Illustrating an Emperor

Understanding the Life and Reign of Maximilian I through Theuerdank

The illustrations of Theuerdank - Emperor Maximilian I Habsburg's mythologized autobiography - paint a vivid picture of the man, the dynasty he built, and the Holy Roman Empire he ruled.

A Puzzling Prince

History delights in remembering the exploits, eccentricities, and enigmas of Renaissance Europe’s mosaic of royals and rulers. Dedicated and casual students of the era alike know of Henry VIII, his Church of England, and the marriages that engendered it; they admire the artistic patronage of Francis I, who commissioned works by Leonardo da Vinci and built glamorous chateaus across France; they revel in the political acumen and extravagant wealth of Cosimo and Lorenzo de Medici, whose coffers bankrolled the masterworks of Michelangelo and whose issue became kings, queens, and popes. And yet, ask even a dedicated Renaissance scholar about the man who was, simultaneously, a deft political reformer, a patron of the arts, a skilled diplomat, and the wellspring of a sprawling dynasty – Maximilian I (b. 1459), Archduke of Austria and Holy Roman Emperor – and one is likely to receive a blank stare. It seems history has forgotten Maximilian.

This Austrian amnesia is to the great detriment of our understanding of the Renaissance. While the figure of Maximilian is absent from the popular imagination, it is packed with dynamic contradictions that demand further investigation and provide key insights into the political, social, and cultural developments of the era. He celebrated his Empire as a crusading ‘shield of Christendom’, yet spent more time fighting in Catholic Italy and France than he did the Ottomans; though he saw Austria as the idyllic seat of his power, he bled it dry to pacify the unruly Germanic princes to its north [1]; although he longed to be pope, the marriages he arranged for his children established the Habsburgs as the most powerful family in the world within decades of his death [2]. Moreover, Maximilian’s was a unique position in time – he was at once a monarch on a continent lurching ever closer to the conflicts of statehood and religion of the early modern era and a member of two archaic chivalric orders; an avid hunter in the martial style of his forefathers and a shrewd reformer to the benefit of his successors; a devotee of the stories of King Arthur and Hercules and a modern propagandist who used the most innovative technologies of his time to spread his image as Europe’s last knight.

It is this latter contrast – the apparent irreconcilability between Maximilian’s actual and imagined place in history, between the myths and the realities of himself and his dynasty – that may offer the view of the Emperor. In pursuit of his chivalric self-image, Maximilian became a prolific supporter of artists and craftsmen. He restored elaborate murals depicting the legends he sought to emulate, commissioned enormous woodcut prints celebrating his achievements, and published vividly illustrated texts ranging from catalogues of the fish and wildlife of his beloved Austria, to anthologies of heroic tales from the history of the Empire, to – most significantly – his own mythologized biography, Theuerdank [3].

Emperor Maximilian I in Armor, Peter Paul Rubens
Theuerdank Departs on Crusade, Leonhard Beck

The World of Theuerdank

Lauded by some analysts as the most important publication of the German Renaissance, Theuerdank is a work of rhyming verse and expansive artistry. Containing 118 short scenes, or ‘chapters’, each accompanied by a woodcut illustration personally dictated by Maximilian, it details the trials of the knight Theuerdank (representative of Maximilian himself) as he travels to wed Queen Ehrenreich (Maximilian’s first wife, Mary of Burgundy) [4]. This overtly allegorical work is rife with chivalric symbology, allusions to Maximilian’s exploits and ambitions, and insights into the court life, intrigues, and military developments of Renaissance Europe. In understanding the composition and content of its images, we can begin to reconcile the contradictions of Maximilian, 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.

In analyzing thirteen of Theuerdank’s images, this project aims to use Maximilian’s art as a window into his person, his rule, and his Empire. The images are presented in chronological order; select the designated elements of each image to learn more about them, and their significance in understanding the striking contradictions, chimeric ambitions, and real achievements of this puzzling prince. As the following examination demonstrates, in exploring Theuerdank, we do more than merely appraise a monument to Maximilian I – we explore the ideologies, policies, and politics that came to define House Habsburg, the Renaissance in which it came of age, and the continent it ruled.

Home: Citations

1: Thomas A. Brady, Jr., “A New Biography of the Emperor Maximilian I ,” The Journal of Modern History 62, no. 2 (June 1990): 308.

2: Hugh Trevor-Roper, “The Emperor Maximilian I, as a Patron of the Arts,” in Renaissance Essays (London: Fontana Press, 1986), 14-15.

3: Larry Silver, “Die Guten Alten Istory: Emperor Maximilian I, ‘Theuerdank’, and the ‘Heldenbuch’ Tradition,” in Jarbuch des Zentralinstituts fur Kunstgeschichte (Munich: Verlag C.H. Beck, 1986), 84.

4: Larry Silver, Marketing Maximilian (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 1-2.

Image Citations:

Top: Albrecht Dürer, Portrait of Emperor Maximilian I, 1519, Wikimedia Commons accessed August 2020, .

Right: Peter Paul Rubens, Emperor Maximilian I in Armor, 1618, Wikimedia Commons accessed August 2020, .

Left: Leonhard Beck, Theuerdank Illustration 117: Theuerdank Departs on Crusade, 1517, the Royal Collection Trust, accessed August 2020, .