Illustrating an Emperor
Understanding the Life and Reign of Maximilian through Theuerdank
Completed in 1517, Theuerdank has been lauded by some analysts as the most important publication of the German Renaissance. A work of rhyming verse consisting of 118 brief chapters, the story details the trials of the titular knight, Theuerdank (a fictional avatar of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I Habsburg) as he travels to wed Queen Ehrenreich (Maximilian’s first wife, Mary of Burgundy). This overtly allegorical work is rife with chivalric symbology, allusions to Maximillian’s exploits and ambitions, and insights into the court life, intrigues, and military developments of Renaissance Central Europe. Significantly, each of Theuerdank’s chapters is accompanied by an elaborate woodcut illustration, whose contents and compositions were personally dictated by Maximilian. In analyzing thirteen of these illustrations, this project uses Maximilian’s art to tease his truth from his self-constructed legend, and to explain his roles as a Renaissance ruler, a modern monarch, a medieval idealist, and the ideological touchstone of the Habsburg dynasty. Indeed, although Maximilian himself died in 1519 with many of his lofty goals unreached, the political maneuvers he initiated and familial identity he created enabled the Habsburgs to emerge as Europe’s most dominant royal house within a generation of his death. Even five centuries removed from its publication, Theuerdank lends modern readers unique understanding of the prestige, pedigree, and purpose Maximilian claimed and created for one of the most influential families in world history.
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