Tuesday, June 25, 2024

The Dürer Files: A Series Introduction

Nemesis or The Great Fortuna, Albrecht Dürer - copper-plate engraving - 1502.
Geometry: 2024, DS.

"Precariously balanced on an unsteady sphere, Albrecht Dürer’s nude female figure of Fortuna conveys a sense of the instability and unpredictability of fortune. The artist’s treatment of the subject derives from a Latin poem by the Italian Renaissance poet and humanist Angelo Poliziano (1454–1494), who describes fortune as the “power to crush the arrogant minds and triumphs of men and to confound their too ambitious plans.” With her bridle and cup, Dürer’s figure—in contrast to misogynistic portrayals of her by a later generation of artists—also embodies the virtues and rewards of temperance."

- A nice assessment of Albrecht Dürer’s Nemesis image (inset left & above) via this NY Public Library page. It seems cynical that Dürer should symbolically combine the word nemesis - meaning rival, enemy or punisher - with the idea of fortune (fortuna) together in one image. Was he referring to the idea of fate as karma? In reality, the goddess Nemesis and the goddess Fortuna are mythologically and symbolically connected and it is more than likely he created his own hybrid.

It actually took me several days to see the spiral in Nemesis, the Greater Fortuna... which is astounding considering what an awesome spiral it is. It's a dialing spiral but of a slightly different kind than the one I'm familiar with. You can create a small animation with it growing in size and spreading over the image as it revolves around one central point (in the vicinity of her elbow). In the fuller image - shown above with the phi-shell - the spiral continues into the landscape.

As for the image itself, the figure of Nemesis/Fortuna exhibits a female body type humanity rarely sees anymore. We probably stopped seeing her around the same time Dürer created her, at the turn of the 16th century. She is an older woman; you can tell by her diminishing face and thinning hair... unlike Durer's (1496) Little (or Lesser) Fortuna - inset right - the younger Fortuna (with a lesser spiral) and an enigmatic image the size (and dimensions) of a Tarot card.*

But, the older Fortuna - who has in her maturity taken on the role of Nemesis, a "formidable and usually victorious rival or opponent" - reveals a body with contours which, while not aesthetically correct in our times, has retained its hard-bodied youthfulness. She has powerful wings and holds a large chalice. Traditionally, Fortuna, is shown holding a cornucopia but, as mentioned, Dürer has created his own Fortuna hybrid. But, then, it seems he rarely sticks with the "tried and true," preferring his own innovations. In any case, Nemesis/Fortuna is a force to be reckoned with. She may be offering the chalice - the cup of plenty - but, we are reminded that she is also carrying a horse's bridle. In other words, while we may succeed  above and beyond our wildest dreams, our egotistical aspirations are kept in check by this goddess. Either that, or she represents a stereotypical negative female archetype.

Incidentally, Nemesis is much more massive than she appears here. An enlargement of the little Italian town which she overlooks (as she balances upon her sphere) can be found here.


By now, I should know better than to make promises regarding the future I can't keep... but, in regards to my previous projections made in my last post, when and where I envisioned one more addition to the Dürer series, I am now here to report that my plans have had to change.

Yes, while in the midst of feverishly writing the proposed post (Dürer Part III)  I initially had in mind, I was suddenly presented with far more bits of information than I could possibly process in one post.  An example would be the Nemesis image with it's astounding spiral (above). But, there were other images found as well, deserving some special consideration... such as Dürer's diagram of his 'Schneckenlinie' ('snail-line') or Logarithmic spiral - (inset left) - a spiral which, oddly, almost appears as if it's in perspective. Sadly, I cannot translate the text. (If you can, please inform us!)

In any case, after the shock wore off and my first attempts were put aside, I decided the new information required a new series... The Dürer Files, a new testament of sorts. Moreover, it would have to be broken up into bits... thereby requiring shorter posts and less time, or, seriously, I would never get any of it online. So, this is the Introduction. The series contents will (tentatively) include 5 sections, which are as follows:

The Dürer Files: 1. Soli Deo Gloria (Glory only to God)
The Dürer Files: 2. Maximillian & The Bauhütte
The Dürer Files: 3. Dürer & the Phi Goddess
The Dürer Files: 4. Dürer & the Black Madonna
The Dürer Files: 5. Dürer & the Whale

(Note: This Intro will also serve as the series Table of Contents page with links becoming active as the posts appear. The links will also appear in the Golden Series content post (click the Golden Snail on the sidebar.) (Know, however, that the titles and order in which they appear may change.)


(More below the jump break...)

Fortes Fortuna Juvat (Fortune favors the brave), attributed to Albrecht Dürer.
(Note the alchemical-like imagery.) Geometry: 2024, DS.

"During Dürer's stay in Italy as a student in 1505, which took him to Bologna, he undoubtedly made the acquaintance of the academies there, as appears clearly from copper-plates like "Great and Little Fortune." On the other hand, in view of his extensive knowledge of mathematics and engineering he must have been associated with the Nuremberg lodge, and was probably even a member of it. That he publicly handled the ethical doctrines of the latter, which through their agreement with teachings of the humanists were already known to a large circle of the uninitiated, in the regular symbolic language, indicates that the most severely kept secrets in the lodge were not these teachings, but some ritual' which is known no longer."

- A very enigmatic quote via Albrecht Dürer and the Freemasons, (1911?) W. P. Tuckermann. Also, see this Masonic Encyclopedia page. That someone should eventually connect Dürer with the early stonemason fraternities, guilds, or German Bauhütte (medieval lodges of stonemasons from which Freemasonry sprang) is inevitable. It was the end times for Gothic architecture in Germany (where it originated) but, we know from records that the lodges were still in existence, as was their "secret" geometrical knowledge, which is likely to have deeply attracted Dürer and which he may have gone through great lengths to obtain. The image inset right is the Geometria card from the Mantegna deck, which was popular in 1500s. (See first footnote below.)

"He observed, he learned, he confronted and then he surpassed..."

- Possibly one of the most astute assessments I've ever read regarding Dürer in less than 50 words. It originated with Mathieu Deldicque, co-curator of a 2022 Dürer exhibit in the north of France sourced from this article.


In my previous post, I promised to reveal some "bits" of Dürer-lore provided by Matila Ghyka in his exposé of the pentagonal golden ratio (phi), Le Nombre d'or...,  one of which, regarded an alias Dürer may have used during his travels. Let's review it now.

It is while Ghyka is discussing Luca Pacioli's relationship to Albrecht Dürer, we learn two things. The first concerns a letter written by Dürer mentioning how he travelled "from Bologna to Venice (where this monk 'drunk with beauty' was then living) to be initiated 'into the arcana of a secret perspective.'"

Ghyka's second revelation concerns the "Bologna Vitruvius of 1532" from which we learn of "a passage of commentary written by Gian Bastista Caporali of Perugia that also appears to mention Pacioli's direct influence on Dürer." Ghyka goes on to report: "What it says in fact is that the analogia of Vitruvius, on which the sequence of commensurabilities is based (the symmetria) is not a continuous geometrical proportion in general but a definite proportion...'the Divine Proportion of  Fra Luca (Pacioli) and Albert of Saxony.*'"

In the footnote, Ghyka tells us that he "supposes" that "Albert," referred to as "Alberto de Sassonia," is in fact, Dürer. Intrigued, I googled the name. Amazingly, I found one legitimate mention of the name on an academic page, A Re-evaluation of the Liber de Canonio. "Alberto di Sassonia" was found in the bibliography section and was written exactly as follows:

"Alberto di Sassonia, 1504 = Acutissime questiones super libros de physica auscultatione ab Alberto de Saxonia edite, Venezia, A. Calcedonio e G. Penzio, 1504."

Apparently, Alberto di Sassonia (or Saxonia) was a real individual who wrote an actual book related to (Vitruvian?) physics in 1504. Well, it's intriguing but is it relevant?

Make of it what you will.

Welcome to The Dürer Files!


* Dürer was certainly familiar with the new card decks appearing at the turn of the 14th/15th centuries; specifically the "deck of  Mantegna," which, apparently, was not actually the work of Andrea Mantegna, an artist Dürer admired. Below inset left is a drawing by Dürer, thus described:

"This drawing belongs to a series of seven, all drawn from tarot cards. The 'Tarocchi' are a deck of fifty cards created by a Ferrarese or Venetian artist around 1460-1465 and which became a source of inspiration for artists shortly after their execution. Classified into five sections of ten cards, the tarot cards reflected the medieval conception of the Universe as a hierarchical system. Dürer, and probably one of his assistants, drew free copies of which twenty-one have come down to us. Following the established iconography, 'Prudence' has a double face, masculine and feminine, turned towards both the past and the future; the mirror symbolizes both self-knowledge and the gifts of prophecy, the compass signifies the measure that must be kept in all things, while the snake, here transformed into a dragon, recalls wisdom... The graphic characteristics and the use of watermarked paper of the type that Dürer used during his first trip to Italy link this sheet to the years 1494/1495. The destination of these sketches remains debated: studies for a new edition of the 'Tarocchi' or iconographic models?"

The text, and the image described - Prudence - was sourced here. The image is very strange. Prudence, shown with an old man's face emerging from the back of her head, is technically the important alchemical symbolic figure known as the androgyne or hermaphrodite, the Rebis, which I've discussed elsewhere on this blog. She holds a mirror in one hand, and compasses in the other. A dragon, another alchemical symbol, is at her feet.

From the Wiki entry for Prudence we have: "The word derives from the 14th-century Old French word prudence, which, in turn, derives from the Latin prudentia meaning "foresight, sagacity". It is often associated with wisdom, insight, and knowledge. The virtue of prudence is the ability to judge between virtuous and vicious actions, not only in a general sense, but with regard to appropriate actions at a given time and place. Although prudence itself does not perform any actions, and is concerned solely with knowledge, all virtues are regulated by it..."

Also: "Prudence was considered by the ancient Greeks and later by Christian philosophers, most notably Thomas Aquinas, as the cause, measure, and form of all virtues. It is considered to be the auriga virtutum or the charioteer of the virtues."

Inset right is an illumination found in the Prudence entry. There is no information available for it, and, unless my eyes deceive me, it appears like a page from the Voynich manuscript although far more sophisticated. (Also see this Wiki entry for a tomb commissioned by Anne of Brittany, 1507, featuring herself as Prudence.)

Regarding the tarot, there are actually several decks online described as "Dürer Tarot Decks." While composed of known Dürer images, and, while intriguing, they are not authentic decks created by him. (However, here's one which is quite nice.)


  1. Years ago, I was at a museum with two academic friends and there was a small visiting Duerer exhibition - they refused to go in with me because they thought it was 'a waste of time' and waited outside while I went in. This was one of the many moments when I started to question the culture of academia.

    1. Hah, yeah, a "waste of time." That's fairly cringeworthy. I hope their goal wasn't a degree in art history.

      As a younger woman - force-fed with Byzantine religious art throughout my childhood - I developed an aversion to religious art and specifically medieval religious art, which I found grotesque. I always felt differently about Dürer though, especially later when I became interested in printmaking...

      I was never exposed to his more mysterious work till now, however... anymore than I was aware of all the amazing pre-Christian goddess art!

      Thanks for coming by!

  2. Durer was an amazing painter, print maker and Northern Renaissance man. His grasp of classical and philosophical elements was second to none and he stood with the best of the Italian Renaissance artists. I know of him primarily through his woodcuts and etchings, but your post opened my eyes to his other achievements. I look forward to the successive posts in this series!

  3. Thanks, BG, I hope I can continue this series, but I'm guessing that this may not be the best of times for it... summer vacations, (world-wide) political issues and a personal crisis might stall it till the fall.

    Would there have even been a German Renaissance without the single-handed efforts of Albrecht Dürer?

    I think what surprised me the most was not that he was aware of the various esoteric knowledge available, but the ways and means he went about making it his own. He left no stone unturned. Had he not become so mysteriously, fatally ill, one has to wonder how far he would've gone.