Artists of Northern Europe, Portraiture, Symbols and emblems

Albrecht Dürer : The Master of self-promotion

The dawn of the sixteenth century saw the portrait being used more widely for self-promotional purposes thanks to one man – Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528).

Albrecht Dürer sketched himself from the from the age of thirteen and as an adult, completing at least three individual self-portraits during his lifetime. The very first of these was a silverpoint sketch done in 1484.

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1484: Albrecht Durer aged 13: Graphische Sammlung, Vienna.

For anyone who has tried using silverpoint, or any other form of metalpoint, will know that it is very unforgiving; one mistake and the sketch is ruined. The year of 1484 marks the beginning of Dürer’s apprenticeship as a goldsmith in his father’s workshop. The nascent talent is evident and later Dürer has written at the top right how he recreated his reflection as seen in mirror and that he had done this when he was a child. It was not an unknown way of capturing your own image, but this is the first surviving stand alone self-sketch of an artist. There is a surviving double portrait of the two teenage Holbein brothers Ambrose & Hans, but this was done by their father Hans Holbein the Elder.

The second of these self-portraits was painted on vellum in 1493 when he was travelling around Europe having recently completed his apprenticeship with the artist and engraver, Michael Wolgemut.[i]

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Albrecht Dürer 1493: Louvre, Paris. 


The twenty two year old fashionably dressed artist holds a sprig of sea holly, (eryngium maritinum). During his four years away, his family arranged for him to be married to Agnes Frey, the daughter of another Nuremberg goldsmith. The use of the prickly sea holly could be a statement of his private thoughts of this arranged marriage made during his absence. It has been suggested that it signifies his sadness of being away from his fiancée.  More recently it has been argued that Dürer was either bi or homosexual[ii]and the spikey sprig refers to his animosity to his impending nuptuals.[iii]

The Greek philosopher, Discorides tells us that this plant is a good remedy for those suffering from flatulence and in her 1931 book, Mrs M Grieves tells us how tells us the Arabs considered the root had the same aphrodisiac properties as the “Orchis tribe”[iv]. The Fool’s Orchis is described as having roots with two  oval knobs with fleshy succulent fibres. Clearly its aphrodisaic qualities were thought to exist because its root system resembles male genitalia. [v]

The seventeenth century herbalist Nicholas Culpepper (1616-1654) tells us that the “the distilled water of the whole herb [Sea Holly] when the leaves and stalks are young is profitably drank for all the purposes aforesaid and helps the melancholy of the heart and is available in quartain and quotidian agues; as also for them that have their necks drawn awry and cannot turn them without turning their whole body.” Culpepper was recording the medicinal virtues of this plant because of its long association of both easing flatulence and aiding sexual desire and adds another property – that of muscle relaxant.

What is not clear is Dürer’s reason for including this plant in his self-portrait. For the casual observer that sprig of sea holly in this portrait is an oddity. The sprig has been described (by the Louvre)  as being a symbol of male marital fidelity. Is Dürer telling us he is suffering from flatulence, or perhaps he had heard from his father and is excited by his forthcoming marriage to Agnes Frey? With the lack of an organised postal system, it is probable that when Dürer painted this portrait he had no idea his father had organised a marriage with the Agnes Frey. Considering the various properties of this plant, perhaps the artist is telling us that he finds the whole idea of marriage is as obnoxious as a fart, or that to fulfil his husbandly duties he requires an aphrodisiac! But is this because of his sexuality or because he did not like his father’s choice of bride? His letters to his friend Willie Pirkheimer suggest the marriage was not a happy one, but any further clarification as to why is not forthcoming.

Next to the date of 1493, Dürer has included the words,

Myj sach die gat

Als es oben schtat.

This is written in old German, and the probable modern version is as follows: meine Sache die gab, als oben Schatz”, which translates as My things given, are like treasure(s) above.” For ‘things’ we might consider substituting the word ‘talent’. In 1997 J L Koener proposed this phrase very liberally translated as My affairs follow the course allotted to them on high. If this were the case, surely the phrase would be longer and in modern German might have looked something like this; “Meine Angelegenheiten folgen dem Kurs, der ihnen in der Höhe zugeteilt ist.[vi] Dürer’s phrase has also been transcribed as “Things happen to me as it is written on high.” Neither of these two latter interpretations of the German  demonstrates the idea that Dürer was humble, but he did recognise his talents were all God given. The first, while recognising his talents are like treasures from heaven, has a lesser air of arrogance about it, which is more in keeping with the way he references heaven in the 1500 portrait.

Dürer painted a third self portrait in 1498, the same year he published his tract, Apocalipsis cum figuris,a series of fifteen woodcuts of scenes from the Book of Revelations. It was the publication of this series of woodcuts that brought Dürer pan-European fame.

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Albrecht Dürer: 1498. Museo del Prado, Madrid. Oil on panel.

In this portrait our artist has depicted himself dressed in expensive and more elegant attire, standing behind a parapet that forms a barrier between himself and us the viewer. The light comes from the open window which reveals a countryside. The use of a window with a view is something he had seen in the work of Italian artists.

By placing himself behind that parapet it is as if Dürer has chosen to distance himself from us.  His signature, the date and another motto appear on the wall just under the window.

Often a sitter is shown holding a glove as a symbol of their nobility and here Dürer has chosen to show both his hands encased in fine leather. These are the hands that create the art that is much sought after by those who had the money to afford Dürer’s prices for an original painting. Is Dürer ashamed that his hands are stained with oil paint? Perhaps he prefers not to show us that he uses his hands to earn a daily crust.[vii]   These are thoughts that might pass through the mind of a modern mind and did perhaps also pass through those of Dürer’s contemporaries. These are interesting questions, and posed in the way his audience would have understood. Did they know the answers? Probably not.  However, by painting himself wearing gloves, he is telling us this is the year he joined the ranks of the nobility.  The other questions will continue to remain unanswered.

Like the later self-portrait, this is painted on panel and we know this image was once in the collection of Charles I of England because the royal stamp is on the reverse.  Charles I was beheaded in January 1649. In 1651 Oliver Cromwell sold off most of the royal collection and this portrait was acquired by the Spanish Ambassador to England on behalf of Don Luis de Haro, who in turn gave it to King Philip IV of Spain in 1654.[viii]

1500, the year marking the half millenia, was thought to be a turning point in world history and is the year when Dürer depicts himself in a Christ like pose.

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Albrecht Dürer 1500: Alte Pinakothek. Oil on lime wood.

To a modern audience this might seem an arrogant visual statement, but it is probably not what Dürer is telling his sixteenth century viewers. Yes, it is an image of a good looking man, with the same frontal front pose and flowing locks often seen in paintings of Christ. Up until this portrait, no artist had painted themselves in this position. However, by portraying himself thus, is Dürer telling his sixteenth century audience that he recognises his talent is a gift from God? The second self-portrait has that written acknowledgement to ‘above’, and the iconography of this later portrait suggests Dürer is paying homage to where his talents came from. Perhaps this was the intended message of the words in his second self-portrait that is often described as being of a bridegroom facing marriage and putting his future life in the hands of God.[ix]

You may think the 1500 self-portrait is a convoluted statement of Dürer’s skills, but paintings and illuminations were often loaded with messages, both overt and covert. Like the two previous self-portraits, this last self-portrait also contains a phrase, but this time in Latin, which translates simply as, I, Albrecht Dürer of Nuremberg portrayed myself in everlasting colours, aged twenty-eight years”.The use of the word ‘everlasting’ suggests he is hopeful that this painting will last. The placing of his initials, A D, has a two-fold function.  Placed beneath the year the initials not only state Anno Domini (the year of our Lord), but are also Dürer’s signature and appear as his mark on his engravings. This self-portrait is now in the Alte Pinakotek Munich.

With these four-self portraits Durer appears to be creating a time line of his artistic improvement from when he was thirteen, twenty-two, twenty-six and twenty-eight.

There is much thought regarding the model for various small panel devotional paintings such as the 1493 Man of Sorrows now in Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe.

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Man of Sorrows (possibly a self portrait) 1493

This panel is undated, but the features have been compared to the various surviving sketches and the completed self portraits made by Dürer and it is thought that he based this thoughtful figure of Christ on himself. The pose is remarkably alive. Even looking at this painting on a computer screen the figure seems to breathe. Being only 30 x 19 cms this panel is very likely to have been used for personal meditation, in which case Dürer has set the viewer many different themes for contemplation. What appears to be a parapet could also be the top of a tomb. Either way, it is telling us that we are divided from Him. The pointed niche containing the standing figure of Christ resembles a carved out tomb, which is why I think the parapet could be a tomb slab. If this is the case, is He climbing out of this tomb – being a visual allusion to the Resurrection? The direct gaze of Christ engages us in the same way as the penitent supplicant on their knees meditating on this image some five hundred and twenty five years ago. The figure’s expression is one of resignation and almost questioning, as if asking us what we are thinking. If the expression is considered to be a questioning one, what is He asking? Are we being asked to beg forgiveness, or contemplate our sins? Perhaps we are being asked to consider how we can alleviate His suffering by being a better person.

We see three implements of Christ’s torture being the crown of thorns, the flagellum and a bunch of what appears to be birch twigs. Imagine being alone with this panel lit with flickering candlelight. The imagination would take flight and it would be easy to think Christ was talking to you.

Later, Dürer includes himself in the altarpiece, The Feast of the Rose Garlands (1506), painted for the German community church in Venice, St Bartolomeo, near the German commercial centre of Fondaco dei Tedesci.

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Feast of the Rose Garlands altarpiece; 1506. Albrecht Dürer. National Gallery, Prague, Czech Republic. Oil on Poplar Wood.

This altarpiece is thought to include portraits of the various worthies involved with the German merchants, but Durer’s portrait is obvious.  He stands leaning against a tree to the right of the enthroned Virgin and holds a cartouche that states he is the creator of this work.

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Dürer stands at the bottom of the tree. The cartouche has his initials at the bottom. (Detail of the Feast of the Rose Garland altarpiece)

Dürer is following an Italian tradition by including himself in the crowd. It is thought that Sandro Botticelli included himself in his Adoration of the Magi,(1475) commissioned by Gaspare di Zonabi del Lama, that now hangs in the Uffizi, and Domenicho Ghirlandiao included himself in his Adoration of the Magi painted in 1488. We know the two giants of the Italian Renaissance, from independent portraits. We know Leonardo da Vinci from a profile self-portrait drawn in red chalk and Daniel Volterra sketched the aging Michelangelo, but neither the great Leonardo or Michelangelo ever used a self-portrait in the same way as Albrecht Dürer. Raphael Sanzio da Urbino includes a self-portrait and portraits of both da Vinci and Michelangel in his fresco of the School of Athens, which forms part of his Stanza della Signatura in the papal apartments of Julius II in the Vatican, Rome.

When it comes to Dürer’s  use of the self portraits in his woodcuts, The Mens Bath (1496) contains visual jokes and innuendos as well as being a study of the male nude.

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The Men’s Bath. 1497. Woodcut. The Royal Collection. RCIN 800195.

The standing figure on the left has been identified as another self-portrait (detail below) and the seated podgy man drinking is Dürer’s great friend, Willibald Pirkheimer.  The positioning of the faucet is deliberate.

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self-portrait? detail of The Men’s Bath. RCIN 800195.

However, 1496 was the year all the public baths were closed in Nuremberg because it was thought that syphilis could be contrated by being in close contact with a sufferer, but perhaps Dürer was aware that the way the disease was transmitted was sexual and the positioning of the faucet is his way of telling the viewer.


It has been suggested that the man on the right in the foreground holding the carnation/pink is indicative that this engraving is a representation of a group of friends attending Dürer’s ritual bath on the eve of his wedding.[x]  The Royal Collection entry has a more intellectual idea that this is a representation of the five senses.  Pirkheimer represents touch, the man with the flower – smell, the individual standing outside the bath as sight, and the man holding the scraper, touch. The two men in the foreground may be the brothers Stephen and Lucas Paumgartner, who commissioned an altarpiece for St Catherine’s Church, Nuremberg in 1503. This image was sold across Europe and no doubt the visual joke of the cockerel as the tap brought a smile to many a face, even if the viewer had no idea about the closure of the Nuremberg baths or of any impending marriage.

The companion engraving of  The Womens Bath (1496) (this is a link to the woodcut), is set in an interior, unlike the men who appear to be stripping down for a wash next to a stand pipe under a roofed opened sided booth in a village square. In this pair of woodcuts, Dürer is clearly exploring the portrayal of the aging process as both images include people of differing ages.  It is unlikely that Dürer would have had access to a women’s bath house and would have had to rely on descriptions, yet this composition does not appear staged, or put together from series of sketches. If we examine the the interior, the bath house resembles a sauna. There is what appears to be a brick chimney with a niche below. The niche contains a metal container with a lid and a tap. Perhaps this contains hot water. The arched flat area above this niche looks to contain round lumps. Are they coals? The lumps resemble loaves of bread, but this does not seem likely for this setting.  If these are stones, then this building is similar to a modern day sauna. The much older woman, is seated on the top step of a plunge pool. Next to her is a much younger, and more attractive woman who looks out directly at us – or more precisely, at Dürer. Is she someone with whom he is acquainted? These two seated ladies both have similar headgear and also to the man with the carnation in the fore front of the Men’s Bath. This appears to connect them: are they from the same family, or religion perhaps? However,  a closer look at the top left corner shows the women are being watched. A man has opened the door and is half hidden behind it. The women are closeted away and have two children with them. It is possible this engraving records a ritual mikveh, in which case this engraving opens up another debate that will have to wait for another occasion.

The woman who looks out at us with her challenging and slightly flirtatious expression may have been a portrait of a lady with whom Dürer was intimately acquainted. Is it Agnes Frey? In which case, is this engraving portraying her ritual bath just prior to her wedding to the artist?

Despite the various problems with perspective and the over emphasis of the woodgrain, this woodcut sets the imagination a quiver with questions of who are these women, where are they and more to the point, is this a regular event? And who is the peeping Tom?

Or is it possible that the men of the bath house were more to Dürer’s taste? Much has been written about Dürer’s sexual preferences, but is this really what he wants to tell us about in these paintings and engravings? In the absence of his written thoughts about the composition and the reason for engraving these events, this is just idle and frankly, prurient speculation. As visual documentary evidence of late 15thcentury personal hygiene I find these images fascinating. Many early modern portraits were composed using the medieval visual language of emblems and symbolism and those audiences would have been able to understand the messages contained in these images far more fluently than a modern audience.  The layered elements of the bath house engravings may be a recording of Mr and Mistress Dürer’s nuptual baths, and may well reference the closure of the Nuremberg public bath-houses in 1496.  Dürer was not the first fifteenth century artist to use engravings to bring his œvre to a wider audience, but he is no doubt, the greatest.

In my mind there is no doubt that the thirteen year old Dürer was showing off his incredible talent when he created that silverpoint sketch of 1484. Ask yourself if you know of any thirteen year old capable of creating a self-portrait of this standard. The words added later demonstrates that the adult Dürer recognised he was an artistic genius. Whether Dürer’s later use of his own image was intended as an homage to the divine for the gift of his talents or not,  it is clear he used his own image to promote his brand – and I for one, am extremely grateful that these portraits have survived.



[i]This 1493 self-portrait was originally painted on vellum, and has been mounted on to canvas.

[ii]George Haggerty; Encyclopedia of Gay Historie and Cultures; Routledge. p262.

[iii] (accessed 18th March 2018).


[v]John Lindley PhD FRS; Ladies Botany or a familia introduction to the study of the natural system of botany, Volume 1:  James Ridgway & Sons

[vi]My thanks to Heather Darsie for her translation of the German to English and the suggestion of what the ‘liberal’ translation of the short phrase in Wikipedia would be in modern German.


[x]Personally, I think it is more likely that the man holding the carnation/ink is the bridgroom. His headwear is similar to the woman in the engraving of the Women’s Bath, but this would require a lot more research.

9 thoughts on “Albrecht Dürer : The Master of self-promotion”

  1. I love the use of sea holly in the wedding portrait not least because it clearly isn’t a typical choice of flower. I always think of the sitter holding a single carnation – I’m thinking in particular of that wonderful Steelyard merchant portrait by Holbein. I wonder if in centuries to come people will look at emoticons and discuss their various possible meanings? I love reading your articles- it’s like learning to read a new language.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Julia. The eringium maritinum is such an enigma, wrapped in a conundrum! We just don’t know why he included it, and the carnation is the standard visual statement for betrothal/marriage, so why a prickly plant? What I find incredible is why the medicinal properties are never considered. Back then, the herbal remedies were far more popular and if Disciorides is correct, then it opens up a whole new aspect as to Durer’s meaning. I suppose it depends on who the target audience was for this particular painting. I just don’t know, so if someone out there does, please will they let me know.


  2. Hi Mel

    I have just read The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown. Durer features heavily in this book with his masonic connections. Richard


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