Artibus et Historiae no. 62 (XXXI)

2010, ISSN 0391-9064

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HANS WIDAUER - From a Preparatory Drawing to an Icon: Albrecht Dürer’s Drawing The Praying Hands and the History of its Changing Functions

Since the early twentieth century, the motif of the Praying Hands, a drawing by Albrecht Dürer preserved in the Albertina, has not only adorned baptism and confirmation certificates, as well as commemorative coins, in the form of countless reproductions, but translated into reliefs and sculpted works has also found its way into the market for devotional objects. The fame associated with Dürer’s masterpiece has contributed to the fact that today the Albertina is considered one of the most important Dürer collections worldwide, preserving not only Dürer’s complete printed oeuvre, but also the most important holdings of the master’s spectacular drawings.

By looking into the sheet’s genesis and provenance, the present article traces back the various changes in function the drawing saw in the course of its 500-year history: originally meant to study a detail, it was made by Dürer as a model to assist him and his workshop in the preparation of an altarpiece. Later on, dubious commercial interests led to manipulations in the drawing that certainly would not have met with Dürer’s approval and which would contradict the proper handling of works of art in a museum today. However, the sheet’s ambiguous fate has additionally charged the motif with religious meaning and has thus encouraged its further commercialization. The Albertina’s responsible curators and conservators therefore try to strike a balance between the motif’s reasonable and modest merchandising and the intensified conservational attention directed at the work.

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