What’s the Secrets in a Name?

Text copyright © Aug 21, 2012 Dr. Elizabeth A. Garner, All Rights Reserved





Did Albrecht Dürer name his prints?

What are the names by which Dürer’s graphic prints are titled?  We can only really know the true meaning of any Durer print by the title Dürer himself gave it, or if the subject matter is obvious on its face (e.g. a print about The Crucifixion).

Dürer produced 334 graphic prints on paper (105 engravings, three dry points, six etchings and 222 woodcuts). We can only be certain of the names of thirteen of all these prints from entries Dürer made in his Diary of his Netherlands Journey (1519). Many of these 13 names have not been respected by historians and are frequently now known by other titles, as labeled by the expert of the day. Thus the probability of the accuracy of these new titles is low, but more importantly, the inaccuracy of the interpretations of the subject matter is high.


Let’s look at a few examples.

One of Dürer’s most famous prints flashed in front of millions of TV viewers during the opening credits of Desperate Housewives. That print Dürer called Adam and Eva, which you see here:

The 1504 Adam and Eva Engraving

That is the only name by which this print should be known. Instead, scholars most often refer to this composition as The Fall of Man, imposing an enormous amount of religious, mostly Christian, connotation upon it. That interpretation will never reveal the true secrets of this print.

If we analyze the landscape in which Dürer placed the two figures, it really does not even seem to represent the Garden of Eden. The action takes place in a very dark place and Eva is feeding the forbidden fruit to the snake. This doesn’t follow the storyline of the Jewish Torah or the Christian Old Testament, for the snake never eats the forbidden fruit.  So why does the snake eat it here?

Who were Adam and Eva?  Adam was the first man and Eva was the second woman (Lilith having been the first), so if we adhere to interpreting this composition as being about a first man and a second woman, we ultimately arrive at the truth.

THE RIDER (DER REUTER, wrongly known as Knight, Death, and the Devil)

Another print whose real title has been totally ignored can be seen here.

The 1513 Der Reuter (The Rider)

Dürer’s title for this print was the Der Reuter, which means “the Rider.” However, it appears that sometime around 1867-1875, this composition was labeled with the title, Knight, Death, and the Devil, a name that has stuck ever since.

While the man riding the horse is dressed in armor and is most likely at least of the social status of a knight or higher, Dürer would have called this print Der Landsnecht, the German word for knight, if he was truly representing just a knight.

But he didn’t.  He specifically indicates that this armored figure is “riding” solo by the title.  His title selection doesn’t even give an inclination as to who the other figures are in the composition or why they are there unless the figures have something to with with a lone rider.

Neither are the other two figures actually depictions of “Death” or of the “Devil.” The figure known as “Death” on the left holding the hourglass is a very fleshy figure wearing a crown with slithering creatures, who happens to be missing a nose. The figure on the right has only one horn and holds a weapon of war, a pike, which is not how devils were depicted in medieval times.

When we interpret this print using its real name, The Rider (a sole rider), we then realize that we are looking at an armored Rider of some social rank of at least a knight, but probably higher (because of the noseless figure), riding by a crowned noseless figure (a king), and a figure that looks like a pig with one horn holding a weapon of war.


Let’s look at a third example. The  1498 print you see here:

durer albrecht sea monsters dolphins kings of France
The Sea Monster Meerhwunder-1498

Dürer titled this print the Meerwunder, the “Sea Monster” and thus we have to interpret this print about something that was known as the sea monster in the Renaissance.  That creature was the dolphin, and while the dolphin is a smooth-skinned sea mammal, it was depicted with scales in medieval times, like this:

The medieval “scaly” dolphin, the “Sea Monster”

And we have to stick to an interpretation that this print is about someone or something that was a “monster” of the “sea.”   Most historians interpret this print in light of the Greek and Roman revivalism that was occurring in the Renaissance.  Yet no scholar has yet successfully interpreted the meaning of this image utilizing all the symbols in this composition.

Through the use of very skilled optical techniques and devious placement of the figures, we find that Dürer actually depicted three figures in this composition: the man with the horns and beard, the naked woman wearing a Milanese headdress, and the scaly Sea Monster. That allows us to understand that what is really happening is the sea-monster dolphin carries the naked Milanese woman whom the bearded man is attempting to rescue.

Thus we are being told a story about some personage associated with a dolphin, a rescuing man associated with horns on his head, who rescued some “naked” woman and is also associated with some Milanese woman.

The other 10 prints for which we have names from Dürer’s Diary follow the same pattern. They all have clues within the composition that tell us Dürer’s true meaning, which got lost when scholars re-titled the images. For all the remaining images for which we really don’t know the names, we have to abandon the “retitles” if we are to find all the secrets that Dürer left us.

In future blogs I will speak in depth about the clues in the above prints, as well as many others. But in the meantime, I have given you the major clues about these three prints in case you would like to do some Dürer sleuthing on your own. Please feel free to send me any of your guesses or ideas about what you think are the real messages in these three prints and marvel at the deviousness of Dürer’s art!

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