Carolyn Frisa '99
Introduction by Carol Campbell
The late Dr. Charles Bernheimer, noted scholar of Comparative Literature and Multicultural Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, has given the College a very fine Albrecht Dürer engraving in a magnanimous gesture to honor the memory of his distinguished father, Dr. Richard Bernheimer. Coat of Arms with a Skull was printed during the artist's lifetime, in 1503, and is known in the Adam von Bartsch print corpus as B. 101. It has been mounted and displayed in the Rhys Carpenter Library in proximity to Dr. Richard Bernheimer's name on the Library atrium's "Wall of Honor," as the donor requested.
The Dürer engraving was pivotal to the scholarly interests of Dr. Richard Bernheimer, who was on the faculty of the College's History of Art Department from 1933 to 1958. Bernheimer studied at the University of Berlin, received his doctorate from the University of Munich, and came to Bryn Mawr as a refugee scholar in 1933, specializing in Renaissance and Baroque art, fields which were supplemented by interests in mathematics, music, and theology. It was in his landmark study, Wild Men in the Middle Ages: a Study in Art, Sentiment, and Demonology (Cambridge, Mass., 1952, pp. 177-185), that he published an interpretation of this puzzling print that contrasted with the earlier view of Dr. Erwin Panofsky in Albrecht Dürer (Princeton, 1948, vol. 1, pp. 80 and 90). Carolyn Frisa '99, History of Art major, has contributed a summary of the scholarly issues:
Coat of Arms with a Skull is an important work from Dürer's early oeuvre, demonstrating the artist's development as a master engraver in terms of both technique and subject matter. Dated 1503, this intaglio print typifies the stylistic change that occurred during the period of 1500 to 1505, specifically in the influence of Renaissance art theory upon Dürer. This is evident in the careful attention to human proportions in both the figure of the young maiden and the wild man standing behind her. Dürer's delicate and precise handling of the burin during this period was, in the opinion of Erwin Panofsky, never again to be equaled in his lifetime. Although Coat of Arms with a Skull is smaller in size than the majority of work from this period, it provides a wonderful example of the mastery of line that combines the firm and acute handling from Dürer's early development as a graphic artist with a more advanced style based in Renaissance art theory. The artist's scrutinizing attention to detail is clearly demonstrated in the variety of textures present in this engraving, which range from the smooth, polished metal of the helmet to the incredibly precise treatment of the wild man's fur and curly hair.
Coat of Arms with a Skull also marks an important point in Dürer's career in terms of his own attempt to define his reputation as an established artist. From 1503, the majority of his works were signed with the now immediately recognizable monogram of a D incised underneath a larger A. This signature was most often incorporated into the overall composition of the design, and in this case is found carved into what appears to be some sort of tag attached to the bottom of the shield. Similarly, the 1503 date of the engraving appears to have been cut into the wood block that supports the shield and winged helmet.
Obviously, the works from Dürer's oeuvre are not as readable to a twentieth-century viewer as they would have been to their original early sixteenth-century audience, and Coat of Arms with a Skull is no exception to such ambiguity. The engraving depicts a heraldic shield with a large human skull, surmounted by a winged helmet that is held by a savage man, who is also engaged in an amorous embrace with a young maiden in ceremonial costume. It has most commonly been interpreted as an allegorical treatment of the vanitas theme of Beauty and Death, which Dürer also incorporated into several other engravings from this period, including Young Woman Attacked by Death from 1495 (Bartsch B.92) and Young Couple Threatened by Death from 1497 (Bartsch B.95). Karl-Adolf Knappe, in Dürer: The Complete Engravings, Etchings, and Woodcuts (New York, 1965), describes the development of this theme in Coat of Arms with a Skull as having been "crystallized into pure metaphor."
Walter Strauss, editor of The Illustrated Bartsch (New York, 1978, vol. 10), advocates a similar interpretation of the print and offers the possibility that it may be connected with the War of the Bavarian Succession of 1503, in which Dürer's native city of Nuremberg benefited from the unsuccessful attempt of the daughter of Duke George the Rich to claim her father's properties. Panofsky, who also interprets the print as a "heraldic version of Love and Death," suggests that several other events in the city's history are reflected in this rather morbid subject matter. During 1503, in addition to the outbreak of several epidemic diseases, the inhabitants of Nuremberg witnessed both a comet and a phenomenon referred to as "blood rain" (later discovered to have been caused by a dark reddish-brown species of algae), events that most likely filled them with a fear of God and a heightened awareness of their own mortality.
Bernheimer offers a different interpretation of Coat of Arms with a Skull in Wild Men in the Middle Ages: a Study in Art, Sentiment, and Demonology. Here, a detailed consideration has been given to the historical use of the wild man in heraldries and the various qualities that he had come to denote by the end of the fifteenth century. Bernheimer considers this print to be the "most succinct, powerful, and profound version" of the wild man as both the shield-bearer (protector of land) and the harbinger of fertility. He further defines the print as a marriage scene based upon the maiden's festive costume, which includes the traditional broad and ornate bridal crown from this period. This argument is supported by the fact that Coat of Arms with a Skull was the basis of a later sixteenth-century Italian print commissioned to celebrate the marriage of a nobleman in which the only alteration was the replacement of the skull with the impressa Meliora lapsis (Better things than in the past).
Bernheimer also reinterprets the wild man's relationship to the maiden, thus providing a more comprehensive interpretation of this somewhat mysterious print. He reasonably concludes that the wild man must not be the groom, as a skull would not be an appropriate choice for a coat of arms, but instead serves as an apparition about to issue the kiss of death upon the young bride, demonstrating the uncertainty of life even on such joyful occasions as marriage. By using the figure of the wild man, who represented the assurance of fertility, to portend the death of the bride in the wedding ceremony, Dürer has created an "allegory of the eternal polarity of love and death, creation and destruction, being and nonbeing" that goes beyond a simple allusion to the popular theme of Beauty and Death.
Bryn Mawr College has been enriched by a work of both mystery and technical virtuosity, and in its placement, in proximity to the carrels where students work on their own research, the Dürer print should inspire for years to come.
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