The devoted binding of differing worlds
Durer seems to have been an artist who had an idealistic urge towards the oneness and harmony of all things but who also saw around him an irresistible diversity which he could not fail to record. There is a parallel in this with, on the one hand, his complex respect and admiration for the Renaissance Italian artists and, on the other, his pride in being a German painter and part of the still "Gothic" North.
The drawing shown here, tinted with pale washes of green, yellow, pink, and blue watercolor, has as its central figure a madonna who, drawn with a light touch and ease of spirit that doesn't hint at any conflicting dichotomy, seems quite contentedly to belong to both worlds at once. In drawing her, Durer might almost have been copying a medieval woodcarving; her skirt, with the particularity of its almost self-propagating folds, suggests this (and of course reminds the viewer that Durer was an unsurpassed master of the woodcut, a printing technique obviously related in certain ways to the carving of wood). Her face could hardly be the product of a Italian painter: she is unquestionably a Fraulein.m
At the same time she has been gives a classical grace and warmth which are difficult to define but show an awareness of the madonnas of such Italian painters as Raphael or Giovanni Bellini. Her child's lively independence and cherubic figure, the turn of his body as he reaches for a strawberry stem -- watched with mildly responsive affection by his mother, head inclined towards him -- seem in direct line of descent from the highly original virgin-and-child in Leonardo's "Adoration of the Kings," which was left unfinished more than twenty years before Durer is thought to have made this drawing (in about 1503.) As for Bellini, Durer's liking for this Venetian master was to be expressed three years later, during his second visit to Venice. He wrote that Bellini, now old, was "still the best in painting" in that city.
One can see why Bellini would have appealed to Durer. There is a subline sense of the closeness of man and the natural world in the Italian's paintings. His "St. Francis" is the supreme example.Durer's lighthearted "Madonna With a Multitude of Animals" is in a similar strain. The figure of St. Joseph (who according to one art historian is having a "wistful conversation" with the stork facing him) might almost bem St. Francis himself. In Bellini's picture, animals and birds appear here and there throughout the rather barren landscape, while Durer, with the versatility and infatuation of the collector he was, seems unable to hold himself back and turns every possible space into a veritable zoo. He does it, however, with an extraordinary combination of airiness and placement. The result is not overcrowded.
Most of these birds, insects, and animals (not to mention the kneeling shepherd in the distance) had appeared or were to appear in other works or studies by him. He also depicts flower with the same love for the different forms, the iris, the peony, the strawberry, and what I take to be a hollyhock. The picture seems almost to be a Bestiary and Herbal combined. It is this tremendous gathering of so many items that distinguishes this Durer from the more restrained work of his Italian contemporaries. He wrote of finding "so much beauty in the visible world that we cannot grasp it all and not one of us can express it fully in his work." But apparently he didn't mean that a single, inspired artist -- and he was certainly conscious that he was one -- should not give it a try! The excited multiplicity travels from foreground through carefully graded transitions to the farthest distance (still clearly delineated) like ripples on water. Each individual sheep in the shepherd's flock is shown. All three of the Three Kings, with their retinues, are pictured arriving along different routes, guided by the same star. Everything and everybody counts.
Ebulliently, with a delighted, irrepressible energy, this is a picture of the Christian Nativity prompting ubiquitous celebration and restoring the innocent happiness of the Garden of Eden. The billowing clouds even seem buoyant with good will