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Sunday, May 29, 2011

Praying Hands

Some time ago I wrote on the subject of legendary artists, specifically the work of Francisco Goya and his Nude Maja. Another artist of legendary proportions is Albrecht Durer, the fifteenth-sixteenth century German painter and etcher who, though 19 years younger, was roughly the Northern Renaissance equivalent of Leonardo Da Vinci in terms of his paintings and etchings. Certainly there is very much a passing resemblance in their style, perhaps because Durer studied some in Italy and undoubtedly knew of Leonardo's work. The legend that has grown up around Durer relates to his most famous work of art, his so-called Praying Hands.

Hands, 1508, Albrecht Durer
The facts of Durer's life are certainly as interesting as the Hands (the original title). He was born in 1471, one of 18 children of a Nuremberg goldsmith. The legend has it that Albrecht, and one of his brothers, Albert, both displayed considerable talent in the way of art, but that given the size of the family, there was no hope that both of them could go to the local art academy. So an agreement was reached between the two brothers that the one winning a coin toss would attend college while the other would work in the nearby coal minds to support him for four years, at which time the other brother would go to school supported by whatever means necessary by the first. Needless to say Albrecht won the toss and in less than four years had made something of a name for himself as an artists.

In returning home, legend has it Albrecht was prepared to uphold his end of the bargain, only to come to the realization that his younger brother Albert's hands, suffering the abuse of four years in the mines, could no longer hold the tools of the artist's trade. To make a long story short, in gratitude, Albrecht drew his brother's gnarled hands, thereby creating one of the most beloved and touching pieces of Christian art in the world today.  Is the story true?  I don't know, and given the almost 500 years that have passed since the work was done, it's unlikely anyone else does either.  But those of us who owe a debt of gratitude to others for our being the artists we are today, would like to think so.  In the final analysis, it doesn't really matter anyway. Art historians would point to the vast quantity of Durer's other work, most of it at least arguably better than the Hands (certainly less overexposed), and note the fact that it's a lovely story, perhaps a little too conveniently illustrating a moral that may or may not have been intended by the artist,  Durer was, in any case, a devoutly religious man. I guess we might all hope that someday, something we do with our talented hands might give rise to such a beautiful story.

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