Friday, February 26, 2010

A Wild Man and a Willing Lady

It is the evening of the 28th day of January, in the year 1393. In Paris, the 25 year-old King Charles VI, still recovering from a period of severe mental instability, is pursuaded by those who should have known better to give a masquerade. The performers - six excitable youths, among them the king himself - are costumed as wild men, their diabolical garb consisting of ragged strands of rope stuck to linen with pitch and resin which has been sewn skin-tight over their undergarments. Masks of the same recklessly volatile material cover their faces, hiding their identities. Few of the guests who pack the feasting hall realise that the king himself is one of the six, and with the burning torches on the wall safely out of reach, the six grotesque and shaggy forms begin to prance among the amused and excited guests.

A latecomer enters the hall unexpectedly, torch held aloft the better to see the mysterious wild beings who caper near him in the flickering shadows. A spark falls. Amusement turns to horror as the dancers one after the other are transformed into living torches. One dancer burns to death on the spot. Another escapes by leaping into a vat of water that is being used to cool wine. The life of the king is saved by the young Duchess of Berry, herself only fifteen. Recognising her sovereign, and with great presence of mind, she throws her voluminous skirt over him protectively, shielding him from the flames (above). The three other performers, wretchedly burned - as are several guests who attempt to rescue them - survive for several days of lingering agony before dying of their wounds.

This tragedy, with bitter irony, has become known to history as the Bal des Ardents - The Dance of the Burning Ones. But supposing that the evening had passed without incident? How would history then remember the event? Simply as The Dance of the Wild Men, perhaps. But where did the idea for such bizarre costumes come from? These hairy beings, neither fully human nor wholly beast, seem to have had their origins in the beliefs in such ancient spirits of the forest as Puck, or Robin Goodfellow, the northern European equivalent of the god Pan. Certainly these wild beings seem to have had a hold upon the imagination of Medieval Europe, and appear regularly in coats-of-arms such as those of the Swiss Arms of Kyburg (above), which also features a rather demure wild woman - as does this 15th-century playing card (below), which portrays as one of its Queens a wild woman posed with that equally-fantastic and appealing animal, the unicorn, giving us two fantastic beings for the price of one.

There seems to be any number of these early depictions of wild men and women, sometimes even shown with their shaggy offspring in cosily-domestic family groups. But what I am looking for is a portrayal in art: a wild man, as it were, for art's sake. No great surprise, then, to discover two of them painted by that master of the fantastic, Albrecht Dürer. In Dürer's painting they appear upon the side panels flanking his 1499 portrait of the influential - and decidedly stern-looking - merchant Oswolt Krel (below). True to form, Dürer presents us with a brace of splendid club-brandishing wild men. But even these two lively examples are posed within a *heraldic context, and clearly are painted on commission.

Four years after painting his portrait of the merchant, Dürer produced another wild man. This time in the form of an engraving, his Coat-of-Arms with a Skull (below) shows us a wild man worth the money. Although this wild man is again in a heraldic setting, the artist seems here to be creating an image for his own pleasure. Because the woman wears a bridal crown, there is a theory that the print is intended as a political allegory - the 15th-century equivalent of today's newspapers' political cartoons.

The central helmet is magnificent, and reveals in its detail the artist's familiarity with the real thing. In the Louvre is a watercolor study of three views of a jousting helmet (below, left), which Dürer made a few years earlier. The artist's house in Nuremburg was near an armourer's, so such material was readily to hand for Dürer to study. And indeed: if we see the two helmets in isolation and next to each other (below, right), with the engraved version facing the way in which the artist would have engraved it onto his plate, then it is clear that Dürer used this very watercolor as a reference for his engraving.

But what of the skull itself? Dürer's eye was as acute in its perception of detail as any in art history, and he certainly knew well-enough how to accurately draw a correctly-proportioned human skull. This particular skull is not it. To me, this skull with its enlarged cranium shows every indication of hydrocephalic deformity. And yet nowhere in any commentaries on this engraving by other writers can I find even a mention of this bizarre truth. What did the artist wish to indicate? Was this strange detail part of an allegorical commentary? I do not know, and perhaps the reason why others gloss over this detail is because they do not know either!

Working in a medium which he had made his own, Dürer's engraving burin articulates a whole tonal scale of textures, from the multiple pleats of the lady's dress to the eddying plumes and heraldic feathers of the helmet, from her own smooth feminine skin to the alien hairiness of the wild man. They seem as mismatched a couple as can be imagined. And yet the lady in question, fashionably dressed in the well-to-do Nuremburg style, seems anything but unwilling to receive the advances of her shaggy admirer (the detail, above). Dürer's sly humor seems to indicate that this particular beauty and her beast might well find true happiness together after all!

Artist: Albrecht Dürer
Work: Portrait of Oswolt Krel, 1499
Medium: Oils
Location: Alte Pinakotek, München

Artist: Albrecht Dürer
Work: Coat-of-Arms with a Skull, 1503
Medium: Engraving
Location: Prints from the engraved plate are housed in the collections of the Bayly Art Museum, University of Virginia, Charlottesville; the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco; the Worcester Art Museum; the Art Institute of Chicago; the National Gallery of Canada; The National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, and others.

Artist: Albrecht Dürer
Work: Three views of a tournament helmet, c.1498 (the spurious date of 1514 and Dürer's monogram at the top have been added by a later unknown hand)
Medium: Watercolor
Location: Musée du Louvre, Paris

Sources: The 15th-century image of the Bal des Ardents by Jean Froissart comes from A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, by Barbara W. Tuchman. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1978, which title also contains a complete account of the Bal and its historical circumstances. The stained glass image of the Wild Man and Woman supporting the Arms of Kyburg (c.1490), attributed to Lukas Zeiner, is from The Curated Object website. The 'Animal Queen' playing card (c. 1465) is in the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, München.

Albrecht Dürer: Genius of the German Renaissance, by Norbert Wolf. Taschen, 2006.
Dürer, by Martin Bailey, Phaidon Press, Ltd. 1995.

*The coat-of-arms on the left panel, which itself features a wild man, is Krel's, and the one on the right panel is that of his wife, Agathe von Essendorf.


  1. Magnificent...

    I was transported in the scene. There is so much to learn from you, Storyteller. Thank you for the most intriguing hints.

    Warm regards,

  2. Thank you, Lolita! 'Storyteller'is a description that I can certainly live with.

  3. Your blog is quite amazing. Dürer is my favourite artist!

  4. My apologies for having overlooked your comment before, Ms CC - and thank you! I hope that you also enjoy my new post about that other fabulous work of Dürer's: The Sea Monster.


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