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

Madonna of the Pear

Oil on wood, 49 x 37 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

The Virgin and Child was Dürer's favourite subject for paintings and no doubt highly popular with patrons. Mary, dressed in a rich blue robe and set against a dark background, gazes down adoringly at her baby. Her veil almost touches the child's head, following its contours. The Virgin's thumb and finger at the bottom of the picture emphasize the fragility of the child's body. Jesus holds the top half of a neatly sliced pear which his mother has cut for him. He has already taken a small bite with the two tiny upper teeth which have just begun to grow. This is a harmonious picture, in terms of colour, composition and subject-matter.

A refined variety of details encircle the delicate face of the Virgin: the curls, the veil, and the ribbon across the forehead. The drawing of the eyes and eyebrows is sharp, and the red lips are well defined. Bowing her head tenderly toward her child and bestowing on him an extremely sweet smile, she presents him to the spectator. He lies on a sky-blue cloth, under which she hides her hands so as not to touch him, as one would not touch a precious jewel.

There has always been much discussion about the difference between the delicateness of Maria's face and the robust plasticity of the Herculean body of the child, likewise, about the differences in the pictorial technique adopted for each one: a much more physical depiction of the child than the mother. Much has been said about the marked torsion in the body of the little boy, which is splendid both in terms of formal and chromatic considerations. Other similar examples exist in Dürer's paintings and drawings (Madonna and Child with a Pear in the Uffizi, Florence). But no one, until now, has tried to resolve the meaning of the painting, or the presence of the cut pear ostentatiously presented by the child. His limpid and open gaze knowingly peers into the far distance.

The pear as an attribute of Christ and Maria is not rare in Venetian painting of the Renaissance, and it appears in all Italian painting; following an interpretation of Bernardo di Chiaravalle of the Cantico dei Cantici, the sweetness of the taste symbolizes the sweetness of mouth and heart, which are, according to Saint Bonaventure, the gifts of the wise. Even Dürer depicted it (1509) in the middle of other fruits in a basket at Maria's feet, in the drawing of the Holy Family under the Loggia. The unusual fact in this painting is that the pear in the child's hand is cut and bitten into. However, wisdom and sweetness are certainly the principal themes of this delightful small devotional image.