Title Page for Life of the Virgin Albrecht Durer Buy Art Prints Now
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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Albrecht Durer was an all-round artist, as equally at home with watercolour paints as he was with the woodcuts that are his acknowledged masterpieces, especially the woodcuts that he made in series: the Apocalypse with Pictures, his Great Passion and Small Passion, and the work from which this image: The Title Page for Life of the Virgin, is taken.

Durer's background as the child of a goldsmith – used to engraving and etching the most delicate of images and letters using finer tools than were usually let loose on woodblocks – and his training as an artist with several masters in painting and drawing before he turned his hand to carving the woodcuts that would form the largest part of his income and his legacy, stood him in good stead, providing him with a steady hand and the delicate hand needed to create the fine nuances of shade and light that set his works apart from those of other craftsmen who worked in terms of black and white with little or no shading involved.

This image, featuring the woman whose entire life is featured throughout the series, is as beautiful as one would expect for the frontispiece of a book, and is beautifully composed. The Madonna is seated in the deep curve of a crescent, holding and admiring her infant son, while her plentiful clothing flows about her, creating a triangular effect that is offset beautifully by the near circle hinted at by the moon-shape and enhanced by the apparent explosion of divine light radiating off the mother and child pair.

Closer examination shows that Mary is seated on a plump cushion, and is breastfeeding her child whose toes are stretched in concentration – an accurate depiction of a baby during a feed. Unusually for images of the Christ-child, Jesus is fully dressed in puffy short trousers and a long sleeved shirt or jacket. The multiple lines of light radiating away from the subjects is so closely drawn that if a viewer tilts their head while looking at the delicately etched lines, they seem to move and flow, flickering around the blessed pair, while stars shooting away from the halo only emphasise the mystique and unearthliness of the image. The woodcut, measuring just under 17 inches by 12 inches , can be seen in the Minneapolis Institute of Art, where it has been kept since it was given to that museum by one Herschel V Jones in 1926. The woodcut comes from the first edition and was published in around 1510 or 1511.