In Coat of Arms with a Skull Dürer uses traditional heraldic devices, the shield, helmet, wings, scrollwork and the wild man as shield-bearer, to display his astonishing abilities as an engraver. It is a tour-de-force in the depiction of the play of light and shade on three-dimensional objects and on a multitude of different surfaces and textures. The engraving was singled out for particular praise by John Ruskin in his Elements of Drawing of 1857, where he exhorted his readers to 'Provide yourself, if possible, with an engraving of Albrecht Dürer's. This you will not be able to copy; but you must keep it beside you, and refer to it as standard of precision of line. If you can get one with a wing in it, it will be best. The crest with the cock, that with the skull and the satyr, and the Melancholy, are the best you can have, but any will do.' (cited in J. Bialostocki, Dürer and his Critics 1500-1971, Baden-Baden, 1986, p. 249).
An essay in sheer virtuosity, Coat of Arms with a Skull is also a highly complex vanitas image, a reflection on pride and glory, lust and death. In contrast to the earlier engraving The Ravisher (see lot 12), the maiden appears unperturbed by the wild man's amorous advances and coquettishly glances at the shining helmet and shield, mesmerized by its armorial splendor. The wild man's true identity as Death is revealed on the shield to the onlooker, but is not recognized by the maiden, who remains blissfully ignorant of her fate.
This impression from the collection of the Dukes of Portland compares well with the impression from the Malcolm Collection in the British Museum.