The hidden messages of a Renaissance master

The Young Couple Threatened by Death (The Promenade), 1498 is one of the Durer pictures in which Elizabeth Garner found hidden codes
Image courtesy MAGJEKL Collection, Elizabeth Maxwell-Garner

Considered one of the greats of his time, Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer created iconic engravings and woodcuts in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. It turns out the story behind the collection is as fascinating as the pictures themselves.

Works by Durer are currently on display on the campus of Gustavus Adolphus College in St Peter.

In the Hillstrom Museum at Gustavus Adolphus, Director Don Myers just takes it in.

"Forty-three Durer prints in one spot," said Myers. "It's not very often that you find that."

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Donald Meyers
Donald Myers is director of the Hillstrom Museum of Art at Gustavus Adolphus in St. Peter.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

And this is what Myers sees every day when he comes in to work.

"It's nerve-wracking," he admits. "I always check around and make sure nothing has gone awry. But we have a very good security system and so I really don't have to worry, and it's just thrilling really."

And they are stunning for their simple beauty and intricate detail, realistic with the black ink and white paper crisp and fresh despite being 500 years old.

Durer lived from 1471 to 1528 in Nuremberg, Germany. He portrayed everything from biblical scenes to images of contemporary life. His drawing of praying hands is still commonly found in places of worship today.

Myers says almost all of the images in the Hillstrom were actually hand-engraved on copper plates or carved on wooden blocks, and then carefully printed.

Melencholia is riddled with clues. Elizabeth Garner says Durer believed in hiding things in plain sight. The magic square in the top-right corner is not something to be solved as much as it is a clue that the entire picture is a puzzle.
Image courtesy MAGJEKL Collection, Elizabeth Maxwell-Garner

"Imagine doing that yourself, and how crude that image would look," Myers said. "Nothing like this. This is so refined. It's incredible."

The show includes many of Durer's most celebrated works: his images of the Apocalypse, and a print of the mysterious "Melencholia." Which brings us to the other story in this room, that of Elizabeth Garner.

"I hope she won't mind me telling this. She told a story about how she sold a '63 Corvette in order to be able to buy this print. To me that just signals that devotion and that obsession."

"The birth of this collection was basically March 6, 2005," says Garner.

"She sold a '63 Corvette in order to be able to buy this print. To me that just signals that devotion and that obsession."

Garner didn't set out to collect Renaissance prints. She just signed up for an art class. After a long career in computer development and shortly after her husband died, she took a drawing course. She turned up late one day and missed the name of the artist who the teacher had them copy as an assignment.

"I had no idea that I was copying Albrecht Durer," she said. "And so I was doing this, and doing this, and had no idea Albrecht Durer was imprinting on my brain."

It was only after she found herself strangely attracted to a print she saw, and bought, at an auction that she learned the artist's identity.

After buying another Durer print soon after, she plunged into learning everything she could about Durer's life and times. Yet she was puzzled by the unlikely subjects Durer chose sometimes for his prints. Common sense would suggest they'd sell poorly.

"I just knew that I was seeing something different and I knew it was a puzzle," she said. "And I set out to crack the puzzle."

One day, looking at a print called "The Young Couple Threatened by Death (The Promenade)" something struck her.

Elizabeth Garner noticed the word 'Noricas' hidden in the neckline of the woman's dress, which she said is a reference to Durer's Hungarian roots.
Image courtesy MAGJEKL Collection, Elizabeth Maxwell-Garner

"I said 'The woman is wearing an illegal dress,' because they had very strict laws in Nuremberg about what anybody could wear. I said, 'It's an illegal dress and everybody is going to know it's an illegal dress. I don't understand why he wasn't arrested for making this particular type of print.' "

She decided Durer wanted people to really look at the dress and that's when she noticed a word hidden in the neckline.

"I couldn't understand how nobody else had found it," she said. "But it turned out it was supposed to be me."

It was a coded reference to Durer's origins. Soon she was finding other clues hidden in other Durer's, she just had to work out what they meant.

It's like the Da Vinci Code, just without Da Vinci, she said.

She bought print after print, cross-referencing what she found with contemporary accounts of life in Nuremberg. Finally she says she understood what Durer had hidden in his pictures, and why he could sell them.

The Prodigal Son
Garner believes "The Prodigal Son" is a reference to the Nuremburg City Council's decision to expel local Jews from the town. She says each of the pigs represent specific council members.
Image courtesy MAGJEKL Collection, Elizabeth Maxwell-Garner

"When I finally realized they were about scandals, it was like 'Yeah! OK! Well, this is basically like the National Enquirer.' "

The people of Nuremberg understood the allusions to the high and mighty in their town, she said. Durer also left clues about his mother and sister who helped him in his work.

Garner lectures on her theories at Gustavus on Sunday afternoon. She'll then lead a gallery tour at the Hillstrom on Monday evening.

Standing in front of Garners collection, the Hillstrom's Don Myers knows some art historians will disagree with Garner's theories.

"And then again you just think I don't care about that at this moment because it's so amazing to look at," he said.

After all, how many of us are greeted by 43 Renaissance masterpieces when we go into work?