There are seven prints where Dürer places a ball in the composition and one painting. The first time he does this was when he started his career as a Master in this print of 1495:
The print has wrongly been called the “Small Fortune” by historians. Why is this called the Small Fortune?
It all has to do with Greek and Roman mythology and the idea that Dürer came home from Venice in 1495 eager to copy what the Italians were doing as a methodology of selling his art, partly because the woman is shown nude (See former article “Sex Sells.”)
WHERE’S THE MARKET?
But it doesn’t make a lot of sense that Dürer would be copying the Italian artists in this way for he was merely a regional artist at this point in time. His markets were Nuremberg, Augsburg, Regensberg, and Frankfurt.
These very German areas were not known to be avant garde cities where art was concerned, where mostly very religious art was being produced and sold. There’s not a lot of evidence that the Germans were interested in a Greek/Roman revival in art, nor willing to part with their money for it.
But let’s get back to how this print became known as the Small Fortune because of the ball in the picture.
TYCHE AND NEMESIS
The Greek goddess Tyche was the goddess of fortune, chance, providence and fate.
Tyche was represented with different attributes. Holding a rudder, she was the divinity guiding and conducting the affairs of the world. When depicted with a ball, she represented the varying unsteadiness of fortune–unsteady and capable of rolling in any direction.
The goddess Nemesis was cautiously regarded as the downside of Tyche, one who provided a check on extravagant favours conferred by fortune. The pair were often depicted as companions in Greek vase painting. As centuries passed the name Nemesis (Fortune) became the more usual one to use when talking about fate. For more on these goddesses see http://www.theoi.com/Daimon/Tykhe.html
Thus, historians claim that a naked woman standing on this ball has to be Nemesis because she stands on a ball. It’s a circular argument. The other clues in the print are ignored. She is called the Small Fortune because of the paper size of the print.
LET’S HAVE A BALL
The next time we see Dürer put a ball in an image was in 1497, in this print wrongly called The Four Witches. The ball in this print is elaborately decorated and even has a date in it. The ball doesn’t appear to have anything to do with fortune.
Then Dürer uses a ball symbol in this print that historians have called the Temptation of the Idler. The explanations about the meaning of this print by historians have been bizarre because they didn’t pay attention to the other clues very clearly shown in the print (See my former article Dragons, Dracula, and Dürer). And why the little putto on stilts would be playing with a ball of fortune has never been explained.
GOATS AND WITCHES
Then in 1500, Dürer produced this print, known as the Witch Riding the Goat Backwards. The ball is held by the naked boy on the right. Except the woman is not a witch and we only see part of the goat animal. No historian offers a reason why the ball of fortune is in this composition.
Then in 1502, Dürer published this print, now called the Large Fortune or Nemesis (again “Large” because of paper size) and this is where the whole messy confusion began.
AND THEN IT WAS MISTRANSLATED
One of the thirteen names we know Dürer used for a print title was “NemesIN.” That’s what he wrote in one of his diaries: Nemesin. This is the way Germans feminize a word, by adding “in” to the end of the noun, which in this case is the Greek word nemes or neme. He did NOT write the Latin word NemeSIS.
We do not truly know that this particular print is the one he titled Nemesin, but there’s an extremely high probability that this is the print to which he referred. And because of the mistranslation and the fact that a ball symbol is associated with the goddess Nemesis, the ball in THIS print is assumed to be the “ball of fate.” Voila, this print is supposedly about dealing with fate.
Except, the Greek word nemes or neme means “to allot” or to “manage.” And by writing the name as NemesIN, the feminized German, what Dürer was telling us was this is a female “manager” of something. More of the secrets in this print will be revealed in a future article. But let’s get back to the ball symbol.
ADAM AND EVA
In 1504 Dürer produced this print, which he titled Adam and Eva, and which previous researchers have erroneously called “The Fall of Man.” Eva is assumed to be holding an apple, when in fact she is holding a ball.
Dürer had previously used the exact same arm posture as Eva holds a sphere, in 1498, in the painting known as the “Haller Madonna,” National Gallery of Art, Wash, D.C.
The 1498 Haller Madonna painting. The Christ Child’s arm is in the same position as Eva in the 1504 print of Adam and Eva. The Christ Child holds a sphere, not an apple
In the Haller Madonna, a painting commissioned by the wealthy and politically influential Hallers and probably kin (See Dracula, Dragons, and Dürer), has the Christ Child holding a sphere in the exact same position that Eva holds a ball. Again, the sphere held by the Christ Child is assumed to be an apple, but it is not. Dürer was giving us a message in this painting as early as 1498.
THE LAST BALL
The seventh time that Dürer used the ball symbol in a print was in the famous 1514 Melencolia. Here it’s not considered a symbol of fate, it’s now just a ball, a geometric figure.
Now let’s think of Dürer’s market again. The buyer has to “get” the message immediately, the buyer has to recognize the ball symbol for which it really stands. The German buyers really weren’t buying prints because of Greek and Roman mythological themes. They liked much simpler fare.
And the silliest thing is to think that Dürer would use a symbol in many different ways, as a symbol of fate, and then as geometry, etc. It would make more sense if he was consistent.
This is a picture of a painting showing the Hungarian Otto II receiving tribute balls from women who represent different countries: Francia, Germania, Italia, and Alemannia. For more information on Otto II click here. The Emperor is receiving TRIBUTE Balls.
Paying tribute was a deeply ingrained German and Hungarian tradition. In Nuremberg during Dürer’s lifetime, people buying gifts and paying tribute to each other got so out of hand, the government stepped in and regulated the practice. And we think we are overregulated!
And that’s the secret of the balls. Whenever you see a ball in a Dürer print, Dürer is paying tribute to someone.