Close Encounter With Albrecht Dürer


Step into Roy Underhill’s bathroom at The Woodwright’s School, and you’ll encounter a poster of Albrecht Dürer’s “Melencolia I,” a puzzling image filled with mysterious symbols and woodworking tools.

Whenever a student goes missing in the bathroom during the classes at Roy’s, it is for one of two reasons: the pork chop sandwich from lunch is troubling their innards, or they are studying “Melencolia I” and have lost track of time in the loo.


If you like Dürer’s work and live in the Midwest, I suggest you close your laptop, get in your car and drive to Cincinnati before Feb. 11, 2018, to visit the Cincinnati Art Museum’s exhibit ”Albrecht Dürer: The Age of Reformation and Renaissance.” Admission is free. Parking is free.

The exhibit tracks the progression of Dürer’s work using dozens of original prints he created using engraving, etching and drypoint. And the museum supplies magnifying glasses so you can view every stroke and get within about 1” of the original works.

This was the first time I ever got to see an actual print of “Melencolia I.” Like always, seeing the original is much different than seeing it on screen. The texture of the paper, the resolution of each line, even the physical edges of the image stir up a wilder set of feelings than pixels.

It was great to see the square and straightedge, both of which I’ve built many times for myself and customers. (Free plans for the square are here.)


I also spent some time hunting down other woodworking and tool images in the prints. One of the prints, “Sojourn of the Holy Family in Egypt” (1501-1502), depicts a sawbench much like the one recovered from the Mary Rose shipwreck. And it features a birdsmouth or ripping notch. That might be the earliest depiction of the birdsmouth I am aware of. (Correction: Suzanne Ellison pointed out the earliest one she’s uncovered is 1390.)


On the more gruesome side of things, there’s “Martyrdom of the 10,000” (1496-1497) in which someone is boring out the eye of a bishop with an auger. This image sent me scurrying to my archive of images. Somewhere in there is an image that Jeff Burks dug up that shows the eyeworker alone, separate from the chaotic scene.

My favorite part of the exhibit was an excerpt from the colaphon of the book “Life of the Virgin.” I wish we could print this inside all our books, instead of the dry copyright notice.

Woe to thee, fraudster and thief
of someone else’s labors and
invention, let thou not even think
of laying thy impertinent hands
on this work. For let me tell thee
that Maximilian, the most glorious
emperor of the Holy Roman Empire,
granted us the privilege that no one
might print copies of these pictures,
and that no such prints might be sold
within the imperial domains. But
should thou still transgress, whether
out of disregard or criminal avarice,
be assured that after confiscation
of thy property the severest penalties
shall follow.

— Christopher Schwarz, editor, Lost Art Press
Personal site:


About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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27 Responses to Close Encounter With Albrecht Dürer

  1. AAAndrew says:

    About Durer. I once worked for a man who had an early (lifetime) Durer print in his house. They are a true wonder, and when you see one, you no longer have any doubts why he was considered a master.

    The “copyright” colophone you mention reminds me of a wonderful example of a dealing with book pirating in the 19th-century. J.M. Stoddart in Philadelphia was publishing unauthorized copies of the Encyclopedia Britannica in the US as “Stoddart’s Encyclopaedia Americana.” The account below comes from an issue of American Bookseller August 1, 1883, page 563, under “Literary Notes”

    “The question of international copyright is brought up now and then in a piquant sort of way. The following correspondence is published in a late number of the London Bookseller, under the name of “Modesty.” ”

    [It seems Stoddart’s company wrote to the the printers of the original Encyclopedia thus:]

    Gentlemen: As you are probably aware, we are the publishers of The Reprint of the Encyclopedia Britannica. We are not quite satisfied with our reproduction of maps as regards the colors. The trouble with our lithographer lies in the fact of his inability to get a plate of “stipple” sufficiently fine to work out the tints. Our object in writing you is to ascertain whether you would supply us with a “pure line stipple” plate, and at what price? As a sample of the stipple desired, we refer you to plate 5, vol. 8, of the 9th edition E.B., which were printed by you.
    Hoping to hear from you at your earliest convenience,
    I remain, yours respectfully,
    John Vansant.
    Manufacturing Dept.

    [To which the printer replied:]
    Edinburgh, 27th February, 1883
    Dear Sirs: We have the favor of the 15th instant, but, as we are the engravers and printers of a great many of the maps in the Encyclopedia Britannica, it is most unlikely that we should assist a rival house to copy these; we think you cannot have fully considered our position before you wrote us.
    Ever since you began to pirate this work, the Messrs. Black have had our deepest sympathy; we are very glad you find the maps difficult to copy, and our aim in the future will be to put as many obstacles in the way of reproduction as possible.
    Yours very truly,
    (signed) W. & A. K. Johnston.

    What a wonderful way to tell them to sod off and go jump in a lake.


    • Richard Mahler says:

      Thieves throughout history exhibit unbridled gall, opportunism of a high order, ingenuity devoid of creative inventiveness, and an appalling lack of social awareness and intelligence. Greed breeds stupidity.


    • johncashman73 says:

      The US and Britain had no copyright reciprocity in the 19th century. Theft of works was routine. Gilbert and Sullivan got so tired of it that they tried to stop theft by staging the world premier of HMS Pinafore in New York, for one show only, to establish US copyright, and then moved it back to England. They called the new play The Pirates of Penzance partly because of the copyright pirates.


  2. Monte Bell says:

    I think that you should include the ancient warning against the theft of your intellectual property alongside the standard copyright in all future publications. If it does not also serve to deter such thievery, it will give notice that there is a higher power who will visit severe penalties upon the impertinent invader who impenitently eats the fruit of your labors.


  3. Gary Schultz says:

    Thanks a lot Chris! (sarcasm). I have little enough shop time as it is; now I must find a reproduction of Durer’s “Melencolia 1” large enough to frame. Kidding aside, this print struck a cord in me. I would subtitle it ‘When the Muse sits, the artist fits.’ I think the Imperial Domains does not include the Puritan shores.


  4. Matt Smith says:

    I work as a Preparator at the University of Missouri’s Museum of Art and Archaeology and we have many Durer prints in our collection. We also have a searchable database, with images, accessible to the public: We have the “Martyrdom of the 10,000” in our collection and you can check out the full image on the database.


  5. Richard Mahler says:

    Fascinating. My degree is in Fine Art, both studio and history, so I am very aware of Durer but have never familiarized myself with his complete etching works. The late medieval/early Renaissance mind reveals a worldview far different from our own somewhat fractured one, particularly in its reliance on symbolism which was a language all it own. This post inspired me to order the complete works in a hardcover large format. Hours of scrutinizing detail are ahead!


  6. Andrew Brant says:

    Seeing Dürer’s work at the Block museum at Northwestern made a huge impact on me as a draftspwrson, artist and maker back in college. What amazing creations. Anyone who can get the chance to see some in person really really should


  7. jtolpin says:

    I recommend Durer’s book: “A Course in the Art of Measurement with Compass and Ruler” if you want to see the geometric underpinnings of his art (and how he taught to it). The book is in German, and the ancient font style muddies the text, so I for one just look at the drawings! The book is still available (scanned off course!).


  8. Ocirgi says:

    “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” Pablo Picasso


  9. Chris moltion says:

    Chris, I always love these old prints and pictures you share on your blog of early woodworking in its various forms. I would love to buy some high quality prints or paintings depicting similar settings but have never been able to find anything. Any ideas?
    Chris m.


    • Richard Mahler says:

      As to Durer, you will find quite a selection of prints available on Amazon, ebay, etc.; as to quality, you may judge that from the descriptions, but plenty do have a high price.


    • jenohdit says:

      You won’t get a Melancholia cheaply but keep in mind those prints were mass produced. That was the whole idea. Most of Dürer’s prints were woodcut or engravings rather than etchings so the plates lasted a long time. Loads of them were made and they are readily available for far less than you might imagine.

      Look for Swann galleries online for just one source. They tried to sell a copy of Sojourn of the Holy Family in Egypt with a pre-sale estimate of $2-3,000 last November 2. It was unsold so probably didn’t make its reserve. I don’t know for sure with them, but the reserve is probably a good bit lower than the low estimate. Not exactly cheap, but pretty reasonable for original (well really mass produced and unsigned, so depends on your definition) art by one of the biggies eh?

      As far as “high quality” goes they don’t call those guys “old masters” for nothing but do note that they were inked by hand and not every impression was a good one and that plates wear and were retouched or even printed after the artist death so prices for what look like the same thing can vary widely. Auctions are always about who wants something the most at a specif time and place and that can make people do dumb things and pay far more than they should just to win.

      For prints on a woodworking theme by other artists, scour catalogs from any of the major auction houses. If you just want to look, try the special collections section of a university library. You would be amazed at what they hold. Be cool and staff will help you find obscure things in them. Medieval manuscripts are abundant as are early printed books. Expect to wear white gloves and you may not get to touch manuscripts depending on where you are.

      The irony is that part of Dürer’s fame came from making and selling loads of prints. Prints by artists you’ve never heard of can be way more expensive, because they are rarer, but can also be had for a song if they aren’t popular with collectors, are slightly damaged, or on a weird theme like woodworking that isn’t sought after at the moment. That’s pure conjecture there on that specific theme because I would never seek that out so haven’t looked. I’ve seen stacks of 10-15 or more 17th-18th century prints go unsold because someone wouldn’t offer a tiny opening bid.


  10. Bruce Lee says:

    If you want to read a bunch of ‘book curses’, look for a library copy of ‘Anathema’ by Marc Drogin. (OOP, published 1983).


  11. Blue Wren says:

    You could always print the warning next to your current copyright notice. I reckon the copyright on that copyright notice has expired by now!


  12. Bill Morison says:

    Now THAT is an effective copyright notice! Who needs to reference Title 17 of the US Code?


  13. Thanks for posting Chris. I was fortunate to look at Durer’s woodcut prints in the theological library at Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. It inspired me to carve a rendition of his “Trinity” which is in the chapel of Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove, IL. Albrecht Durer was known as the master of folds and certainly it was evident again in the print “Metencolia I”. If I was in the Cincinnati area then I would be sure to go see the exhibit. The detail of the strapped hammer, plane, square, and assorted tools is pretty cool to look at in the “Metencolia I.”


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