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.


Nuremberg Shrovetide Carnival
(1449-1539). Schembartsbuch.
No. 2. Wild Man (Man of the Woods) in fur costume with bare patches, carrying a whole tree; a small figure clinging to its trunk.
FROM Bodleian Image Library

Though Dürer never mentions the Schembartlauf in his writings, he expresses an interest in the carnivalesque. For example, in a journal entry made while visiting the Netherlands in 1520, the artist gives a detailed description of a religious procession in which “very many delightful things were shown, most splendidly got up. Waggons [sic] were drawn along with masques upon ships and other structures… At the end came a great Dragon which St Margaret and her maidens led by a girdle.” This parade, with its emphasis on costumed participants and moveable floats with fantastic scenes, bears many similarities with the Nuremberg Schembartlauf. Shortly before Carnival in Antwerp in 1521, Dürer reports making a drawing of costumes and “two sheets-full of very fine little masks” for his hosts. Later he attended a banquet on Shrove-Tuesday where he observed “many strange masquers,” some of whom may have been attired in costumes he designed.[5]

Dürer’s frequent portrayal of Wildmen is an indication of the impact of Carnival on his art. Although Wildmen were not unique to the Schembart parade, they played an important role in Nuremberg’s Carnival and could not have escaped the artist’s notice. They were among the worst offenders during Carnival, as evidenced by the fact that many of the City Council’s ordinances were aimed at controlling their behavior. As a young boy, Dürer may have been frightened by the Wildmen as they ran through the streets, screaming and occasionally demanding money,[6] dressed in skins, hair, leaves, moss, and other natural materials. In the Schembart manuscripts, Wildmen are sometimes seen holding an uprooted sapling to which a young man or boy has been tied,[6] apparently signifying their penchant for abduction. They provided a stark contrast to the elegantly-attired Schembartläufer, and probably represented the vestiges of medieval folkloric traditions that aimed to clear away the “spirit of dead vegetation,”[7] celebrate the rebirth of nature, and remind viewers of the irrational forces in nature. Humanists interpreted the Wildman as a Bacchanalian figure, while advocates of the Reformation viewed him as a symbol of the excesses and potentially demonic aspects of Carnival.[8]

Portrait of Oswolt Krel, 1499
(Oil on panel, 49.6 × 39 cm)
BY Albrecht Dürer
Alte Pinakothek

One of the most notable appearances of this carnivalesque figure in Dürer’s oeuvre can be found in his 1499 Portrait of Oswolt Krel, where wings depicting Wildmen with clubs and escutcheons were made to close over the portrait.[9] Interestingly, Oswolt Krel’s name appears in a list of about 500 Schembartläufer.[10] It is possible that Krel’s connection with the Schembartlauf led Dürer to include the Wildmen, one of the most distinctive symbols of Carnival, in his portrait. Perhaps Krel even performed as a Wildman as well as a runner, although we do not have a comparable list of people who dressed as grotesques. Krel was probably proud of his participation in the Schembartlauf, as it was a sign of wealth and elite status in Nuremberg. Although Wildmen had been used as supporters of escutcheons since the fourteenth-century, the shield-bearers in this portrait appear to be dressed as Wildmen. Their heads, hands and feet are perfectly human and stand out from their leaf and fur-covered bodies, suggesting that they are wearing costumes similar to those used during Carnival.

Knight, Death, and the Devil, 1513–14
(Engraving, 24.4 x 19.1 cm)
BY Albrecht Dürer
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1943 (43.106.2)

Dürer may have used the Carnival grotesque as inspiration for images of devils and monsters in several of his other works. Some Schembart parades included maskers dressed as fanciful hybridized creatures such as a “goat-horned, bird-beaked, human-handed figure in furry clothing;” a “goat-headed, human-handed figure,” sometimes accompanied by a child dressed in an identical costume; a “stork-headed figure” with female breasts; and a “pig-headed figure in furry clothing.”[11] Kinser notes that scholarship has almost completely overlooked the relationship between these carnivalesque “fantasmatic” characters and Dürer’s weird, conglomerate creatures such as the merman in the Meerwunder of 1498 and the theriomorphic devil of 1513’s Knight, Death and the Devil — the latter of which looks remarkably like the goat-headed creature, and which carries a similar pitchfork-like instrument. It is also distinctly possible that Dürer’s works influenced the Nuremberg Carnival, and that his imaginative characters were the inspiration for some of the Schembartlauf’s outlandish costumes.

Nuremberg Schembart

Nuremberg Shrovetide Carnival (1449-1539). Schembartsbuch.
No. 6. Man in costume of the fur
of a bear, mask of head of a pig,
and carrying small figure of a fool.
FROM Bodleian Image Library

Nuremberg Schembertlauf

Grotesques from the Schembart Parade
LEFT: Fig. 22 Knell-ringer. RIGHT: Fig. 21 Father and Son.
FROM Sumberg's The Nuremberg Schembart Carnival
(New York: Columbia University Press, 1941)

The Carnival parade also included masked celebrants who dressed up as peasants and behaved in a boorish, undignified manner. The Fastnacht plays that accompanied the Shrovetide celebrations often portrayed peasants as ill-mannered, hyper-sexual beings.[12] In 1506, the Carnival included a staged peasant wedding in which a pretend bride was placed on a bed in a cart driven by peasants.[13] Kinser believes that adopting the personae of peasants allowed Nuremberg city-dwellers to give reign to “repressed sexual and sensual inclinations,” while at the same time enabling them to “express disgust for these clodhoppers.” In the symbolically-charged atmosphere of Carnival, the peasant could represent the Fool as well as Everyman.[14] Sumberg, on the other hand, suggests that the prominence of peasants in the Schembart parade was due more to the “rustic origin of the spring festivities” than to the desire to satirize them.[15] The role of the peasant in Carnival should not be ignored when evaluating engravings such as Dürer’s Three Peasants in Conversation of 1496-7, Peasant Couple Dancing of 1514, and Peasants at the Market of 1519. In most of his peasant studies, the subjects appear ungainly, stupid and crude. It is possible that in these works Dürer is representing not actual peasants, but Carnival celebrants or Fastnachtspiel performers dressed up as rustics. Indeed, the man in Peasants at the Market is making a very dramatic, stage-like gesture, and appears to be in the middle of speaking. It may also be significant that the engravings of Three Peasants in Conversation and Peasants at the Market include a basket of what appear to be eggs — it was traditional during Schembartlauf for participants to throw eggs filled with rosewater at people looking out their windows.[16] Whether or not Dürer was representing real rustics or Carnival “peasants,” their portrayal as crude figures worthy of ridicule in the Shrovetide celebrations may have influenced their representation by Dürer.

FROM The Nuremberg Schembart
(Illustrated manuscript on paper)
PHOTO: Christie’s
Schembart Hölle from 1521, showing fools
falling onto a bird-snare
(after Sumberg)
Design for a Gothic Table Fountain, c. 1500
(Pen and ink drawing, 560 x 358 mm)
BY Albrecht Dürer
The British Museum

Woodcuts for the 1494 edition of Sebastian Brant’s Ship of Fools, many of which are attributed to Dürer, have a carnivalesque feel to them; and indeed, Fools were an important part of the Schembart parade. Like those in the woodcuts, the Fools of Carnival wore bells and caps with pointy ears that resemble those of an ass. They are often shown wreaking havoc on the Höllen in the Schembart manuscript miniatures. In 1506 and 1539, the Höllen consisted of actual Ships of Fools on wheels. The float of 1521 depicted Fools jumping or falling out of trees onto a large bird-snare below, an image reminiscent of Dürer’s woodcut for the chapter “Of Making Plans Public” of the Narrenschiff. This chapter compares fools who reveal their plans too openly to birds that are ensnared by the fowler’s net.[17] Possibly some of the Höllen were inspired by, or modeled after, Dürer’s illustrations for Brant’s poem.

There also seems to be a relationship between the Höllen floats of Schembartlaufen and Dürer’s Design for a Gothic Table Fountain, completed around 1500. Like the float, the table fountain presents the viewer with the spectacle of a story unfolding within a self-contained, artificially-constructed environment. Its base is a microcosm presenting a cross-section of society — farmers, knights, hunters, robbers, and others — going about their daily business in the countryside. Many of the Höllen appear to have served a similar purpose on a much larger scale, functioning as mobile dioramas for figures, or as stages for live performers who would enact various scenarios for the Carnival audience. For example, the Hölle of 1512 consisted of three shopfronts with vendors selling their wares, representing “[t]he life of the merchants of Nuremberg;”[18] while the 1518 float portrayed a number of amorous couples embracing, promenading, and listening to music in a garden.[19] Like Dürer’s fountain, some of the Höllen drew on everyday life for their subject matter; and both Dürer’s drawing and the floats convey an interest in using craftsmanship and artifice to create a three-dimensional tableau where human activities were put on display for all to see.

Schembartläufer Costume, Nuremberg, c.1540
(Illustrated manuscript on paper)
PHOTO: Christie’s

Another sign of the potential impact of Carnival on Dürer’s art may be found in the similarity between the Schembartläufer costume of 1493 and Dürer’s attire in his 1498 self-portrait. The first outfit, as portrayed in the Schembart manuscripts, consisted of a yellow vest-like garment with short sleeves, known as a Goller or Wams, over a long-sleeved tunic and close-fitting hose dominated by a pattern of broad black and white stripes. In his self-portrait, the artist wears a Gugel headdress and a Schecke with sleeves bearing the same conspicuous pattern of black and white stripes. The neckline of his Schecke and the braided cord across his chest expand on this contrasting colors motif. Dürer’s black and white hood does not resemble the rounded hats favored by the Schembartläufer, but its inclusion makes the striped patterning even more prominent. A brown Mantel is draped over his left shoulder, possibly recalling the yellowish outer garment of the Schembartläufer. In a style similar to that of the 1493 costume, Dürer’s Schecke has a V-shaped neckline that reveals a straight-necked Hemd underneath. Like the Schembartläufer of virtually every Carnival year, Dürer wears aristocratic leather gloves. His intention in this self-portrait may have been not only to portray himself as a gentleman, but also to depict himself as an elegantly-dressed Schembartläufer — who, as Dürer’s contemporaries would doubtless have been aware, were generally members of the Nuremberg elite.

(Oil on wooden panel, 52 x 41 cm)
BY Albrecht Dürer
Museo Nacional del Prado

Much scholarship has been devoted to the impact of large-scale movements such as Lutheranism, Humanism, and the Italian Renaissance on Dürer’s art, but barely any attention has been paid to the influence of the annual Schembart parade. As we have seen, his works contain numerous images possibly inspired by people and things seen during Carnival. The meaning of these images may be better appreciated by understanding their role in the topsy-turvy world of Carnival. Alternatively, some of the spectacles of Schembartlauf — such as the grotesque hybrid creatures and the Höllen — may have been influenced by Dürer, and scholars may learn much about the Nuremberg Carnival through close examination of the artist’s works. Like so many of his prints and paintings, the Schembartlauf contained numerous ambiguities and could mean different things to different people. It originated as a butchers’ dance, yet it came to be dominated by patricians; it parodied the selling of indulgences, yet it earned the hostility of some Protestant reformers;[20] it allowed people dressed as Wildmen, peasants, and monsters to run alongside elegantly-dressed young men; and many of its traditions had their origins in pagan or early medieval agricultural ceremonies, yet it had been instituted by the City Council in the fourteenth-century and was closely monitored by Nuremberg’s lawmakers. Dürer lived in a world caught between medievalism and the Renaissance, Catholicism and the Reformation, provincialism and cosmopolitanism. In some ways the Schembartlauf embodied this dual-natured society.

The author wishes to acknowledge Colin Eisler, Helmut Nickel and Dirk Breiding
for their assistance and contribution in the writing of this article.
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  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.
  1. Albrecht Dürer, The Writings of Albrecht Dürer, trans. William Conway. New York: Philosophical Library, 1958, 99-100, 113-14. According to Walter Strauss, some scholars have suggested that Dürer’s 1521 drawing of “Irish Warriors and Peasants” was made for this masquerade.
  2. Sumberg, Samuel. The Nuremberg Schembart Carnival. New York: Columbia University Press, 1941, 99.
  3. Sumberg, Samuel. “The Nuremberg Schembart Manuscripts,” PMLA, Vol. 44, No. 3 (Sep., 1929): 874.
  4. This association between the wildman and the forces of Catholicism would become even more apparent in a 1545 engraving by Melchior Lorch, which represents the Pope in a Wildman suit with a papal tiara, and which portrays Martin Luther as stating, “The Pope is the true Wildman.”
  5. The escutcheon on Oswolt’s right-hand side is that of the Krel family and depicts yet another Wildman holding two hooks — called “Kröllen” or “Krellen” — used for dragging heavy loads or for fishing, possibly signifying the family’s participation in the shipping industry at Lindau. The other coat-of-arms belongs to Oswolt’s wife, Agathe von Esendorf.
  6. Sumberg, Samuel. The Nuremberg Schembart Carnival. New York: Columbia University Press, 1941, 60-61. Also included in this list are Hans Tucher and Jacob Muffel, who have been similarly immortalized by Dürer.
  7. Kinser, Samuel. “Why Is Carnival So Wild?” Carnival and the Carnivalesque: The Fool, the Reformer, the Wildman, and Others in Early Modern Theater, ed. Konrad Eisenbichler. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1999, 64.
  1. See, for example, the representation of peasants in Hans Folz’s play as described in Kinser, “Presentation and Representation: Carnival at Nuremberg, 1450-1550,” 17. In this play, the allegorical figure of Carnival accuses the peasant of being the fool of fools, because he indulges in the licentious activities of Carnival all year long.
  2. Vandenbroeck, Paul. “Verbeeck’s Peasant Weddings: A Study of Iconography and Social Function,” Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art, Vol. 14, No. 2 (1984): 90.
  3. Kinser, Samuel. “Presentation and Representation: Carnival at Nuremberg, 1450-1550,” Representations, No. 13 (Winter, 1986): 8.
  4. Sumberg, Samuel. The Nuremberg Schembart Carnival. New York: Columbia University Press, 1941, 124.
  5. Ibid, 55-56, 184.
  6. Ibid, 170-71.
  7. Ibid, 157.
  8. Ibid, 164-69. The Hölle of 1510 consisted of a highly ornamented fountain — which was supposed to represent the Fountain of Youth — set in a garden, and reiterates the idea of the fountain as a spectacle.
  1. In one Schembartlauf, dissatisfaction with the church was expressed in the form of a participant “arrayed in a white tunic made entirely of letters of indulgence; to each letter [was] appended a red seal on a ribbon;” the man wore “a mask with a somewhat unpleasant expression” (Ibid, 107-08).

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