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.

  • heidenkind says:

    I wonder what kind of dog that is.

  • H Niyazi says:

    Very interesting M! It's interesting how these water birds are so prevalent in Christian art.

    Indeed, in other depictions it is the pelican that takes on a significance in the Christian Bestiary. I also like the description of the Heron(p.214 in the reference you linked to)

    A really interesting book on this topic is Simona Cohen's Animals Disguised at Symbols in Renaissance Art, it pays particular attention to Carpaccio's Portrait of a Knight. My only wish for this book was that it wasn't so expensive!


  • Ines says:

    I have a question regarding the virgin, I have never seen before a virgin with a book in her hands. Is that something special or is it just because I'm new to the arthistory subject and haven't noticed it yet!?


  • e says:

    What a nice post to really just enjoy. I really liked reading your descriptions and, as always, your wealth of knowledge. It was also really nice to sit back and look at the picture for 10 minutes.

    I really like two things:
    -The owl. I'm not sure of the symbolism, but I like the look and feel.
    -The expression of the shepherds. I love that they have their hands outreached.

  • Dr. F says:


    I think Durer did a version of "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt" here, especially given the age of the infant Christ. Except for the myriad of symbols, the three figures in the landscape remind me of Gerard David's work. It just shows the importance and popularity of the Rest image persisted through the High Renaissance.

    As far as the symbols are concerned, I'm sure they are all meaningful, especially the owl in the dead tree trunk. Also note the fencing around the Madonna. It denotes a "hortus conclusus" or enclosed garden, a Marian symbol associated with her Immaculate Conception.

    Ines: the Madonna is often shown with a book in hand in Renaissance art.


  • M says:

    @heidenkind – I wish I knew, too! Since Dürer was so meticulous in his details, I feel like it must be a specific kind of dog.

    @H Niyazi – For me, the pelican is the most familiar symbol in Christian art (as far as birds go). For those of you who aren't familiar, the pelican is often seen as a symbol for Christ, since legend claims that the pelican pulls its own meat out of its breast in order to feed its young (a perfect symbol for Christ, who gave his own blood for others). One example of the pelican is in the top section of van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece (when the panels are opened). Behind the seated figure (which can alternately depict Christ or God), there is a gold and green brocade which is decorated with pelicans stabbing their breasts (see here).

    @Ines – you bring up an interesting question! There are several Renaissance depictions which show the Virgin Mary reading. You can see two such examples in details from The Ghent Altarpiece by van Eyck and The Merode Altarpiece by Campin.

    In annunciation scenes, it is traditionally thought that Mary is reading in Isaiah (see here for more information). There is another longstanding tradition which suggests that Mary is reading the Psalter (the 150 Psalms which ultimately make the form for the rosary prayer). (For discussion on the latter, see Penny Howell jolly, "On the Meaning of the Virgin Mary Reading: Attributed to Antonello da Messina," The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery 40, (1982): 34-35).

    @e – I like the owl too! I know that the owl has had both positive and negative associations in art, and I'm not sure what the symbolism would be in this context. Since it's placed in the dead stump, I wonder if it's supposed to symbolize sleep, evil, or even death (perhaps foreshadowing the triumph over Satan and sin through Christ?). You can read more about the symbolism of the owl here, if you're interested.

    Frank – I like that you mentioned the fence and the enclosed garden. Good observation! I didn't think of that symbol in this context, but I agree. And, given the age of the Christ child, you can present a good argument that this is a "Rest on the Flight to Egypt" scene. I wonder if you could connect the myriad of animals to the Edenic, exotic associations that Europeans had with faraway locations (in this case, it would be Egypt). I'm know that Europeans had such associations for the Orient, but perhaps similar ideas about exoticism/Eden existed for Egypt existed as well?

    Thanks for the comments, everyone!

  • Douglas says:

    There's also Boticelli's "Madonna of the Magnificat", so it wasn't just a northern thing. Also, any idea what's going on in the clouds to the right of/a bit belwo the star?

  • M says:

    Hi Douglas, I think you are talking about the angel that is appearing in the clouds. The angel is announcing the birth of Christ to shepherds in the fields, as part of the Nativity story.

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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.