DÜRER, Albrecht
(b. 1471, Nürnberg, d. 1528, Nürnberg)

Madonna with the Siskin

1506
Oil on poplar panel, 91 x 76 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin

In the second half of the sixteenth century, this painting was in Nuremberg; in 1600, it was part of the collection of Rudolph II. In the 1860s, it reappeared and became the property of the marquis of Lothian of Edinburgh, from whom the Berlin museum acquired it in 1893.

In a letter of 23 September 1506 from Venice addressed to Willibald Pirckheimer, in which Dürer writes that he has completed the Feast of the Rose Garlands (Národní Galerie, Prague), he also speaks of having just finished another painting. It would most likely be the Madonna with the Siskin, which the artist brought back to Nuremberg with him. It is astonishing that Dürer does not mention any patrons for this large painting, full of iconographical references. He created it simply by drawing on his own culture and experience.

The work is conceived following the dictates of Venetian painting: a monumental Madonna, with the red gown covered by an azure cloak, who sits enthroned before a curtain that is also red, in a landscape pervaded by an especially clear light. A Florentine trademark is represented in the presence of Saint John, even if this detail was also rather common in the Venetian painting by this time. The Madonna's rapt gaze is directed slightly off to the side, while her right hand rests on the Old Testament, in which is prophesied the birth of the new king. She almost unconsciously accepts a lily of the valley (convallaris majalis) from Saint John with her other hand. It is the flower symbolic of the Immaculate Conception and the Incarnation of Christ. The small saint, however, does not look at her; his gaze is directed to Jesus, whose divine nature Saint John is the first to recognize.

The infant Jesus is seated in his mother's lap on a rich red cushion. With his right hand, he elegantly lifts a sort of soother - a tiny pouch, apparently filled with poppy seeds, on which babies would suck and be calmed. His left hand, which holds the edge of his little shirt, probably just unfastened (see the open clasp), comes toward his face. In the preparatory drawing, Dürer had represented him with a more solemn expression, while he raised the cross staff; but perhaps in changing the staff, the symbol of the Passion, with the poppy-seed soother - poppy seeds symbolic of sleep and death, if this is actually what it contains - the artist wanted to preserve the childlike manner of the infant Jesus, without altering the symbolism.

The siskin - in the place of the goldfinch - perched on his arm points his beak toward his head, where one day the crown of thorns will be; the child smiles affectionately at Saint John below him, to whom a little angel, with a meaningful gaze, is holding the cross staff out to him, though the saint and child do not take notice.

To the ruins represented in perspective on the left corresponds a tree in bloom growing from a fallen trunk on the right. The former is a symbol of the fall of the Old Covenant, or perhaps an image of the ruins of David's palace, where, according to the legend, the nativity stable stood. The latter is a sign of life and of the New Covenant.

Two cherubs crown the Madonna with a garland of vine shoots of roses, in which are woven a white rose, symbol of her joy, and two red roses, symbol of her sufferings.

Dürer's main accomplishment in this painting is in the perfect combination of form and content. Each of the characters expresses his or her own emotion, yet everyone together is composed in a convincing, unified story, the symbols included. Unfortunately, the poor state of preservation greatly disturbs the impression of overall harmony that characterizes the panel.