Lute of the Month
November 1998

Angel with Lute 1497

Dürer: Angel with Lute, 1497
Staatliche Museen, Preussicher Kulturbesitz, Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin.

Madonna and Child 1485

Dürer: Madonna and Child, 1485
Staatliche Museen, Preussicher Kulturbesitz, Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin.

Dürer's drawing
"Angel with a Lute"

Dürer's silverpoint drawing, "Angel with a Lute", is interesting in itself as a very early expression of that grace and fluidity of treatment which he brought from his first journey to Italy, but also the technical matter of the position of the lute may help to throw some light on the purpose of the drawing and the extent of Dürer's self-consciousness about the implications of the change in his graphic style. In this drawing the Renaissance reaches the north. If we compare this angel with the lute-playing angel of twelve years before, the differences stand out most clearly. In the earlier drawing, with its obvious Flemish influences, the function of the drapery with its sculptured reticulation, which Dürer took from Schongauer, is to form a pleasing and dominant decoration of the picture plane. The attention is directed all around the surface by the activity of the forms, the faces are bland and the devotional force is stylistic and mediated by conventions of posture and placing. Fittingly the lute is being held in the medieval manner discussed in the article by Robert Spencer [How to hold a lute: historical evidence from paintings, Early Music, Vol. 3, No. 4, October 1975, pp. 352-354] The strings are plucked with a plectrum, the body of the instrument is supported in the crook of the right elbow, while the left hand supports the neck in a position reminiscent of much folk music-making to this day, making changes of position up the fingerboard difficult.

A few years later Dürer, making his second journey of artistic exploration, pushed beyond the Alps and in Venice he met and was heavily influenced by Bellini whose treatment of light and of picture composition combined to give unity and power of devotional force. The eye is directed not distracted by his forms. But of course the main change was towards a new realism with an idealisation of the human form, the divine was seen to shine through the perfection of the creature rather than in opposition to its natural forms. Compare this with Pollaiuolo's 'Martyrdom of St. Sebastian' for example, where the grace is inverse proportion to the naturalism of the figures. But for Bellini their divine dignity lies in their natural grace.

So when we look at the silverpoint, drawn in 1497 a year after Dürer returned from Venice, we can see the immense changes that have happened. The angel is now a striking example of humanity not an attendant cipher, his wings, which in the earlier drawing were in the standard Flemish stylised form, owe more to observation than to convention, [in fact they are strikingly similar to the sketch from the life, or rather the death, in the 'Bird's Wing' of 1512, Albertina, Vienna] the folds of the clothing emphasise the body beneath, rather than having an independent life of their own and the whole composition thus has great unity and clarity.

The lute is held in the posture of the new music too, both hands freed from their supporting role to deal with a more complex contrapuntal texture. The right arm now comes over the top of the lute and the wrist is cocked in a thoroughly modern manner. The thumb / forefinger position is somewhat ambiguous, given the angle of observation and is compatible with both thumb-out and thumb-in playing, but from the date one must presume it is thumb-in. At all events the thumb and forefinger are clearly thoroughly indepedent and quite in a position to play polyphonic textures. The left hand is most strikingly shown playing an almost identifiable chord, quite unlike the earlier picture with its schematic representation of the left-hand position. Both have their left-hand thumbs visible, but the later one is clearly NOT being used to stop a course, while the earlier angel could be doing so for all we can tell.

Because of the pentimenti around the pegbox of the later picture it is not possible to tell whether it is a five or six course lute, but there are eleven strings shown, so we should presume it is a six course instrument. One detail which is curious is the patch of shiny [?] lighter surface shown on the soundboard just below the end of the fingrboard. This is a little commented feature of several early paintings of lutes, I'm thinking of the Bosch Haywain lute for example. It is too large to be simply the end of the fingerboard since that would extend the fingerboard to the end of the neckblock which is structurally impossible. I believe therefore that this patch is varnish, put there to protect the surface of the soundboard when playing in high positions before the invention of the little wooden frets.

Finally, to render the whole picture a quite explicit comment on the new Renaissance naturalism, there is that enormous block coming in from distant space for the sole purpose of supporting the angel's lute. The new playing position simply cannot be used when standing up without something to take the weight and the new naturalism would forbid showing even an angel who defied the constraints of nature in the way a Medieval, or later a Baroque, angel might have done. But the startling manner in which these two requirements are combined suggest a kind of Renaissance joke about the implications of naturalism and the new movements in art and music.

Reprinted, with some alterations, from the Lute Society Journal 1976, by permission of the Lute Society Administrator who asks me to point out that all the past journals are still in print, and can be obtained direct from him. Email the Lute Society for details! Visit the Lute Society website at:

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Copyright 1998 by David Van Edwards

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