not in the picture, and that’s not in the picture, why are these people saying it is? What is wrong with these pictures that others think x or y is in the picture when it definitely is not?”

So, I set out to find out why I was seeing something different and why no one had noticed the same.  I was naïve.  I was merely passionately intrigued and began to form a hypothesis that I set out to prove or disprove:  was Dürer giving us messages that no one realized were in the pictures?  It didn’t matter to me if I was wrong, this was now a scientific quest.

A year after I began my collecting efforts, I was inspecting the Promenade for purchase and I was having a very intense discussion with the dealer.  And this conversation is verbatim: “ I can’t figure out what is going on in this print.  The dress is illegal according to the Nuremburg sumptuary laws, everyone would know this is an illegal dress.  How did Dürer get away with selling this print without being arrested?  And by the way, there’s something really funky about the neckline of her dress, I can’t figure it out.”  The dealer proceeded to whip out his loupe and inspect the neckline.  He proceeded to say “There’s a really beautiful “I” and “C” in the neckline,” whereupon I unceremoniously grabbed the loupe out of his hand and inspected myself.  “Well, there’s a word in this neckline, and I know what the word means.”  I could see peripherally he was shaking. I finally had incontrovertible proof after a year of intense studying.

I knew then I was on the right track. I had found the first provable embedded coding.  Now it only became a matter of understanding the real symbolism in the Dürer prints, cracking the Cipher, determining what the messages were that Dürer was giving, but most of all, what was his motivation in doing this?  It sounds easy as I write it but it was, and has been a very difficult and frustrating process.

That’s where life experiences came into play.  I decided to follow the money trail for I had much experience doing that, and I hypothesized that was the only way I could discern why Dürer was making such strange pictures. It’s always about the money, and Dürer was no different. I was lucky enough to become the Yale Gallery of Art’s “Dürer recataloger” (the print department had been shut down for 5 years for renovations) and they wanted information entered into their databases.  It was a dream come true being able to inspect almost perfect prints for clues, and there were many more than I first thought.

The hardest part of decoding the cipher was simplifying.  And having the courage to throw out the Italian iconographical system most art historians are taught to use. Dürer scholars have layered so much opinion on the art work, it led to many dead ends. My goal was to form a thesis that was coherent, like any attorney would do for a courtroom trial: what is the most consistent thesis for why this art was composed the way it was, without having to resort to strange and unsupportable hypotheses?

And tracing the footnotes, for therein lay most of the problems.  Some researcher would opine and that would become gospel. When I found the errors, I knew I had to retrace everything, and everything had to be reproved. Which I did.  Most of the suspicious footnotes were not supported by fact.

But the most important was to discern what was important to Dürer, was there a way to understand his mind and did he tell us what that was?  Yes, he tells us all in his prints.  It was a matter of finding the requisite scholastic research to support what the messages were saying and identifying the patterns, for the prints are interrelated and one cannot understand them at all without understanding what prints are linked.

Seven years later, after living my life 24/7 back in the Renaissance (which has been a very strange journey living in the past), I’ve resurfaced into the modern world. I found the answers didn’t lie in the standard art history approach.  The answers were in the technological inventions of the times, the disease patterns that afflicted the cities, political intrigue and propaganda, the printing industry and book sellers (who don’t seem to talk with print dealers who don’t seem to talk with painting dealers who don’t seem to talk to anyone.  Everyone had their own specialist territory and didn’t know what was going on in other fields) and the smoking gun that there is almost nothing authentic of Dürer’s writings preserved.  This was nonsensical when in his lifetime he was internationally famous and Nuremberg has 13,000 meters of documentation about everyone else who was connected with Nuremberg.  Most scholars have relied on dubious information passed off as authentic. What had happened to Dürer’s real writings?

And why had only one page of his private diary survived?  This was the strangest of all.  This page was “lettered” with a “g,” not with a number and it recorded the deaths of his father and mother twelve years apart on the same page.  Who does something like that and why? Somehow Dürer had planned or known this secret private diary page would survive, why had no one questioned this incredibly strange occurrence?

And so I persevered.

Dr. Elizabeth Garner




Copyright © 2013 Dr. Elizabeth A. Garner

All Rights Reserved

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