“THE LIFE OF THE VIRGIN”
Marian cult was very much common in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The Gospel do not say much about the life of Holy Virgin Mary, so the authors of 13th–14th century, real creators of Marian legend, had to draw the inspiration from the apocryphal texts (early Christian texts that did not enter the canon of the New Testament). Dürer and his contemporaries found stories in the Speculum Historiale by Vincent of Beauvais and The Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine.
The series consists of nineteen woodcuts and a cover page. It is made using the technique of woodblock printing. First seventeen woodcuts were created before the Dürer’s second journey to Italy. The Death of Mary and The Coronation of the Virgin were made around the year 1510. Some researchers think that a part of the cycle was finished later because it is known that when Dürer travelled in the Netherlands in 1520–1521, he carried with him only thirteen sheets of the cycle.
The series was published for the first time in 1511. It was printed with the Latin text on the reverse. Dürer made some trial prints before the publication of the whole cycle. After the death of the artist it was several times republished.
The cycle The Life of the Virgin shows the real German life of the beginning of 16th century more than any other Dürer’s work. The images of the apocryphal legend have become much closer to the public. The characters look like people of Dürer’s time and the situations look real for 16th-century Germany. Italians often depicted events from the Bible as if they were occurring at the modern times. A handbook for young women published in Venice in 1494, admonished: “To be able to imagine better the story of Christ’s Passion… it is very useful and even necessary to recreate in your imagination the places where all the events occurred, and the characters that participated in them… Then you must remember the look of some people that you know very well, and it will help you to distinctly imagine the characters…” (Данилова И.Е. От Средних веков к Возрождению. Москва, 1975. С. 115–116). Without any doubt, Dürer was aware of such an approach to the scenes from the Bible and followed it.
The prints from the Life of the Virgin Mary in the collection of the museum are considered among the best (from the point of view of the quality of plates). Eight of them are rare trial impressions made before the 1511 edition – they are unique. Some lists are from the 1511 edition, others go back to the end of 16th century.