Elizabeth Garner thought she was merely purchasing a print by an artist whose work she admired. Before she knew it, she was falling down a rabbit-hole: Could Albrecht Dürer, the Renaissance-era “Christian artist” actually have been a Jew?
Five years later, Garner’s discovery is at the center of “A Collector’s Passion for Dürer’s Secrets: the MAGJEKL Collection,” an exhibition of Garner’s 43 prints, at the Hillstrom Museum of Art at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn. through Nov. 6.
A West Hartford native, Garner grew up at Congregation Beth Israel, where she received confirmation under Rabbi Abraham Feldman, developing an early interest in the Holocaust and reading everything she could. “I was trying to understand the horror of it,” she says. “I just couldn’t comprehend humans’ inhumanity to each other.” Garner left the area at age 20 to live and work around the world, returning to West Hartford four years ago.
In 2005, retired from a long career in information technology and newly widowed, Garner signed up for a drawing course. One day, she arrived late to class and missed the name of the artist whose work the teacher had asked the students to copy. “I had no idea that I was copying Albrecht Dürer,” Garner says. “And so I was doing this, and doing this, and had no idea Albrecht Dürer was imprinting on my brain.” Soon after, while attending an art auction, she was bought a print by the same artist, and only then learned who he was.
That’s when the mystery of Durer’s true identity began to unravel, leading Garner on an ardent quest. She spoke with the Ledger about her evolution from casual art student to passionate art sleuth.
Q: Yours is an intricate and unusual story that reads like a good mystery. Describe what happened after you bought that first Dürer print.
A: I bought a Dürer print and thought, “How stupid am I, spending so much money without knowing anything about the artist? I really need to educate myself about what I’m doing, I really need to get a mentor.” So I bought and read books on what the experts have said, as directed by mentor.
I realized that there was something “wrong with these pictures.” I would read what the experts said, compare that to the image, and shake my head. I was seeing something different.
I bought Dürer’s print, “Melencolia,” and realized quickly that it was somehow encoded. I decided that Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was the first person to hypothesize, in 1819, that the print was about Dürer’s mother, was correct. Now I just had to prove it. I presented the hypothesis to my print dealers and was told, “Well if he portrayed his mother, don’t you think he would also depict his father?” When I found Dürer’s grandmother in the print 15 minutes later, I realized that I was onto something.
I first had to answer the question, who would buy a print about someone else’s mother? The answer was, no one. So what was going on? Who would buy these strange prints? I started realizing that, from an economic standpoint, most of Dürer’s prints didn’t make sense to produce; they were too weird for economic value. But when Dürer died, he was noted among the 100 richest men in Nuremberg, Germany, so he was obviously economically astute. Why the disconnect?
I realized that the symbols in his work were encoded. But what was the symbolic system that was consistent? I threw out all my previous assumptions and retraced the research. I found numerous unsupported opinions, misidentifications, and just plain errors. I investigated everything arcane and esoteric, but found no matches. I had to find proof using what was plainly in front of me; so I searched for the image of the thistle that I thought had been misidentified, and finally found the exact match. I realized that I was dealing with a Hungarian signifier, and that the experts had been wrong in their interpretations. Could there be more misidentifications?
I found the code in the Dürer print, “The Promenade,” and then knew I was on the right track. I exhausted any idea I could think of to crack the code and ran into a brick wall. Because Dürer had always been categorized as a “Christian artist,” I had purposely forgone any investigation into Jewish symbology for two years, even though the clues were pointing in that direction. I decided that I now had to go down that route, since there was no other.
I finally cracked the code and figured out the language of symbols that Dürer was using, and moved on to asking what the code was saying. I realized that the prints are interrelated and that they are encoding information about his family members – but what else were they communicating? I then discovered that the “Family Chronicle,” the autobiography supposedly written by Dürer in 1524, is fraudulent: the child whose name was erased at birth in this document had actually survived — his sister Margret, the eighth child of 18.
When I reoriented my thinking, dealing with the actual facts, I realized that Dürer was encoding scandals. I can explain every print but “The Apocalypse.” I start to write the book, “Crimes in the Art.” After more research, I decided to stop writing, because “The Apocalypse” has many more clues, which I have to decode.
That’s when I understood that the Jewish aspect of the prints is much more important and pertinent than I had ever imagined. I figured out what “The Apocalypse” is saying but I couldn’t decode all the clues. But I finally grasped that what I thought were family pictures were actually event pictures and that Dürer had a grudge: the government vote to expel the Jews of Nuremberg in 1496. That was his motivation. I could finally make a coherent thesis.
Q: What motivated you to pursue this research?
A: It was an accident of serendipity. I never, ever expected to be an art collector, let alone sell off most of my assets to buy 500-plus-year-old pieces of paper to find the truth. It was a puzzle I quickly realized no one had found and I was on a treasure hunt to solve it, because in my ignorance, I thought that the world would be thrilled to know the truth and that there’s nothing greater than solving a puzzle. Boy, was I wrong! I truly believed for a long time what historians had
said about Dürer being one of Christianity’s greatest artists and I knew I had to exhaust every avenue I could think of to interpret Dürer’s art as Christian.
The ramifications of identifying Dürer’s art as Jewish are many and significant, for Dürer’s real story truly rewrites history as we know it, including our Jewish history as we believe it. It was only when I had exhausted every avenue to interpret the Dürer Code as Christian that I had to turn to Judaism, very begrudgingly, but I had no choice: the data just didn’t fit with a Christian perspective. I told one of my mentors, Beth McKweon, who is not Jewish, how afraid I was to go down this path; I knew it was treacherous because there are so many historians who have a vested interest in keeping the myth alive, and there’s much money still being made off the Dürer myth around the world today. Dürer was Hitler’s favorite artist. Beth said that she found it fascinating if Dürer turned out to be Jewish and to go for it, go after the truth, and she kept pointing me to Jewish sources. I am forever indebted to her for her faith, her interest, and her uncanny skill in print selection as one of my primary print dealers.
For two or three of the last five years, I actively attended education courses with Rabbi Shaya Gopin at Chabad House in West Hartford, because I realized that, for my research, I needed to know how Orthodox Jews thought 500 years ago, what their traditions were, and what the Jewish clues were in Dürer’s art that had to be understood.
Q: How did you conduct your research? Were you able to examine all of Durer’s so-called “Jewish prints?”
A: I don’t own most of the “Jewish prints” because they are so expensive; for example, a great print of “Adam and Eve” sells at auction for more than $1 million. I’m now a semi-retired middle-class person who sold off my safety for the passion of this story. I was lucky to acquire “Melencolia” early. Dürer made 335 graphic prints, and “The Diary,” AKA “The Dürer Cipher,” is a subset of 55 to 60 prints. The print known as “Nemesis,” which Dürer named in German “NemisIN,” is his Jewish grandmother Elisabeth. The historians never noted the rings on the woman’s fingers, which turn out to be Jewish wedding rings. My point is that because I don’t own most of the Jewish prints, it was extremely hard to bring out the Jewish perspective in the Gustavus Adolphus College exhibition and will remain so.
The truth about Dürer lies in technology and how humans employ technology, not the stories about religion and war or nationalistic dogma. That’s how archaeologists piece together the past – analyzing technology, the mundane use of tools. In the end, that’s where I found the truth: in the technology of the Renaissance, not the myth of the religious strife at that time, or even about Jewish pogroms. I had to follow the money, not the art, because nothing has changed. This story is so similar to the debacle leading up to the financial collapse of 2008, it’s uncanny. Art historians follow the art historians follow the history myths that those in power perpetuate, but no one looks at the trail of money of technological innovations in relation to art or how they influenced art – except the art historian, Michael Baxandall. That’s where I’m different, and it made all the difference in the world.
Q: According to your findings, what motivated Dürer to take the tack he did?
A: It was the printing press that changed all — the first Internet. And it was Anton Koberger, Dürer’s godfather, the Rupert Murdoch of his time, who engineered this conspiracy against the Jews, in which Dürer was caught as a pawn, and upon which the 46 ruling families of Nuremberg, known as the Patricians, piggybacked to consolidate their power. I believe that half these Patricians were also hidden Jews because they were mostly Hungarian and Bohemian cloth merchants who bought fake “titles’ from the King of Hungary, then fled west to Nuremberg to settle and make their fortunes. I had to take a humongous detour into analyzing what Koberger was doing economically, and no art historian would ever think to tread that path. For all that happened to us Jews in the Renaissance was a story of greed so profound that it changed our history, our customs, and our religion, and doomed us eventually to the Holocaust. Koberger had decided to publish the biggest book in the world, “The Nuremberg Chronicle.” A Latin version was printed in July 1493 and a German edition came out in December 1493. But he actually printed seven versions of this book over nine months. He had to start in 1486, because the manufacturing process took so long. What was monumental was that he was including 1,800 woodcut illustrations, which was unheard of at the time. Images are everything. His problem was finding a workforce to print and he just couldn’t find enough labor. So Dürer the goldsmith was reapprenticed in 1486 to Koberger’s subcontractor to become an artist and help make these images. The key to the mystery was logistics, something as simple as toll roads. People were not allowed to travel freely in the region; if they wanted to get from A to B, they had to travel prescribed routes. It just so happened that one of the bottlenecks to get to Hungary was Nuremberg, so one had to travel through Nuremberg to get to Hungary safety. Koberger counted on this. The printing time for “The Nuremberg Chronicle” was 1491 to early 1493 and Koberger was even doing just-in-time manufacturing. The Jews were expert printers and book binders and woodblock cutters – the Jews actually invented the printing press in 1441, but that fact is buried under the myth of Gutenberg – so what did Koberger do when he controlled the printing presses? He printed antisemitic broadsheets and spread them throughout Germany, France, and Italy. The European pogroms against the Jews in 1491 and 1492 were not because of some sudden rabid religious fanaticism. They were planned by Koberger. And how would Jews during that time survive? They fled towards Hungary, where the King of Hungary offered them safety.
It was perfect and so under the radar. Here are all these talented Jews fleeing towards Hungary, but they were forced to travel via Nuremberg. And they were starving. So Koberger gets his labor force. Then a syphilis epidemic hits Europe in 1493, and Nuremberg from 1496 to1498, making the Jews even more valuable. By the way, the Jews were the pawnbrokers and money system to almost everyone, which made them even more economically valuable in the economic system. Nurembergers actually “loved” their Jews, for the Nuremberg Jews also controlled the cattle trade and Nuremberg was dependent on outside agricultural resources. But the Patricians had other plans: they were making so much money in the New World and in Europe, they actually had enough money to become the new bankers and desperately wanted to do so. Except the Holy Roman Emperor “owned” the Jews legally and protected them. So the Patricians had to buy off the Emperor and succeeded in getting him to agree to expel the Jews – another true Exodus – in 1496. That’s where Dürer was used as a pawn of propaganda, to make “The Apocalypse” in order to incite the final antisemitism that was necessary.
If it wasn’t for this insidious conspiracy and the lack of contact with Jews for 300 years in Germany, the Holocaust couldn’t have happened. “The Nuremberg Chronicle”’s publishing and manufacturing requirements were the real cause of the consolidation of Eastern European Jewry.
It was against this backdrop that Albrecht Dürer, pawn and hidden Jew, was made the weapon of mass destruction against his own people, for Dürer had to publish “The Apocalypse” or his family would face deportation, torture, or death. The Dürer family knew they couldn’t stop the expulsion of the Jews, and they even knew that their true history was going to be erased. How to survive? Encode the story in the art, for that was their only weapon, and their only chance to get the truth to survive. Except you had to be very careful, and they were. “The Dürer Cipher” breaks down into a Memorbuch [memory book] and revenge upon the villains. The Durers, Jews, won, because Dürer’s art has baffled all – until now.
Q: You write that “Albrecht Dürer, Jew, used his art as a weapon against his enemies.” As an art historian, can you point to other Jewish artists who used their art in this way? Arthur Szyk comes to mind.
A: I have no knowledge of any artist who actually did anything like what Dürer did, although there was an intriguing article I read recently by two neuroscientists who claim to have found evidence in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel art of human anatomical evidence embedded in some of the figures, which only could have been known from dissection, which the Church would have considered heretical. But that would point more to Michelangelo’s arrogance and has nothing to do with Judaism.
Szyk’s art is overt; it’s clearly aimed as propaganda against Jewish enemies and depicting the unrelenting march of evil. The genius of what Dürer did was to use his artistic skill to get his messages out in his world through deception and disguise and that he consistently employed this methodology throughout his lifetime in the art, allowing him to interrelate compositions. He invented a true symbolic “language” of his own design that is consistent across the prints that make up “The Diary” – a real cipher.
Another ingenious technique was to use Hungarian and Jewish symbols that could be mistaken for Italian symbols, to avoid detection. In “The Apocalypse,” he additionally deceives by cleverly omitting the overt “Christian” parts of the story, and substitutes Jewish symbols and themes – specifically, the theme of Exodus, for that was what was implemented on the Jews of Nuremberg specifically and in the rest of Germany: expulsion and exodus.
The code I found hidden in the neckline of the woman portrayed in “The Promenade” is indisputable as an embedded code. The Latin word “Noricas,” which means a “woman from Hungary” is combined with other symbols, which I had to decipher. It cannot be seen with the naked eye but could be seen with a magnifying glass, if one was looking for it. The whole design of that composition – the fact that the woman is wearing an illegal dress according to the Nuremberg clothing laws, which everyone would have recognized at the time as illegal – was one technique Dürer employed to indicate that others should peer closer at his art to find the messages.
The deceptions in his art would have allowed him to sell to his enemies and everyone upon whom he wanted to take revenge, without their knowledge, and still get his messages out to those whom he wanted to inform.
Ultimately, he did exact revenge against his personal enemies and the enemies of the Jews, in these ways:
In “The Apocalypse,” he took revenge against the 17 Nuremberg Patrician families who had built their mansions on desecrated Jewish land. In 1349, when the Black Death hit Nuremberg, there was a major pogrom against the Nuremberg Jews. At that point, the government, known as the City Council, and controlled by 46 Patrician families, burned and confiscated the entire Jewish area of the city, destroying the synagogue, the mikvah, the school, and the cemetery. Upon the site of the destroyed synagogue, they built a church known as the Frauenkirche (Our Lady’s Church), which still stands today. The rest of the land got sold off or gifted to some of these Patrician families, who built their mansions. So within “The Apocalypse,” Dürer enshrines the biggest scandals and humiliations of these families as revenge.
Additionally, the Nuremberg populace actually liked their Jews and was economically dependent upon them. There is much evidence reflecting the leniency of the laws regarding the Jews. Knowing “The Apocalypse” would be used as propaganda to incite fear among the Christian Nuremberg populace against the Jews so that their expulsion would not incite economic panic, and that he would be the weapon of mass destruction against his own people, Dürer embeds the story of Exodus in the art.
In “The Memorbuch,” Dürer appears to realize that the history of his entire family will be destroyed by his enemies. Therefore, as a Jew, he is obligated to survive in any way possible and to remember. Thus he enshrines his entire family in his art so that his family will achieve immortality, survive, and be remembered.
Dürer is particular in his enmity for those who were involved and responsible for the expulsion of the Jews. He takes revenge upon these people by enshrining their biggest scandals and humiliations in the art, including the Emperor Maximilian, who signed the writ of expulsion. In “The Event” pictures, Dürer tells us about momentous events in his life, most of which have to do with being a hidden Jew. In the “Saint Jerome” illustrations, artists created saint pictures to make money, because that’s what the market demanded. However, Dürer focused on making many prints of St. Jerome, specifically. What no one realized then is that Dürer hated St. Jerome, and encodes his hatred for St. Jerome in his prints. Why?
St. Jerome is famous for translating the Christian bible into the vernacular, the “Latin Vulgate.” However, the Jews of the time argued with Jerome that his translation of the Hebrew was faulty and Jerome got into a famous argument with St. Augustine about his faulty translations. Dürer consistently tells about his opinion of St. Jerome, that Jerome fraudulently translated the Hebrew, and in his prints he represents St. Jerome as “crooked” and “sly and false.” His famous “St. Jerome in His Study” is one of these. No historian ever posited an explanation about why there’s a huge gourd in the foreground of that composition. That’s what the argument with St. Augustine was about: the faulty translation of the word for gourd from the Hebrew.
Q: What do your findings mean to the art world and to the Jewish people?
A: Today we are all inundated with so much horrific truth that we can quickly lose interest in its meaning to us, especially as Jews, and most people don’t pay attention to our history in the Middle Ages. What overwhelmed me as I found Dürer’s motivation and his need to make this code and hide it in the art, was that I realized that the evidence was pointing to the probable “tipping point” of what actually had been the beginning of the demise of the Jews in Europe, inexorably leading to the Holocaust, and it wasn’t religious persecution.
Most of Europe in the Middle Ages liked their Jews, because they filled extremely important economic functions within the society, and the Jews were mostly tolerated well in most countries most of the time. Any pogrom was terrible, but the actual frequency and amount of Jewish death and destruction was smaller than we think. The Jews survived and survived because Europe needed their Jews and needed them badly.
The Holy Roman Emperors, who held legal title to the Jews, and could prevent their destruction, did so most of the time – until the invention of the printing press. I am now of the belief that the Holocaust couldn’t have happened as it did, were it not for the truth of the whole Dürer story.
As for the art world, it looks like art history has to be rewritten in regards to Dürer and I would imagine this will significantly change how museums stage future Dürer exhibitions and how art collectors value Dürer’s art.
Q: How will Dürer, in your words “be ‘repatriated’ to the Jews and the Hungarians”?
A: Dürer is Germany’s most famous artist by accident of birthplace. But what Dürer’s “Cipher” tells us is that what was most important to Dürer himself was his ancestry, both national and religious. It appears that the family is of Khazar descent and this is the source of their Jewishness, as Dürer’s father emigrated to Nuremberg from Bihar/Grosswardein, one of the known major Khazar centers. Dürer consistently “proclaims” in “The Diary” prints that the family is Hungarian nobility and they are Jewish.
It was important to try to determine whether the converso Dürer family secretly practiced Judaism or not. We will never be able to know that but the Jewish symbols, some rather esoteric, that Dürer uses indicates a deep understanding of Judaism and Jewish symbolism and not a cursory knowledge that could have been gained by mere contact with Jews.
The interesting problem is that Jewishness descends from the mother, Barbara. We only have two dependable facts of the mother’s ancestry: her coat of arms that Dürer painted himself on the back of his father’s 1490 portrait, and another painting that indicates that the Dürer family was already related to his wife’s family, the Freys, via the Patrician family of Haller, through marriage prior to Dürer’s marriage. The rest of the myth about Barbara is unsupportable and is probably fraudulent.
Barbara’s coat of arms is an animal called a Chamois, a goat-antelope, native only to Switzerland and the Carpathian Mountain region, which includes Slovenia. It remains to definitively identify her true ancestry, but the evidence points to either Switzerland, Slovenia, or an area of the Kingdom of Hungary probably near Slovenia. I am still researching Barbara’s lineage and I welcome all help from anyone interested.
When Dürer proclaims in the art that he is Hungarian nobility, of the Order of the Dragon, a chivalric order founded by the Hungarian King Sigismund in 1408, we have to remember that the Kingdom of Hungary was vast. It included what is now Hungary, Bohemia, Czech, Slovakia, Slovenia, Moravia, Wallachia, Transylvania, and Rumania – I may have left out a few areas – so all peoples descended from these areas would be included in the “repatriation.”
What I mean by “repatriation” is this: Albrecht Dürer can no longer be claimed solely as Germany’s most famous artist, nor can he be claimed to be Germany’s most famous Christian artist. Yes, the majority of Dürer’s art is Christian-themed, but that’s a result of economics: he had to sell, and it was primarily a Christian buying market. There is a tremendous amount of his oeuvre that is Jewish- and Hungarian-themed; most of the paintings on the back of canvases of famous paintings are all Jewish Old Testament stories.
However, now that we know that what was most important to Dürer was his Hungarian nobility and his Jewishness, and that he enshrined this in his art, Dürer is no longer just a German Christian artist. He is now one of the most famous artists of those descended from the Kingdom of Hungary and the Jews of the world as well. And thus peoples from the Kingdom of Hungary and Jews everywhere can be proud that Dürer risked all in paying homage to his ancestry and they can also claim Dürer.
Q: How will you proceed with this new information?
A: Now the hard work begins. Another museum exhibition is scheduled for 2012, and we’re about to begin making a documentary. I’ll be completing my book, “Crimes in the Art; The Secret Cipher of Albrecht Dürer” and will be looking for a publisher. I will be writing articles for magazines.
There are still many explicit and hidden codes that I haven’t been able to unravel in prints and especially in some of Dürer’s paintings. The genealogy of his mother, Barbara, has to be verified, as that will explain some of the still-outstanding clues. I welcome everyone’s help in this search.
There’s also the distinct possibility of living descendants of Albrecht and Margret Dürer, his sister. Dürer died childless by his wife but the prints tell us that one of his two illegitimate sons survived him. His sister Margret had an illegitimate child, who apparently was placed with Jews to be raised. So the search for these possible living descendants can begin.
Hopefully, Jewish scholars will now be able to firmly expand on Dürer’s role in Jewish history. No one person like myself can find all the answers and I invite everyone who is fascinated with finding the truth to join me in this effort and to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.