Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Dürer's "Virgin Among a Multitude of Animals"

School is wrapping up for the quarter, and my eyes are tired of looking at dozens and dozens of student papers. This evening I thought I'd have change of scenery by looking at a watercolor that I discovered recently: Dürer's Virgin Among a Multitude of Animals (1503, shown right). Isn't it lovely? Here are a couple of thoughts about the painting:
  • I really like the interpretion that this painting is a Christian version of the ancient "Master of the Animals" motif. However, unlike ancient depictions which show deities or heroes showing power over animals (see one example at the end of this post), Dürer depicts the Christ child as the hero (shown at the center the painting).
  • Given that this is a Northern Renaissance painting, it is unsurprising that the animals surrounding the Virgin have symbolic meaning. Even the stag beetle (shown in the lower left corner, teasing a sleeping dog) is seen as a symbol for Christ (since its horns could subdue "the dragon," or Satan).
  • Coincidentally (or perhaps not-so-coincidentally), this evening I noticed that there is a stork placed next to the Joseph (located in the middle ground on the right). I immediately became exited, having recently read this post on Three Pipe Problem which examines how storks (as well as cranes and herons) served as symbols of vigilance. (This painting dates just a few years before the Carpaccio and Giorgione paintings discussed in the Three Pipe Problem post; it was particularly fun to find another stork connection from the same time period.) I also read here that storks also have been associated with piety, resurrection, and purity in Christian iconography.
  • The background of the painting also depicts aspects from the Nativity story: the angel appearing to shepherds, the star in the sky, the visit of the Magi (in this painting, the kings and their entourage have alighted ships and are traveling along a road).
  • This painting by Dürer was particularly liked by Rudolf II, the emperor of Austria in the late 16th - early 17th centuries. Rudolf II was a great patron of the arts, and he ordered that a print of this painting by made by Aegidius Sadler, the court engraver. Additionally, in 1604 Rudolf II ordered Jan Brueghel the Elder to make a copy of this same Dürer painting. (If anyone knows of an online reproduction for this Brueghel copy, please let me know! I'm curious to see it.)
Dürer's painting is fun, isn't it? Which animal do you like the best? I particularly like the parrot that is perched on the left side of the Virgin.