On at least two occasions late in his career, Albrecht Dürer arranged for Nuremberg artisans to render his likeness on a commemorative medal. Two surviving medals –one fashioned by Hans Schwarz in 1520 and another by Matthes Gebel in 1527– represent not only Dürer’s efforts at documenting his likeness for posterity, but also Dürer’s knowledge of the medium’s possibilities for enabling and affecting social mobility.
At the turn of the sixteenth century, Nuremberg’s status as a free imperial city within the Holy Roman Empire made it both a center for the production of luxury objects and a nexus of political and intellectual life. The city’s status often allowed the former to enable the latter. Medals, plaques, and other metallic objects produced at the Nuremberg workshops of Schwarz and Gebel were in high demand at the time of the production of Dürer’s medal portraits. However, aside from a small number of catalog entries and reviews of select medals and coins in private collections, the social dimensions of portrait medals from this time and place remain largely unexplored.
In its examination of Schwarz’s and Gebel’s workshop practices, humanistic aspirations, and social connections, this article aims to arrive at a better understanding of the relationship between Nuremberg medalists and their patrons –and that relationship’s bearing on the social mobility of a Nuremberger such as Dürer– at the start of the sixteenth century.
Aside from a small number of catalog entries and reviews of select medals and coins in private collections, the social dimensions of portrait medals from this time and place remain largely unexplored. Georg Habich’s 1906 study of German medals remains a canonical one. Maximilian Martens has written on the social self-representation of artists in the Low Countries of the fifteenth century. Johann-Christian Klamt has discussed artisan self-portraiture in relation to social status in northern Europe.
Regarding German portrait medals specifically, William Milliken has written of the large demand from the burghers of Augsburg and Nuremberg throughout the sixteenth century, and of the tremendous competition among medalists in that time for burghers’ commissions. Jeffrey Chipps Smith has written on the iconographic and social origins of portrait medals in southern Germany, discussing the roles of humanists Konrad Peutinger and Willibald Pirckheimer, artisans Hans Burgkmair and Hans Schwarz, and the emulation of Italian and Imperial Roman models in the development of the portrait medals.
Social mobility in northern Europe took multiple forms, one of the most prominent in the scholarly literature being education. In the late medieval and early modern periods, university education was both a means and an agent of social mobility. Education was a means of mobility in that it allowed entry into a specific professional field –such as law or medicine– which brought one financial benefits.
Education was also an agent of mobility in that it allowed one greater prestige within a specific social sphere. Such prestige in turn often stemmed from social performance. Between 1570 and 1620, for instance, the city of Prague accorded the rector of its university the power to promote teachers to positions in larger cities based on their performance.