Auction: 355 - The Numismatic Collector's Series Sale at NY INC, Grand Hyatt
Holy Roman Empire. Nurnberg. Freie und Reichsstadt. Silver Dedication Medal from the City of Nurnberg to Emperor Charles V, 1521,
Nomos AG, TEFAF Maastricht, 14-23 March 2014, lot 46, where the provenance was given as 'From the collection of an Austrian noble family'.
This is one of the most famous medals of the German Renaissance. Struck in high relief on a massive 200g silver flan, in a complex process devised by the master silversmith Hans Krafft the Elder, the medal represents German 16th century medallic art at its most spectacular. The city of Nuremberg, renowned for the spectacular work of its thriving community of goldsmiths and silversmiths, was keenly aware that the world would judge the city on the merits of this one presentation medal. The portrait of the Emperor on the obverse was from a design by Germany's most famous artist, Albrecht Dürer, with input from his childhood friend, the Nuremberg Councillor Willibald Pirkheimer, while the array of heraldic shields on both sides was devised with meticulous care by the leading scholars of the day, including the humanist lawyer Johann Stabius and the clerk Lazarus Spengler.
The curious political circumstances that led to the creation of the medal have been fully documented. The new Emperor, Charles V, had inherited a vast array of kingdoms and lordships through the intricies of generations of careful dynastic marriages. He was young and charismatic. Above all, he was prepared to spend large fortunes (of his own money, and of other peoples' money) in the pursuit of power. This medal was the city of Nuremberg's homage to this new star that had arisen in Europe's political firmament. And there were very practical reasons for this. The city had a long tradition of loyalty to the German Emperor, and had acquired many privileges over the years. It played a central role in the Imperial Administration, was the venue for many political assemblies, as well as a centre for the collection of Imperial taxes. Now this grand and very flattering medal was to be presented to the new young Emperor on the occasion of his first visit to the city at the very beginning of his reign, in the New Year of 1521, just after his coronation, and on the occasion of his first General Diet. It was quite simply the most important medal that any German city had yet commissioned.
The drama of the events that unfolded precisely at the same time that this medal was being struck, is now the stuff of legend. Martin Luther had recently shaken the established Church by his preaching, and, in an increasingly hostile environment, attacks and counter-attacks were growing in frequency and ferocity. At the last minute it was decided that Luther should present his arguments in person before the Emperor, and so he was commanded to appear at the first Diet and present his defence. But now there was a clear and most embarrassing conflict of interests. The City of Nuremberg was not neutral in this debate. Many of her most prominent scholars and lawyers, including the men involved in creating this spectacular medal for the emperor, were known to be sympathetic to Martin Luther. Indeed, Willibald Pirkheimer and Lazarus Spengler were named as 'accomplices' in the Bull of Excommunication published against Luther at the beginning of January, just weeks before the Diet was due to take place, and they were also excommunicated. The Bull went on the declare that anyone found to be helping or even agreeing with Luther, was likewise to be excommunicated. This was a nervous time for the citizens of Nuremberg, and for a city that had become not just one of the wealthiest cities of the Empire, but also a major cultural centre, a city that had twenty one printing houses, all producing potentially contentious works, a city that had already won the approval of Luther himself who referred to the city as 'the eyes and ears of Germany'. In 1517 the Nuremberg City Councillor and former Mayor, Kaspar Nützel, had made a German translation of Luther's famous 'Ninety Five Theses' and this had been printed in Nuremberg. Suddenly, with the decision to bring this matter to a climax, it was clear that for the city of Nuremberg, the situation was increasingly dangerous.
And then, to disrupt all the carefully laid plans, there was the plague. The plague had been troubling many cities in Germany for the last year or two. In fact there were outbreaks all the time, but in 1519-1520 there were more outbreaks than usual, and the cities along the Rhine were badly affected. In the second half of 1520 the plague moved inland, heading east, and by the end of the year was threatening Nurnberg. Although the city itself was not yet particularly badly affected, the Emperor clearly did not want to travel too far eastward through this plague infested region. And so all plans were changed. The Emperor did not visit Nuremberg, but instead held his Diet at Worms. Luther's admirer, Kaspar Nützel, represented Nuremberg at the Diet. And of course it was at Worms that Luther made his famous declaration, 'Heir stehe ich', and the rest, as they say, is history.
And what was to become of the medals of Nuremberg? One hundred medals had been made for presentation to the Emperor. A further sixty seven were made for other gifts. They represented a small fortune, not only in the cost of producing them, but in the value of the raw silver. The city now had a serious problem in that the medals could soon become useless. The iconography of the medal was strictly personal and, from the religious or political point of view, completely neutral. Perhaps this was intentional. The message was that here was a new Emperor with a world wide Empire, and that was all. But there were two problems. Firstly the medals would certainly not be considered a suitable gift for the Emperor in Worms, since that city would never countenance presenting something known to have been produced by another city, and besides, they had a shield with N for Nuremberg prominent among the coats of arms around the border. And secondly they would become useless within the year because the date 1521 had been prominently placed by the Imperial Eagle on the reverse. There must have been some considerable hand-wringing, because it was not until 1537 that the decision was finally made to melt the medals. The dies and a small number of medals were preserved. An inventory of 1613 lists 24 examples still in the city's possession.
And so the most magnificent medal of the German Renaissance became a historical curiosity, and, because of a twist of fate (perhaps some at the time would have called it Divine Intervention), a great rarity. It is not known how many medals were preserved. There might well have been more than the 24 listed in 1613, since that inventory was only of the medals still in the City's possession, but today there are only 13 medals known, of which only four, including this example, are in private hands. Sadly, the magnificent dies used to strike the medal, carefully preserved for centuries by the city of Nuremberg, were moved to the mint at Munich in the mid 19th century, and are now lost.
The City of Nuremberg has retained two examples of the medal, including the one, which is unique, from the first reverse die which cracked during the striking process. The other seven in museums are in very different states of preservation, and they can be found in Coburg, Edinburgh, London, Madrid, Munich, Paris and Vienna. Of the four in private hands one is badly damaged, while the other three are all in remarkably good condition.