Albrecht Dürer's Rhinoceros
Germany, AD 1515

This celebrated woodcut records the arrival in Lisbon of an Indian rhinoceros on 20 May 1515.

The ruler of Gujarat, Sultan Muzafar II (1511-26) had presented it to Alfonso d'Albuquerque, the governor of Portuguese India. Albuquerque passed the gift on to Dom Manuel I, the king of Portugal. The rhinoceros travelled in a ship full of spices.

On arrival in Lisbon, Dom Manuel arranged for the rhinoceros to fight one of his elephants (according to Pliny the Elder's Historia Naturalis ('Natural History') (AD 77), the elephant and rhinoceros are bitter enemies). The elephant apparently turned and fled.

A description of the rhinoceros soon reached Nuremberg from which Dürer prepared this drawing and woodcut.

No rhinoceros had been seen in Europe for over 1000 years, so Dürer had to work solely from these reports. He has covered the creature's legs with scales and the body with hard, patterned plates. Perhaps these features interpret lost sketches, or even the text, which states, '[The rhinoceros] has the colour of a speckled tortoise and it is covered with thick scales'.

So convincing was Dürer's fanciful creation that for the next 300 years European illustrators borrowed from his woodcut, even after they had seen living rhinoceroses without plates and scales.

Dom Manuel sent the rhinoceros to Pope Leo X in Rome, who had much admired 'Hanno', the elephant the king had sent him the year before. Sadly, the ship carrying the new gift sank before it reached Rome.

from The British Museum: Albrecht Dürer's Rhinoceros, a drawing and woodcut.

Despite the inaccuracies, Durer's image of a rhinoceros remained extremely popular up through the 18th century.

Even up until the 1930's, the image was used in German textbooks as a representation of the Indian Rhinoceros.

Listen to this great BBC podcast on Dürer's Rhino

Discussion Questions:

Consider the following:

  1. What Ways of Knowing are represented by this image? You can focus on Dürer's experience, or the impact of the image. Explain the strengths and limitations of these WOKs.

Post a 300 word response in the appropriate discussion forum. Please use appropriate TOK terminology.
You may wish to review CH. 2 The Nature of Knowledge, pgs 24-37 in the textbook.


These are from our group sessions in class. You may use ideas from them for your response.



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