The Monster of Cracow: Monstrous Births as Portents during the Reformation

Keywords: Monstrous Births, Portents, Reformation

The monstrous birth resembling a demon with faces embedded in its body become known as the Monster of Cracow, after its birthplace in 1547. The image of the monstrous birth was reproduced in multiple prints. It appeared in Jacob Rüeff’s (1500-1558) De conceptu et generatione hominis, (‘On the Conception and Generation of Man’) (1554), a midwives handbook by the German surgeon. A follower of Martin Luther, he moved to Zurich where his publication became required reading for midwives. A second edition was created and reprinted in Frankfurt in 1580 with more sophisticated woodcuts by Jost Amman (P.M. Dunn 2001, p. 222). In both editions, on the chest of the monstrous birth are the heads of a sheep and a wolf facing each other. In this way, this motif recalls the passage in Matthew 7.15-16 of wolves in sheep’s clothing, a popular motif during the Reformation. The dog heads on his elbows and knees and eyes on his body is in the same way the Devil was frequently portrayed during this period, thus a negative meaning was clearly intended. It was also depicted nude in order to show its physical deformity for the same reason that demons were often depicted nude, revealing their hybrid and animalistic physiques. Its long-hooked tail, fiery eyes and long-hooked nose further gave the monstrous birth a demonic appearance (Strickland 2003, p. 64, 77-8).

Jost Amman, ‘Monster of Cracow’ in Jacob Rüeff, De conceptu et generatione hominis, Frankfurt: Sigmund Feyerabend, 1580,
Staats und Stadtbibliothek Augsburg
Originally published in 1554

Reproductions of the print appeared in several texts including some editions of Sebastian Münster’s Cosmographia (1550), Conrad Lycosthenes’ (Conrad Wolffhart 1518-61) Prodigiorum ac Ostentorum Chronicon (‘Chronicle of Prodigies and Portents’) (1557), and Job Fincel’s (1526/30-89) Wunderzeichen mit figuren (‘Wonder Signs’) (1557). The print appearing in Münster and Lycosthenes, where the wolf and sheep’s heads would have been, are instead the heads of monkeys. An earlier broadsheet of the monster from 1543 also had faces that appear more human. This could be the original source for later adaptations, thus it was Rüeff’s text that deliberately changed the image to reflect a Protestant message. In Lycosthenes’ Prodigiorum ac Ostentorum Chronicon, the humanoid figure was described as having:

Glowing, fiery eyes, mouth and nose were like an ox’s, which went out front like a horn, on its back it had hair like a dog, and where the breasts or nipples should be there were monkey heads, and cat eyes in the waist. At the elbows it had dog’s heads which showed their teeth, the same at the knees; geese feet, and going out from the hands it had a spur and long claws; the same way the hands also were broad like gees or duck’s feet. In back it had an upright standing tail, one “Elle” (an arm’s length, about 24 inches) long with a scorpion hook.

(trans. Gerda Dinwiddie)
Unknown Artist, ‘Monster of Cracow ’, in Conrad Lycosthenes, Wunderwerck, oder Gottes unergründtliches vorbilden, durch Johann Herold…(Prodigiorum ac Ostentorum Chronicon.),Basel: Henricus Petri, 1557, p. dvij
The Warburg Institute

There are also variations on its birth story. Rüeff believed that the monstrous birth was due to the sin of sodomy by the mother. In contrast, Lycosthenes described the parents as ‘honourable, brave, honest’. Instead of the blame falling upon the individual parents, it was used as a collective sign of the degeneracy of society and a reminder that the last judgement was near. It was said to have died four hours after it was born and warned of the coming of Christ, emphasising its role as a portent. The description was directly followed by several disasters including a swarm destroying pastures, expansion of the Turks, and further wars and death within Europe.

This image of the monstrous birth also featured on the front-piece to Lycosthenes’ wonder book with images of monstrous births, earthquakes, comets and war in frames surrounding an image of Christ in a centre circle. Frames directly surrounding Christ illustrate his conception, death, resurrection and ascension, highlighting his divinity. Together, the collection of prints show that these events were divine signs that the Last Judgement was near. This could explain why the text by Lycosthenes characterised the parents as honourable, to emphasise its role as a portent. However, Amman’s print in Rüeff’s text makes the intention clear that the false prophet in which it is referring to is the Catholic Church given the use of the wolf and sheep motif’s historical context.

Conrad Lycosthenes’ Prodigiorum ac Ostentorum Chronicon is a compilation of all manner of monstrous creatures and natural wonders from antiquity until the sixteenth century with over 1,500 woodcuts. It includes monstrous births, earthquakes, meteorites, monstrous races, wild men and women. In chronicle order, the text does not attempt to analyse trends, which is left up to the reader. However, monstrous events usually occurred before crucial battle (Warner 2006, p. 99). The work was condemned by the Catholic Council of Trent, as it was also a critique of the papacy by its Protestant author. Regardless of its criticism, the German edition of this text was extremely popular.

Bibliography:

Bates, Alan W. Emblematic Monsters: Unnatural Conceptions and Deformed Births in Early Modern Europe, Amsterdam, UK: Rodopi, 2005.

Dunn, P.M. ‘Jacob Rueff (1500-1558) of Zurich and The expert midwife,’ Archives of Disease in Childhood., vol. 85, issue 3, 2001, pp. 222-224.

Spinks, Jennifer, Monstrous Births and Visual Culture in Sixteenth-Century Germany, London: Brookfield, Vt: Pickering & Chatto, 2009, pp. 92-104.


Strickland, Debra Higgs, Saracens, Demons, & Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.


Marina Warner, Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphors, And Media Into the Twenty-first Century, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006

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