It was while in his twenties that Dürer was able to establish a reputation and influence across Europe. This was down to the beautiful woodcut prints he produced. Of the artists that were to follow him, Dürer was an inspiration to many, especially when it comes to printmaking. His career was to last over 40 years, and during this time, Dürer went on to produce a large number of works. This also includes engravings for which he is best known. One of the many well-known works credited to Albrecht Dürer is Praying Hands, an ink and pencil drawing produced in 1508. The drawing is one of a number of sketches that Dürer produced as preparation for an altarpiece, or so was originally believed.
Controversy over the Intended Purpose of Durer's Praying Hands
The original conclusion, which was accepted for many centuries, was that artist Durer completed this drawing as a preparatory study for his Heller Altarpiece, but in recent years this theory has been thrown into doubt. A new opinion, formed from considerable research, is that it wasin fact part of a campaign by the artist to promote his technical talents to potential suitors. The detail delivered in this drawing is extraordinary, and one perhaps can believe this new theory, that an artist maybe would not put so much time into something considered relatively peripheral to his main focus. The chief curator of Vienna's Albertina, Christof Metzger, and the brains behind the institution's exceptional Durer exhibition of 2019-2020, put forward this new academic opinion.
Christof Metzger also believes that it is more than likely that the artist used his own hands as the reference for this drawing. Although the altarpiece, that many believed this drawing was a study sketch in preparation for, no longer exists as a result of being destroyed in a fire, a copy completed by Jobst Harrich in the 17th Century still remains today. Both this copy plus the original, Praying Hands sketch are located at the Albertina Museum in Vienna, Austria. The fragile nature of Durer's masterpiece means that copies can only be displayed permanently, in order to fully preserve this historically significant artwork. Durer would not have known in 1508 that so much effort would have gone into protecting this artwork across the centuries that followed.
The controversy over the role of this artwork dates back to the 19th century when a general acceptance was born that this drawing was specifically aimed at preparing for the creation of an apostle in the bottom right hand side of the Heller altarpiece, which itself was completed in 1509. It was as late as 2013 that major exhibitions were still putting out this very same view, at Frankfurt's Städel Museum as well as the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, USA. Perhaps in time this will return to being the main line of thought, but for now it has lost ground to Christof Metzger's well researched opinion. Art history is full of these changing opinions though it is hard to find new research around artworks which were produced so many centuries ago. Metzger's precise comments are displayed in our Durer quotes section.
Metzerger went into further detail about why he believes this artwork was more than just a study sketch. He points to the artist's method of self-promotion, where he would invite potential donors to his studio and show off the best of his work in order to gain new commissions. Also, the completed altarpiece would never have required this level of detail and, as such, it would not have made sense for the artist to have spent this long on his Praying Hands drawing, unless it did indeed hold a higher purpose. His research also aims to push the theory that his was the artist's hands found in this depiction, which has never been truly confirmed nor denied. He mentions self portraits in which the artist's hands loosely matched those found here.
A Synopsis of Albrecht Durer's Career
Known as the Leonardo of the North, Albrecht Dürer was a renowned artist of the German Northern Renaissance movement. Born in Nuremberg in 1471 he was a painter, printmaker and theorist. The sketch that we find here shows the hand of an apostle and was destined to form the centre panel of the three-panel altarpiece. The drawing depicts the hands of a man who is praying. You do not see the man's body in the picture. What you do see however are the folded sleeves of the man. The image of the hands appear in several of Dürer's other works. When it comes to the model for the sketch, there are many stories. One story is that Dürer made use of his brother's hands for the sketch. However, there is proof that the story is true.
When it comes German Renaissance artists, Dürer is one of the leading figures of the time. His legacy is that not only is he recognised for his engravings, he is also thought of as one of Europe's first watercolour landscape artists. Of his many works they often incorporate classic motifs. Dürer also wrote a number of books in which he wrote about how his theological beliefs inspired him. In addition to Praying Hands, some of Dürer's other celebrated works include Melencolia, Saint Jerome in His Study as well as Knight, Death and The Devil.
The Impact of Durer's Praying Hands on Modern Culture
Although the image of Dürer's Praying Hands is over 500 years old it still appears in today's modern culture in a variety of different forms. Examples of where the image of the praying hands has been used include:
In 2011 a student in Athens placed a graffiti mural on the side on a ten story building in the centre of town based on Dürer's drawing. The mural differs from the original in that the hands appear upside down on the building. The cover for the track "6 God" on Drake's album If You're Reading This It's Too Late uses a version of the original drawing. The image of the Praying Hands is one where a search of the Internet will generate a significant number of results.
High Definition Image of Albrecht Durer's Praying Hands Drawing
- About: One of the many well-known works credited to Albrecht Dürer is Praying Hands, an ink and pencil drawing produced in 1508. The drawing is one of a number of drawings that Dürer produced as preparation for an altarpiece.
- Painting: Praying Hands
- Artist: Albrecht Durer
- Location: Albertina, Vienna
- Created: 1508
- Medium: Paper, Ink
- Period: Northern Renaissance