Albrecht Dürer’s devotional images of the Virgin and Child


One of the themes which most preoccupied the creative talents of Albrecht Dürer is that of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child. His concern with this image was lifelong, and second only in importance for him to his involvement with the Passion of Christ. At first glance this could be taken to reflect the average Renaissance artist’s response to the prevailing concerns and commissions of the time, for the cult of the Virgin Mary reached a peak in Germany around 1500. Pilgrimage sites dedicated to the devotion of Mary displayed her relics at various times of the year in conjunction with the granting of major privileges and indulgences, and each prominent town in Germany had a church dedicated to her. In Nuremberg, Dürer’s home town, the Liebfrauenkirche was commissioned as early as 1349 by Emperor Charles IV, who dedicated it ‘to the honour of the principal intercessor of the Holy Roman Empire, the most pure Virgin Mary’. It stood in the centre of the city, facing Nuremberg’s newly established marketplace.1 See Internationaler Mariologischer Arbeitskreis, Das Marienbild im Wandel von 1300–1800, Würzburg, 1987, p. 352; S. Beissel, Geschichte der Verehrung Marias in Deutschland während des Mittelalters: Ein Beitrag zur Religionswissenschaft und Kunstgeschichte (c.1909), Darmstadt, 1972, p. 435. The first pilgrimages made specifically in honour of the Virgin Mary in Germany have been traced back to the early fourteenth century to Mariazell and Einsiedeln in connection with miraculous Marian images, but it was not until the latter half of the fifteenth century that sites such as these attracted large masses of pilgrims from every social stratum (see K. Guth, ‘Geschichtlicher Abriss der marianischen Wallfahrtsbewegung im deutschsprachigen Raum’, in Handbuch der Marienkunde, eds W. Beinert & H. Petri, Regensburg, 1984, p. 739).

  

In addition to an increasing number of carved and painted representations of the Virgin, a steadily growing supply of prints dedicated to her and available for sale at markets, fairs and pilgrimage sites bears witness to her widespread popularity with all levels of society. A careful investigation of Dürer’s oeuvre reveals a profound and personal approach to the subject matter of the Virgin and Child. An early indication of this is seen in the signed but undated pen drawing Madonna by a tree; left hand; drapery study, which is believed to have been sketched c. 1492;2 Dürer’s earliest work known on the theme, made at age fourteen, is a pen and ink drawing, the Madonna and Child Enthroned with Two Musical Angels, now in the Berlin Kupferstichkabinett. Executed in a style reminiscent of Schongauer and the Master E. S., two most significant masters for Dürer’s early artistic development, it bears the artist’s monogram and is dated 1485. The influence of earlier German masters on Dürer’s depictions of the Virgin are discussed in L. Lorenz, Die Mariendarstellungen Albrecht Dürers, Strassburg, 1904. it is significant in that it sets out the main tenets of Dürer’s interest in the Virgin Mary (fig. 1). Here the Virgin is a young woman, almost a girl, devoid of regal attributes and utterly absorbed in looking after her child. The motif of the tree trunk, curving alongside Mary’s body as it rises, foreshadows the famous watercolour of 1503, The Virgin among a multitude of animals, in which flora and fauna partake in the serenely joyous harmony of Mother and Child (fig. 2). Last, the group of the Virgin and Child by the tree trunk is accompanied by two unrelated motifs, a drapery sketch to the left, and to the right the study of a left hand which appears to be the artist’s. Yet, despite this haphazard combination of motifs and the changes in scale, the drawing reads as an unified composition, suggesting that the appearance of the Virgin and Child does not necessarily depend on an ‘appropriate’ setting, but rather constitutes a humble, all-pervasive presence.                        

A chronological survey of Dürer’s works shows that he was continuously involved with the subject matter from this time on right through to his last creative years. In all, fourteen copperplate engravings of the Virgin and Child survive, and there are five woodcuts, about twenty paintings and over seventy drawings.3 This count includes presentations of the Holy Family (the Virgin and Child with Joseph), but excludes St Anne and the Holy Kinship, as well as the Carthusian Madonna (Pass. 180), which I do not believe to be by Dürer. The count of the paintings and drawings is only a rough estimate based on the following considerations: some works by Dürer have been lost; those that have survived are not all signed and dated; moreover, there is uncertainty among scholars about the authenticity of some of the signatures and dates, as well as works, because of the artist’s extraordinary popularity during the so-called Dürer Renaissance, beginning in the last decade of the sixteenth century. For further details, see A. Hass, ‘A Double Honour: Albrecht Dürer’, in Albrecht Dürer in the Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, ed. I. Zdanowicz, Melbourne, 1994, pp. 23–4. Several of these drawings are preparatory designs for paintings and prints; the rest consist of ad hoc sketches (sometimes combined with unrelated motifs), a small number of drawings completed in their own right, and numerous studies which explore various settings as well as the human vulnerability of the Virgin Mother. Good examples of this last group are provided by two pen drawings dating from around 1511. One of these, The Holy Family in a bedroom, depicts the Virgin and Child sitting on a bed beside a cradle in a generous interior, with Joseph reading at a desk in the back of the room (fig. 3). The intimacy of the setting is highly unusual, almost suggesting an ordinary family scene, and indeed it was only later, in the 1520s, in direct response to Reformation attitudes to Mary, which we find other artists beginning to formulate comparable images.4 These images appeared earliest from students and followers of Dürer himself such as Sebald Beham and Albrecht Altdorfer. The other example, the pen drawing of the Madonna and Child with two little angels, explores Mary’s emotional reactions. Here one of the angels is handing Mary a staff resembling a cross, causing her to shrink back, startled with sudden foreboding.5 For a reproduction of the Madonna and child with Two Little Angels (Accademia, Venice), see W. L. Strauss, The Complete Drawings of Albrecht Dürer, vol. 3, New York, 1974, p. 1270, no. 1511/9. In some ways the last-mentioned group of drawings is particularly intriguing as it documents perceptions Dürer did not elaborate on in his finished work; however, this also raises the question of to what degree they are by the master himself. Some – notably those that do not retain the tender dignity of the relationship between Mother and Child – are likely to be experiments by workshop helpers.

However, Dürer chose not to pursue any ambiguous or emotionally unresolved scenes in his finished works; instead, the viewer is given a compositionally centralised image of the Mother and Child, fitted into a tight space frame that only narrowly encompasses the generous bulk of Mary’s drapery. Despite the modest size of these works, the perfectly balanced group assumes an archetypal presence, which evokes the elementary human condition. So much so, that it seems reasonable to assume that the artist’s approach to this theme was conditioned by personal experience. Dürer had no children of his own, but we do know that he had a very close relationship to his mother, Barbara Dürer, who was only nineteen when Albrecht, her third child, was born. In the course of the following twenty-one years she gave birth to another fifteen children, the last in 1492. All but Dürer and two very much younger brothers died; as he describes it: ‘some in their childhood, others as they were growing up’.6 A. Dürer, Family Chronicle, in H. Rupprich (ed.), Dürer: Schriftlicher Nachlass, vol. 1, Berlin, 1956, p. 30.

Even if we allow for a rather more stoic fifteenth-century attitude to childbirth and high infant mortality rates, the experience must have left a lasting impression on Dürer’s mind, shaping his understanding of the special relationship between a mother and her infant. Reading his observations on his mother’s nature in his Family Chronicle, we are struck by the associations they evoke of contemplative descriptions of the Virgin Mother. Thus Dürer tells us that her favourite pastime was to speak of God and praise him, that she suffered ‘illnesses, poverty, mockery, contempt, and snide words, fears and obstacles, and yet felt no spite’, but quietly continued ‘her pious ways and acts of mercy to every man’, observing her children’s religious upbringing, and habitually receiving and dismissing Albrecht and his brothers with the same phrase: ‘Go in the name of Christ’.7 ibid., p. 37.It is difficult to tell whether Dürer based the description of his mother on the role model of the Virgin Mary, or whether the experience of his mother’s attitude to life engendered in him a special affinity to the Virgin; either way we find reflections of it in his visual characterisations of the Virgin and Child. Dürer’s memories were recorded in 1514, at the time of his mother’s death, an event which led not only to an intense exploration of his own state of mind through the Melencolia I (B.74), but also, significantly, brought about the greatest concentration of works on the subject of the Virgin and Child.8 Dürer’s mother’s declining years from 1511 on coincide with a recurring exploration of the Mother and Child theme in her son’s work. For the year of her death, 1514, at least six drawings of the theme can be recorded, and two engravings: The Virgin on the Crescent with a Diadem (B.33) and the Madonna by the Wall (B.40).

   

                                                                                                                                                               A distinctive feature of Dürer’s small-scale devotional images of the Virgin and Child is their repeatedly referred to ‘life-likeness’, all the more apparent for the seeming lack of dogmatic religious attributes.9 Dürer is very sparing in his use of attributes, and where they do appear he makes them an integral part of the narrative, as for example in the Virgin with the pink, 1516, in Munich. In the engravings Mary, following a popular northern tradition, is predominantly shown seated outdoors on a bench, rarely ever on a throne, and never without the Christ Child. Generally Dürer omitted the crown as well as the conventional halos for Mother and Son, unless presenting them as a heavenly vision.10 For examples of the Virgin’s appearance with halo and as Queen of Heaven, see the engravings of the Virgin on the Crescent (c.1499 (B.30), 1508 (B.31), 1514 (B.33) and 1516 (B.32)), as well as the title page to the second edition of the Apocalypse, c. 1511, where the Virgin appears to St John the Evangelist (B.60); further, the title page of the Life of the Virgin, c.1511, the Virgin on the Crescent (B.76). See also the elaborate woodcut of the Madonna, Queen of Angels, 1518 (B.101). The use of the halo for a secular Madonna occurs in only one early example: under the influence of his first visit to Italy, Dürer surrounded the head of the Virgin in the Madonna with the Monkey (B.42) with a circular halo. Usually the Virgin wears a narrow band around her head, occasionally a wreath of roses. In contrast to earlier depictions Mary is dressed in contemporary clothes and placed in the midst of a distinctly northern landscape setting.11 Two of these settings, that of the Madonna with the Monkey (B.42) and that of the Madonna by the Wall (B.40), have been identified as being just outside the city of Nuremberg Browsing through Strauss’s compilation of authoritative commentaries on Dürer’s intaglio prints we observe a surprising phenomenon, whereby phrases such as ‘natural’, ‘lifelike quality’, ‘exceptional simplicity’, ‘modest’ and ‘unambitious in content’ provide a common starting point for ultimately opposed assessments.12 For the use of these phrases, see W. L. Strauss (ed.), The Intaglio Prints of Albrecht Dürer: Engravings, Etchings and Drypoints, 3rd edn, New York, 1981, nos 39, 78: Thausing (1876), Wölfflin (1905); no. 78: Winkler (1957); no. 74: Talbot (1971); no. 70: Wölfflin (1905); nos 70, 74: Panofsky (1943). The engraved Madonna on a grassy bank (B.34) provides a good example (fig. 4). Praised by Vasari as a work in which ‘the artist surpassed himself’, Thausing, in 1876, blamed it for being so ‘natural’ as to make the expression of the Virgin seem ‘gaunt and elderly’; Wölfflin, in 1905, reservedly appreciated it as the ‘most sensitive of the early Madonnas’, while Winkler, in 1957, declared it the greatest monument ‘devised in honor of motherly activity’.13 ibid., no. 39. Dürer’s only engraved Madonna and Child to have elicited unanimous praise is the Madonna by the wall (B.40; fig. 5). In addition to some of the abovementioned phrases the Virgin here is described by Heaton (1869) as having ‘the character of a good German housewife and mother’, and by the often critical Panofsky as possessed of ‘apparently opposed’ qualities, namely ‘regal, virginal, yet humble and motherly’.14 ibid., no. 78: Heaton (1869), Panofsky (1943).   

This dilemma in response to Dürer’s Madonnas can also be observed in an early Italian critique. In his art theoretical treatise L’Aretino, published in 1557, when Mannerism was rife in Italy, Ludovico Dolce comments:   

The intaglio of his [Dürer’s] copperplate engravings would suffice to render him immortal. For this intaglio represents the reality and vitality of nature with an incomparable closeness of detail, in such a way that his creations have the look of being not drawn, but painted; and not painted, but alive.

Yet, preceding these words, Dolce criticised in Dürer a most significant element of the ‘live presence’ of his figures, by stating that ‘Albrecht Dürer’s sense of propriety was at fault not only in the case of costumes, but also in the case of faces. Being a German, he did several compositions in which the Mother of Our Lord is given a German costume’. The artist is faulted not only for historically ‘placing later in time’ what ought to have come earlier, but also for creating images in specific local, that is Germanic, terms.15 M. W. Roskill (trans. & ed.), Dolce’s ‘Aretino’ and Venetian Art Theory of the Cinquecento, New York, 1968, p. 113. Compared with earlier German and, in particular, contemporary Italian idealised depictions of the Virgin and Child, which conformed with the dominant theological position of the time, Dürer’s images were steeped in real life. Thus the criteria determining the viewer’s response depended largely upon the capacity to accommodate the artist’s image within the framework of the viewer’s personal ideal of the Virgin and Child; in other words, the image posed an essentially private challenge.   

Notwithstanding subsequent critics, the almost immediate and frequent copying of each of these engravings, several of which were translated into sculptural renditions as well as stained-glass panels, informs us of their instant popularity. However, while the early engravings were copied in the north, and also in the south, Dürer’s Madonna and Child engravings done after his second visit to Italy seem to have been copied only by northern artists; copying continued in the north well after Dürer’s death, right through to the time of the so-called Dürer Renaissance, when it briefly resumed again in Italy as well.16 This is clearly borne out by a count of the copies registered in the available catalogues; nonetheless, it might be worth an investigation in its own right. A valuable start has been made by P. Strieder & L. von Wilckens, Vorbild Dürer: Kupferstiche und Holzschnitte Albrecht Dürers in Spiegel der europäischen Druckgraphik des 16. Jahrhunderts (exh. cat.), Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, 1978; and H. Beck & P. C. Bol (eds), Dürers Verwandlung in der Skulptur zwischen Renaissance und Barock (exh. cat.), Liebighaus, Frankfurt, 1981. What then can deduce from the temporary Italian rejection of Dürer’s Madonnas apart from aesthetic concerns? A comparison of Dürer’s devotional works with contemporary examples in Italy is instructive. In Dürer’s works we observe a shift in emphasis – especially in the mature works – towards the human nature of the Virgin and Child. In Italian Renaissance art the Christ Child is much older, and as Steinberg observes, ‘engages in actions from which common babies desist’; further iconographic details, notably the exposure and manipulation of his genitals, are developed in order ‘to set Mary’s son apart from the run of the sons of Eve’, and to prove the miracle of Incarnation, where God has become flesh to redeem mankind.17 L. Steinberg, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, New York, 1983, p. 8. Accordingly, the Christ Child in Italian Renaissance art is presented in his own right, often detached from Mary and placed on a ledge or a cushion, spatially and spiritually independent from his Mother.   

In Dürer’s works the influence of this Italian iconography is most apparent in the early engraving of the Madonna with the Monkey (B.42) from c.1498 (fig. 6), and the Madonna and Child paintings from 1506. Here we find a mature, Italianate Child with its genitals prominently exposed, while the Virgin is for once endowed with a circular halo.18 Several northern artists, including Rogier van der Weyden and Martin Schongauer, had previously adopted the Italian iconography of the Incarnation to suit their needs (for further details, see Steinberg, The Sexuality of Christ). Dürer used the Incarnation motif frequently throughout the time of the Italian journeys, and occasionally it recurs in later works. Yet, shortly after his visits to Italy he again reverted to depicting Christ as the small and seemingly ordinary little child, vulnerable and dependent on his mother’s care. This is particularly evident in the engravings, where the unity between Mother and Child had already been developed as a theme in which the Virgin uses her body and her drapery to provide the Child with a protective framing shield. The motif of the Virgin nursing the Child, first explored in 1503 (fig. 4), was a further extension of this unity and one to which Dürer returned with fondness in later years. Two works, both dated 1512, demonstrate the ease and assuredness with which Dürer simultaneously employed these two distinct iconographic motifs: the half-length devotional painting of the Madonna with the Pear centres on the Incarnation motif as the dominant theme of the painting (fig. 7); on the other hand, the large finished charcoal drawing of the half-length Madonna suckling the Child radiates divine motherly love (fig. 8).19 This drawing was translated into a miniature painting in the early seventeenth century by Daniel Fröschl at the court of Emperor Rudolf II, and is now in Vienna (see T. D. Kaufmann, ‘Hermeneutics in the History of Art: Remarks on the Reception of Dürer in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries’, in New Perspectives on the Art of Renaissance Nuremberg: Five Essays, ed. J. C. Smith, Austin, Texas, 1985, p. 25). But in both cases the initiative is generated by the Child’s Mother.  

In contrast, contemporary Italian artists tended to depict the Virgin as passive, even submissive, and distinguished by a regal attribute, which is part of the spatial setting, or even the architectural frame – this may include the parapet on which Christ is presented by the Virgin, and also her throne. These clues to Mary’s status are supported by additional symbolic objects, mostly flowers, or the decorations on her garment, the cloth of honour and the halo.20 To mention just a few very popular Italian examples, consider the Madonna and Child groups by Lucca della Robbia, Botticelli, Domenico Veneziano, and to some degree even Giovanni Bellini. The latter’s devotional Madonna and Child paintings were studied closely by Dürer and briefly emulated in the panels around and just after the second visit to Italy. For further information on the devotional image of the Madonna and Child during the Italian Renaissance, see R. G. Kecks, Madonna und Kind: Das häusliche Andachtsbild im Florenz des 15. Jahrhunderts, Berlin, 1988; R. Goffen, ‘Icon and Vision: Giovanni Bellini’s Half-Length Madonnas’, Art Bulletin, vol. LVII, no. 4, December 1975, pp. 487–514. In order to understand fully the implications of these visual clues we need to remind ourselves of the prevalent theological debates influencing Marian devotion at the time. The main issue centred on the Virgin’s purity: if Mary was conceived humanly she had to be tainted with original sin herself, subject to mortality; consequently, absolute purity of the Virgin, and with it physical immortality, depended on her having been conceived free from sin, ‘immaculately’, which would also elevate her status above that of any ordinary human woman, as it combined apparently mutually exclusive feminine qualities – maidenly purity and motherly love.21 For further details, see M. L. D’Ancona, The Iconography of the Immaculate Conception in the Middle Ages and Early Renaissance, Monographs on Archeology and Fine Arts, College Art Association of America in conjunction with the Art Bulletin, 1957. Around the mid-fifteenth century the Immaculate Conception – promulgated chiefly by the Franciscans – was first affirmed by the Council of Basle as reflecting an opinion in accordance with the faith of the Catholic Church; ten years later the Sorbonne in Paris – soon to be followed by other European universities – made the acceptance of candidates dependent on the public delivery of an oath of faith in the Immaculate Conception. By 1476, Pope Sixtus IV approved the feast of the Immaculate Conception, including a Mass and Office devoted to it, and in the early 1480s two bulls were issued by the pope to silence any further disputes over the issue.22 These pressures notwithstanding, the Immaculate Conception was only defined as a dogma in 1854 (see F. L. Cross & E. A. Livingstone (eds), The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Oxford, 1983, pp. 692–3; see also D’Ancona, p. 4).   

Apart from his work on the extensive narrative woodcut series illustrating the Life of the Virgin between c.1502 and c.1511, Dürer executed several major Marian altarpieces early in his career, which give evidence of his familiarity with current theological debates, legends and popular beliefs surrounding the Virgin Mary. In 1500 he accepted the Elector of Saxony’s commission for an extensive altarpiece of the Mater Dolorosa and the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin for the palace chapel at Wittenberg;23 It is believed that this sequence was accompanied by another series comprising the Seven Joys of the Virgin Mary, known to us only from a series of copies that survived in the Cranach workshop (see P. Strieder (ed.), Albrecht Dürer 1471–1971 (exh. cat.), Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, 1971, cat. no. 587). Earlier, in 1496/97, Dürer had executed the central panel of the Dresden Altarpiece for the Elector of Saxony, depicting the Virgin Mary adoring the Child. in Venice, in 1506, he painted the Feast of the Rose Garlands for the German members of the Brotherhood of the Rosary; and between 1507 and 1509 he executed the Heller altarpiece representing the Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin Mary for the Dominican Church at Frankfurt. We know that he resented the financially restrictive arrangements for this last work and henceforth he seems to have avoided major altarpiece commissions with very few exceptions. Instead, in his religious works there is an increased output of single devotional panel paintings, alongside the continued production of devotional prints. However, while the appropriate attributes accompanied Mary’s presence in the commissioned altarpieces, they tend to be avoided in the small panels. Indeed, after 1509 Dürer also substituted the landscapes in his devotional panels with uniform dark backgrounds, thus eliminating any distractions from the central figures. Mary appears as an ordinary, contemporary mother, attending to her child. The artistic freedom Dürer exercised in these presentations suggests that he painted them without prior commissions, and – as with his prints – offered them for sale once they were ready. Letters written to Jacob Heller during the work on the Heller altarpiece, and two much later entries in the Netherlandish Notebook, confirm this notion.24 In a letter dated 24 August 1508, Dürer referred to a Marian painting Heller had seen in his workshop, asking whether Heller could suggest a client who might be interested in it. Three months later, in November, he told Heller not to bother any longer because it had been purchased by the Bishop of Breslau (Albrecht Dürer, letters to Jacob Heller, 24 August 1508, 4 November 1508, in Rupprich, Schriftlicher Nachlass, vol. 1, pp. 66, 68). In his Netherlandish Notebook Dürer records that he presented the Bishop of Bamberg with a painted Marian image in 1520, on the way to Antwerp, and further that he sold one to his host in Antwerp. He also records a number of other small religious paintings done with no specific purpose or client in mind (A. Dürer, Netherlandish Notebook, 1520, in Rupprich, Schriftlicher Nachlass, vol. 1, pp. 148, 165, 172). The only devotional Marian work of a small format known to have been commissioned is the painting of the Virgin and Child with St Anne, 1519, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (see F. Anzelewsky, Albrecht Dürer: Das malerische Werk, Berlin, 1971, no. 147). But even here Dürer retained his artistic freedom by depicting his own wife as St Anne. Thus Dürer’s artistic decisions were determined firstly by his own religious and artistic convictions, and secondly by the needs of some more or less anonymous client.   

Our knowledge of Dürer’s approach to Mary is largely drawn from his visual images, for neither in his journal, nor in his letters and art theoretical writings, does he broach the subject. However, some written clues survive. The following verse, written in 1510, conveys a sense of his personal beliefs regarding the Virgin’s role in relation to both Christ and the devotee:  

Ο bearer of the Lord, Queen of Heaven and the highest throne, greatest hope of all sinners, I implore you by your little Child Jesus who created you, help me to become aware of his deed of saving grace.25 The original text in German reads: Oo Gottes gebererin, / Der höchsten tron himel königin, / Aller sünder gröste hofnung, / Jch bitt dich durch dein kindlein jung, / Jhesum, der dich erschaffen hat, / Mach mich sehen sein thrawthat’ (Rupprich, Schriftlicher Nachlass, vol. 1, p. 139).  

Written a decade before Luther defined the Reformation attitude to Mary, this short verse indicates Dürer’s conception of the Virgin as an inspired ‘Mediatrix’, endowed with the capacity to engender trust and faith in her divine Son’s act of mercy and salvation, not, however, as a ‘Co-Redemptress’, who could be addressed in her own right. This explains why Dürer refrained from ever presenting Mary to the devotee on her own, without Christ. A much later note – brief, but significant – confirms this reading. Dated 1523, it was scribbled onto Michael Ostendorfer’s woodcut depicting a scene of hysteric mass devotion before the carved figure of the Madonna at the pilgrimage site of the supposedly miraculous image of the ‘Beautiful Madonna’ in Regensburg during the early 1520s (fig. 9).26 Apparently the site attracted over 120 000 people in one of these years (see H. Mielke, Albrecht Altdorfer: Zeichnungen, Deckfarbenmalerei, Druckgraphik (exh. cat.), Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin, 1988, cat. no. 202). The note reads:  

This spectre has risen in Regensburg against the Holy Scripture, and, instead of being condemned, it is being tolerated by the bishop for its temporary exploitation. May God help us not to discredit his honourable Mother in this way, but [to honour her] in Jesus Christ. Amen.27 The original text reads: ‘1523. Dis gespenst hat sich widr dy heilig geschrift erhebst zw Regenspurg und ist vom bischoff verhengt worden, czeitlichs nutz halben nit abgestelt. Gott helff uns, das wir sein werde muter nit also unern, sundr in Cristo Jesu. amen’ (Rupprich, Schriftlicher Nachlass, vol. 1, p. 210).

At the time this note was written, Wittenberg, under the leadership of Karlstadt, had experienced the first assault on religious images during Luther’s absence the city. In addition, Karlstadt, in January 1522, had published the first treatise urging the abolition of all religious imagery in churches.28 Ironically, Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt (c. 1477–1541), a follower of Luther’s, had dedicated his earlier treatise on the Last Supper to Albrecht Dürer the year before (see W. Hofmann (ed.), Luther und die Folgen für die Kunst (exh. cat.), Hamburger Kunsthalle, 1983, pp. 127–8). The demonstrations at Wittenberg prompted Luther’s immediate return, to try to prevent any further damage, and he addressed the issue in March in a series of sermons, in which violent acts against religious images were condemned as strongly as their idolatrous use, concluding – as Dürer himself had done ten years earlier – that ‘images are neither this nor that, they are neither good nor bad, one can either have them, or do without them’.29 The original text reads: ‘Die Bilder sind weder dies noch das, sind weder gut noch böse, man kann sie haben oder nicht haben’ (‘Acht Sermone D. Martin Luthers, von ihm selbst gepredigt zu Wittenberg in der Fastenzeit. 1522’, in Martin Luther: Ausgewählte Schriften, vol. 1, eds K. Bornkamm & G. Ebeling, Frankfurt, 1982, pp. 298–9). In 1512 Dürer had expressed similar thoughts in his drafts for the ‘Fragment on Painting’, where he likened the use of the arts to the handling of a sword, ‘which may be used either for murder or justice’ (A. Dürer, in W. M. Conway, Literary Remains of Albrecht Dürer, Cambridge, 1889, pp. 176–8). It is up to the viewer to use them for good or for bad. The only difference in the assessment of the two is that Dürer was wholly convinced that images of quality cannot but do good, because they are divinely inspired. An abandoned draft of a dedicatory letter to Willibald Pirckheimer for one of his theoretical treatises shows that Dürer, deeply disturbed by the iconoclasts’ threats, was keen to ensure that proficiency in the arts be encouraged and passed on among artists for the future benefit of mankind. In this context he assures his reader: ‘There is no idolatry in the arts unless someone deliberately introduces it. Moreover, I believe that no one would be so nonsensical as to address his prayers to wood, stone, metal or paints’. It seems more than likely that this draft was abandoned when Dürer became aware of the excessive mass devotions at Regensburg.30 See H. Rupprich, ‘Dürers Stellung zu den agnoètischen und kunstfeindlichen Strömungen seiner Zeit. Mit einem neuen Dürer-Brief’, in Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-historische Klasse, Sitzungsberichte, vol. 1, Munich, 1959, p. 24. The original text reads: ‘Es ist auch kein abgötterei jnn dieser kunst, man wöll dann mutwillen mit geprauchen. Ich glaub auch, dos nÿmand so unsinig seÿ, der holtz, stein, metall oder farben anpette’. Rupprich suggests that Dürer drafted this dedicatory letter towards the end of 1527 or early in 1528 for his Treatise on Human Proportions; however, for the abovementioned reasons I believe that it predates Dürer’s comment on Ostendorfer’s woodcut.

Let us return once more to the question of Dürer’s images of the Virgin in the light of his notes and in relation to opinions held during the early part of the Reformation. The most informative text on the perception of the Virgin Mary during the early Reformation is Luther’s translation and exposition of the Magnificat, Mary’s canticle, which was still recited daily at the time. It was published in 1521, the year following Dürer’s final visual statement regarding the Virgin and Child in the medium of engraving. Luther’s attitude towards the Virgin is so strongly reminiscent of the one we encounter in the artist’s works that it is worth quoting a passage which takes issue with Mary’s status, her role and also with her artistic representation. In his discussion of the canticle verse ‘For He Has Regarded the Low Estate of His Handmaiden’, Luther argues: 

that even in His mother God neither found nor desired anything of high degree. But the masters who so depict and portray the blessed Virgin that there is found in her nothing to be despised, but only great and lofty things – what are they doing but contrasting us with her instead of her with God? Thus they make us timid and afraid and hide the Virgin’s comfortable picture, as the images are covered over in Lent. For they deprive us of her example, from which we might take comfort; they make an exception of her and set her above all examples. But she should be, and herself gladly would be, the foremost example of the grace of God, to incite all the world to trust in this grace and to love and praise it, so that through her the hearts of all men should be filled with such knowledge of God that they might confidently say: ‘O Blessed Virgin, Mother of God, what great comfort God has shown us in you, by so graciously regarding your unworthiness and low estate. This encourages us to believe that henceforth He will not despise us poor and lowly ones, but graciously regard us also, according to your example’… Mary does not desire to be an idol; she does nothing, God does all. We ought to call upon her that for her sake God may grant and do what we request.31 M. Luther, The Magnificat, trans. A. T. W. Steinhaeuser, in J. Pelikan (ed.), Luther’s Works, vol. 21, St. Louis, 1956, pp. 323, 328–9. 

Luther’s attitude to the Virgin so closely reflects Dürer’s that it might not seem too presumptuous to suggest that the artist’s images of the Virgin and Child contributed to the articulation of the Reformation conception of the Virgin Mary. It might be argued that there is little evidence of Luther’s particular interest in Dürer apart from his appreciation of a batch of his works, presumably engravings and woodcuts, which he was presented with in 1518.32 Martin Luther, letter to C. Scheurl, 5 March 1518, in Rupprich, Schriftlicher Nachlass, vol. 1, pp. 260–1. However, while evidence may be lacking, we cannot ignore the fact that Luther enjoyed the support and protection of Dürer’s most important early patron, Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, and that one of his closest personal friends in Wittenberg was the Elector’s court painter, Lucas Cranach the Elder, one of Dürer’s greatest admirers and imitators, who was later to devise a specific Reformation iconography in conjunction with Luther and Philip Melanchthon. Indeed, Cranach’s own very popular devotional Madonna and Child images are strongly indebted to Dürer’s in their economy in the use of attributes, in their choice of local settings and contemporary detail and in the close relationship between Mother and Child. 

 

                                                                                                                                                    

Dürer’s last three engravings of the Virgin and Child were completed in 1519 and 1520, and together constitute his definitive statement on the theme. They are interrelated not only by the use of the same model for Mary, but also by their hieratic and abstracting treatment and further by the halos Dürer devised for Mary. Whereas the infant’s head is surrounded by the traditional cruciform halo pattern, Mary’s head rises against a disk of pure light radiating out into the universe, visually connecting her with the divine, light- and life-giving presence of the sun. It seems not so much a personal halo as rather a signification of her as the woman who has been hallowed for being Mother to the Saviour of the world.33 Dürer had used the radiating halo as early as 1510. In the Small Passion he explored it in several scenes following the Noli me tangere (B.47) (where he used the same continuous lines for the rays of the sun). In the Large Passion it was used for Christ in the liturgically significant Last Supper (B.5) from 1510; in the following year Dürer explored similar rays around the vision of Mary and the Child on the crescent moon while preparing the second title page for the Apocalypse and the title page for the Life of the Virgin. Apart from this, the continuous rays of light emanating from a single source also feature in the Melencolia I, 1514 (B.74). However, it is only in the last three engravings of the Virgin and Child that Dürer fuses the motif of actual sun-rays with that of a radiating halo. While this treatment of Mary links the three works, Dürer describes in each depiction a different aspect of what he regarded as the quintessence of Mary’s mission to the devotee. The first in the series, the Madonna nursing (B.36), is slightly smaller in size than the other two; it shows Mary as the humble Mother wearing a diadem, a veil covering her bowed head; seated on a grassy bank she is offering her breast to the Child (fig. 10).34 Apart from his halo, Christ’s superhuman status is only hinted at by the lack of support given his head in this position. Further, the image faintly evokes the Caritas motif. Preliminary drawings for all three engravings have survived. It is an image of intimacy, joy and total absorption in love, of giving and receiving simultaneously. The second, the Madonna crowned by one angel (B.37), addresses the devotee’s need for a hierarchical image; it is one of the very few works in which Mary, sitting erect on a sumptuous cushion, faces the viewer with her gaze, listening (fig. 11). This Queen of Heaven is as oblivious to the angel hovering beside her with the diadem as she is to the manifestation of worldly power rising to the left on the distant shore, while presenting the small but omnipotent Child on her lap.35 The only comparable image is the Madonna, Queen of Angels (B.101), a woodcut of 1518 in which Mary and the Child are surrounded by a heavenly retinue of angels, paying homage, making music and playing. It is Dürer’s most regal print of the Virgin and Child, and also the largest (after that of the Holy Family with Three Hares, c. 1496 (B. 102)), clearly made to satisfy orthodox devotional needs. 

 

                                                                                                                                                               A comparison of the engraving with the preliminary drawing held in the National Gallery of Victoria (fig. 12) confirms the broader reading of Dürer’s use of the halo in these images. The radiating disk, which circumscribes Mary’s head in the drawing, has been slightly enlarged upwards and to the left in the engraving, thus causing her head to be marginally but unmistakably off-centre. This bold innovation is softened by the reduced shading in Mary’s face, and, more importantly, by the rays of Christ’s halo eclipsing the lower left-hand side of the disk of light.36 See A. Dürer, Netherlandish Notebook, 1520, in Rupprich, Schriftlicher Nachlass, vol. 1, p. 154. One of these sets was presented to the sculptor Conrad Meit, whom Dürer held in great esteem. The Madonna with the swaddled Infant (B.38) presents yet another aspect of Dürer’s humanist response to the Virgin and her Child (fig. 13). Marginally larger than its two predecessors, this work completes a loosely defined set, and we know Dürer presented them together as gifts on at least two occasions. Complementing the image of the nursing Virgin and that of the Queen of Heaven, the Madonna with the swaddled Infant leads the viewer to a contemplation of the Pietà. A monumental metaphor of Life and Death, of a Child born to die in order to bestow life, the sorrowful Virgin here issues a silent summons to the devotee to become aware of that ‘deed of saving grace’  

Angela Hass, Department of Architecture, University of Melbourne (in 1994).

Notes 

1          See Internationaler Mariologischer Arbeitskreis, Das Marienbild im Wandel von 1300–1800, Wurzburg, 1987, p. 352; S. Beissel, Geschichte der Verehrung Marias in Deutschland während des Mittelalters: Ein Beitrag zur Religionswissenschaft und Kunstgeschichte (c. 1909), Darmstadt, 1972, p. 435. The first pilgrimages made specifically in honour of the Virgin Mary in Germany have been traced back to the early fourteenth century to Mariazell and Einsiedeln in connection with miraculous Marian images, but it was not until the latter half of the fifteenth century that sites such as these attracted large masses of pilgrims from every social stratum (see K. Guth, ‘Geschichtlicher Abriss der marianischen Wallfahrtsbewegung im deutschsprachigen Raum’, in Handbuch der Marienkunde, eds W. Beinert & H. Petri, Regensburg, 1984, p. 739).  

2          Dürer’s earliest work known on the theme, made at age fourteen, is a pen and ink drawing, the Madonna and Child Enthroned with Two Musical Angels, now in the Berlin Kupferstichkabinett. Executed in a style reminiscent of Schongauer and the Master E. S., two most significant masters for Dürer’s early artistic development, it bears the artist’s monogram and is dated 1485. The influence of earlier German masters on Dürer’s depictions of the Virgin are discussed in L. Lorenz, Die Mariendarstellungen Albrecht Dürers, Strassburg, 1904. 

3          This count includes presentations of the Holy Family (the Virgin and Child with Joseph), but excludes St Anne and the Holy Kinship, as well as the Carthusian Madonna (Pass. 180), which I do not believe to be by Dürer. The count of the paintings and drawings is only a rough estimate based on the following considerations: some works by Dürer have been lost; those that have survived are not all signed and dated; moreover, there is uncertainty among scholars about the authenticity of some of the signatures and dates, as well as works, because of the artist’s extraordinary popularity during the so-called Dürer Renaissance, beginning in the last decade of the sixteenth century. For further details, see A. Hass, ‘A Double Honour: Albrecht Dürer’, in Albrecht Dürer in the Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, ed. I. Zdanowicz, Melbourne, 1994, pp. 23–4.  

4          These images appeared earliest from students and followers of Dürer himself such as Sebald Beham and Albrecht Altdorfer. 

5          For a reproduction of the Madonna and Child with Two Little Angels (Accademia, Venice), see W. L. Strauss, The Complete Drawings of Albrecht Dürer, vol. 3, New York, 1974, p. 1270, no. 1511/9. In some ways the last-mentioned group of drawings is particularly intriguing as it documents perceptions Dürer did not elaborate on in his finished work; however, this also raises the question of to what degree they are by the master himself. Some – notably those that do not retain the tender dignity of the relationship between Mother and Child – are likely to be experiments by workshop helpers.  

6          A. Dürer, Family Chronicle, in H. Rupprich (ed.), Dürer: Schriftlicher Nachlass, vol. 1, Berlin, 1956, p. 30. 

7          ibid., p. 37.  

8          Dürer’s mother’s declining years from 1511 on coincide with a recurring exploration of the Mother and Child theme in her son’s work. For the year of her death, 1514, at least six drawings of the theme can be recorded, and two engravings: The Virgin on the Crescent with a Diadem (B.33) and the Madonna by the Wall (B.40). 

9          Dürer is very sparing in his use of attributes, and where they do appear he makes them an integral part of the narrative, as for example in the Virgin with the Pink, 1516, in Munich.  

10        For examples of the Virgin’s appearance with halo and as Queen of Heaven, see the engravings of the Virgin on the Crescent (c.1499 (B.30), 1508 (B.31), 1514 (B.33) and 1516 (B.32)), as well as the title page to the second edition of the Apocalypse, c. 1511, where the Virgin appears to St John the Evangelist (B.60); further, the title page of the Life of the Virgin, c.1511, the Virgin on the Crescent (B.76). See also the elaborate woodcut of the Madonna, Queen of Angels, 1518 (B.101). The use of the halo for a secular Madonna occurs in only one early example: under the influence of his first visit to Italy, Dürer surrounded the head of the Virgin in the Madonna with the Monkey (B.42) with a circular halo. 

11        Two of these settings, that of the Madonna with the Monkey (B.42) and that of the Madonna by the Wall (B.40), have been identified as being just outside the city of Nuremberg.  

12        For the use of these phrases, see W. L. Strauss (ed.), The Intaglio Prints of Albrecht Dürer: Engravings, Etchings and Drypoints, 3rd edn, New York, 1981, nos 39, 78: Thausing (1876), Wölfflin (1905); no. 78: Winkler (1957); no. 74: Talbot (1971); no. 70: Wölfflin (1905); nos 70, 74: Panofsky (1943). 

13        ibid., no. 39. 

14        ibid., no. 78: Heaton (1869), Panofsky (1943).  

15        M. W. Roskill (trans. & ed.), Dolce’s ‘Aretino’ and Venetian Art Theory of the Cinquecento, New York, 1968, p. 113. 

16        This is clearly borne out by a count of the copies registered in the available catalogues; nonetheless, it might be worth an investigation in its own right. A valuable start has been made by P. Strieder & L. von Wilckens, Vorbild Dürer: Kupferstiche und Holzschnitte Albrecht Dürers in Spiegel der europäischen Druckgraphik des 16. Jahrhunderts (exh. cat.), Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, 1978; and H. Beck & P. C. Bol (eds), Dürers Verwandlung in der Skulptur zwischen Renaissance und Barock (exh. cat.), Liebighaus, Frankfurt, 1981. 

17        L. Steinberg, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, New York, 1983, p. 8.  

18        Several northern artists, including Rogier van der Weyden and Martin Schongauer, had previously adopted the Italian iconography of the Incarnation to suit their needs (for further details, see Steinberg, The Sexuality of Christ). 

19        This drawing was translated into a miniature painting in the early seventeenth century by Daniel Fröschl at the court of Emperor Rudolf II, and is now in Vienna (see T. D. Kaufmann, ‘Hermeneutics in the History of Art: Remarks on the Reception of Dürer in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries’, in New Perspectives on the Art of Renaissance Nuremberg: Five Essays, ed. J. C. Smith, Austin, Texas, 1985, p. 25). 

 20       To mention just a few very popular Italian examples, consider the Madonna and Child groups by Lucca della Robbia, Botticelli, Domenico Veneziano, and to some degree even Giovanni Bellini. The latter’s devotional Madonna and Child paintings were studied closely by Dürer and briefly emulated in the panels around and just after the second visit to Italy. For further information on the devotional image of the Madonna and Child during the Italian Renaissance, see R. G. Kecks, Madonna und Kind: Das häusliche Andachtsbild im Florenz des 15. Jahrhunderts, Berlin, 1988; R. Goffen, ‘Icon and Vision: Giovanni Bellini’s Half-Length Madonnas’, Art Bulletin, vol. LVII, no. 4, December 1975, pp. 487–514. 

21        For further details, see M. L. D’Ancona, The Iconography of the Immaculate Conception in the Middle Ages and Early Renaissance, Monographs on Archeology and Fine Arts, College Art Association of America in conjunction with the Art Bulletin, 1957.  

22        These pressures notwithstanding, the Immaculate Conception was only defined as a dogma in 1854 (see F. L. Cross & E. A. Livingstone (eds), The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Oxford, 1983, pp. 692–3; see also D’Ancona, p. 4). 

23        It is believed that this sequence was accompanied by another series comprising the Seven Joys of the Virgin Mary, known to us only from a series of copies that survived in the Cranach workshop (see P. Strieder (ed.), Albrecht Dürer 1471–1971 (exh. cat.), Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, 1971, cat. no. 587). Earlier, in 1496/97, Dürer had executed the central panel of the Dresden Altarpiece for the Elector of Saxony, depicting the Virgin Mary adoring the Child.  

24        In a letter dated 24 August 1508, Dürer referred to a Marian painting Heller had seen in his workshop, asking whether Heller could suggest a client who might be interested in it. Three months later, in November, he told Heller not to bother any longer because it had been purchased by the Bishop of Breslau (Albrecht Dürer, letters to Jacob Heller, 24 August 1508, 4 November 1508, in Rupprich, Schriftlicher Nachlass, vol. 1, pp. 66, 68). In his Netherlandish Notebook Dürer records that he presented the Bishop of Bamberg with a painted Marian image in 1520, on the way to Antwerp, and further that he sold one to his host in Antwerp. He also records a number of other small religious paintings done with no specific purpose or client in mind (A. Dürer, Netherlandish Notebook, 1520, in Rupprich, Schriftlicher Nachlass, vol. 1, pp. 148, 165, 172). The only devotional Marian work of a small format known to have been commissioned is the painting of the Virgin and Child with St Anne, 1519, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (see F. Anzelewsky, Albrecht Dürer: Das malerische Werk, Berlin, 1971, no. 147). But even here Dürer retained his artistic freedom by depicting his own wife as St Anne. 

25        The original text in German reads: Oo Gottes gebererin, / Der höchsten tron himel königin, / Aller sünder gröste hofnung, / Jch bitt dich durch dein kindlein jung, / Jhesum, der dich erschaffen hat, / Mach mich sehen sein thrawthat’ (Rupprich, Schriftlicher Nachlass, vol. 1, p. 139). 

 26       Apparently the site attracted over 120 000 people in one of these years (see H. Mielke, Albrecht Altdorfer: Zeichnungen, Deckfarbenmalerei, Druckgraphik (exh. cat.), Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin, 1988, cat. no. 202).

 27       The original text reads: ‘1523. Dis gespenst hat sich widr dy heilig geschrift erhebst zw Regenspurg und ist vom bischoff verhengt worden, czeitlichs nutz halben nit abgestelt. Gott helff uns, das wir sein werde muter nit also unern, sundr in Cristo Jesu. amen’ (Rupprich, Schriftlicher Nachlass, vol. 1, p. 210).  

28        Ironically, Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt (c. 1477–1541), a follower of Luther’s, had dedicated his earlier treatise on the Last Supper to Albrecht Dürer the year before (see W. Hofmann (ed.), Luther und die Folgen für die Kunst (exh. cat.), Hamburger Kunsthalle, 1983, pp. 127–8). 

29        The original text reads: ‘Die Bilder sind weder dies noch das, sind weder gut noch böse, man kann sie haben oder nicht haben’ (‘Acht Sermone D. Martin Luthers, von ihm selbst gepredigt zu Wittenberg in der Fastenzeit. 1522’, in Martin Luther: Ausgewählte Schriften, vol. 1, eds K. Bornkamm & G. Ebeling, Frankfurt, 1982, pp. 298–9). In 1512 Dürer had expressed similar thoughts in his drafts for the ‘Fragment on Painting’, where he likened the use of the arts to the handling of a sword, ‘which may be used either for murder or justice’ (A. Dürer, in W. M. Conway, Literary Remains of Albrecht Dürer, Cambridge, 1889, pp. 176–8).  

30        See H. Rupprich, ‘Dürers Stellung zu den agnoètischen und kunstfeindlichen Strömungen seiner Zeit. Mit einem neuen Dürer-Brief’, in Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-historische Klasse, Sitzungsberichte, vol. 1, Munich, 1959, p. 24. The original text reads: ‘Es ist auch kein abgötterei jnn dieser kunst, man wöll dann mutwillen mit geprauchen. Ich glaub auch, dos nÿmand so unsinig seÿ, der holtz, stein, metall oder farben anpette’. Rupprich suggests that Dürer drafted this dedicatory letter towards the end of 1527 or early in 1528 for his Treatise on Human Proportions; however, for the abovementioned reasons I believe that it predates Dürer’s comment on Ostendorfer’s woodcut. 

31        M. Luther, The Magnificat, trans. A. T. W. Steinhaeuser, in J. Pelikan (ed.), Luther’s Works, vol. 21, St. Louis, 1956, pp. 323, 328–9.             

32        Martin Luther, letter to C. Scheurl, 5 March 1518, in Rupprich, Schriftlicher Nachlass, vol. 1, pp. 260–1. 

33        Dürer had used the radiating halo as early as 1510. In the Small Passion he explored it in several scenes following the Noli me tangere (B.47) (where he used the same continuous lines for the rays of the sun). In the Large Passion it was used for Christ in the liturgically significant Last Supper (B.5) from 1510; in the following year Dürer explored similar rays around the vision of Mary and the Child on the crescent moon while preparing the second title page for the Apocalypse and the title page for the Life of the Virgin. Apart from this, the continuous rays of light emanating from a single source also feature in the Melencolia I, 1514 (B.74). However, it is only in the last three engravings of the Virgin and Child that Dürer fuses the motif of actual sun-rays with that of a radiating halo.  

34        Apart from his halo, Christ’s superhuman status is only hinted at by the lack of support given his head in this position. Further, the image faintly evokes the Caritas motif. Preliminary drawings for all three engravings have survived. 

35        The only comparable image is the Madonna, Queen of Angels (B.101), a woodcut of 1518 in which Mary and the Child are surrounded by a heavenly retinue of angels, paying homage, making music and playing. It is Dürer’s most regal print of the Virgin and Child, and also the largest (after that of the Holy Family with Three Hares, c. 1496 (B. 102)), clearly made to satisfy orthodox devotional needs.  

36        See A. Dürer, Netherlandish Notebook, 1520, in Rupprich, Schriftlicher Nachlass, vol. 1, p. 154. One of these sets was presented to the sculptor Conrad Meit, whom Dürer held in great esteem.