Hard-working hands tell life stories

Published 3:05 am Saturday, September 3, 2016

Have you ever wondered about the story behind ‘The Praying Hands?” Maybe you know the name of the famous artist responsible for it—Albrecht Durer. There is a touching story of its history.

It is said that the artist was one of 18 children of a Nuremberg, Germany, goldsmith. Two of his sons, Albrecht and Albert, wanted to pursue their dreams by studying art, but they knew that their father could not afford to help them both. One day, they decided to toss a coin. Whoever won the toss would attend an art academy while the other worked in a mine to finance his brother’s education. Albrecht won the toss. He agreed that when he completed his four years at academy, he would return to finance Albert’s education in the arts. Albrecht’s work at the academy was almost an immediate sensation. His etchings, woodcuts, and oils were far better than those of most of his professors were, and by the time he graduated, he was beginning to attract commissions for which he earned considerable fees.

True to his word, he returned home, willing to finance Albert’s academy studies. The family rejoiced at his return and word of his success and held a large celebration. It was at this time that he learned Albert’s work in the mines had taken a toll. Sadly, it had ruined his hands. He could not use fingers with smashed bones and riddled with arthritis to hold a pen or brush.

Albrecht was so moved by his brother’s plight, he drew his hands to pay respect for his sacrifice. He drew them with palms together and thin fingers outstretched in a prayerful position. It was just one of the many works he created in his lifetime. His paintings and engravings are displayed in numerous museums.

When I see “The Praying Hands” photo, it reminds me of an assignment my editor once sent me on to photograph and write an article about a blacksmith who was still at work in his 90s. I was instructed to make plenty of pictures. “And be sure to get a close-up of his hands,” my editor added as I left the office.

When I arrived, the blacksmith continued his work as I made numerous pictures. Then I tasked him if I could get a close picture of his hands. As I focused the camera, I realized what my editor was looking for. The elderly blacksmith’s hands told the story of his time as a blacksmith. His stubby fingers were gnarled with age and lined with signs of the hard work he had done for so many years.

The hands of Durer’s brother and the blacksmith’s hands are not similar. Durer’s famous work portrays hands with long, slim fingers of a younger person than the blacksmith. The similarity I found in them was they both expressed character.

Although Albrecht Durer’s name is probably not familiar to many, his work, “The Praying Hands,” remains to touch hearts the world over.


Nina Keenam is retired from the newspaper industry.