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

The Seven Sorrows of the Virgin

c. 1496
Oil on panel, 109 x 43 cm (central panel), 63 x 46 cm (each side panel)
Alte Pinakothek, Munchen and Gemäldegalerie, Dresden

Dürer's earliest known altarpiece may well have been commissioned by Frederick the Wise for his palace church at Wittenberg. It was probably ordered in April 1496, when Dürer painted his portrait. A payment of 100 florins was made to the artist at the end of the year for the altarpiece.

The altarpiece was originally very large, nearly two metres high and nearly three metres wide. The right half, representing the Seven Joys of the Virgin, is now missing and only the left half of the Seven Sorrows survives. The central part of the surviving wing depicts the grieving Virgin after the Crucifixion, with a golden sword about to pierce her heart. Around the Virgin are seven smaller panels with detailed scenes from the life of Christ (anticlockwise from top left): the Circumcision, the Flight into Egypt, the 12 year-old Christ among the Doctors, the Bearing of the Cross, the Nailing to the Cross, the Crucifixion and the Lamentation.

The altarpiece was made in Dürer's newly established workshop and although it was made to his design, some of it may have been painted by assistants. Dürer's pen and ink study survives of the man drilling a hole in the Cross in the lower right panel of the Nailing to the Cross.

The whole altarpiece was acquired in the mid-sixteenth century by the artist Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515-86), whose distinguished father had served as court painter in Wittenberg. It was probably Cranach the Younger who sawed the work into separate panels. The panel of the grieving Virgin (which at some point was reduced in size by 18 centimetres at the top) is now in Munich and those of the Seven Sorrows are in Dresden. The right half of the altarpiece representing the Seven Joys is known only through copies.