Thistle Secrets “It is good for a man to eat thistles and to remember that he is an ass.”

Text copyright © Oct 29, 2012 Dr. Elizabeth A. Garner, All Rights Reserved




A thistle occurs in four of Albrecht Dürer’s compositions.

Thistles occur often in Renaissance art.  In heraldry, it is the official symbol of Scotland. According to the Catholic tradition, the thistle is the symbol of earthly sorrow and sin and Christ’s Passion because of its connection with the thorns used to crown Christ.


The 1493 Self-portrait of Albrecht Durer
The 1493 Self-portrait. Look closely at the thistle he holds in his hand



The first time that we see a thistle  in Dürer’s art is in this 1493 self-portrait. The thistle that Dürer holds in the painting was identified as “Männertreu,” commonly known as sea holly.  Sea holly, Eryngium maritime, was considered to be a strong aphrodisiac. Because of this thistle, it is often believed that Dürer painted this image as a “bridegroom” portrait, one that was eventually to be delivered to his future fiancée, Agnes Frey, while he was away from Nuremberg.  He added an inscription of two lines at the top of the portrait that says “My sach die gat/Als es oben schtat (My fate is determined above).”  The verse imitates the Alemannic dialect of the Upper Rhine. For more on the Alemanni:

The second time we see this thistle is in what is considered Dürer’s first engraving (1495):


Durer's first engraving which shows a sort of sexual encounter
Dürer’s first engraving. Notice the thistle behind the shoulder of the married woman

This print is considered to be about illicit love of some kind, for the woman is depicted as a married woman by her clothes, the man is naked, and the couple seems to be caught in some sort of sexual encounter.  Again the thistle in the upper left area was considered to be sea holly.


The third time Dürer used this thistle symbol is in this 1495 print:

Currently called The Small Fortune

Here we have the thistle held in the woman’s hand, which she rests on a piece of cloth on a pilgrim’s staff.   Nothing about this composition seems to suggest love or sex, except that the woman possibly is pregnant (or she just has a large belly, which might have been fashionable).

The final time Dürer used a thistle symbol is in this painting:

Painting of Margret - Thistle Girl
Could this be a portrait of one of Albrecht’s sisters, possibly Margret?

For the longest time, this painting was considered to be a portrait of Katarina Fürlegerin, because of the coat of arms that was added to the painting at a later date.  It is now speculated that this painting may be one of Dürer’s seven sisters. And again, it is considered potentially as a bride image because of the sea holly thistle.

We can see clearly that the thistle in each composition is the same plant. But is the thistle  really sea holly? Dürer was known for his incredible botanical accuracy as we see here in his illustration of the great turf:

Look at the exquisite detail of the botanical accuracy in this image



This is what sea holly looks like:

Sea Holly. This does not look like the thistle in the art at all

If we compare the thistle Dürer holds in his hand and depicted in the other three works of art, the thistle does not in any way match sea holly.

And that’s where art historians made the mistake, for the plant that Dürer holds or is in the other three images is not sea holly.  What plant is this?

This is an exact match to the thistle Dürer depicted four times in his art

This plant is known as Eryngium Serbicum, a thistle found only in Hungary and the Balkans.

So what is Dürer trying to tell us with this thistle if it’s not about love or sex?

In heraldry, the thistle is associated with nobility (the thistle is the official heraldic symbol of Scotland).  In my previous article Dragons, Dracula, and Dürer, I have indicated that Dürer may be giving us messages about his possible Hungarian ancestral nobility.

Is the thistle in each of these images signifying that Hungarian noble connection again?  The evidence is mounting up.

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4 thoughts on “Thistle Secrets “It is good for a man to eat thistles and to remember that he is an ass.”

  1. Hello!

    So AD was kind of a Joker, too:)
    As for his real origin, it is exactly where the flower, Eryngium Serbicum, comes from. You probably are right about Knights of the Dragon’s Order. But that, however, is not of the most importance. What he is really trying to say is a much bigger surprise. He is saying: I am from the wedding of the Lion’s and the Dragon’s, the Juda’s tribe and Aaronite/Levite as well – in fact, I am form the lineage of I.C. himself!

    God bless.


      1. Basically almost everything what we call “historical” could in fact be (or it IS) exactly that – “speculation”. Or should I say -“relative”. In that regard it is interesting to read Prof. David Ritz FInkelstein’s treatise “Dürer The Relativist”. Partly true indeed -.AD really was a scientifically oriented mind in a high degree. And I would like to add that, in the same time, he was both the Solver and the Messenger. Using your word, AD’s “cipher” is a very complex and it seems a very personal one – unbreakable (Melencolia Angel has three smaller and one bigger key on here/his clot).

        With special sympathy toward Your intuition and a brave, warm approach

        God bless

        1. Thank you for this comment. I am well aware of a Prof. Finkelstein’s thesis on Melencolia and I have read in detail his “speculations, many times, as he has updated it often. And I do agree he came close in many, but not all, his conclusions.

          I have contacted this Prof. Finkelstein a number of times to engage in a fruitful debate to add to the clarity of what Durer was really doing. He has declined to engage in any scientific conversation,

          Prof David Ritz Finkelstein may be a different researcher and I will search out his treatise. Thank you for bringing this to my attention. If this Finkelstein is a different researcher, perhaps he will be more amenable to discussion.


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