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Opinion: Albrecht Dürer's lesson for all of us today

A pen and black ink drawing by Albrecht Dürer titled "The Virgin and Child with a Flower on a grassy Bench" is seen at London Art Week dealer Agnews, on Nov. 19, in London.
Leon Neal
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A pen and black ink drawing by Albrecht Dürer titled "The Virgin and Child with a Flower on a grassy Bench" is seen at London Art Week dealer Agnews, on Nov. 19, in London.

I saw a picture this week that arrested my attention.

It's a drawing in old, dark ink of woman with curly hair, in a loose gown with a baby balanced in her lap. He is also curly-haired, and the ringlets make his little head look almost like an aura of the sun. The child stands on two plump, tiny legs, and the mother tucks him against her right arm, steadying his bottom with her left hand.

The curly-haired woman smiles. Not as if she doesn't have a care in the world, but as if all she really cares about in this world is the child in her arms.

The child holds a flower in his left hand and looks out at the world we cannot see, past the loving clasp of a mother's shoulder.

The mother and child sit on what looks like a weather-scarred wooden ledge in the midst of tall grass, patchy and wild. Those sharp and unruly blades of grass reminded me in this week of rising infections and tumultuous weather that we hold tight to those we love. But we all sail against what Shakespeare called our "sea of troubles."

I read on to see that the sketch is by Albrecht Dürer, the great German artist, who called it "The Virgin and Child with a Flower on a Grassy Bank." It is believed to have been drawn around 1503 as a study for a later painting. Five years ago, it sold at an estate sale for $30. The seller thought it was a reproduction.

Art experts quoted in news accounts believe this rare original Dürer sketch may sell for $50 million.

But at $30 or $50 million, I found the real value of "The Virgin and Child with a Flower on a Grassy Bank" in the simple delicacy of its gentle strokes and imagery. In Dürer's artistry, Mary and the infant Jesus are seen not as icons, but a mother and child. The love in their looks, arms, and hands reminds me of mothers and children I've seen around the world in almost the same pose on park benches and playgrounds, in war zones and refugee camps, and on subways and buses.

A child and mother who, like us all, don't know what's out there, or what's ahead. So we hold on to each other now.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


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