The pen and ink drawing of “Praying Hands” (1508) by Albrecht Durer is one of the most familiar religious images of modern day, and is most often associated with funerals (in its use for prayer cards). Originally, however, this work of art was done merely as a study of the hands of an apostle, which would later appear in a painted altarpiece intended for a German church in Frankfurt.
In addition to its modern-day familiarity, the drawing also has become attached to some folklore, which has been proven to be nothing more than an old wives’ tale, despite its charm. What is true about the work of art, however, is that despite its modest intent, it has garnered appreciation far beyond what the artist could possibly have envisioned when he first created it.
Purpose of “Praying Hands”
The work, “Betende Hande” (Praying Hands), is also known as “Studie zu den Handen eines Apostels” (Study of the Hands of an Apostle). Done in 1508 in preparation of a triptych altarpiece, the pen and ink drawing on colored paper shows male hands joined in prayer, along with shirt sleeves. The image ends there, with no attachment to the apostolic figure to whom it would be joined. This image is just one of 18 that were done for the Heller Altar.
Working with artist Matthias Grunewald, the altarpiece was completed by 1509, with Albrecht Durer working largely on the interior of the painting. Filled with figures, the praying hands appear in the lower central area of the work, attached (of course) to an apostle.
Unfortunately, the original altarpiece was burned in a fire in 1729, but a copy of the original was made by artist Jobst Harrich, and the original drawing remains in tact in Vienna.
Story Behind the Work of Art
The folklore story associated with this work of art, although nearly Biblical in its style, has unfortunately been proven false by historians. However, its appeal remains. The story centers around the artist Albecht Durer’s own life. While it is true that Durer came from a very large family (he was from a family of 18 children), it is not true that the drawing was intended for a brother (or in some versions of the tale, a friend).
According to the legend, when Durer was young both he and his brother (or friend) wanted to be artists, but with the uncertainty of that profession, the brother needed to gain meaningful employment, and so sacrificed his own opportunity to study art and instead became a gold miner. The decision was made by a flip of the coin, and Durer won. The inspiration for the praying hands imagery came when Durer returned home and saw his brother’s gnarled hands no longer capable of holding a paint brush after working so many years in the mine. In tribute, Durer did the drawing in thanks to the brother who sacrificed his own dream to support them both.
Although the image is made more endearing by the story, it is also true that the quality of the art stands on its own. Its modest purpose is made stronger by its legend and perhaps by its familiarity to so many grieving persons who have found comfort in its image during the funeral process.