Although we do not know his name, we can tell a lot about Baldung Grien’s mature sitter from the details of his costume. The large fur collar of his coat, the jewel on his cap and the two gold chains around his neck show off his wealth. The longer chain bears two badges: the Virgin and Child within a crescent moon and surrounded by rays, and a bird of prey and a fish facing each other.
The first badge is the emblem of the Order of Our Lady of the Swan, a religious group that only admitted members of the nobility. The second is the insignia of the elite Society to the Falcon and Fish, a group that organised jousting tournaments for the noblemen based in the southern German region of Swabia.
While the badge of the Virgin and Child is not worn here with one of a swan (as it is in a portrait of a lady by an anonymous German artist that is now in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid), it is recognisable as the emblem of the Order of Our Lady of the Swan, a religious group that only admitted members of the nobility. Founded in the 1440s by the Elector Frederick II of Brandenburg, the Order was at the height of its popularity in the late fifteenth century, when this portrait was made. The other emblem is the insignia of the elite Society to the Falcon and Fish, a group that organised jousting tournaments for the noblemen based in the southern German region of Swabia.
The white semicircles to the bottom right are part of the sleeve of the man’s shirt; the portrait was cut down at the bottom at some point before it entered the National Gallery’s collection. When it was bought by the Gallery it included the monogram used as a signature by the celebrated German painter Albrecht Dürer, in whose studio Baldung Grien may have worked. When this was discovered to be fake it was removed. The date inscribed above the sitter’s head was, however, confirmed by technical analysis to be original.
The designs of the badges are drawn in black over a gold background. Their two-dimensionality contrasts with the illusionism of the rest of the portrait, for example where Baldung Grien has applied white highlights to the strands of the man’s long hair to convey its sheen or painted the natural whorls in the fur collar.
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