Wild Men and Heraldry

Keywords: Wild man, coat-of-arms, heraldry, Moor’s heads.

The wild man was frequently depicted holding a shield to indicate his combative nature, which may have led to his portrayal in the heraldic tradition to symbolise the protector of the family coat-of-arms (Davies, 2012, p. 68). The wild man featured in more than 200 coat-of-arms across Europe, most of which were in the German lands (Wiesner-Hanks, 2009, p. 35). They were particularly popular during the second-half of the fifteenth century (Bernheimer, 1952, p. 180). The wild man’s new role was brought about by the rise in Germanic nationalism, which inspired the new translation of Cornelius Tacitus’s Germania, describing wild people as the first proud inhabitants of the Germanic lands (Moseley-Christian, 2012, p. 431; Tacitus, 1999, p. 46). The wild man became a cultural emblem of Germany, associated with the romanticised version of ancient German tribes living simple and virtuous lives.

Roundel prints of coat-of-arms were likely used as templates for goldsmiths or glassmakers who would fill in the family crest (Wiesner-Hanks, 2009, p. 44). It has also been suggested that these roundels were used by the middle class to emulate the coat-of-arms of the nobility. The templates were used as a substitute for commissioned coat-of-arms. The shields were commonly decorated with an animal such as a hare, stag, lion, or hunting dog. Examples of these can be seen in the work of Martin Schongauer (c.1445-1491), who created ten heraldic roundels including wild men holding onto shields decorated with animals (Husband, 1980, p. 187). One shield created by Schongauer depicts a wild man holding onto two heraldic shields with an image of a hare on one and the other with a Moor’s head with a tortil tied around his head.

Martin Schongauer, Wild man holding two escutcheons with hare and moor’s head, 1481-1500,
Engraving, Diameter: 96 millimetres,
British Museum, London,
© The Trustees of the British Museum

The portrayal of Moor’s heads on coat-of-arms can suggest the owner’s involvement in slavery, however, this iconography did not always mean a connection to the slave trade or Africa (Lowe, 2013, pp. 45, 47). A small population of Africans were brought to Germany through the slave trade and their depiction in art and on coat-of-arms was not uncommon (Lowe, 2013, p. 53). Jean Devisse and Michel Mollat suggest their depiction on heraldic shields proliferated during the late fifteenth century, particularly in Nuremberg, on an ‘abstract note’ (Devisse and Mollat, 2010, pp. 238-40). However, they had also been used in a pejorative manner. The Moor’s head on the shield suggests that Africans were placed in the realm of animals rather than humanity as coat-of-arms predominately featured depictions of animals. This hierarchical perception of the world can be further seen on printed playing cards where the wild man and woman represent the king and queen of the animal realm (Husband, 1980, p. 167).

In Wild Woman and Heraldic Shield (c. 1490) by Martin Schongauer, a wild woman suckling her baby holds up a heraldic shield with an image of a fierce lion on it, a symbol of strength. The wild woman is reminiscent of the Madonna and child – the epitome of goodness, motherhood, and purity (Milliken, 2012, p. 163). This image reveals the redemption of women through childbirth for their responsibility for Original Sin (Genesis 3.16). She also serves as an emblem for fertility for the family whose shield she holds to ensure the family line.

Martin Schongauer, Wild Woman and Heraldic Shield, Colmar, c. 1490,
Engraving, 7.7 diam.
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The wild men on Hartmann Schedel’s more commonly known Nuremberg Chronicle’s title-page holds onto heraldic shields that were left blank so the owner could add their own coat-of-arms (Dackerman, 2002, p. 102). In a study of the provenance of nearly 250 copies of the Nuremberg Chronicle, it was found that they were mainly owned by ‘urban elites, secular clergy, and male religious communities’ (Green, 2003, p. iii). Therefore owners of the famous chronicle were mostly likely to be owned by the elite who had a family coat-of-arms. The wild men in this depiction are characterised as Turks with a wild man wearing a turban with feathers and the other with cloth tied around his head. The Turks in the Christian West were regarded as a ‘vicious civilisation’ and ‘Satan-inspired barbarians’ (Francisco, 2007, pp. 9-10). Perhaps they were regarded as symbols of strength or were used for the sheer purpose of novelty.

Michael Wolgemut and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff, Titlepage in Michael Wolgemut, Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493,

Albrecht Dürer’s Coat of Arms with a Skull, (1503) is an allegory based upon the wild man in the heraldic tradition. The wild man has wild and curly hair and a beard with a thick coat of hair covering his entire body. He attempts to seduce the young maiden who appears to have a coy look on her face and looks partial to his advances. The maiden is wearing a bridal headdress (Gilmore-House in Husband, 1980, p. 193). This could reference people dressing up as wild men in wedding festivities that recall the bachelor days of the groom (Gilmore-House in Husband, 1980, p. 195). In the heraldic tradition, the wild man can both symbolise fertility and a protector of the family of the coat-of-arms. But the skull on the shield suggests that this print serves more than a family heraldic function.

Albrecht Dürer, Coat of Arms with a Skull, 1503,
Engraving, 22.1 x 15.8 cm image,
The Met, New York

The ageing wild man evident from his whitened beard recalls images of ill-matched couples, with a young lady with a considerably older man. The shield in front of the couple with a skull appears to support this, which represents the meaninglessness of earthy pleasures in the face of impending death. The wings could further symbolise the swiftness of death (Gilmore-House in Husband, 1980, p. 195). The print also compares to the theme of ‘death and the maiden’ frequently depicted by artists such as Niklaus Manuel Deutsch, Hans Baldung (1484-1545), and Hans Sebald Beham (1500-1550) (Knöll, 2008, p. 9). Many images with this theme include symbols of vanitas to illustrate the transience of beauty such as Death holding an hour-glass. A skull is also a symbol of vanitas and suggests a moral message is intended by Dürer (Ferguson, 1959, p. 50). As Dürer’s etching is of a wealthy lady wearing a bridal headdress, the message could be referencing the temporary state of youth, love and wealth on earth as opposed to the natural state of the wild man. This theme is similarly played out in another print by Dürer, which is either entitled The Ravisher or Young Woman Attacked by Death.

On top of the shield is a helmet used for jousting with large wings and ornamental florid leaves streaming from it. This could illustrate the combative nature of the wild man. These elements are reproduced in a print by Dürer with a coat-of arms with a rooster with stretched-out wings standing on top of the helmet. These motifs are also quite common in German prints of heraldry by various artists and therefore may have no particular significance to this print and are thus ornamental.


Bernheimer, Richard, Wild Men in the Middle Ages: A Study in Art, Sentiment, and Demonology, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1952.

Davies, Surekha, ‘The Unlucky, the Bad and the Ugly: Categories of Monstrosity from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment,’ in Asa Mittman and Peter Dendle (eds.), The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous, Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2012, pp. 49-77.

Dackerman, Susan, Painted Prints: The Revelation of Color in Northern Renaissance and Baroque Engravings, Etchings, and Woodcuts, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002.

Devisse, Jean and Michel Mollat, ‘The African Transposed’, in David Bindman and Henry Louis Gates Jr (eds.), The Image of the Black in Western Art: From Early Christian Era to the ‘Age of Discovery’: Africans in the Christian Ordinance of the World, vol. 2, part 2, new edition, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010, pp. 185-281.

Ferguson, George, Signs & Symbols in Christian Art, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959.

Francisco, Adam S. Martin Luther and Islam: A Study in Sixteenth-Century Polemics and Apologetics, Leiden: Brill, 2007.

Green, Jonathan P. ‘The Nuremberg Chronicle and its Readers: The Reception of Hartmann Schedel’s Liber Cronicarum’, PhD, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2003.

Husband, Timothy, The Wild Man: Medieval Myth and Symbolism, exh. cat., New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1980.

Knöll, Stefanie ‘Death and the Maiden: A German Topic?’, Helen Fronius and Anna Linton (eds.), Women and Death: Representations of Female Victims and Perpetrators in German Culture 1500-2000, Rochester: Camden House, 2008.

Lowe, Kate, ‘The Black Diaspora in Europe in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, with Special Reference to German-Speaking Areas’, in Mischa Honeck, Martin Klimke and Anne Kuhlmann (eds.), Germany and the Black Diaspora: Points of Contact, 1250-1914, New York: Berghahn Books, 2013.

Milliken, Roberta, Ambiguous Locks: An Iconology of Hair in Medieval Art and Literature, Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, 2012.

Moseley-Christian, Michelle, ‘From Page to Print: The Transformation of the “Wild Woman” in Early Modern Northern Engravings’, Word & Image: A Journal of Verbal/Visual Enquiry, vol. 27, no. 4, 2012, pp.429-442.

Tacitus, Cornelius, Agricola and Germany, trans. Anthony Birley, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Wiesner-Hanks, Merry, The Marvelous Hairy Girls: The Gonzales Sisters and their Worlds, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s