The first time I saw Durer’s ‘Praying Hands’ I remember feeling incredibly moved by its simplicity. The painting isn’t beautiful, but it does depict a certain dignity. The legend behind the painting adds to its sense of mystique: the two eldest sons of Albrecht Durer (Albrecht the younger and Albert) both wanted to study art at the Academy in Nuremberg. Sadly, the family couldn’t support the cost so, the brothers tossed a coin to decide which one would go. Both pledged, should they lose, to work to help finance, for a four year, period the ‘winner.’ The brothers anticipated that the ‘loser’ would, in time, take up a place at the Academy with the fees being paid from commissions received by the brother who had completed his training; it was a scheme in brotherly love.
Psalm 90 verse 17 prefigures the bothers’ aspirations: ‘Let the favour of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands, O prosper the work of our hands.’
Sadly the scheme was only partially successful, for Albrecht the younger did become a celebrated artist, but his brother Albert was unable to follow his dream as, in the intervening years, his hands became badly disfigured as he worked, in the mines, to fund Albrecht’s education. ‘Greater love has no man……’
Albert’s charity had a profound effect on Albrecht, leading to ‘Praying Hands.’ The story shows how success ascribed to one person is frequently, usually, a result of a prior act of charity. Albert’s contribution to the painting is at least as important as Albrecht’s, in much the same way as the nurse who saves the life of the entrepreneur in casualty is every bit as much a wealth creator as the entrepreneur him, or her, self. We need to remind ourselves that we are seldom, if ever, the sole authors of ‘our’ success and, that our talents are pure gift.
We also need to remember that Christianity is a handy form of spirituality. Christian spirituality manifests itself in the material, physical and, practical world: ‘O prosper the work of our hands.’ Jesus was nailed to the cross, through his hands. Salvation is literally the work of His hands.
In the gospels we read countless examples of Jesus both touching and being touched by the unclean. His hands could only bring purity to that which was considered impure. So if Christianity is about growing into the likeness of Christ we need to be prepared to get some dirt under our finger nails. We need to touch, and allow ourselves to be touched, by all and sundry.
Hands are also used in worship, they may be raised in adoration, crossing ourselves reminds us, again and again, and that salvation only comes from the cross. We use our hands to bless, to anoint, to reassure and, to accompany. Durer’s painting, and the story behind it, reminds us that Christianity is handy religion. Perhaps we can use the ‘Praying Hands’ as, with the psalmist, we pray:
‘Let the favour of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper the work of our hands, O prosper the work of our hands.’