Over 500 years ago, Albrecht Durer, a German painter and engraver, was commissioned to paint an altarpiece, and as part of the work, he painstakingly sketched a person’s hands raised in prayer. The sketch was done on handmade blue paper and the original still survives today, an image that is recognizable to most people.
There is a lovely tale, whether fact or legend it is hard to tell, about Albrecht. The story goes that he came from a large family, with no means to study art, although that was his deepest wish. Eventually he did start studying and painting. In order to survive, he and a fellow artist, possibly one of his brothers, decided to pool their resources and share living space. The two became so impoverished that they decided one of them would give up painting for a while to do any manual labor he could find in order for the other to have time to master his art and be able to sell his work.
It was decided that Albrecht’s friend would take first turn at the work, since Albrecht was more advanced in skill. For years he cheerfully did anything he could turn his hand to in order to keep the two supplied with daily needs. At last the day came when Albrecht had passed his teachers in skill and his woodcuts were selling for nice sums. The rent was paid for a considerable length of time, and it was now the friend’s turn to study painting.
Alas, he soon found that his hands had become too damaged by physical labor to perform the detailed brushstrokes of a master artist. Albrecht was filled with sorrow and gratefulness for the gift of great love that had come at the sacrifice of his fellow artist’s skill.
Some say that the famous praying hands are the same hands that worked so hard to care for the artist’s needs in his youth, and this is why Albrecht Durer put such painstaking detail into a preliminary sketch. Five hundred years later, we do not know who modelled the hands, but I love the story anyway.