Analysis: Dürer’s “Madonna with the Monkey”

Outsider analysis of Albrecht Dürer’s works was long impeded. For almost 400 years, images were not available in catalogs. Access to originals, including prints, was limited to an audience of largely inbred, blinkered, consensus-making art dealers and historians whose textual descriptions alone were available to the public. And when costly catalogs with reproductions became available, the images were often flawed by cropping or by the addition of border lines. In fact, reproductions of the works of many artists contain such flaws, even in some art books published in recent years.

Another impediment to making breakthrough analyses has also pervaded: Art dealers, like academics, tend to be less concerned about the meaning of a work than with physical characteristics related to technique, process, and medium in which it is presented, as well as its provenance and other such factors that affect valuation, marketing, and sales: Where does the work fit into the patented history of creative development? Is the work considered “significant”? To no small degree, to address meaning is risky; it might increase market demand or it may narrow the demographic.

So, it is typically felt wiser to ignore enigmatic elements, or interpret them in a politically correct manner, or let the buyer intellectually “frame” the work for themselves. It is, therefore, not shocking that Dürer’s most provocative engravings, such as: Knight, Death, and the Devil, Melencolia I, and St. Jerome in His Study, are presented with mention that they are allegorical but without exploring or explaining occult elements. But it is surprising to us that an engraving such as Dürer’s Madonna with the Monkey (1498) would be presented as a non-controversial religious work for more than 500 years, while its implications indicate otherwise.

Note the pyramidal design of Madonna with the Monkey (Image File # 46), a layout pattern frequently used by Renaissance artists. The dominating pyramid represents stability, and whatever is inside the triangle is of paramount importance and central to the work’s meaning. Within this triangle we find Mary, Jesus, and a monkey. The occult secret of Madonna with the Monkey—revealed here for the first time—is this: the monkey is Joseph. Dürer placed Joseph in the foreground and fully within the pyramid but disguised him as a monkey tethered to the iconic Madonna and Child. Why?

Joseph has been called “the silent figure” of the New Testament because not one word of his was recorded. Initially, Joseph had been shamed by Mary’s pregnancy, and then he died before seeing Jesus perform in his priestly or political roles. The Roman Catholic Church made Joseph a Saint, a Holy figure, but Dürer’s works, particularly his engravings—and principally Madonna with the Monkey—do not reflect that view.

Dürer produced many images of the Madonna and Child, but among his engravings only two in which Joseph appears explicitly: Holy Family with the Dragonfly (1495), and:The Holy Family with St. John, The Magdalen and Nicodemus (1510). In both cases Joseph is positioned in the quadrant of the work where we find the monkey in Madonna with the Monkey. Furthermore, in both “holy family” engravings Madonna and Child occupy a central pyramid and Joseph is placed outside of that pyramid, to her right, at low level, and behind a fence—all symbolic of one message: Joseph is a marginal element having less than holy quality, practically a nonparticipant staked to the ground at her side—dozing or staring off into space. Joseph, like Mary, was of Davidic lineage but his branch of that genealogical tree was cursed by Jeremiah.

In order to be placed inside the pyramid and in front of the barrier, Joseph had to take another form, and a tree-climbing monkey is a fitting symbol considering that the oblique assertion throughout the three engravings is that the relationship between Joseph (a cursed royal) and Mary—while lawfully as well as biologically securing Jesus within the House of David—involved no coital connection. The very idea is cordoned, tabooed, unthinkable.

[See also our March, 2013 post: “Analysis: Dürer’s ‘Holy Family with Three Hares’.”]

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4 Responses to “Analysis: Dürer’s “Madonna with the Monkey””

  1. Stark Raven Says:

    It seems a little over the top to think that Durer would disrespect Joseph to that extent, even if it was aimed at disagreeable Roman Catholic doctrine.

  2. PluribusOne™ Says:

    We do not think Dürer intended to demean Joseph, only Joseph’s holiness as created by the Church. Nor do we think Dürer expected the public to crack his code—which has held until now—but we imagine that “insiders” who purchased the prints understood the meaning and enjoyed displaying the work as a secret statement of disdain for certain Church doctrines.

    The building in the background occupies the matching visual space where Joseph stands in a woodcut titled: “Holy Family with Three Hares.” This building, in our opinion, is an extension of the engraving’s secret symbolism related to Joseph. Some historians identify the building as a certain well-known defensive fortress; others say it was a building constructed specially to serve as refuge from a long-predicted storm and flood. Either way, we perceive Dürer as having used it to serve as an appropriate symbol to acknowledge Joseph’s noble role as guardian and protector—a secular figure. Consider that anything could have been engraved into that spot—a distant mountain and castle, a stand of trees, etc—which would not have allowed us to infer that the object symbolized Joseph. The building is not a coincidence.

  3. Stark Raven Says:

    Is there any other evidence in Durer’s works indicating a negative or less than reverent perspective on the marriage of Joseph and Mary?

  4. PluribusOne™ Says:

    Another circa 1495 engraving, “The Ill-Assorted Couple,” seems to us associated with “Holy Family with the Dragonfly,” in that the man looks suspiciously like the Joseph figure in “Holy Family” where the visually mismatched couple is similarly striking. Although apparently referring to a different pairing of people, “The Ill-Assorted Couple” seems to send a message related to Joseph and Mary, especially considering that these engravings were made at about the same time. Reproductions of the two engravings appear side by side in at least some listings and catalogs of Dürer’s engravings.

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