Albrecht Durer, “The Praying Hands”

by J-Mirabelli

Of the hundreds of portraits, pen and silver-point sketches, watercolors, charcoals, woodcuts, and copper engravings that hang in every great museum in the world, Durer's Praying Hands is still the best known of his works.

One of the most popular religious symbols used on Prayer/Memorial cards is the “Praying Hands” by Albrecht Durer.

Born May 21, 1471 in Nuremberg, Germany, Albrecht was the third of eighteen children. Noting his son’s natural artistic talent, when Albrecht turned sixteen, his father arranged for him to apprentice with Michael Wolgemut, a well known artist. Wolgemut introduced him to stained glass and woodcutting and, after studying engraving techniques in Italy he became the first artist in Nuremberg to practice the art of engraving. Albrecht evolved as one of the most unique artistic talents of his time designing clothing, glassware and fountains in addition to his art.

Durer devoted the majority of his art to Biblical subjects. His paintings, drawings, engravings are coveted by art collectors today but none are as well known as the “Hands of the Apostle” or “Praying Hands” as the drawing has become known.

Folklore states that the “Praying Hands” was a gift to one of his brothers or, alternatively, a friend in exchange for a pact made. According to folklore, a coin was flipped between Albrecht and his brother or friend, both of whom aspired to be artists. Albrecht won the toss and the other man went into the goldmines to work to support Albrecht’s artistic career. As the story goes, Albrecht came back to his home town and saw the gnarled, work-ruined hands of the man who had supported him and who was no longer capable of holding even a paint brush and so he painted the “Praying Hands” in thanks for his self-sacrifice.

In the bottom right of the center panel is the Apostle holding his hands in prayer which Durer painted after drawing the "Praying Hands".

As inspiring as this story is however, it has been proven false. The “Praying Hands” was actually a study done by Albrecht for a larger, three panel painting that hung behind the Heller Altar in a church in Frankfurt which was unfortunately, destroyed by fire in 1729. The painting however was faithfully copied by another artist and it lives on in a museum in Frankfurt as well as Durer’s drawings for the painting. Medical experts have declared that the hands are too well kept to be those of a gold miner and that the sleeves of the clothing are also too rich for a mere mine worker. The legends however continue to live on despite evidence to the contrary .

Read more:

Albrecht Durer Biography

Praying Hands | Hektoen International A Journal of Medical Humanities

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