Monthly Archives: November 2015

Praying Hands by Albrecht Durer

I’m going to do something a little different for this post. There will still be information about the artist and the artwork but instead of a devotion, I’m going to show you a simple art project for children. It’s quick,and it’s fun. It will also help illustrate the meaning of the artwork, decorate your Thanksgiving table, and remind us all of our need for prayer, not just at Thanksgiving, but in all situations.

The Artist
Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) was born and lived in the German city of Nuremberg, which was an important center of trade, metalwork, and the new technology of printing. Durer’s father was an accomplished and prosperous goldsmith, but life was still hard. Germany was divided into lots of semi-independent states with many resulting wars. There were also military threats from outside, frequent famines from crop failures, and recurring outbreaks of the plague (2 in Durer’s lifetime). Durer was one of just 3 in his family of 18 children to reach adulthood.

Durer’s education was typical of sons of prosperous merchants or craftsmen. He had 3 years of school to learn to read and write, then was apprenticed to his father to learn the goldsmith’s trade. At 15 Durer switched his apprenticeship to a Nuremberg painter and designer of woodblocks for book illustration.

At 18 Durer traveled throughout Germany as a journeyman. He financed this by making and selling woodblock designs to book printers. Twice he traveled to Italy to study the art of men such as Raphael and da Vinci. Durer was one of the first northern artists to do this, and his work shows a mingling of the Northern artists’ careful observation of individual detail and the Italian artists’ concern with the rules of perspective and form.

Returning to Nuremberg, Durer became a famous and respected artist. He received many commissions, including from Frederick the Wise, who also supported Martin Luther.

Although a great painter, Durer was one of the first to make the major part of his income from woodblock prints and engravings, which were affordable by all. In these Durer used fine lines to produce life-like details and shading. One project, 15 large woodblock prints from the last book of the Bible, instantly became a bestseller, making Durer famous throughout Europe. Some were later used in Luther’s German New Testament.

Durer continued to travel. Wherever he traveled, he studied and painted ordinary places and creatures with the interest of a naturalist. He painted crabs he saw in the fish markets of Venice and in the Netherlands tried to see and draw a beached whale. It is believed that he contracted malaria from that excursion, and later died from it.

Praying Hands by Albrecht Durer, public domain, wikimedia

The Artwork
The Praying Hands have become an enduring symbol of faith. They were done as a study for a large painting that was part of an altarpiece for a church. In the lower half of the altarpiece painting, the twelve apostles are praying at Jesus’ empty tomb. We know this painting only from a copy, because the original was destroyed by fire in 1729.

Some of Durer’s original studies of hands, robes, and heads, including The Praying Hands, also remain. The Praying Hands study was drawn with a brush on a greenish blue paper. They show careful observation, yes, but goe far beyond mere recording, to illustrate humble faith and trust in God.

Durer seems to have been fascinated all his life by hands and their expressive ability. His first self-portrait done at the age of 13 shows that interest. Perhaps as an artist, he realized more than most how wonderfully made the hand is, and what amazing tasks God has designed it to be able to do.

A sentimental, but completely false, legend about these hands (I don’t know where or when it started) says that they are the hands of an artist friend of Durer who worked to pay for Durer’s art education. The story goes on to say that when it was the friend’s turn to get an education, his hands were too roughened by manual labor to be able to use brush and pen.

Portrait of Durer's father

Portrait of Durer’s father

The truth is always much better! The facts of Durer’s artistic education are as I stated above. As for his spiritual education, he seems to have come from a devout Christian family. In his writings, Durer describes his father as a gentle, patient man, friendly to all and thankful to God, who daily told his children to, “love God and deal truly with our neighbours.”

Durer also states that his father was pleased with his son’s hard work and desire to learn. He must have, in addition, loved his son very much to allow him to pursue a calling as an artist instead of insisting he follow his father in the goldsmith’s trade.

self portrait at 13, Albrecht Durer, public domain

As an adult, Durer followed Luther’s writings closely, often requesting copies of new pamphlets from Frederick the Wise’s secretary. When Luther was “kidnapped” Durer was in the Netherlands. For some time he, along with most others, thought the kidnapping was real and that Luther might be dead.

This quote from Durer’s journal shows his worry as well as his desire to understand the ways of God. “Oh God, if Luther be dead, who will henceforth expound to us the holy Gospel with such clearness? What might he not have written for us in the next ten or twenty years?”

This is the well-educated, hard-working, spiritually-seeking artist who loved to investigate and depict the simplest things of God’s creation, and shows us in The Praying Hands a wonderful symbol of our need for prayer.

The Art Project, Praying Hands
This project can be done very simply with crayons and in about 15 minutes while everyone is waiting for dinner to be ready. At the end I will show and explain an extra step that you can do if you wish. It’s a little messier, but fun if you’re game!
Materials: basics–brown, white, or Thanksgiving-motif paper lunch bags, scissors, pencils, a little glue, and crayons or markers. Add poster-type paint and a largish brush, if you want to do the extra step. And some paper towels!!

20151124_1442261. Place a folded paper bag flat on the table with the folded bottom of the bag facing up. Have the child place his or her hand flat on the bag with finger tips pointed toward the top of the bag and their wrist at the upper edge of the folded bag bottom.

2. With a pencil, trace around the child’s hand.

3. Keeping the bag folded, cut in from the sides of the bag (just above the folded bag bottom) to the child’s wrist. Then cut up and around the traced hand (through both thicknesses of the bag) and out to the bag’s other edge on the other side of the hand.20151124_152726

The child may then decorate or color the hands.


20151124_144928The extra step: before opening the bag, fold the two hands away from each other and the bag bottom. Spread a thin layer of paint on the child’s hands (too much paint just smears and doesn’t show the lines of the hand. If you’re not sure how much to use, have some scrap paper handy and do a couple trial prints)

20151124_145709Then help the child to make hand prints on what will be the inside or palm of their praying hands.

20151124_145718They need to hold their hand still and just press down gently.

They will also need to do each hand separately so thumbs and fingers match. (To cut down on the mess, as you finish printing with each of the child’s hands, fold a paper towel around and into it so they have the towel to hold until you get them to wherever you’ll wash up)

20151124_152705I like to do this additional step if possible because when children see their hand print, it’s a great time to talk to them about how wonderfully made they are and that they are so special to God that their finger prints are different from anyone else’s.

Last step: Whether you do the printing part or just the coloring, now open the bag. To form the praying hands, glue the tips of the fingers together. (just a little glue so you can still put things into the bottom of the bag)20151124_153112

Whichever way you do these, it’s fun and a great reminder of what Thanksgiving is all about!! At the Thanksgiving table guests may write prayer requests or things they are thankful for on slips of paper and put these in the bag.

May you have a wonderful Thanksgiving with time to relax and remember the Lord’s love for you and His many blessings!

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The images in this blog are used for educational purposes only