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Albrecht Durer

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The High Renaissance & Mannerism
 
 
 
 
 
Durer - life and works
 
 
 
Durer's Workshop in Nuremberg, 1495-1505
 
 
 
 



Portrait of a Man
c. 1504
Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest


 

The Jabach Altarpiece
 

Two wings (inner side)



The Jabach Altarpiece
Reconstruction of the internal section
1504



The Jabach Altarpiece
The Saints Joseph and Joachim
The Saint Simeon and LLazarus
1504


The Jabach Altarpiece
 

Two wings (inner side)
The Saints Joseph and Joachim
The Saint Simeon and LLazarus

No documents exist that show what the original composition of the socalled Jabach Altar was.
Neither do we know who the patron was nor where he was originally placed. Naturally, hypotheses about this are not in short supply.
The name "Jabach Altar" goes back to an indication made by De Noel, a local scholar of the history of Cologne, that the altar was located in the family chapel in the house of the Jabach family of Cologne. Maybe the famous Parisian banker and collector Everhard IV Jabach (1618-95) had it sent to his father's house, especially since he collected Durer's drawings. Even at that time, the side wings existed without the central panel.
While the hypothesis that the patron was Frederick the Wise hangs in the air, many clues indicate that the first seat of the altar was in a locality in Saxony, perhaps in the church of the Wittenberg castle. A drawing exists by Cranach's school, which was active in Saxony. This drawing shows a copied and recomposed version of the story of Job and his wife, which is the subject of the exposed wings at the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum. These, in turn, would become, from technical operations executed on the wood of all four of the panels, the posterior face of those on which the four saints are represented. Once the wings are closed, the story of Job is recomposed, as mentioned for the drawing above.
The panels have undergone, over time, modifications to the upper edges. As far as the central panel is concerned, of which no trace remains, Flechsig (1928) has hypothesized that it was a representation of a "Anna Selbdritt" e.g. Saint Anne, The Madonna and the Christ Child.
The proposal seems acceptable, since it is almost unthinkable that Saint Joseph and Saint Joachim were portrayed together without the Virgin Mary and Saint Anne.
For this, Anzelewsky (1991) proposed the drawing W 222. The inscriptions on the saints' halos would support Flechsig's proposal: "Joseph Maria Gemahel" (Joseph, Mary's husband) and "Joachim Marie Vat[er]" (Joachim, Mary's father). In addition, Joachim is represented in the midst of a vision, and Simeon, who, upon his introduction to Christ in the temple, took him in his arms and prophesied great sufferings to Maria, holds his hands in an adoring gesture.
The four panels, unfortunately, are not very well preserved. Despite the Durer's monogram present in all four, and despite the preparatory drawing of Saint Lazarus, it is held that at least the doors with the four saints were painted with the assistance of the workshop. The gold background is probably an unusual return to the medieval manner.



The Jabach Altarpiece (external section)
Job and His Wife
Two Musicians
c. 1504
Stadelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt and Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne


 

The Jabach Altarpiece

Two wings (external part)
Job and His Wife
Two Musicians

The episode of the mocking of Job does not exist in the Book of Job in the Old Testament. It probably came from the influence of the Biblia pauperum, which speaks of the mocking as a prefiguration to the torments of Christ. It is a rare subject in painting. Durer interprets it with a scene in which Job is mocked by his wife: she pours a bucket of water on the poor man's naked body, which is covered with sores, and he, seated on a pile of dung, resignedly endures it; meanwhile, two minstrels join the scene by playing their instruments. In the background, at the top left, a rain of fire destroys the house of Job's eldest son.
A servant, however, manages to escape. We see him, a tiny figure running away from the burning house. To match this miniature scene, there is an illustration of another disgrace suffered by Job, in the background on the bottom right, behind the musicians: the assault of "three groups of Babylonian plunderers having mounted your camels and having killed all your men."
One link between the story of Job and the four saints represented in the other panels is that both Job and Lazarus are invoked as protectors from the plague. The Pre-Alpine landscape of the background and the wife's train pass from one panel to the next without breaking the continuity, thus demonstrating what has been said regarding the probable original composition of the altarpiece. The study of the bodies is impressive: the old nude and motionless Job, and his wife clad in typical Nuremberg dress pouring the water; and the minstrels, the one with the flute and the one with the little drum, the latter bearing a certain resemblance to Durer. In the depiction of the two musicians that Durer seems to have tried to represent the balance between motion and stasis of the Polycletus canon, the contrapposto, yet again. This occurs in both figures individually and in their reciprocal interaction: between the frontal position of the drummer, and the flutist, viewed from behind, moving toward him.




Adoration of the Magi
1504
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence



Adoration of the Magi (detail)
1504
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence



Adoration of the Magi (detail)
1504
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Adoration of the Magi

The elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony ordered this painting for the Schlosskirche (the church in the castle) in Wittenberg. It was once believed to be the central part of a polyptych, with, on the side wings, the story of Job, in Frankfurt and Cologne. However, this hypothesis has already been called into question by Panofsky (1948) (Anzelewsky 1991). The elector of Saxony then donated the painting to Emperor Rudolph II in 1603. An exchange with the Presentation at the Temple by Fra Bartolomeo brought it in 1 793 from the gallery in Vienna to the Uffizi. This altarpiece was probably conceived without the lateral panels, in contrast with the actual practice in Nordic countries, and at variance with the situation of the Paumgartner altarpiece. Durer framed and delimited a large space by an architecture composed of arches of a very refined perspective. The three kings arrived at this slightly elevated space from the back and after having climbed two steps. A single figure, sharplv foreshortened, followed in their footsteps from the distant background. Only the upper half of his body is shown where he now stands at the bottom of the two steps. He is Oriental and wearing a turban. The heavy traveling bag he holds probably contains precious gifts for the infant Jesus.
The Madonna is clad in azure clothes and cape, a white veil covering her head. She is holding out the infant, who is wrapped in her white veil, to the eldest king. He is offering the infant a gold casket with the image of Saint George, which the infant has already taken with his right hand. This is the only action that unfolds in the principal scene, except for the Oriental servant's gesture of putting his hand in his bag. All the other characters are motionless; immersed in thought, they look straight ahead or sideways, creating the effect of a staged spectacle set with immobile characters.
The architecture of the fictive ruins behind the Madonna is beautiful and imaginative. Durer had previously experimented with this design in drawings and engravings. The background is stupendous: the limpid sky, in which the cumulus clouds chase one another; the light Nordic city, climbing up the conelike mountain; the road bending into the archway where people stop, following behind the three kings. These are represented with much imagination and variety, as far as the fashion and color of their clothes and the differences in their expressions. In the far right are a lake and a boat.
This imagination and variety continue in the extraordinary depiction of the kings, in lavish clothing, with their precious jewels, and with the beautiful goblets and caskets that they bear as gifts. It is telling here that Durer was also an expert goldsmith. According to the Nordic tradition, also adopted previously by Mantegna in Italy, one of the kings is a Moor. The physiognomy of the young king with long blond curly hair, standing in the middle of the painting, bears, according to recent interpretation, a resemblance to a self-portrait of Durer. Panofsky attributes a Leonardesque character to him.
Durer was passionately devoted to the study of animals and plants, which he reproduced faithfully from life. See the numerous colored drawings and water-colors: the Leveret and the Bouquet of Violets, from 1502, or the Great Piece of Turf from 1503, just to mention a few.
He often distributed these images in his landscape passages, and particularly in his drawings and engravings of the Madonna. We find some here as well: in the foreground, to the right, a flying deer, already known from various watercolors (Koreny, 1985), which here symbolizes Christ; the plantain (plantago major) seen directly behind, whose healing properties were once much appreciated, recalls the spilled blood of Christ; in the foreground, now to the left, on the millstone beside the carnation, a small coleopterum surrounded by a few butterflies, the ancient symbol of the soul, which here may be a symbol of the resurrection.
The panel of the Uffizi represents the richest and most mature actualization of all Diurer's altarpieces, before his second trip to Italy, and therefore before the Feast of the Rose Garlands, painted in Venice.


The Great Piece of Turf
1503
Vienna, Albertina

 
 
 
 
 
Second Trip to Italy, 1505-1507

In the autumn of 1505, Durer left his city as he had eleven years before, because of a plague epidemic. Without delay, he set out for his beloved Venice. The most important work that he painted during this second sojourn in the Serenissima was the Feast of the Rose Garlands, an altarpiece that won admiration and enthusiasm even from the Venetian artists who previously had seriously opposed him, criticizing his method of using color. Even the doge Lorenzo Loredan and the patriarch Antonio Suriano wanted to see his work and went to his workshop. It is said that the doge offered Durer a salary of 200 florins per year to stay in Venice. Durer felt at ease in Venice, since he enjoyed much more consideration there than at home. It is worth remembering that artists in Italy represented a class unto themselves—good or bad—while in the same period in Germany, an artist was always part of, however much respected, the artisan world. Durer writes: "Oh, how much more I will endure the cold, breathing this sun! Here I feel like a gentleman; at home I am a parasite."
The following event, related by Joachim Camerarius in the preface to the edition of books on human proportion of 1532, demonstrates how much the Venetian painters must have admired the refined technique of Durer's painting: It seems that one day, Giovanni Bellini begged Durer to lend him one of his brushes for painting hair and, to his great surprise, Durer handed over some brushes that were identical to his own.


Portrait of a Young Venetian Woman
1505
Vienna, Kunslhistorischcs Museum

 

Portrait of a Young Venetian Woman

In the late eighteenth century, this panel was part of the collection of the mayor Danzica Schwartz, but in 1 790 it was auctioned off by the wife of Schwartz's brother; in the early twentieth century, we find it in the Wancowicz collection in Lithuania. The portrait was then acquired from a private collection by the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna, where it can still be found today. According to Schutz (1994), it represents one of the more important acquisitions made by the museum in the last hundred years.
The portrait is one of the first works of the artist during his second sojourn in Venice. It was painted in the autumn or in the winter of 1505. It was Fedja Anzelewsky (1971) who recognized the hairstyle of the young woman and the hairnet that covers it as typically Venetian, whereas the fashion of the clothing has been defined as typically Milanese by Weixelgartner (1927), Tietze (1937) and Panofsky (1948). From the portraits, an extraordinary charm emanates, which cannot be merely attributable to the shades of brown and gold of the hairdo and clothing, which are set apart from the uniform black background, it is really the beauty of the portrait that fascinates in its entirety and in its variety of details. It is the slight wave of the hair on the clear, high forehead that imperceivably becomes curls caressing the girl's cheeks. It is the dreamy gaze that shows, under the slightly lowered eyelids, the radiant, black eyes. It highlights the play of light on the forehead and on the cheeks. It is the candor of this face, of the neck and chest, emphasized by a neckline of a contrasting color, that evoke the image of the ideal purity of a girl. With great ability, the artist includes in this image a long and pronounced nose and large, sensual lips, immersing the whole figure in a light that reveals the important influence of the Venetian school, and, in particular, that of Giovanni Bellini.
With reference to some of the details, it has been repeatedly made known that the portrait is unfinished. It is probable that Durer deliberately did not give the same intensity to the left ribbon as to the right: on the one hand, so as to not overwhelm the charm of the dark eyes; on the other, so as to support the subtle chromatic effect of the bodice that, from the design of the gold ribbons, contributes to the overall charm of the painting.
This charm is also shown in the movement in the double rows of pearls, interrupted by the darker shapes of doubled cones, making the pendant curve slightly from the neck. Among Durer's works, there is not a more beautiful portrait of a woman. Indeed, it has led one to think that there was a rather intimate relationship between the artist and the model. Some see the woman as a courtesan (Gluck, 1933); others define her as an "instinctive, languorous, and melting beauty" (Winkler, 1957).



Portrait of a Venetian Woman

The Berlin museums acquired this panel on the antique market in London in 1893. Beforehand, it was in the Reginald Cholmondely collection.
The painting is poorly conserved. Almost all the final layers of color are missing. The eyes have been restored (Anzelewsky, 1991).
Because of the absence of the topmost layer of color, the painting has acquired a soft chromatic shading. Even if we know that Durer executed it during his second sojourn in Italy, probably in the autumn of 1506 after the Feast of the Rose Garlands, workmanship seems particularly "Venetian." The refinement of the artist is clearly absent in the sketching of the hair (compare Portrait of a Young Venetian Woman). Some object is discernible in the curl hanging to the left.
Only a few traces of the hairnet have been preserved, and the sky blue of the background, which is inexplicably divided into two sections, is probably no longer its original shade. In its original state, however, this half-bust must have been in the Venetian style, because of her full, soft shapes, delicately modeled with a measured use of light. We must count this painting among the most beautiful works Durer produced during his second sojourn in Venice.
The various attempts to identify the model—for example, as Agnes Durer, because of the letters AD on the trimming of the clothes or the woman with her head turned in the middle right of the Feast of the Rose Garlands—have not held up to criticism. The letters are probably the initials of a motto.


Portrait of a Venetian Woman
1506-07
Staatliche Museen, Berlin



 


Feast of the Rose Garlands
1506
National Gallery, Prague



Feast of the Rose Garlands (detail)
1506
National Gallery, Prague



Feast of the Rose Garlands (detail)
1506
National Gallery, Prague

Feast of the Rose Garlands

This panel was painted for an altar for the German community in Venice, in the church of S. Bartolomeo near the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, the social and commercial center of the German colony, where it remained until 1606. It was then acquired, after many negotiations, for 900 ducats by Emperor Rudolph II According to Sandrart (1675), four men were hired to bring the packaged painting to the emperor's residence in Prague.
Stationed elsewhere during the invasion of the Swedish troops, the painting, already very damaged, returned to its place in 1635. It underwent a first restoration in 1662. In 1782, it was sold in an auction for one florin. After having passed through the hands of various collectors, it was acquired by the Czechoslovakian state in 1930.
The painting, severely damaged chiefly in the center portion, from the head of the Madonna and continuing downward to the bottom, was clumsily restored in the nineteenth century; in this restoration, the upper side portion, left of the canopy and to Saint Dominic's head, was also included. Three copies of the work are known: one—considered the most important and which now belongs to a private collection—is attributed to Hans Rottenhamer, who sojourned in Venice from 1596 to 1606, where he took care of many acquisitions on behalf of Rudolph II; another is in Vienna; and the third, a rather modified version of the original, is in Lyon (Anzelewsky, 1991).
The preparatory work of the panel occupied the artist for a long time, from 7 February until the last half of April in 1506. It consists of twenty-one preparatory drawings, executed chiefly in pen and ink on azure paper, according to the Venetian tradition; others are drawings of various characters, in the dimensions then adopted for the painting (W 380-401). In a letter dated 25 September, addressed to Willibald Pirckheimer, the artist communicates the completion of the work. (Rupprich, 1956-69, I). It seems that the Confraternity of the Blessed Rosary was officially recognized by the Venetian authorities in 1506, that is, in the year Durer carried out the painting. In comparing his panel with the woodcut to the writing of Jakob Sprenger about the foundation of the same Confraternity, having appeared in Augsburg in 1476, suggests that it was well known to him. All this implies—even if no document exists to prove it, and none of the names of the members are known—that the painting was ordered by the same Confraternity. On the whole, the majority of the figures in the painting have not been identified. The exceptions to this include the self-portrait of the artist; the portrait of Emperor Maximilian I; the one of the architect Hieronymus of Augsburg, engineer of the new Fondaco dei Tedeschi (1505-8) after it was completely destroyed in a fire, and who is recognizable in the far right by the square he holds; and Burckhard from the city Speyer, identified as the fourth figure form the left (see Portrait of Burkard von Speyer). Saint Dominic is clearly the saint whom we see to the left of the Madonna, since the institution of the rosary is attributed to him. For all the others, many names have been proposed. For example, the more recent attribution of Strieder (1989) and Anzelewsky (1991), maintain that the highly characterized figure that appears just behind the emperor bears a resemblance to a representative of the Fugger house (see Jakob Fugger, the Wealthy), a powerful family of the sixteenth century, who obviously shared in the financing of the work. In fact, when Rudolph II acquired it, he sought their consent. However, the identification, especially of a specific person, is still uncertain. The Madonna is enthroned in a field, beneath a green canopy that cherubs hold up with ribbons. Other cherubs on little clouds hold a crown of precious stones suspended above her head. At her feet kneel the pope and the emperor, on the left and right, having placed before themselves a tiara and a crown, respectively. And while the Madonna places a garland of roses on the head of the emperor, the Blessed Child places an identical one over the head of the pontifice. Saint Dominic, in turn, crowns a bishop. Behind the pope and the emperor, the patrons are arranged symmetrically, some of whom, in both parts of the background, divert their gaze from the Madonna. Other Bellinian cherubs descend upon them with rose garlands. In the center of the painting, seated in front of the throne, an angel playing a lute recalls the angels playing at the feet of the enthroned Madonna in Giovanni Bellini's paintings. These details aside, the setting of the work is typically Venetian, (Panofsky 1977). The rigidly pyramidal composition of the painting is not Venetian. This painting has indicated that Durer was one to have been of the first who created such composition (Erika and Hans Tietze, 1937-38).
The Feast of the Rose Garlands is undoubtedly the most important work that Durer created during his sojourn in Venice and was the work that ushered in the Renaissance. Durer was obviously aware of this, as his letters and the painting itself demonstrate. The painting shows this in the distinction he gives his self-portrait: in the top right, in front of the typically German landscape passage at the foot of the mountains, with his face framed by long blond hair, donning luxurious clothes—even a precious fur cloak, in spite of the warm season—so as to be noticed among the other characters. He alone has ostentatiously turned his gaze to the spectator. Even the writing on the paper he holds is unusual for Italy. It indicates not only the time of production (five months), but next to his own name is the indication germanus. This detail was to distinguish himself from his Venetian colleagues, who evidently held him in very high regard, since even the doge and the patriarch came to his workshop to admire his work.



Portrait of Burkard von Speyer

This painting was present in the collection of Charles 1 of England. A comparison of the subject of this painting with that of a miniature dated 1506, located in the Schlossmuseum of Weimar and with its subject identified as Burkhard von Speyer, confirms that the portrayal is of the same person. This same person is recognizable, within a reasonable margin of probability, in the figure who, in the Feast of the Rose Garlands, is seen on the left, directly behind the young cardinal. This suggests that Burkhard, a relatively unknown figure, was part of the Venetian German community. Like the Portrait of a Youtg Man, this portrait was executed during Durer's second sojourn in Venice, between 23 September and 23 October 1506. The face in this portrait, as in the other, painted in clear pink shades, occupies almost the entire space of the painting. Even the dimensions of the two paintings are identical. It is Bellinian; even the beret is probably from Venetian fashion. Durer has captured the head from a position lower than the subject. The perspective from such an angle causes the very pronounced chin, mouth, and nose to occupy most of the face, leaving a fairly narrow and sunken space for the relatively small, slightly different from each other, light-colored eyes in the upper portion of the face. The resulting contrast, between physiognomy and gaze, confers a deeply pensive look to the portrait. The fine, light red hair, depicted very carefully, as usual, is somewhat darker than the face it frames. The light that originates from the left highlights the contrast in the colors of the head and the attire: the white of the shirt, the red of the garment over the shoulders, the light shade of the trim of the fur, the black of the two ribbons crossing in front. Despite the limits of the space, the result is a suggestive and serene image, typical of his second sojourn in Venice.
The height of this portrait, as of the one of Vienna (see Portrait of a Young Venetian Woman), so it gets numbered, with the portraits of the Tucher family, among the "portable" family portraits. The reduced dimensions were perhaps chosen because they would facilitate transportation, an important consideration to the subject, who was painted during his temporary sojourn in Venice.


Portrait of Burkard von Speyer
1506
Royal Collection, Windsor


Portrait of a Young Man

The restoration carried out of after the Second World War involved the removal of the opaque varnish that protected this painting and revealed it to be much better preserved than was previously thought. Nevertheless, the face is not finished (Anzelewsky, 1991), and it appears slightly flat, despite the vivaciousness of the eyes. The contrast of the colors of the clothing and beret (charcoal and black, respectively) against the green background elicits a remarkable effect. So does the gentle depiction of the face framed by soft, chestnut hair. The portrait, which can be considered typical of the era, according to Anzelewsky, can be dated accurately: a letter that Durer sent at that time from Venice to Willibald Pirckheimer (Rupprich, 1956-59) makes clear that it must have been carried out between 23 September 1506, and 23 October 1506, that is, after the Feast of the Rose Garlands and before the Madonna with the Siskin.


Portrait of a Young Man
1506
Palazzo Rosso, Genoa


In Venice, in addition to the important commission by the German merchants for the altarpiece the Feast of the Rose Garlands, Durer had many other commissions—above all, portraits of Italian and German personages. We know that he managed to sell the six works that he had brought with him from Nuremberg. One work that was probably not painted on commission was the Madonna with the Siskin, which he brought back with him to Nuremberg.
Vasari tells us that, during his Venetian sojourn, Durer wanted to denounce to the city's law court the Bolognese engraver Marcantonio Raimondi, an artist who—it should not be forgotten—contributed, by the spread of his own engravings, much to the reception of Raphael's works. The accusation was that he had copied Durer's works and signed them with the famous monogram. It should be remembered that Durer's idea to embed his initials, one inside the other, was a big success and was adopted by German painters such as Altdorfer and Aldegrever. This is one of the first trials defending the rights of the author. It seems that the denunciation had an effect. Though, even without Raimondi's contribution, Durer's graphic work was renowned and recognized throughout Italy. That Vasari knew him and that most Italian artists, including Vasari himself, drew on his work for their own themes, surely proves his fame throughout Italy.
The second sojourn in Venice was very important to the artist, especially in establishing his character and his artistic personality. A detailed chronicle remains from this period in the many interesting letters that he wrote to his friend Willibald Pirckheimer, who wanted to be, in addition to other matters, informed about his acquisitions, which Durer looked after, of Oriental rugs, precious gems, original editions of Greek books, and other items.
From Venice, Durer went by horseback to Bologna, where he was welcomed triumphantly as a "second Apelles." His friend Christoph Scheurl, a humanist and judge in Nuremberg, who attended his graduation at that university, introduced him to some Bolognese artists. He did not, unfortunately, have a chance to meet Luca Pacioli, whom Durer had wanted to meet so as to develop his ideas on the laws of central perspective. The famous mathematician, however, had moved to Florence.







Madonna with the Siskin
1506
Staatliche Museen, Berlin


Madonna with the Siskin (detail)
1506
Staatliche Museen, Berlin


Madonna with the Siskin (detail)
1506
Staatliche Museen, Berlin


Madonna with the Siskin (detail)
1506
Staatliche Museen, Berlin


Madonna with the Siskin

In the second half of the sixteenth century, this painting was in Nuremberg; in 1 600, it was part of the collection of Rudolph II, as Carel von Mander notes (1617).
In the 1860s, it reappeared and became the property of the marquis of Lothian of Edinburgh, from whom the Berlin museum acquired it in 1893. In a letter of 23 September 1 506 from Venice addressed to Willibald Pirckheimer, in which Durer writes that he has completed the Feast of the Rose Garlands, he also speaks of having just finished another painting. It would most likely be the Madonna with the Siskin (Arnolds, 1959), which the artist brought back to Nuremberg with him.
It is astonishing that Durer does not mention any patrons for this large painting, full of iconographical references. He created it simply by drawing on his own culture and experience. The work is conceived following the dictates of Venetian painting: a monumental Madonna, with the red gown covered by an azure cloak, who sits enthroned before a curtain that is also red, in a landscape pervaded by an especially clear light.
A Florentine trademark is represented in the presence of Saint John, even if this detail was also rather common in the Venetian painting by this time (Panofsky, 1955). The Madonna's rapt gaze is directed slightly off to the side, while her right hand rests on the Old Testament, in which is prophesied the birth of the new king. She almost unconsciously accepts a lily of the valley (convallaris majalis) from Saint John with her other hand. It is the flower symbolic of the Immaculate Conception and the Incarnation of Christ (Levi d'Ancona, The Garden of the Renaissance, 1977). The small saint, however, does not look at her; his gaze is directed to Jesus, whose divine nature Saint John is the first to recognize.
The infant Jesus is seated in his mother's lap on a rich red cushion. With his right hand, he elegantly lifts a sort of soother—a tiny pouch, apparently filled with poppy seeds, on which babies would suck and be calmed. His left hand, which holds the edge of his little shirt, probably just unfastened (see the open clasp), comes toward his face. In the preparatory drawing (W 408), Durer had represented him with a more solemn expression, while he raised the cross staff; but perhaps in changing the staff, the symbol of the Passion, with the poppy-seed soother—poppy seeds symbolic of sleep and death, if this is actually what it contains—the artist wanted to preserve the childlike manner of the infant Jesus, without altering the symbolism.
The siskin—in the place of the goldfinch—perched on his arm points his beak toward his head, where one day the crown of thorns will be; the child smiles affectionately at Saint John below him, to whom a little angel, with a meaningful eaze, is holding the cross staff out to him, though the saint and child do not take notice. To the ruins represented in perspective on the left corresponds a tree in bloom growing from a fallen trunk on the right.
The former is a symbol of the fall of the Old Covenant, or perhaps an image of the ruins of David's palace, where, according to the legend, the nativity stable stood. The latter is a sign of life and of the New Covenant. Two cherubs crown the Madonna with a garland of vine shoots of roses, in which are woven a white rose, symbol of her joy, and two red roses, symbol of her sufferings.
Durer's main accomplishment in this painting is in the perfect combination of form and content. Each of the characters expresses his or her own emotion, yet everyone together is composed in a convincing, unified story, the symbols included.
Unfortunately, the poor state of preservation greatly disturbs the impression of overall harmony that characterizes the panel.
This can be appreciated thoroughly in another painting found in the same museum, the tondo Terranuova Madonna, the brilliant and nearly contemporary work of Raphael.
About ten years later, Titian captures the Saint John of this painting in his Madonna with the Cherries, at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. He takes up again the soft depiction of the hair and veil that covers his shoulders, and changes only slightly the position of the arm (Tietze, 1937; Panofsky, 1959).
This suggests that he had seen and appreciated Durer's work during its painting in his Venetian workshop.

 
 
 

 
 
 
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