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Last updated: 1/25/2017
Home / Gallery Tour 1 / Old Master Drawings and Prints / Gallery Tour 2 / Artists
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Old Master Prints: Albrecht Dürer's woodcuts for The Ship of Fools (1494)

Dürer: Apocalypse / Dürer: Large Passion / Dürer: Small Woodcut Passion / Dürer: Engraved Passion / Dürer: Other Passion
Dürer: Life of the Virgin / Dürer: Holy Family / Dürer: Saints and Martyrs / Dürer: Other Images
Ship of Fools 1 / Ship of Fools 2 / Ship of Fools 3 / Ship of Fools 4 / Copies After Durer

German Drawings: Hans Sebald Beham / Virgil Solis / Hans von Aachen / Johann Heinrich Roos
German 16th century printmakers: Heinrich Aldegrever, Jost Amman, Hans Sebald Beham, Hans Brosamer, Hans Burgkmair,
Lucas Cranach, Albrecht Durer, Albrecht Durer (After), Augstin Hirschvogel, Hans Holbein (After), Hopfer Family,
Monogrammist IS with the Shovel, Georg Pencz, Hans Schäufelein, Virgil Solis, Monogrammist W.S. (Wolfgang Stuber?).

"The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters": Goya’s Caprichos etchings (1799), Durer's Ship of Fools woodcuts (1494), David Deuchar’s etchings (1786) after Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death, John Martin’s mezzotints for Milton's Paradise Lost (1823-25), and Georges Rouault’s Miserere mixed-media intaglios (1922-1928)
In what is considered his first independent commission after concluding his apprenticeship, Durer contributed a number of woodcuts to one of the first European best sellers, Sebastian Brant’s Das Narrenschiff / The Ship of Fools, a humanist work in which wisdom condemns the follies she sees everywhere she looks. By Brant's death in 1521, six German editions had been published using Durer's original woodblocks; there were also seven pirated German editions using copies of Durer's woodcuts. There were also translations—none of which had access to Durer's woodcuts—printed in various modern languages. The Ship of Fools was first published in 1494 as the reform movement, begun in the North as an attempt to renew a rather corrupt church, was about to find its true leader, Erasmus, whose mock encomium, The Praise of Folly (1508), leaves us to wonder whether Wisdom should really condemn folly if Folly is actually condemning folly though her mock praises. Erasmus implies that if Wisdom really thought the issue through, she might well change her mind, since, as Folly reminds us, St Paul insists that the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of man. Like Goya’s Caprichos, Durer’s works also illustrate human follies, but from a rather different perspective: unlike Goya, who forces us to see from the perspective of participants in the world’s follies, Durer, following Brant’s lead, invites us to play spectator from the perspective of Wisdom, to mock the fools who never manage to get it right rather than to realize that we too live in a world that always gets it wrong. Most of our impressions are from the 1511 edition (published in Strassburg by Johan Pruss using Durer's original blocks though several are from the 1497 edition and 6 are from the 1520 edition); all are in remarkably good condition (especially considering that they were made before most of Europe even knew that Columbus had discovered what we like to think of as a "New World." (As Prospero, who remembered more of his and the world’s history, says to Miranda, when she, seeing a group of "goodly creatures" for the first time, hails the birth of a "brave new world": "’Tis new to thee.")

The first edition of The Ship of Fools contains 115 woodcuts, some of which are not by Durer. Walter L. Strauss in his catalogue raisonné, Albrecht Durer Woodcuts and Woodblocks, surveys the state of critical dispute about the number of pieces definitely created by Durer and not simply by others trying to imitate his accomplishments. Strauss and Panofsky are the most conservative; Winkler (1928) "who undertook the most thorough examination of the illustrations, concluded that seventy-three are by Durer" and in later editions added 5 more for a grand total of 78 by Durer. Wolfgang Hutt's Albrecht Durer 1471 bis 1528: Das gesampte graphische Werk: Druckgraphik (1970), assigns 74 of the woodcuts to Durer; Alain Borer and Cécile Bon's L'Oeuvre Graphique de Albrecht Durer (1980; identified as "Borer" in the descriptions) prints 78 woodcuts as Durer's. We follow the new catalogue raisonné of Durer's woodcuts for books, Rainer Schoch, Matthias Mende, and Anna Scherbaum, Albrecht Dürer: Das Druckgraphische Werk: Band III: Buchillustrationen (Munchen: Prestel, 2004), here referred to as SMS. This work prints and illustrates each of the 78 works Winkler accepted as by Durer. There is also a complete English translation of Brant's Ship of Fools by Edwin H. Zeydel (NY: Dover, 1944; rpt. 1962); quotations from the individual woodcuts illustrating the various kinds of folly come from Strauss, if included in Strauss, or from Zeydel if not. The typographic ornaments are not by Durer; sometimes we have shown them for their decorative value, sometimes not. The 1497 edition has one on either the right or the left side of the block; the 1511 edition has one on both sides; the 1520 edition was printed without the ornaments.
The Careless Fool (SMS 266.22, Hutt 1359, Borer 129). Original woodcut, 1494. A good impression on laid paper from the 1520 edition. Image size: 115x82mm. Price: $1850.

The 1511 edition tells us: "Who sees a fool that takes a fall / But pays no heed to that at all, / He strokes a fool's beard full or small."
The Gossiping Fool (SMS 266.23, Hutt 1360, Borer 130). Original woodcut, 1494. A good impression on laid paper from the 1511 edition. Image size: 115x82mm. Price: $2250.

The 1511 edition tells us: "A bell sans hammer gives no ring, / No foxtail sets it echoing, / Wherefore ignore all gossipping."
Scornful Fools (SMS 266.24, Hutt 1361, Borer 131). Original woodcut, 1494. A good impression on laid paper from the 1497 edition. Image size: 115x82mm. Price: $1850

The 1511 edition tells us: "From fools 'tis good to keep away, / Who pelt with rocks and stones for ay, / Not heeding ill or wisdom's way."
The fanatical falcon and dog lover (SMS 266.26, Hutt 1368, Borer 133, Anzelewsky, Durer, p. 32). Original woodcut, 1494. A good impression on laid paper from the 1511 edition. Illustrated in Anzelewsky's important study of Durer (1980), the only woodcut from the Ship of Fools included. Image size: 115x82mm. Price: SOLD.

The 1511 edition tells us: "Who takes to Church dog, hawk, or jay, / Disturbing others who would pray, / The fool's role he with zeal doth play."
The fanatical falcon and dog lover (SMS 266.26, Hutt 1368, Borer 133, Anzelewsky, Durer, p. 32). Original woodcut, 1494. A good impression on laid paper from the 1520 Strasbourg edition, the last printed from Durer's woodblocks. Illustrated in Anzelewsky's important study of Durer (1980), the only woodcut from the Ship of Fools included. Image size: 115x82mm. Price: $2250.

The 1511 edition tells us: "Who takes to Church dog, hawk, or jay, / Disturbing others who would pray, / The fool's role he with zeal doth play."
Folly and Her Fools (SMS 266.28, Hutt 1365, Borer 135). Original woodcut, 1494. A good impression on laid paper from the 1511 edition. Image size: 116x83mm. Price: $2000.

The 1511 edition tells us: "Folly has lavish retinue, / The whole world joins it, even you, / If you have power and money too."
A Lost Fool (SMS 266.29, Hutt 1366, Borer 136). Original woodcut, 1494. A good impression on laid paper from the 1497 edition. Image size: 117x84mm. Price: $2000.

According to the 1511 edition, "Some men persist on Folly's road, / And draw a cart with heavy lode: / The right cart waits in heaven's abode."
A Lost Fool (SMS 266.29, Hutt 1366, Borer 136). Original woodcut, 1494. A good impression on laid paper from the 1511 edition. Image size: 117x84mm. Price: $1750.

According to the 1511 edition, "Some men persist on Folly's road, / And draw a cart with heavy lode: / The right cart waits in heaven's abode."
De predestinatione / Concerning predestination (SMS 26636, Strauss 13e, Hutt 1373, Borer 143). Original woodcut, 1494. A good impression on laid paper from the 1497 edition. Image size: 114x82mm. Price: $2500.

According to the 1511 edition, "Who, lacking merit, seeks a prize /And on a fragile reed relies / His plans go backward crab-wise." This woodcut, of course, precedes the controversies over the doctrine of predestination occasioned by Luther's commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans (9: 1-33) and those who sought to deny Luther's affirmation of St. Paul's doctrine: "For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy. . . . Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth. . . . Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?" Given Dürer's lament when he heard the false rumor that Luther was dead in 1520, one suspects he might not have provided this woodcut then.
In Tyndale's commentary in "The Parable of the Wicked Mammon," we see a contemporaneous statement of the position to which Dürer would almost certainly later have been inclined: “Christ’s blood hath purchased life for us, and hath made us the heirs of God; so that heaven cometh by Christ’s blood. If thou wouldst obtain heaven with the merits and deserving of thine own works, so didst thou wrong, yea, and shamedst, the blood of Christ; and unto thee were Christ dead in vain. Now is the true believer heir of God by Christ’s deservings; yea, and in Christ was predestinate, and ordained unto eternal life, before the world began. And when the gospel is preached unto us, we believe the mercy of God; and in believing we receive the Spirit of God, which is the earnest of eternal life, and we are in eternal life already, and feel already in our hearts the sweetness thereof, and are overcome with the kindness of God and Christ; and therefore love the will of God, and of love are ready to work freely; and not to obtain that which is given us freely and whereof we are heirs already."
Ingrateful Fools (SMS 266.38, Hutt 1375, Borer 145). Original woodcut, 1494. A good impression on laid paper from the 1511 edition. Image size: 117x84mm. Price: $1850.

The 1511 edition tells us: "Who wants good service every day, / But never 'thank you' wants to say, / His thunder God on him will vent."

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