Virgin and Child on a Grassy Bench by Albrecht Dürer and five copies after it in the collection of the Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cracow.
should be noted that the depictions of a garden have been traditionally
associated with the aspects of love. Undoubtedly an important factor for that
idea was the popularity of the thirteenth century poem 'Roman de la Rose',
which uses the concept of enclosed Garden of Delight in the allegory of courtly
The depictions of Garden
of Love (in a secular meaning) became popular especially in the fifteenth
century, mainly in engravings and manuscript miniatures12
and it also included the
representations of the grassy benches.13
In fact, the pair of lovers seated on a grassy bench was
quite a popular subject of German prints of the late fifteenth and early
sixteenth centuries; one of the best-known examples would be the engraving by
Master E.S. (L.211).14
The images of Virgin with
Child often bore the allusions to the relationship between the lovers, due to
the concept that Virgin Mary, however she was a mother of Jesus, also
symbolised the Church (Ecclesia
).The Church on the other hand was often compared to the mystical Bride of
Christ, and their mutual relation was supposed to be mirrored in the Biblical
Song of Songs.15
This interpretation refers to many depictions of Jesus Child embracing his
mother, or in particular touching her chin, as that gesture had been understood
as a symbol of the physical relation between lovers (it is an ancient tradition
and was mostly popular in the representations of Cupid and Psyche).16
It seems likely that also
the depiction of Virgin and Child on a
could be interpreted this way – especially as the Song of
Songs actually compares the Bride to the enclosed garden (Hortus conclusus
soror mea, sponsa, hortus conclusus, fons signatus
– Song 4.12). Of course both metaphors used in this verse
("Closed Garden" and "Sealed Fountain") have been
understood as references to the closed and immaculate womb of Virgin Mary.17
In the fifteenth century numerous images of Virgin Mary in Hortus Conclusus
were created, and many of them contained the grassy benches, which were actual
elements of the medieval gardens.18
Albrecht Dürer's prints were copied
for various reasons – forgery was only one of them. More often those copies
served as reproductions; engravers often included their own monogram in the copy,
or the actual date of creating it, so those prints did not pretend to be
genuine Dürer's works. Albrecht Dürer's prints were also frequently used in the
training process in the printmakers' workshops: copying Dürer was simply the
way to learn engraving.28
Not only copies, but also pastiches were created, putting together details from
different Dürer's prints.29
seems that the interest in Dürer's art increased throughout the sixteenth
century and culminated in the seventeenth century. In fact there is even a term
which refers to the peak
of Dürer's popularity around 1600. Undoubtedly it was related to the fact that
well-known Dürer's collectors of that time were the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf
II (1552-1612) as well as the Dukes of Bavaria William V (1548-1626) and
Maximilian I (1573-1651); therefore Dürer's prints were very popular at their
courts in Prague and in Munich, respectively.31
There was actually a
rivalry between Maximilian I and Rudolf II, as each of them tried to acquire more
original Dürer's works than the other.32
appreciation of Dürer's work in the first half of the seventeenth century is
reflected in various written sources; for example Hans Hieronymus Imhoff (1569-1629), great-grandson of
Willibald Pirckheimer, noted in 1634 that Dürer's signature was added to drawings to
achieve higher price. Interest towards the past in Northern Europe at the
beginning of the seventeenth century was on he other hand reflected by the
development of the historical writing.33
beginning of the seventeenth century was the time of the popularity of
traditional Gothic forms in the Central-European architecture: it was so called
"Postgothic", or "Baroque Gothic". The use of those Gothic
forms, however not limited to Central Europe, was especially popular in
Bohemian and Moravian architecture and also present in German churches of that
It is usually interpreted
as rooted in the interest in local cultural history and tradition, as well as
linked to the Counter-Reformation. In any case, it seems interesting that
apparently around the same time there was a revival of both late gothic
architecture (in Central Europe flourishing at the turn of the fifteenth and
sixteenth centuries) and Dürer's art, in many aspects preserving late gothic
stylistic and iconographical traditions.
The five copies
after Dürer present in the collection of PAAS have not yet been a subject of a
single publication; in general, some of those prints have only been mentioned
in the catalogues as The Illustrated Bartsch, with no additional analysis. Two
of the copies in PAAS, inv. BGR.000199 and BGR.037341(figs. 2-3)
were created by Jan Wierix in 1566 in Antwerp. These
were previously ascribed
to Hieronymus Wierix, but later the attribution was changed to his older
brother, Jan. Wierix brothers Jan (1549-1618) and Hieronymus (1553-1619)
created around 50 copies after Dürer's prints in their youth, most likely in
the course of their education.36
Both prints in PAAS
collection are quite faithful copies that include Dürer's monogram, but the
original date 1503 was replaced by 1566. Both of them have very indistinctive
inscriptions in their lower right corners. The inscriptions surely contain ligatured
'AE' and most probably a number, which seems to be 17, although it has also
been interpreted as 16.37
It seems very probable,
as Mr Krzysztof Krużel proposed, that this inscription refers to the age of the
stands for Ætatis
) – if that is the case, 17 fits
to Jan Wierix, who was of that age in 1566. The print BGR.000199 has a verso
stamp of PAU collection as it came from The Polish Library in Paris. The print
BGR.037341 additionally contains a monogram (CIV.ex.
) that proves that the print was published by Claes Jansz
Visscher. This print has more verso stamps: one of baron Hans Albrecht von
Derschau, a Nuremberg collector who died in 1824 (Lugt 2510),38
and the other of the
Royal Academy of Arts Library at Berlin. The latter contains inscription
'Bibliothek d.K.A.d.K' in a rectangle frame with rounded edges – it was used in
the second half of the nineteenth century.39
The print BGR.037341 used
to be a part of the collection acquired from Berlin after the World War II.
It is actually
quite rare to combine the image of Virgin with Child with a depiction of a dog.
In general a dog was understood as a symbol of fidelity and faithfulness.
According to medieval bestiaries, dogs are the smartest of all the animals,44
so it could be associated
with Virgin Mary and the Divine Wisdom. The dog was rather more likely to
appear in the marriage portrait (as a symbol of fidelity), which may bring us
back to the symbolism related to the Mystical Bride from Song of Songs, mentioned
above. On the other hand, perhaps it is not a coincidence that the dog in the
prints in question resembles a lion – that could lead us to the reference to
the medieval images of Virgin with the lion, interpreted as the symbol of
Divine Wisdom again (in reference to the Biblical description of the throne of
Solomon, decorated with the depictions of lions).45
Also the iconography of hares is often explained in reference to the
Old Testament (Psalms 104:18 and Proverbs 30:26), which is in fact not entirely
correct, as in both cases the verse in original text refers to shafan
, that is a hyrax.46
However, in case of medieval and early modern western European art we should stick to the Latin translation – in fact,
this animal is translated in Vulgate as "hedgehog" in Psalm 104 (montes excelsi cervis petra refugium ericiis
and in Proverbs as "hare" (lepusculus plebs invalida quae conlocat in petra
. The Physiologus
, probably in reference
to the Greek translation of the Psalms, stated that a rabbit in danger seeks
safety by climbing high up rocky cliffs, and it was understood as an advise for
human soul to seek salvation climbing up towards God. In the medieval
bestiaries the entry about a hare was a short one: it explained that its Latin
name "lepus" derived from "levipes"
("light-footed") and that symbolically a hare refers to a person that
Hares' and rabbits' symbolism is not distinguished, as both animals since the ancient
times referred to the concepts of fertility and sexuality. Juxtaposing them
with Virgin Mary was supposed to stress her purity and victory over lust49
. There was also a belief
that rabbits were hermaphrodites that could reproduce without sexual
intercourse, which could have been used as a reference to the virgin motherhood
of Mary. The fact is that hares or rabbits occurred in some depictions of Virgin and Child on a Grassy Bench,
example in Albrecht Dürer's Holy Family
with Three Hares (fig. 7)
The three hares were actually a separate medieval motif usually interpreted as
the symbol of the Holy Trinity.50
Finally, it should be
noted that most probably also the additions in the background in the discussed
Overadt's prints are not just decorative motifs, but bear the symbolic meaning.
The mountain goat to the left is actually a scapegoat, depicted in almost
identical way in the Dürer's print of Adam
(1504, B.1). It refers to the future sacrifice of Christ and as a
result to the salvation of the world; therefore the castle-city to the right
may be interpreted as the silhouette view of the New Jerusalem.51
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