Designs for masonry:

Three Drawings for the Master Masonry Examination in 17th Century Nuremberg

Nele Lüttmann

9th July 2021

Drawings for stone masonry are rare and too little is known about the training and drawing skills of master masons in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Left: Hans Melchior Michel (active 1690), Nuremberg exam sketch: elevation for a house front, 1690, pen and brown ink on paper, 72.4 x 50.2 cm, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, inv. no.: HB 5417; right: Hans Melchior Michel, Nuremberg exam sketch: plan for the ground floor of a town house, 1690, pen and brown ink on paper, 72.3 x 50.3 cm, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, inv. no.: HB 5418.

Two drawings produced in 1690 for the master craftsman examination of Nuremberg masons therefore provide rare insight into the training process. Today, they are part of the collection of the Department of Prints and Drawings of the Germanisches Nationalmuseum. Indeed, just like the joiners (cf. blog “Architecture in Wood“), future master masons had to pass a multipartite examination task. This included making the plan for a four-floor town house and its elevation along with a section showing the wall thickness to prove the candidate’s drawing abilities. Due to the similarity of these drawings to a sheet signed by a Hans Melchior Michel (active c. 1690 in Nuremberg), they have been attributed to him. Unfortunately, apart from a mention of his name in a document of the imperial city’s building department dating to February 1691, nothing of Michel’s professional activities is known so far.

The elevation has been drawn accurately and to scale, as was requested by the building department. It shows a four-storeyed house front including a cross section of the wall. The floor plan is drawn according to the same scale as the elevation. The position of gates and windows in the facade as well as the corresponding wall thickness, indicate that the drawings form a set. The plan allows for an insight into the layout of the house: it is structured into a front-building and a rear house, whereas the entire house is planned as corner building. There is a small inner courtyard with water well, a stable in the rear building, and a double-flight staircase in the rear corner of the entrance hall, which is supported by a central column. All rooms are vaulted. It is noticeable that the masonry is left white, which makes it hard to distinguish the openings. This might indicate that the requirements for the examinees’ design skills were not advanced.

A third plan from the Germanisches Nationalmuseum (see below) proves that those types of drawings were common already half a century earlier. Indeed, they were part of the general master craftsman exam regulations and have been implemented in a similar way over several decades. This plan is attributed to the draughtsman, “Baumeister” (master builder), and cartographer Hans Bien (1591-1632) based on stylistic features, albeit with certain doubts. It was presumably created between 1620 and 1632.

Hans Bien ? (1591-1632), plan of the ground floor for a Nuremberg town house, 1620-1632, pen and brown ink on paper, 58.9 x 41.8 cm, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, inv. no.: HB 17793.

Bien received a training as mason at the workshop of the “Stadtbaumeister” (municipal master builder) Jacob Wolff the Younger (1571-1620). After the five-year apprenticeship between 1612 and 1617, which included lessons in land surveying and cartography, his two journeyman years led him to Italy via various South German towns. He returned to Nuremberg in 1619 and one year later he received his master mason’s certificate. An all-round talent, the Bien first worked as cartographer and engraver. Moreover, the Nuremberg elite employed him to attend to various duties. Bien’s reputation as a fortification master builder (“Fortifikationsbaumeister”) in Nuremberg resulted in an appointment at the court of John Casimir, Duke of Saxe-Coburg. In 1627, just a few years before his death, he was given a permanent position at the military office in Nuremberg. The isometric drawing below, as well as other surviving works by Bien, demonstrate excellent drawing skills which are at odds with the faltering draughtsmanship of the Nuremberg house plan and suggest either an erroneous attribution or a strong emphasis on draughtsmanship in Bien’s journeyman years.

Hans Bien, Isometric depiction of the Deutschherrenhaus in Nuremberg, 1625, black ink, watercolour and gold on paper, 66.3 x 74.3 cm, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, inv. no.: HB 3097, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

A look at the Nuremberg guild laws shows that the exam regulations for masons were valid for almost 300 years, apart from minor changes. The examination for the master’s certificate comprised an oral exam and a practical-theoretical part, for which certain plans and models had to be made, namely the segment of a pillar and springer stones in alabaster and the necessary lead stencils for transferring the specific mouldings onto the cut stone, as well as a wooden model of the falsework for the construction of choir vaults. Initially, the required drawings had to display plans for ecclesiastical architecture (e.g. a gothic choir with arches and pillars). From the 18th century onwards, it was also permitted to submit drawings of secular buildings, and a specific type of town house was requested. A total of 13 sketches was required: an elevation and plans for a house and various types of vault patterns. There was not much room for creativity, which could only be manifest in the design of details. For the manufacturing of drawings and models, the time allowance was about two months. It was not until the 19th century, that the canon of examination requirements changed at the instigation of the mason journeymen. Thus, for example, after 1800 there was no longer a requirement to make models.

Christoph Weigel, The stonemason, 1698, copper engraving, 13 x 8.4 cm, public domain, SLUB / Deutsche Fotothek / DDZ.

Although not many exam sketches like those by Michel or the two examples from the Leipzig bricklayer’s guild dated to 1595 (see below) have survived, together with the guild laws, they provide an insight into the demanding course of education of master masons and the high level of master craftsmen examinations in early modern Germany.

George Zehrer, exam sketch: ground plan for a town house, 1595, pen and ink on paper, 30.4 x 29.6 cm, Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig, inv. no. M 80/1.
George Zehrer, exam sketch: elevation for a house front with portal and pediment, 1595, pen and ink on paper, 47.2 x 28.9 cm, Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig, inv. no. M 80/3.

But, once the status of master mason had been achieved, it was possible to become a “Baumeister”, architect, or engineer. Indeed, an apprenticeship within the craft building trade was the most common route within the profession of those building specialists. The Saxon architect Johann Christoph Knöffel (1686-1752), for example, learned masonry and in 1728 rose to the position of “Oberlandbaumeister” (chief master builder) alongside the more famous Baroque architect Matthäus Daniel Pöppelmann (1662-1736). Another example is Samuel Locke (1710-1793), who also first undertook a masonry apprenticeship and then worked under the French architect Zacharias Longuelune (1669-1748) in Dresden. Locke was later employed by Knöffel, for whom he produced a large number of drafts. Without any doubt, the German craft apprenticeship with its focus on construction and drawing brought forth highly respected architects and significant buildings.


With special thanks to the Photographic Services of the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, and to the Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig for providing the images.


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