Starting 7 May 2020 the GRASSI Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig is open again regularly from 10 to 18 (except Mondays). Please note that for the time being only the special exhibition "Scenes of life" is on display.

(ir)resistible - Nobility's and Pilgrim's Tattoos

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Pilgrim's Tattoos

For pilgrims to the Holy Land, tattoos served as proof and as a souvenir of the visit to the Holy Sepulcher and other Christian sites in Jerusalem. It is stated in the Old Testament: "Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you. I am the Lord" (Lev 19:28). And yet, pilgrim tattoos were popular. Members of Christian minorities in Armenia, Syria or Ethiopia mainly used this custom. To this day, families like the Coptic Christian family Razzouk from Jerusalem maintained this ancient tradition of tattooing in their own tattoo studio. For hundreds of years, Christian pilgrims have been decorated with the symbols of their faith: holy symbols such as the Jerusalem cross and sacred images such as the resurrection of Christ or St. George, the dragon slayer.

Heinich Wilhelm Ludolf (1866 - 1712); provided by FRANCKESCHE STIFTUNGEN HALLE/SAALE

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As a symbol of the cross, they not only served as a souvenir but also as a practical sign of guidance in the case of a possible imprisonment. And if the bearer died abroad, he could hope to obtain a Christian funeral by the faithfulness attested by ink.

Nobility's Tattoos

Tattoos were frowned upon in the middle class - probably because Adolf Loos had associated them with degenerate nobles. In fact, the tattoo reached an initial peak among nobility from the end of the 18th century up to the First World War. Empress Sisi (1837-1898) was said to have had an anchor tattooed on her shoulder or neck – although no reliable evidence was found. Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte (1763-1844) had himself tattooed with the motto of the French Revolution – "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité" (“Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood”) and with the addition "Death to the Kings." Despite the rebellious gesture, he later became King of Sweden and Norway. In 1951, King Frederik IX of Denmark allowed himself to be photographed on a two-page spread in the US magazine Life. A dragon tattoo was displayed on his chest. Czar Nikolaus II (1868-1918) had a similar dragon motif tattooed on his arm by a Japanese tattoo master. In Europe, the dragon was regarded as a harbinger of chaos; in East Asia, on the other hand, it was a sign of imperial power – a meaning which the European kings apparently liked. Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark (b. 1968), the grandson of Frederik IV, decided on a motif unlike that of his grandfather: a shark on the leg reminds him of his military training with the navy.

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