Contemplating Dürer’s Indian Rhinoceros

Albrecht Dürer's 1515 woodcut, The Rhinocerus, was based on a written description of the greater one-horned rhinoceros.

By Brooke Chilvers

In what seems an impossible journey now, in 2017 we travelled down the Brahmaputra River in an old river ship to view the Indian rhinoceros in Assam’s Kaziranga National Park.

The voyage actually began 40 years earlier in Nuremberg, in the Albrecht Dürer Museum, where I first saw a print from Dürer’s 1515 woodcut of his imaginatively armored and riveted species that also sported a second twisted horn at the base of its neck. Considered a reliable reference for centuries, replications of The Rhinocerus illustrated naturalist texts well into the 18th century.

Like Aristotle (384–322 BC), who wrote 50 books on zoology, and Pliny the Elder (23–79 AD), who authored the 37-volume Naturalis Historia, Dürer never personally observed any live rhino in his life, despite the impressive letterpress across the top of his masterful woodcut.

Instead, like artists before him, for descriptions of lions – and dragons – for paintings of Daniel and St. Jerome, he would have depended on works such as the often re-illustrated Physiologus, Europe’s first Christian bestiary, covering 39 species, including griffins, but not giraffes. Written anonymously in second-century Alexandria, unfortunately for Dürer, it does not mention rhino.  

And the one-horned monoceron mentioned in Archbishop Isidor de Seville’s (560–636 AD) 40-volume Etymologiae, describes the unicornus, an animal that can be tamed and captured only by virgins. Such bestiaries served as the chief zoological works of the Middle Ages, and about 50 titles survive.

Rhino is also not included in Giovannino de Grassi ‘s (1340–1398) so-called model books, which illustrated 85 animals in numerous poses for artists to “copy” in manuscripts, tapestries, frescoes, and even original paintings.

Artists benefited from direct observations when gifting exotic beasts among Europe’s notables became popular, starting with King Louis IX of France offering Henry III of England (who’d already received a leopard and a camel from Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II), the elephant he brought back from the Crusades. Kept in the Tower of London, it was portrayed in 1255 by Matthew Paris before dying two years later.

They also heard the accounts of explorers, such as the Portuguese Alvise Cadamosto (1432-83), who described the hippopotamus as a “horse-fish,” and noted that elephants can lengthen and shorten their tusks.

In 1513, Manuel I, King of Portugal (1469–1521), who’d sponsored Vasco da Gama, was given a one-horned rhinoceros (and its keeper) by the governor of Portuguese India. The voyage from Goa to Lisbon around Cape Horn lasted 120 days.  

Perhaps in imitation of Lorenzo de’ Medici “the Magnificent,” who began reviving animal combats in Florence in the tradition of Ancient Rome, Manuel decided to test Pliny the Elder’s thesis that elephants and rhinos detested each other. Luckily for the history of art, a Moravian translator and publisher of Marco Polo’s travels was in the audience, and scribbled down notes and perhaps a sketch of the very beast that seemed to match Polo’s description. A copy of the text made its way to Nuremberg and Dürer’s eyes – and also to Augsburg artist Hans Burgkmair the Elder, who would also do a woodcut of “Ganda” the rhino, also in 1515.

The Stadt-Museum-Dürer in Nuremberg is the only existing home/studio of a Renaissance artist outside of Italy.  

Failing to induce the “natural enemies” to fight, Manuel then gave Ganda to Pope Leo X, to whom he had already sent lions, leopards and, most famously, Hanno, the white Indian elephant charmingly immortalized in a drawing by Raphael before its death in 1516. But, bedecked with flowers and attached by a gilded chain, Europe’s sole greater one-horned rhinoceros drowned, along with all hands, in a shipwreck in the Gulf of Genoa. 

A second greater Indian rhino for the royal menagerie, Abada, arrived in Portugal in 1577.  Soon inherited by Phillip II of Spain, she lived in Madrid from 1580 to 1588 and is portrayed in a Dutch engraving by Philippe Galle in 1586.  

Dürer’s rhino would be displaced in popularity only by Clara, Europe’s fifth Indian rhino, who met multiple heads of state during her 17-year tour of Europe. In addition to multiple mass-produced souvenirs of her image, she was most famously painted by Jean-Baptiste Oudry in 1749 and Pietro Longhi in 1751.  


To enjoy Nuremberg’s delicious Nürnberg Rostbratwurst sausages, Brooke Chilvers says you cannot go wrong at the Albrecht-Dürer-Stube, across the street from the museum.