Would you work in the mines for your brother? Albrecht Dürer and the Praying Hands

The Praying Hands is one of the more widely reproduced art works. Many people who are not aficionados of art and who don’t know who is responsible for the work could still describe the picture. There is an interesting apocryphal, mythological story about the image and the artist, some credit the telling of the tale to Og Mandino; Og credits Rabbi Louis Binstock for the story. Here is my version:

Albrecht Dürer is the German artist who drew the praying hands, probably around 1508.  Mythology has it that Albrecht and his twin brother Alexander were a pair among 15 siblings. Albrecht’s father was a hardworking goldsmith who took on any additional work that he could find to keep food on the table for his large family. Early on Albrecht and Alexander both showed considerable artistic skill. But early on it was clear that their poor struggling father would never be able to afford to send either of them to the academy to study art. The family barely had the ability to keep food on the table.

But their father recognized his children’s abilities. One Sunday, after church services and the noon mean, their father summoned Albrecht and Alexander and set out a plan. He proposed that they would toss a coin. The winner of the toss would be trained in painting and would have the opportunity to develop his artistic skills. The other would stay at home, take a job in the mines, and would support his brother’s education and apprenticeship. The boys thought about it for some minutes, looked at each other, and then both nodded in agreement even as they both exhaled a breath of hope and anticipation.

Alexander called heads, Albrecht took tails. Their father flipped the coin. It swirled high into the room, twirling for interminable seconds as it wound its way downward. They let it land on the floor, where it spun on its edge for seconds more before it finally came to rest, with the tail side up. Albrecht looked at his brother with tears in his eye, and promised to hone his skill to excellence. Alexander took his brother’s hands, squared his own shoulders, and promised to work diligently. “Come back to us, Albrecht, I will be waiting.”

Shortly Albrecht set off for Nuremberg, and Alexander went into the mines and worked to finance his brother’s study. Albrecht learned quickly, and very soon his work surpassed that of his teachers. His sketches, woodcuts, and oil paintings quickly became a sensation, and he was soon collecting commissions and earning considerable fees for his works.

As he concluded his studies, Albrecht returned home, and the Dürer family celebrated his return with a feast. They had roasted meats, and stewed vegetables, and freshly baked breads. There was much banter and laughter among the siblings. All were delighted to see Albrecht after his years away. And Albrecht was delighted to be home again among his much loved family. As the meal neared completion, Albrecht lifted his goblet, and proposed a toast to his brother, Alexander. Albrecht stuttered and stumbled over his words as he tried to express the depths of his gratitude. And then his stood a bit straighter, squared his shoulders, and pledged, “And now, Alexander, it is my turn. Now you shall journey to Nuremberg and begin your studies in earnest. And I will support you with the commissions of my work.”

Tears flowed down Alexander’s face as he shook his head. “No, Albrecht. It is too late for me. My dear brother, look at my hands. Every finger had been broken in the mines. My right hand pains me so badly that I cannot even hold a glass in it to return your toast. To hold a pen or a brush, to draw delicate lines on parchment or canvas, these are beyond me now. My brother, the inspiration and the art must flow through you. For me it is too late.”

When Albrecht looked at his brother’s hands, he too wept. He knew the debt that he owed his brother could never be repaid. In tribute to his brother, he meticulously drew his brother’s hands as he remembered them before the mines, palms together, fingers pointing to heaven, a simple, powerful tribute to love. Albrecht simple called this work “hands” but it quickly came to be known as “the praying hands.”

Over 500 years have passes since Albrecht Dürer’s painted “the praying hands.”  His paintings, sketches, woodcuts and copper engravings are in museums across the world. Nothing is known of Alexander’s life. But if it were not for the generosity of Alexander’s heart, Albrecht might never have become the artist he was. This story reminds us that no matter who we are, no matter how unique and powerful our gifts and skills might be, still sooner or later, we all need help. We all need someone who believes in us. We are all but threads in Indra’s Web . . .

No man is an island. Indeed, it does take a village. It is inspiring to look at Albrecht’s work, and to appreciate Alexander’s sacrifice. But, it is not so easy to stand in Alexander’s shoes and to see Albrecht’s life. And yet, there may well be inspiration to be found  from Alexander’s standpoint as well.

As I think about this story I find myself resonating first with the ‘working in the mines’ element, as I think about my own family. I grew up in Northeast Pennsylvania where anthracite strip mining was the primary source of employment for my grandparent’s and my parent’s generations. There are family stories of one of the mine shafts flooding, my uncle being in the mine wearing the new boots that he bought just the day before. As the tunnel started to take on flood waters the floor turned to muck — serious quicksand like muck — and he and his boots began to sink into the muck and stick. He was bending to unlace his boots to get a better grip on pulling them out of the muck, even as he sank deeper into the muck and the water lever began to rise. Two of his buddies grabbed him by the arms and carried him out of the mine kicking and screaming that he would make them pay for the boots they were forcing him to abandon – penny wise and pound foolish? and gratitude? Hmm. Well, and then the story about my father refusing to work in the mines, rather he enlisted in the army. My dad choose fighting in World War II rather than work in the mines. That kind of gives me a bit of a sense of what working in the mines must have been like – more dangerous than a war. And Alexander willingly agreed to work in the mines for his brother.

Bask in the love between brothers for a bit, and then since I really do intend for the blog to eventually come around to alchemy for justice,  think for a few minutes too if you will … Do you think this was an ethical plan? Why is it that we recognize and remember the brother who benefited from the love but not the one who made the sacrifice? What would render these actions ethical or unethical? Did Alexander really have the freedom to say ‘no’? If justice is fairness, what would be justice/fairness for Alexander? From Albrecht?  What would you have done in this situation – if you were the father? If you were Albrecht? If you were Alexander? Who would you go to the mines to support?