(b. 1471, Nürnberg, d. 1528, Nürnberg)
Feast of the Rose Garlands1506
Oil on poplar panel, 162 x 194,5 cm
Národní Galerie, Prague
This panel was painted for an altar for the German community in Venice, in the church of S. Bartolomeo near the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, the social and commercial centre of the German colony, where it remained until 1606. It was then acquired, after many negotiations, for 900 ducats by Emperor Rudolph II. According to Sandrart (1675), four men were hired to bring the packaged painting to the emperor's residence in Prague.
Stationed elsewhere during the invasion of the Swedish troops, the painting, already very damaged, returned to its place in 1635. It underwent a first restoration in 1662. In 1782, it was sold in an auction for one florin. After having passed through the hands of various collectors, it was acquired by the Czechoslovakian state in 1930.
The painting, severely damaged chiefly in the centre portion, from the head of the Madonna and continuing downward to the bottom, was clumsily restored in the nineteenth century; in this restoration, the upper side portion, left of the canopy and to Saint Dominic's head, was also included. Three copies of the work are known: one - considered the most important and which now belongs to a private collection - is attributed to Hans Rottenhamer, who sojourned in Venice from 1596 to 1606, where he took care of many acquisitions on behalf of Rudolph II; another is in Vienna; and the third, a rather modified version of the original, is in Lyon.
The preparatory work of the panel occupied the artist for a long time, from 7 February until the last half of April in 1506. It consists of twenty-one preparatory drawings, executed chiefly in pen and ink on azure paper, according to the Venetian tradition; others are drawings of various characters, in the dimensions then adopted for the painting. In a letter dated 25 September, addressed to Willibald Pirckheimer, the artist communicates the completion of the work.
It seems that the Confraternity of the Blessed Rosary was officially recognized by the Venetian authorities in 1506, that is, in the year Dürer carried out the painting. It is assumed that the painting was ordered by this Confraternity. On the whole, the majority of the figures in the painting have not been identified. The exceptions to this include the self-portrait of the artist; the portrait of Emperor Maximilian I; the one of the architect Hieronymus of Augsburg, engineer of the new Fondaco dei Tedeschi (1505-8) after it was completely destroyed in a fire, and who is recognizable in the far right by the square he holds; and Burckhard from the city Speyer, identified as the fourth figure form the left.
St Dominic is clearly the saint whom we see to the left of the Madonna, since the institution of the rosary is attributed to him. For all the others, many names have been proposed. However, the identifications are still uncertain. The Madonna is enthroned in a field, beneath a green canopy that cherubs hold up with ribbons. Other cherubs on little clouds hold a crown of precious stones suspended above her head. At her feet kneel the pope and the emperor, on the left and right, having placed before themselves a tiara and a crown, respectively. And while the Madonna places a garland of roses on the head of the emperor, the Blessed Child places an identical one over the head of the pontifice. St Dominic, in turn, crowns a bishop. Behind the pope and the emperor, the patrons are arranged symmetrically, some of whom, in both parts of the background, divert their gaze from the Madonna. Other Bellinian cherubs descend upon them with rose garlands. In the centre of the painting, seated in front of the throne, an angel playing a lute recalls the angels playing at the feet of the enthroned Madonna in Giovanni Bellini's paintings. These details aside, the setting of the work is typically Venetian. The rigidly pyramidal composition of the painting is not Venetian. This painting has indicated that Dürer was one to have been of the first who created such composition.
The Feast of the Rose Garlands is undoubtedly the most important work that Dürer created during his sojourn in Venice and was the work that ushered in the Renaissance. Dürer was obviously aware of this, as his letters and the painting itself demonstrate. The painting shows this in the distinction he gives his self-portrait: in the top right, in front of the typically German landscape passage at the foot of the mountains, with his face framed by long blond hair, donning luxurious clothes - even a precious fur cloak, in spite of the warm season - so as to be noticed among the other characters. He alone has ostentatiously turned his gaze to the spectator. Even the writing on the paper he holds is unusual for Italy. It indicates not only the time of production (five months), but next to his own name is the indication germanus. This detail was to distinguish himself from his Venetian colleagues, who evidently held him in very high regard, since even the doge and the patriarch came to his workshop to admire his work.