The inaugural exhibition in the European works on paper rotation space (on view until March 20) explores the Renaissance in Germany. Comprised completely of prints from the collection of the Milwaukee Art Museum, you can find engravings by Heinrich Aldegrever (1502–ca. 1561) and stipple engravings by Hans Sebald Beham (1500–1550). But you can’t study printmaking in the German Renaissance without a serious consideration of Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528). And we’re lucky enough to have 14 prints by the master! This is the second of a series of posts related to Dürer’s prints.
Last time, we learned a little about Albrecht Dürer by looking at a woodcut from his series called The Apocalypse. In this post, we’ll look at a different type of print—an engraving—with religious subject matter.
Madonna with the Monkey is one of several Madonna and child compositions that Dürer produced throughout his career. His Catholic German patrons would be interested in the powerful woman that had become so central to the salvation of man by being the mother of Christ. This type of print would be popular and consequently sell well. In the current display at the Milwaukee Art Museum, there are two other depictions of the Madonna and child (Madonna and the Infant in Swaddling and the Madonna with the Pear) and two prints from the series The Life of the Virgin (The Death of Mary and The Circumcision of Jesus).
In Madonna with the Monkey, Dürer shows a young, loving mother holding her chubby baby. This display of emotion, combined with the well-modeled physicality of the figures, is a contrast to previous depictions of the Madonna and Child found in central Europe (compare this sculptural example at the Metropolitan Museum of Art). This is likely a result of Dürer’s first visit to Italy, from 1491 to 1495. While there, he studied artwork of the Italian Renaissance and the classical past. He brought back sketches and ideas which moved German art away from the frontal, stylized representations of the middle ages.
Dürer was also very interested in capturing the essence of a world around him. The setting of this print would have been readily recognized by a contemporary as showing the countryside of Germany, complete with a half-timbered structure.
In fact, the British Museum owns a watercolor study (see right) that Dürer used as the source for the background of this print. By placing the Madonna in a verdant and active outdoor setting, he has chosen to not follow the medieval preference for a location-less, heavenly space or a quiet, enclosed garden. Once again, Dürer has adopted an idea of the Renaissance.
But despite the naturalistic elements in Madonna with the Monkey, Dürer utilizes a number of Christian symbols in order to encourage the viewer to understand the underlying meaning of the subject matter.
For instance, while he is held affectionately in his mother’s lap, the Christ child clutches a bird in his hand. Birds are often symbols of the human soul, and the child’s tight grasp on the obviously upset creature represents his role as a savior who captures the soul–sometimes against its will.
But let’s finally talk about what is probably the first question that comes to mind: why is there a monkey sitting with the Madonna and child?
Well, this is yet another symbol. Throughout the middle ages and into the Renaissance, the monkey embodied negative human behaviors such as lust and greed.
This is because the monkey, as an animal, bends to the pleasures of the physical. In contrast, humans can choose to ignore those physical desires and be spiritual beings–by following the edicts of Christianity. The fact that monkeys resemble humans makes them a perfect foil for humans. Accordingly, the monkey is includes in this print to contrast his weaknesses with the goodness of the Madonna and child. It also let Dürer show off his skill in depicting different textures in print–the monkey’s fur is distinctive from the fabric of the Madonna’s dress and the tufts of grass around her.
Next time, we’ll take these two prints and explore further the two print-making techniques that Dürer uses throughout his career, woodcut and engraving, and how he was a master of both.
Catherine Sawinski is the Assistant Curator of Earlier European Art. When not handling the day-to-day running of the European art department and the Museum’s Fine Arts Society, she researches the collection of Ancient and European artwork before 1900.