December 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.


Crucifix of Gero Conundrum

Okay, Ottonian art experts, I need help. I’m trying to resolve an issue regarding the Crucifix of Gero (c. 970, Cologne Cathedral, shown left). The most recent editions of Gardner’s Art Through the Ages and Stokstad’s Art History mention that this statue functions as a reliquary. According to both books, a cavity in the back of Christ’s head contains a piece of the Host.1

HOWEVER, I recently read here that no cavity exists behind the sculpture. “Despite older sources even citing the exact dimensions of such a reliquary opening in the Cologne sculpture, the restoration of the Gero Cross in 1976 revealed that no receptacle exists in the corpus’ head.”2

What’s the real story behind this? Who should I believe? I’m inclined to believe the 1976 restoration news, but it seems incredulous that both major art history textbooks would have missed the “There is no reliquary cavity!” memo that was written almost 35 years ago. Did any further evidence come about after the 1976 restoration? Or should I continue to lose faith in canonical art history textbooks?

One other thought. Despite that there might not be an opening in its back, I think this statue could still function as a reliquary: in the 10th century Archbishop Gero allegedly placed the Host and True Cross in the once-cracked wood of the statue (see footnote #2 below). But I guess there’s no way to prove that miraculous story through scientific analysis, is there?

1 Marilyn Stokstad, Art History, 4th ed. (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2011), 448. See also Fred S. Kleiner, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages (Backpack Edition: The Middle Ages), 13th ed. (Boston: Wadsworth: 2010), 201304.

2 Søren Kaspersen and Erik Thunø, Decorating the Lord’s Table: On the Dynamics Between Image and Altar in the Middle Ages (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2006), 59 (available online here). This same book also mentions the tradition of how the Crucifix of Gero came to be a so-called reliquary: “The early eleventh century Chronicon of Thietmar of Merseburg contains a miracle story involving Gero of Cologne, who served as archbishop from 969 to 976. The passage in Chapter Two of Book Three reads: ‘Meanwhile, Archbishop Gero of the see of Cologne died. As I have only spoken briefly about him, I will not relate a few things which I previously held back. He had a crucifix artfully made out of wood, which now stands above his grave, in the middle of the church. When he noticed a fissure in the crucifix’s head, he healed it, trusting not in himself, but rather in the healthy remedy of the highest artisan. He took a portion of the body of the Lord, our unique comfort in every necessity, and part of the health-bringing cross, and placed them together in the crack. Then, prostrating himself, he tearfully invoked the name of the Lord. When he arose, he found that the damage had been healed through his humble benediction.'” See Kaspersen and Thunø, 45-46 (available online here).


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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.