Feast of the Rose Garlands by Albrecht Dürer

Feast of the Rose Garlands by Albrecht Dürer ( 1506)

My Daily Art Display today features a painting by an artist who is hailed as the one of the greatest painters of the Late Gothic and Early Renaissance period.  He was the Nuremburg painter Albrecht Dürer.  Today’s painting is entitled Feast of the Rose Garlands and was completed by Dürer in 1506 and now hangs in the National Gallery in Prague at the Sternberg Palace.  In France, this painting is known as La Vierge de la fête du rosaire (The Virgin of the Feast of the Rosary).   The work of art is considered to be a milestone piece in the transition between the late 15th century Gothic/Medievalism and the start of the 16th century Renaissance.

Dürer had returned to Italy for the second time in 1505 and the following year settled in Venice.   He was approached by some German merchants from the emigrant German community who had settled around the commercial centre of Venice, known as Fondaco dei Tedeschi.  They wanted a single panel altarpiece for their chapel in the Church of San Bartolomeo.  The people who commissioned the painting were very precise as to what should be depicted in the altarpiece.  It was to be the gathering of the Brotherhood of the Rosary, an association founded in Strasbourg in 1474 by the German priest Jakob Sprenger and a source of worship for the German citizens who lived in Venice.   The painting is highly colourful and littered with various people, so let me introduce you to some of the characters Dürer included in his work, probably under instruction of the commissioners of the painting.  The preparatory work for the panel took Dürer three months to complete and comprised of twenty-one pen and ink preliminary sketches which followed the Venetian painting tradition.  Besides these, Dürer completed a number of small drawings of the characters he was going to incorporate into the work, some of whom were real whilst others were imaginary.

The central figure in the painting is the Virgin Mary, who is enthroned in a field,  holding the Christ child.  The positioning of the Virgin and Child along with her worshipers outdoors probably has to do with Dürer’s fascination with Italian Humanism, which emphasized the importance of humans in the natural world and this painting is similar to other Humanistic paintings of saints and humans seen occupying similar landscapes.  Above the Virgin we can see two flying angels who hold aloft a highly ornate royal crown adorned with clusters of pearls and other gems.  The back of the throne is covered with a green drape and an ornate badachin, a canopy, which is held aloft by a ribbon held by two flying Bellini-like cherubim.  At the feet of the Virgin we can see another angel playing the lute.  The Virgin is in the process of handing out rose garlands to two sets of worshippers which approach her from opposite sides in two symmetrical rows.

To the left are representatives of the clergy with the Pope at their head, while on the right are the representatives of secular power.  The religious worshipper on the left of the painting are led by a kneeling Pope Sixtus IV, his papal tiara on the ground by his side,  and his inclusion in the painting probably stemmed from the fact that he had approved of the German Brotherhood of the Rosary in 1474.  He is about to be crowned by the Christ child.

The procession of lay worshippers on the right is led by the German emperor-designate Maximillian I, with his imperial crown by his side, who is being crowned by the Virgin Mary herself.  These two men were the looked upon as the supreme authorities of the Catholic world.   To the left of the Virgin Mary we see Saint Dominic of Guzman, the Spanish cleric and founder of the Dominicans in 1216 and the Confraternity of the Rosary in 1218.  In the painting, along with a number of angels he is handing out crowns of flowers to the faithful, as a symbolic blessing.   Amongst the religious grouping on the left of the painting we have the patriarch of Venice, Antonio Soriana, hands clasped before him.  Next to him Dürer has painted Burkard von Speyer, who was at the time of the painting, the chaplain of the church of San Bartolomeo.

The Artist

If we look across to the right hand side of the painting we see a typical German Alpine landscape in the background and the line of lay people who wait to pay homage to the Virgin and child.  However one of the first people our eyes alight upon is the artist himself.   Dürer often liked to include himself within crowd scenes of his paintings (look back at the featured Dürer painting, The Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand, on April 25th).  Here we see him, standing before a tree, framed by long blonde hair, dressed in a heavy luxurious fur cloak with hooped sleeves, which immediately makes him stand out amongst the other people in the painting.  Look how he is the only one of the many characters to look directly out at us.   He can be seen holding a cartouche, or oblong scroll, in his hand.  On the scroll are the words:

EXEGIT QUINQUE MESTRI SPATIO ALBERTUS DURER GERMANUS MDVI.

(`Albrecht Dürer, a German, produced it within the span of five months. 1506.’)

By him are Leonhard Vilt of Regensburg, a printer who lived in the city and who founded the Brotherhood of the Rosary in Venice and further towards the foreground in the far right of the painting we have Hieronymus of Augsburg who was the architect and building master and who holds a builder’s square denoting his profession.  It was he who designed the new Fondaco dei Tedeschi after the original building of 1228 had been completely destroyed by fire.

This altarpiece remained in the church of San Bartolomeo in Venice until 1606.   It was then acquired, after long negotiations, for 900 ducats by the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II. Archive records show it took four men to bring the packaged painting to the emperor’s residence in Prague.   Hidden away during the invasion of the Swedish troops, the painting which had already been badly damaged was returned to its “home” in 1635.  It underwent the first of many restorations in 1662, all of which instead of enhancing the work, damaged it even further.    In 1782, it was sold in an auction for one florin.   Over the years it was bought by various art collectors and was finally purchased by the Czechoslovakian state in 1930.

This colourful work by Dürer is in the great Venetian artistic tradition with its colour blending achieving deep and rich reds, blues and greens and maybe was the perfect answer to his many critics who had earlier stated that although there was no doubting Durer’s ability to produce magnificent engravings and woodcuts, he lacked the ability to handle colours and produce a fine painting.   The painting was well received and it drew crowds of visitors from all over Europe.   At the time, it was looked upon as one of the artistic highlights of Venice and Dürer’s status as master of Renaissance painting was incontrovertible.

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