Death on a Donkey woodcut by Albrecht Dürer in Sebastian Brant’s ‘Das Narrenschiff’

Guest blogpost by Olivia Moloney, joint junior honours student in History and History of Art on placement in Special Collections. Olivia has been working to improve the descriptive tagging of our Glasgow Incunabula Project images on image sharing site, Flickr.

Death on a donkey woodcut (page n8v) in Brant, Sebastian: Das Narrenschiff [Latin]. 1498. Sp Coll Hunterian Bw.3.9.

Death on a donkey woodcut (page n8v) in Brant, Sebastian: Das Narrenschiff [Latin]. 1498. Sp Coll Hunterian Bw.3.9.

I was given an amazing opportunity by the History of Art Methodology course to complete a work placement at the Special Collections of the University of Glasgow Library as part of my degree. The placement involved working on the social media site Flickr, improving the descriptive tags of 150 digitised images of incunabula, these are early books which were printed with movable type during the fifteenth century. The purpose of this task was to help people more easily find and learn from these fascinating early books.

Whilst working on this I came across a particular incunabulum that caught my eye; a translation of the humourist and satirist, Sebastian Brant’s Das Narrenschiff, or The Ship of Fools, 1498. This was an extremely popular allegory with origins in Plato; it featured a lot in Western arts in the early modern period. The satirical allegory contains a ship full of fools who are steering a ship heading for Narragonia, the fool’s paradise. However, as the text progresses this allegory widens to involve a general description of more than a 100 types of fool; such as drunkards, sensuous women, corrupt monks and priests, and criminals. In satirising so many, Brant’s aspiration was to encourage improved morality of his fellow people and to promote the church and empire.

Albrecht Dürer played a very important role in Brant’s Das Narrenschiff as he was one of the illustrators of the series of woodcuts accompanying the text. The artist from Nuremburg worked on this series in Basel from 1492 to 1494, where he was associated with various eminent members of the book trade. It was his time spent there that was crucial to the artist’s development as a printmaker heavily engaged with the printing press.

I was most interested in a page including Dürer’s woodcut of Death on a donkey. Today, the artist’s prints are renowned for their allegorical powers and Death on a donkey is no less complex. The woodcut involves a donkey having a horseshoe fitted by a blacksmith, and the pair are facing a dwelling; upon the donkey sits a backwards facing skeleton representing death. It potentially suggests many different things; one Freudian psychoanalytical interpretation denotes that the skeleton represents the ‘death drive’¹. As Sigmund Freud explained, the death drive is an impelling force towards ‘death, self-destruction and to a state of inanimateness’². This metaphor is furthered by the fact the skeleton is seated on a donkey, goading it with his bone. Death is depicted facing backwards because it is supposed to represent a person’s desire to return to this place of non-existence and, in this respect, the skeleton could be seen to be moving backwards rather than forwards. Consequently, the smith could be seen to be driving the donkey forwards towards civilization in an attempt to modify and redirect the death drive.

Overall, the high level of complexity in the narrative of this particular print, and others, was important in order to better understand the allegorical content in Brant’s Das Narrenschiff. One could argue that Dürer’s intricate understanding of Brant’s text reveals that the artist worked very closely with Brant, perhaps under his direct guidance and instruction.


¹”Explanation Of Durer Woodcut”. 2016. <accessed 30/03/16>

²  Sigmund Freud, “The Ego and the Id”, in On Metapsychology (Middlesex, 1987), p. 380

Categories: Special Collections

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