THE DÜRER STAIN
In 1503, northern Germany witnessed a series of aerial portents, including blood rains and the appearance of cruciform shapes on the bodies of witnesses. JEFFREY VALLANCE recounts how one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance was on hand to record th
In 1503, northern Germany witnessed a series of aerial portents, including blood rains and the appearance of cruciform shapes on the bodies of witnesses. JEFFREY VALLANCE recounts how one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance was on hand to record these wonders.
Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) witnessed a double fortean event in 1503, in his hometown of Nuremberg: a rain of blood causing a crucifixion scene to form on the clothes of a young girl. The artist made a careful drawing of this simulacrum in his sketchbook.
One of the most important and prolific artists of the German Renaissance, Dürer established his reputation and influence as a skilled painter and for his remarkable woodcut prints. His vast body of work also includes engravings, altarpieces, portraits and self-portraits, watercolours, and books. His most celebrated work, The Apoca
lypse ( Apocalypsis cum Figuris, 1498), is a series of 15 woodcut print scenes from the Book of Revelation. These prints feature such characters as the Four Horsemen, the Lamb of God, the Whore of Babylon, the Seven-Headed Beast of the Apocalypse, devils, saints and angels. In four of the prints, Dürer depicts rains of blood and fire; prescient, as a few years later he would be an eyewitness to these phenomena. The Apocalypse woodcuts echoed the anxieties of the times, when prophecies of impending doom circulated widely throughout Europe. With these woodcuts, Dürer did something that no artist had done before, producing them on his own and without a wealthy patron. He made large quantities of these prints and sold them at carnivals and fairs – he was the Thomas Kinkade of his day! He sent one full set of prints to Martin Luther.
BLOOD RAINS AND MIRACULOUS CROSSES
Around the year 1500, a series of bad omens stirred up apocalyptic fervour. The ominous signs included a planetary conjunction, a comet, rumours of war, monstrous births, repeated outbreaks of the plague, and rains of blood. The occurrence of blood rain (or red rain) has been reported since ancient times. The first literary instance is in Homer’s
Iliad, in which Zeus sends a rain of blood foretelling impending slaughter in battle. Many have speculated as to the true cause of these sanguineous precipitations. Some explanations suppose that the rain mixes with particles in the atmosphere, like sand from the Sahara Desert or dust from the Arabian peninsula; blood from migratory birds (quails or swallows) that were torn to bits in a violent wind; material from outer space, including exploding meteors or from the tail of a comet; masses of panspermia (micro- scopic life forms that can survive for years in a dormant state and can be propagated through outer space from one location to another); volcanic ash (tephra) from an erupting volcano; butterfly droppings; vulture vomit; iron oxide; assorted pollens; and, the most recently favoured explanation, aerial spores from microalgæ. The experts can’t agree on how it occurs or which species of algæ produce the reddish colour; under the microscope, the particles look like corpuscles or vegetable cells and have been identified
variously as Hæmatococcus pluvialis, Palmella prodigiosa, Protococcus fluvialis or Trentepohlia annulata. Charles Fort was not convinced by any of the standard explanations. Instead, in The Book of the Damned, he suggests that it could be “debris from inter-planetary disasters... Or that there are oceans of blood somewhere in the sky... Or our whole solar system is a living thing: that showers of blood upon this earth are its internal hæmorrhages.”
In 1503, a rain of blood reportedly fell on scores of people – mostly women – in Germany and the Netherlands, resulting in cruciform shapes forming on their clothing and skin. The phenomenon is known by two terms: Kreuzregen (Rain of Crosses) and Kreuzwunder (Miracle of the Crosses). It has been suggested that crosses formed when the stain spread out along the weave of the fabric in the clothing or in the recesses of elaborately folded headdresses ( Wulst
haube), popular with North European women at the time. The ancient St Lambert’s Cathedral in Liège preserved several Kreuzwunder cloth relics, until the structure was systematically destroyed and the relics ransacked during the French Revolution.
In Nuremberg that same year, a menacing comet glowed overhead as the plague raged through the city. Carts filled with corpses
In Nuremberg, a menacing comet glowed overhead as the plague raged
rumbled through the streets as blood poured from the sky, calling to mind a ghastly scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in which the Dead Collector character cries out: “Bring out your dead!” Dürer heard that blood rain had fallen on the clothes of his neighbour’s maid, forming a stain in the shape of an entire crucifixion scene. He at once sought her out and made an ink drawing of what he witnessed. He titled this drawing Miraculous Cross. In his Gedenkbuch (Memorial Book), Dürer wrote: “The greatest miracle that I have ever seen in all my days happened in 1503, when a great many crosses fell.” He went on to say the girl was beside herself weeping, fearing that she would surely die.
The symbol of the cross has always been a powerful totemic sign. Before the fourth century, Christians were extremely reticent about portraying the cross openly, as it might expose them to ridicule or danger. In AD 312, on the eve of battle, Roman Emperor Constantine allegedly saw a simulacrum in the shape of a chi-rho cross in the sky over the Sun with the Greek words Εν Τούτῳ Νίκα, usually translated into Latin as in hoc signo vinces – “in this sign conquer” (see FT275:49). The chi-rho symbol is formed by superimposing the first two letters XP of the Greek word ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ (Christos). The manifestation of Constantine’s vision sounds similar to the atmospheric phenomenon of a parhelion (“sun dog”) consisting of a bright spot next to the Sun, created when light is refracted through ice crystals in the air. This vision, we are told, caused Constantine to convert to Christianity and promote the cross as its symbol. From that time on, warring Christian nations have proclaimed that God is on their side. The Masonic military order of the Red Cross of Constantine still uses the chi-rho as its emblem. A red cross on a white field (termed the Cross of Saint George) is one of the earliest heraldic emblems, dating back to the field signs used during the Crusades to distinguish noble crusaders. The red-onwhite cross eventually came to be used by the Knights Templar. In 1190, the emblem was adopted as the crest of the City of London. In the flag used by Protestant churches – a white field with a red cross inside of a blue canton – the shade of red symbolises the blood of Jesus. The symbol of a red cross on a white background is also the logo of the International Red Cross. Under the Geneva Convention, it is to be placed on humanitarian and medical vehicles and buildings, and to be worn by personnel to protect them from military attack on the battlefield. In popular culture, the red cross became the generic emblem for medicine commonly associated with first aid and medical services. (More recently, an identical but green cross has been popularised as the sign for medical marijuana.) The symbol of a cross on a drop of blood is the logo for blood donation. The mascot for Red Cross blood drives is a huge smiling drop of blood with hands and feet saying, “Hi, I’m Billy Blood Drop, but you can call me Billy. My job is to tell you all about blood.” Conversely, the blood-drop-cross badge is the insignia of the heinous white supremacy group the Ku Klux Klan.
FIRE AND BLOOD
A wonderful woodcut printmaker and contemporary of Dürer, Jörg Glockendon, depicted the array of cruciate images that appeared during the Kreuzregen. The cross stain that Dürer documented was the most detailed Kreuzwunder ever seen, illustrating an entire crucifixion scene complete with ancillary figures. Traditionally, paintings of the crucifixion commonly feature theVirgin Mary standing on the right side of the cross while St John is positioned on the left. Other biblical figures gathered at the cross may include Mary Magdalene in a red cloak, the Roman centurion Longinus (who thrust the Holy Lance into the side of Christ), Joseph of Arimathea catching the blood of Christ in the Holy Grail, Nicodemus (who gave his burial crypt to Christ and helped wrap Him in the Holy Shroud), the sponge-bearer, the two thieves, and the soldiers casting lots at the foot of the Cross. Dürer’s crucifixion simulacrum appears to show Christ hanging limp on the Cross, with theVirgin in a praying stance standing to the left and Longinus holding a lance on the right. During the reign of the Kreuzwunder, other symbolism appeared, such as miraculous images of instruments of the Passion of Christ ( Arma Christi), including the holy hammer and nails, the whip, the crown of thorns, the lance, the sponge on a reed, the seamless garment, dice for casting of lots, the ladder, and the cock that crowed thrice.
It is curious to note that Dürer’s 1493 woodcut The Crucifixion with the Virgin and St John is almost identical to his Miraculous Cross drawn 10 years later. Each work depicts Christ hanging limply from a crucifix with a shortened stipe. TheVirgin (with halo) is praying on the left, while another holy personage stands on the right. When, in 1503, Dürer drew the stain, was he reproducing it exactly as he saw it, or was he subconsciously influenced by the composition of his own earlier drawing?
It was said that of the people who received the marks of the bloody crosses and passion symbols on their clothes during the Kreuzregen of 1503, the ones that worshipped the holy images were blessed, while those who cut the stains off their garments were struck dead by live venomous snakes that crawled out from the cloth. Moreover, if the red rain fell directly on exposed skin, the flesh burned like glowing coals. The Benedictine Monastery of Niederalteich kept a record of such events, noting that the burns caused severe injury that was at times fatal. The Book of Revelation predicts the Apocalypse will include a series of plagues befalling the Earth, including a rain of “fire mixed with blood”, comparable to the burning blood rain. The citizens of Nuremberg feared for their lives from these dreadful signs.
In subsequent searches for the meaning of the falling blood crosses, much emphasis has been put on the concurrent celestial conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in the constellation of Cancer. According to the astrological manuscripts of the early 16th century, the practice of assigning zodiacal signs to correlate with regions of the Earth aided in prognostication. To get to the crux of the matter, the Saturn-Jupiter conjunction foretold an impending invasion by the Ottoman Empire. A pamphlet published in Basel in 1503, written by Libertus, the Bishop Suffragan of Liège, entitled Interpretation and Significance of the Crosses That Are Now Falling ( Uslegung vñ Betütnus der Crutz so yetzo fallen), recounts a number of Kreuzwunderrelated phenomena. Libertus came to four conclusions: that the miraculous crosses must be solemnly venerated; that they are signs of God’s wrath against those who oppose the Church; and that God disapproved of provocative dress in women (who were frequently affected). Thus, with Constantine’s militaristic vision of the chi-rho cross directing Christian armies to “in this sign conquer,” Libertus concluded it was God’s will that war be waged against the Turks!
LEFT: Albrecht Dürer, in a 1498 self-portrait. FACING PAGE: One of the scenes from Dürer’s Apocalypse of the same year.
ABOVE: The Kreuzwunder of 1503 depicted on folio 90 of the Book of Miracles, published in Augsburg in 1552. BELOW LEFT: Dürer’s Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saint John, 1493. BELOW RIGHT: The page from Dürer’s Gedenkbuch with his ink drawing of the “greatest miracle that I have ever seen in all my days”.
ABOVE: Two woodcuts showing the bloody crosses and symbols of Christ’s passion that appeared on people’s bodies during the Kreuzregen.