Art History  •  Artworks under the lens

Feast of the Rosary: Albrecht Dürer’s Masterpiece

Albrecht Dürer is considered one of the most important artists of the Late Gothic and Early Renaissance period. He created more than 800 works during his lifetime, and Singulart will be delving into the history of one of his most celebrated pieces, Feast of the Rosary. Completed in 1506, it has been called “the most superb painting that a German master has ever created” and is considered to be a turning point in the transition from the Late Gothic period to the Renaissance period. 

Who was Albrecht Dürer?

Albrecht Dürer, creator of Feast of the Rosary, Self-portrait at the age of 26
Albrecht Dürer, Self-portrait at the age of 26

Albrecht Dürer was born in Nuremberg in 1471. Originally trained as a goldsmith, he soon developed an interest in drawing and began working as an apprentice to Michel Wolgemut, a famous painter and woodcut artist, at the age of fifteen. He was adept at working with a variety of mediums, such as woodcuts, engravings, and drawings. 

Dürer was greatly influenced by the arts scene in Italy. After traveling to Venice in 1494 on his wanderjahre (wandering years, or basically a gap year), he was accepted into workshops with Vivarini and Bellini, and the Italian influence became evident in his work. 

Dürer was particularly renowned for his printmaking and etchings, and is regarded as one of the most skilled etchers in history. 

How did Dürer create Feast of the Rosary?

The Feast of the Rosary was commissioned by a group of German merchants (specifically Jakob Fugger, who would become the subject of a Dürer portrait in 1518). The artwork was created to be displayed at San Bartolomeo church in Venice, near the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, an area with a large population of German immigrants. The merchants were very specific in detailing what they wanted: to portray a gathering of the Brotherhood of the Rosary. 

Albrecht Dürer, Feast of the Rosary, 1506
Albrecht Dürer, Feast of the Rosary, 1506

It took Dürer almost two months to prepare himself for Feast of the Rosary. He made twenty one preparatory drawings, created with pen and ink on azure paper – a Venetian tradition and another example of the Italian influence on Dürer’s work. 

In Feast of the Rosary, Dürer creates a harmony between conventional German religious altarpieces and the bright, dazzling colors of Venetian artwork. In a letter to a friend, he stated “I have stopped the mouths of all the painters who used to say I was good at engraving, but as to painting I did not know how to handle my colors. Now everyone says the better coloring they have never seen.”

Who can we see in Feast of the Rosary?

The central figures in Feast of the Rosary are the Virgin Mary and  a young Jesus Christ. The way the figures are positioned is believed to be a nod to Dürer’s fascination with Italian Humanism, which emphasized the relationship between humans and nature. Surrounded by cherubs, the Virgin Mary is in the process of handing rose garlands to her followers. 

To the left we can see representatives of the clergy, led by a kneeling Pope Julius II. His papal tiara is on the ground, as he is preparing to receive a rose garland from Christ. He is most likely included in the piece as it was he who approved the German Brotherhood of the Rosary in 1474. Emperor Maximillian I can be seen on the opposite side, being crowned by the Virgin Mary. Like the Pope, he has removed his imperial crown to receive Mary’s blessing. The Pope and the Emperor were seen as the supreme authority in the Catholic world.

Standing to the left of the Virgin Mary, we can also see Saint Dominic, who founded the Cofraternity of the Rosary in 1218 and is the protector of the adoration of Mary and the rosary. In the background of the piece, we can also see Antonio Soriano, the patron of Venice, and Burkard von Speyer, the chaplain of the San Bartolomeo church. It is believed that Dürer also included Leonhard Vihlt, founder of the Brotherhood of the Rosary in Venice, and Hieronymous of Ausberg, the architect of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi. 

Dürer has also included a self portrait within the painting – he can be seen on the right side of the painting, holding a scroll which reads EXEQUIT CUINQUE MESTRI SPATIO ALBERTUS DURER GERMANUS MDVI (translating to “It took five months Albrecht Dürer the German 1506”). He is the only figure in the painting that is directly facing the audience.

Dürer’s Italian influences

Giovanni Bellini,  San Zaccaria Altarpiece, 1505. The painting inspired Feast of the Rosary.
Giovanni Bellini, San Zaccaria Altarpiece, 1505.

Feast of the Rosary is heavily influenced by Dürer’s time spent in Italy, and in particular by the work of Bellini. In fact, Dürer was noted as saying that he wanted to equal, or even surpass Bellini, combining inspiration drawn from Bellini’s work with Dürer’s own mastery of painting. It is believed that Dürer was particularly inspired by Bellini’s San Zaccaria Altarpiece.

Beyond obvious comparisons, such as the style of the cherubs surrounding the crowd, both Feast of the Rosary and San Zaccaria Altarpiece use natural light to illuminate their subjects, something often seen in Bellini’s work. Dürer was not aiming to copy the Italian style directly, but to take certain elements and create a union between northern and southern influences. 

Where is Feast of the Rosary today?

In 1606 the painting was acquired by Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II. After being hidden by the troops during the invasion, the painting received considerable damage, and further attempts to restore the painting only served to damage it further. The original painting is far too fragile to move; any collections the piece appears in will feature a copy instead. The original work now resides at the National Gallery in Prague after being bought by the Czechoslovakian state in 1930. 

See paintings inspired by Albrecht Dürer on Singulart.

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