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Story Behind Praying Hands by Albrecht Durer

February 21, 2009

“Praying Hands” (study for an Apostle figure of the “Heller” altar, 1508). Dürer, Albrecht.

The actual drawing of Hands, sketched in 1508, was intended as a preliminary study for an altarpiece commissioned by a wealthy Frankfort citizen, Jacob Heller. Nevertheless, the drawing is finished down to the last detail, because Durer planned to transpose it exactly in the final oil painting. For 13 months Durer worked on the final painting, determined to make it so sound and beautiful “that it will remain bright and fresh for five hundred years.

The Legend Behind the Praying Hands

Back in the fifteenth century, in a tiny village near Nuremberg, lived a family with eighteen children. Eighteen! In order merely to keep food on the table for this mob, the father and head of the household, a goldsmith by profession, worked almost eighteen hours a day at his trade and any other paying chore he could find in the neighborhood.

Despite their seemingly hopeless condition, two of Albrecht Durer the Elder’s children had a dream. They both wanted to pursue their talent for art, but they knew full well that their father would never be financially able to send either of them to Nuremberg to study at the Academy.

After many long discussions at night in their crowded bed, the two boys finally worked out a pact. They would toss a coin. The loser would go down into the nearby mines and, with his earnings, support his brother while he attended the academy. Then, when that brother who won the toss completed his studies, in four years, he would support the other brother at the academy, either with sales of his artwork or, if necessary, also by laboring in the mines.

They tossed a coin on a Sunday morning after church. Albrecht Durer won the toss and went off to Nuremberg. Albert went down into the dangerous mines and, for the next four years, financed his brother, whose work at the academy was almost an immediate sensation. Albrecht’s etchings, his woodcuts, and his oils were far better than those of most of his professors, and by the time he graduated, he was beginning to earn considerable fees for his commissioned works.

When the young artist returned to his village, the Durer family held a festive dinner on their lawn to celebrate Albrecht’s triumphant homecoming. After a long and memorable meal, punctuated with music and laughter, Albrecht rose from his honored position at the head of the table to honor his beloved brother for the years of sacrifice that had enabled Albrecht to fulfill his ambition. His closing words were, “And now, Albert, blessed brother of mine, now it is your turn. Now you can go to Nuremberg to pursue your dream, and I will take care of you.”

All heads turned in eager expectation to the far end of the table where Albert sat, tears streaming down his pale face, shaking his lowered head from side to side while he sobbed and repeated, over and over, “No …no …no …no.”

Finally, Albert rose and wiped the tears from his cheeks. He glanced down the long table at the faces he loved, and then, holding his hands close to his right cheek, he said softly, “No, brother. I cannot go to Nuremberg. It is too late for me. Look … look what four years in the mines have done to my hands! The bones in every finger have been smashed at least once, and lately I have been suffering from arthritis so badly in my right hand that I cannot even hold a glass, much less make delicate lines on parchment or canvas with a pen or a brush. No, brother … for me it is too late.”

More than 450 years have passed. By now, Albrecht Durer’s hundreds of masterful portraits, pen and silver-point sketches, watercolors, charcoals, woodcuts, and copper engravings hang in every great museum in the world, but the odds are great that you, like most people, are familiar with only one of Albrecht Durer’s works. More than merely being familiar with it, you very well may have a reproduction hanging in your home or office.

One day, to pay homage to Albert for all that he had sacrificed, Albrecht Durer painstakingly drew his brother’s abused hands with palms together and thin fingers stretched skyward. He called his powerful drawing simply “Hands,” but the entire world almost immediately opened their hearts to his great masterpiece and renamed his tribute of love “The Praying Hands.”

The next time you see a copy of that touching creation, take a second look. Let it be your reminder, if you still need one, that no one–no one–ever makes it alone!

“A Better Way To Live” by Og Mandino

Source: At The Well

Further Reading: Albrecht Dürer

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12 comments

  1. This story doesn’t seem right-where did you get your info?


    • If you read the article carefully, you’ll notice the source at the end of the page. Also keep in mind that this is a legend rather than a historical documentation :) I’ll be interested in learning the story that does seem right :)


  2. just 4get if the story was genuine or not….
    its vry emotional… inspiring….
    that’s more than enough…


    • Yes, it is an interesting story :)


  3. those painful hands hav a lot of emotions to convey…


  4. Most artists compose from the heart that is what makes it a masterpiece!


    • Yes, most good artists do that, but, unfortunately, I rarely see such works these days…


  5. wow!!!!!!!!!!!! its awsome……..all must see it and appreciate true friendship…….pls read the article too…………..


  6. T_T so touching…


    • Yes, it is a touching story.


  7. It’s a wonderful story; and even more so it it’s true. It is sad, but so many warped people publish so many tear-jerking and other dramtic stories; that most of us click on Snopes, before we believe anything anymore. These dysfunctional people have succeeded in creating a world of cynics. It would be appropriate if some of these liars have something really chilling happen to them that would normally bring great sympathy and help from the public; only to find that the public has become too wary and cynical to help believe or help them.


    • Yes, Delmar.
      A friend emailed me this same story. I checked the veracity of it and found out it is pure fiction. This is just one aspect of oprahized evangelism. The focus is not so much on truth-telling as on sensationalism; and truth is the casualty.



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