Hercules and Albrecht Durer's das Meerwunder in a Chantbook from Renaissance Spain*

Article excerpt

Among the many classical and pagan subjects that proliferated in the secular and religious arts of late-Medieval and Renaissance Spain, few can rival the popularity of Hercules. (1) His likeness appears throughout the Iberian Peninsula on the facades of universities, palaces, and cathedrals, and in the ornamental work of retablos and choir stalls. (2) A lavishly decorated manuscript now at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University demonstrates that the famous hero of antiquity was also incorporated into such intimate spaces as the marginalia of Spanish chantbooks for the Mass. The first opening of the Beinecke manuscript (figs. 1 and 2), a nearly complete Kyriale containing all of the music necessary for singing the Mass Ordinary--the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei--depicts Hercules wrestling the Libyan giant Antaeus (fig. 3) and battling the dragon in the garden of the Hesperides (fig. 4): legendary feats carried out in the far reaches of the western world, often identified with Spain and its surroundings. (3) Curiously enough, nestled in between these two scenes from the life of Hercules we also find a splendid border painting modeled after Das Meerwunder (The Sea Monster), an engraving by Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) from ca. 1498 (figs. 5 and 6). (4)



The use of Durer's engraving as a model is significant here. For one, it provides us with a useful terminus ante quem non for the compilation of the Beinecke Kyriale--a manuscript that, judging from the overall style of decoration and script, was produced very close to the year 1500. But it also raises a challenging interpretive issue, for the subject of Durer's print has been much debated by scholars. His only known reference to the engraving is a diary entry of 24 November 1520, where he records that a "Meerwunder" was sold, along with an assortment of other artworks, at Antwerp for eight florins. Unfortunately, Durer's reference is fleeting, his thoughts apparently preoccupied by a sea monster of another sort. No sooner does his diary mention the engraving than it turns to ruminations on a great whale that had washed ashore on the coast of Zierikzee--one so large that citizens entertained the guess that "it could not be cut in pieces and boiled down for oil in half a year." (5)

Given the absence of any authoritative commentary beyond a name (and a very general one at that), the iteration of Das Meerwunder in the Beinecke Kyriale presents us with a valuable opportunity. For, if we have a reasonable understanding of the context in which it appears, this border painting might well provide us with what has been lacking thus far with respect to Durer's engraving: a contemporary reading or interpretation of its enigmatic subject. My argument toward that end is the focus of the latter part of this article. But before considering the meaning of the vignette based on Das Meerwunder in the Beinecke Kyriale, it is first necessary to know something of the chantbook itself, and, more importantly, the significance of the Hercules iconography that frames the image derived from Durer's engraving.




The Beinecke Kyriale forms part of a series of chantbooks that was commissioned by a wealthy and prestigious rosary confraternity of Toledo for the local Dominican convent of San Pedro Martir. (6) In addition to this largely intact book for the Mass Ordinary, nine leaves representing as many as nine volumes of a Gradual with music for the Mass Proper (the Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, or Tract, Offertory, and Communion) are now held among several major institutions throughout the United States: the Beinecke Library at Yale University, the Pierpont Morgan Library, the Detroit Public Library, and the Getty Museum (Table 1). (7) One leaf was last owned by the antiquarian book dealers Jorn Gunther and Bruce Ferrini; another currently hangs at a private home in New Haven, Connecticut. …