Monday, August 5, 2013

Exploring Works on Display: The Sea Monster

Albrecht Dürer, The Sea Monster  / Das Meerwunder, engraving, c. 1498 - 1500. photo: John Tamblyn

Albrecht Dürer's imaginative engraving of a sea monster abducting a beautiful woman belongs to the period of the High Renaissance rather than the Baroque. However the artist's fame ensured that his extraordinary prints remained collectible works well into the 17th and 18th centuries. 

The Sea Monster remains among his more enigmatic images. In the foreground the artist draws a contrast between beauty (represented by the female nude) and monstrosity (represented by the sea creature proper). The subject has been variously identified by scholars without any general consensus as to its precise meaning. Stories of beautiful women being pursued or abducted by sea monsters had been popular since antiquity and possible connections between this image and the tales of Glaucus and Scylla or Poseidon's pursuit of Amymone have been drawn. Yet the elaborate headdress worn by the female figure, which closely resembles the fashion of Milanese noblewomen in Dürer's time, has led to alternative interpretations which link the subject to popular northern Italian stories of abductions.

While the eroticism of the nude figure may be highlighted in the image the bizzarre monstrosity cannot go unnoticed. Dürer's attention to detail betrays a fascination with curious natural forms which was underscored by the artist's own collecting habits. At the Dürer House in Nuremburg, Germany, remnants of a 'cabinet of wonders' (wunderkammer) can still be seen today. Amongst the varous curiosities Dürer sent back to Germany, while travelling through Europe, were "animal horns, fish fins, a piece of coral and a weapon from Calicut."*

* A. Hyatt Mayor, Prints & People: A Social History of Printed Pictures, (New York: 1972), p. 48.

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