The Nuremberg Schembartlauf and the Art of Albrecht Dürer

Nuremberg Shrovetide Carnival (1449-1539)
Anno 1511: 53rd Schembart with 61 men.
Captains, Hanss Tucher and Gabriel Bessler.
Sledge with three-headed hydra,
a woman sitting on its tail, holding a flag.
FROM Bodleian Image Library

In the later Middle Ages and early Renaissance, Nuremberg was home to a Shrovetide Carnival known as the Schembartlauf.[1] It developed from a privilege to perform a pre-Lenten dance granted by the City Council to the local butchers, as a reward for their loyalty to the council during a 1348 artisan revolt. A group of masked runners, the Schembartläufer, preceded the butchers through the streets to clear the way for their dance. For many years the butchers hired young men for this purpose, but in 1468 the council passed an edict requiring that the runners pay the butchers for the right to participate. As a result of this rather high fee, the ranks of the Schembartläufer came to be dominated by the sons of the elite. Their costumes became increasingly lavish, a spectacle in their own right. In 1475, large floats known as Höllen were introduced to the Carnival parade. Drawn by horses or by the Schembartläufer, the Höllen could take the shape of castles, dragons, houses, giants, ships, or a number of other fanciful forms and were usually burned by the celebrants at Carnival’s end.

Born and raised in Nuremberg, Albrecht Dürer was almost certainly intimately familiar with the Schembartlauf. Carnival for a young child must have been a momentous occasion, a day when virtually all of Nuremberg turned out to see the spectacles and indulge themselves in pre-Lenten hilarity. Drawn by horses or by the Schembartläufer, the Höllen could take the shape of castles, dragons, houses, giants, ships, or a number of other fanciful forms…It was a somewhat chaotic and lawless event, as evidenced by the numerous edicts passed by the council in an attempt to restrain participants from “run[ning] after people and forc[ing] them to give money with cries, insults, and injury… throw[ing] about fireworks, ashes, feathers, or other impurities… [and using] light-headed, luxurious, immodest, impolite words and gestures in plays and rimes.”[2] In addition to the Schembartläufer, men dressed as monsters, peasants, fools, Wildmen, and a variety of other creatures or things participated in the parade. Despite Dürer’s almost certain long-term exposure to the visual splendor and intriguing spectacles of Carnival, the potential impact of the Schembartlauf on his art has been largely ignored.

The Nuremberg Carnival went through a remarkable progression over the course of Dürer’s life. Shortly before his birth, the city’s patricians asserted control over the Schembartlauf, standardizing the form of the parade; the Hölle floats were introduced when he was a young child; and the Carnival came under attack by the City Council and the forces of the Reformation in the sixteenth century, just as Dürer was beginning to adopt Lutheran beliefs. The Schembartlauf was banned in 1525, three years before the artist’s death. After a fourteen-year absence, the Carnival returned one last time, in 1539, before being permanently banned for the social unrest it inspired.[3]

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, approximately eighty manuscripts describing the Schembartlauf — replete with colored illustrations of the costumes and masks worn by the participants, the Hölle floats, and the butchers’ dance — were produced “for the benefit of the upper-class families whose ancestors had participated.”[4] In his book The Nuremberg Schembart Carnival (1941), Samuel L. Sumberg provides a detailed analysis of the most representative of these manuscripts — Norica Kupfer 444 in Nuremberg’s Stadtbibliothek. Such documents, along with edicts passed by the City Council and descriptions given by Nuremberg’s literary figures such as the playwright Hans Folz and the artisan-poet Hans Sachs, provide a fairly extensive source of documentary and visual material on the Carnival.

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REFERENCES

  1. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the word Schembart could refer to “a facial mask, to the carnival troupes” of Wildmen, or to the Läufer. (Sumberg, Samuel. The Nuremberg Schembart Carnival. New York: Columbia University Press, 1941, 127.)
  2. From a Nuremberg edict of 1469.
  3. In the 1539 parade, a figure representing the Nuremberg preacher Andreas Osiander — who was blamed for the restrictions placed on the Carnival — was placed on a Ship of Fools Hölle float and surrounded by fools and devils. When Osiander complained to the council about this, a crowd stormed his house.
  4. Kinser, Samuel. “Presentation and Representation: Carnival at Nuremberg, 1450-1550,” Representations, No. 13 (Winter, 1986): 5.

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