In Northern Europe, the German artist, writer, and theorist Albrecht Dürer became a driving force in the dissemination of humanist ideas, classical imagery, and the use of mathematical perspective. The Mead has many of his prints, but none equals the quality and condition of the recently acquired Virgin and Child with the Monkey. Ranked as a “Meder a” (in 1932 Joseph Meder, director of the Albertina in Vienna, Austria, classified Dürer’s graphic art by series of impressions, an alphabetical system still used by scholars), this rare jet-black-ink print exists in only sixteen known impressions.
As one of Dürer’s early images of the infant Jesus with his mother, Mary, the work attests to the young artist’s deep devotion and demonstrates his mastery of engraving, an art form to which he was unusually well suited, having been trained as a goldsmith at an early age.
Dürer depicted this lavish scene realistically, as a picturesque country setting with a riverscape and a half-timbered house of the type found on the outskirts of Nuremberg, the artist’s birthplace. Though the Virgin seated on a grassy bench dominates the composition, it is the monkey tethered by her feet that lures the viewer’s attention. In Christian iconography, monkeys were vested with a multitude of symbolic meanings, such as greed, lust, and lewdness; here it could conceivably represent the devil subdued by the Madonna’s purity. The delicate, detailed rendering of the exotic animal, using very fine dense strokes (on the face and toes) and capturing the soft texture of its furry body with short marks that contrast with the long, painstakingly crosshatched modulations of the Virgin’s dress, strongly suggests Dürer’s direct observation of the creature, which closely resembles a Green, or Sabaeus, monkey with its dark masklike face, long cheek whiskers, and prominent eyebrows.