Coat of Arms with a Skull, 1503
engraving on laid paper
22 x 15.6 cm; image: 21.8 x 15.5 cm
National Gallery of Canada (no. 15211)
The three-dimensional modelling of the skull on the shield is unlike any heraldic emblem; rather, it bears an ominous physical presence in this variation on the theme of death and the maiden. The woman’s dress is based on a costume study by Dürer inscribed “the young women of Nuremberg go to a dance”. The intricately worked crown may be that of a bride. The leering wild man - a figure frequently depicted as the bearer of arms - is drawn from medieval folklore. The skull is a clear allusion to death, while the winged helmet may be seen as a sign of death’s inevitable victory. In sixteenth-century Germany mortality was a part of daily life, commonly witnessed in the family home. Of Dürer's seventeen brothers and sisters, only two survived with him to adulthood. In his memoirs the artist described the agonizing demise of his father in 1502, the year before he made this print.