The Holy Family
An engraving of the Virgin, seated on a grassy bench, holding the Christ Child up to her face while Joseph sleeps on the ground beside them. From a gap in the clouds appear God the Father and the dove of the Holy Spirit, who together with Christ comprise the Holy Trinity. Behind to the left is a storehouse with a winch and, in the distance, a port. At the bottom right corner sits an insect. This is traditionally identified as a dragonfly, but Dürer may have intended his viewers to read it as a butterfly. The butterfly, with its transformation from caterpillar to winged insect, was commonly a symbol of the resurrection and the redemption of the soul. If this was Dürer’s meaning, the Virgin’s gesture is given added poignancy through the reference to the fate of the small child she holds. Dürer later placed a butterfly, in similar proximity to the Virgin and Child, in his 'Adoration of the Magi' (Uffizi, Florence).
This is an excellent, strong impression of one of Dürer’s first prints. In his early engravings he scored the plate deeply, meaning that many impressions could be taken before the lines became significantly worn. It is the first print on which he placed his AD monogram (though the only instance in which the ‘d’ takes the lower-case form). The Virgin and Child was a subject to which Dürer would return across his career. Such prints were sold at shops, street stalls and seasonal fairs, and by travelling salesmen such as Contz Sweitzer, who was employed by Dürer from 1497. They would have been purchased to paste into books as decorations for text and into collectors’ albums, used as models by other artists, and attached to walls as objects of devotion and decoration.
Catalogue entry adapted from 'The Northern Renaissance. Dürer to Holbein', London 2011