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SecretS of the DuererS proDigal Son

We do not really know the title of this print because Drer did not assign this title; it is the
opinion of a past historian.
This penitent motif of the Prodigal Son was new for the Renaissance and it was not known to
be a money maker for artist/printers. Before this rendition, the proven motifs that sold well
were scenes of the man reveling or in compromising situations. Drer took a radical
economic risk with this image before he was famous, and unusual move for a young merchant
who could not yet support a workshop with apprentices.
While this image is explicitly depicting a scene about the Prodigal Son among the Swine, it
appears that the composition has a disguised alternative meaning about one historychanging vote made by the Nuremberg City Council in 1496 (the local government,
controlled by 46 Nuremberg families known as the Patricians). The Nuremberg Jews, legal
property of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian, who was their protector, were not
completely subject to the Nuremberg City Councils authority. The Patricians had been
lobbying with Maximilian for years to expel the Jews, ready to fill their economic functions
(banking and cattle trading). Suddenly in 1496, Maximilian agreed to this exodus but
refrained from actually signing the writ of expulsion until 1498. When the Jews were
ultimately expelled in 1499, these Patricians took over their real estate and businesses.

The pigs appear to be Hungarian boars, known for their ferocity. Five large pigs and five
small pigs are depicted. The organization of the City Council was very convoluted, but the
top five positions of the City Council were selected by five Electors, also Council members,
once a year. It appears the five small pigs represent the Electors of the City Council and the
five large pigs represent those they elected to the top positions. In 1496, the ten men
responsible for the expulsion of the Nuremberg Jews were the five Electors (small pigs)
Niclas Grolandt, Ulrich Gruntherr, Peter Ntzel, Gabriel Mffel, and Hans Tetzel the Elder,
who elected (large pigs) Paulus Volkamer, Gabriel Ntzel, Ortlff Stromeyer, Anthoni
Tcher, and Hieronymous Schrstab.

Scholars have posited two theories as to whom the kneeling man represents. He is considered
to be either a self portrait of Drer or to be an Italian because of the moustache and the
shape of the nose. If its a self-portrait, the question is raised as to why Drer would have

considered himself someone who needed to beg forgiveness for being among these swine
and depicted himself as such. If this is an Italian, this could be a veiled reference to a
member of the City Council, whose surname meant the Italian, Jacob Welser. In medieval
German, wels was the word for Italian, so Welser meant the Italian. The Welsers
were an extremely wealthy and powerful Augsburg German dynasty, who sent Jacob Welser
to establish their businesses in Nuremberg in 1493. Because of Welsers wealth, the City
Council had no choice but to induct him into the City Council in 1494, where his presence as
a controlling interloper was much resented by the native Patricians. Welser was involved in
the vote for Jewish expulsion in 1496.

The double wheel and the rooster in the middle of the print, and nailed-down snake tail below
the harrow at the left side of the composition are insignia from the arms of, respectively, the
Nuremberg families of Volkamer, Rummel, and Mnzer. Paulus Volkamer was the President
(the Losunger in German), of the City Council in 1496. Hieronymous Mnzer (whose
insignia shows up in other Drer prints) was first elected to the City Council in 1493. Hans
Frey, a Rummel relative and Drers father-in-law, was first elected to the City Council in
1496. Drer appears to want to single out these mens role in the vote of expulsion
particularly. The hind quarters of a bull at the left of the image seems to be Drers derisive
commentary on this political event.
The landscape is a depiction of a particular Nuremberg farm called Himpfelshof, located
west of the city walls. We will never know exactly why Drer chose to depict this farm, but
the area west of the Nuremberg city walls was populated by Jews.
A turnip is depicted in the lower center of the image. This root vegetable was a common
Hungarian emblem, suggesting an association yet to be understood. It was also a common
symbol
of
contempt,
possibly
indicating
a
personal
comment.
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