Albrecht Dürer, ‘Coat of Arms with a Skull (B. 101; M., Holl. 98; S.M.S. 37)’, 1503, Christie's Old Masters

Engraving, 1503, without watermark, a magnificent, early Meder a impression, printing with sparkling contrasts and utmost clarity and subtlety, with touches of burr in the scrollwork and elsewhere, trimmed to or just inside the platemark but retaining a fillet of blank paper outside the borderline on all sides, in excellent condition.

Superior to the Malcolm impression in the British Museum, which prints with more burr in the wings, but lacks the dazzling clarity of the present impression, which is a marvel of balance, definition and depth.

Coat of Arms with a Skull is Dürer's final and undoubtedly greatest graphic essay on the theme of love, lust and death, a subject that preoccupied the artist from his first engraving, and to which he would return again and again throughout the early years of his career as a printmaker (see lot 4).

Dürer took traditional elements of heraldry; shield, helmet, wings, scrollwork and a wild man (wild men were at times depicted as bearers of armorial devices) to create a highly complex vanitas image. The wild man has all but abandoned his task of holding the shield and helmet and is fondling an elegant young woman who, by her festive dress and wedding crown, can be identified as a patrician Nuremberg lady. She does not seem to mind the advances of this bestial figure, and coquettishly glances at the shining helmet and the shield. Perhaps she is seduced by the armorial splendor and fails to see that the promise of this coat of arms is not glory, but death. Coat of Arms with a Skull is however not simply a memento mori, but also a satire on the aristocratic pretensions and aspirations of the Nuremberg burghers. Last but not least it is also a deliberate, and astonishing, display of virtuosity.

John Heywood Hawkins (1802-1877), London and Bignor Park, Sussex (L. 1472).

Walter Francis, 5th Duke of Buccleuch (1806-1884), London and Dalkeith, Scotland (L. 402); his sale, Christie's, London, 9-22 April 1887, lot 1588 (£58, to Colnaghi).

About Albrecht Dürer

Considered one of the foremost artists of the Renaissance period, Albrecht Dürer’s extensive work in printmaking transformed the categorization of the medium from craft to fine art. Often depicting religious subjects, Dürer’s woodcuts and engravings demonstrated unprecedented technical skill, tonal variation, and compositional sophistication. Dürer theorized extensively on linear perspective and anatomical proportion, concerns that were articulated in a vast body of written work as well as in his paintings and prints. Dürer’s skill earned him the role of court artist for Holy Roman Emperors Maximilian I and Charles V, under whom he created a number of paintings and altarpieces. Dürer’s series of self-portraits, created throughout his career, represent some of his most iconic works.

German, 1471-1528, Nuremberg, Germany, based in Nuremberg, Germany