Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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An Emotional Object: Trauma and Healing for Dürer’s Feast of the Rosegarlands, 1873-1928



[1] What is an emotional object? Do things have agency and experiences? What happens when suffering or even trauma are understood as possibilities for a work of art? These questions have variously been raised by affect studies and the history of emotions and matter greatly to post-humanism as a project (Ziemba 2021). In this issue, they become a central concern to studies of the Northern Renaissance and the emotive context of its many afterlives. Arguably, the object has always been at the core of art history, which invests objects such as paintings with a great sense of agency. W.J.T. Mitchell asked: “what do pictures want?”, while James Elkins argued that when we stare at the object, it can stare right back (Mitchell 2005; Elkins 1996). A recent edited collection on the agency of things pivoted on artworks “as active agents able to influence social networks in subjective and tangible ways” (Jurkowlaniec, Matyjaszkiewicz, Sarnecka 2018).

[2] Objects can embody the emotional potency of past lives, as amplified and projected by the responses that surround them. Here, the above questions are raised by what is arguably one of the most important paintings of the Northern Renaissance, Albrecht Dürer’s Feast of the Rosegarlands (fig. 1), known in the Italian as La Festa del Rosario, in German as Rosenkranzfest and in Czech as Růžencová slavnost. These varying titles are important indicators of the many lives of this painting, which we can trace and follow from its original location in the cultural contexts of Renaissance Venice (1506), to its second home in Baroque Prague (1606), and finally its appearance at exhibitions in Vienna (1873) and Nuremberg (1928). Presently in the National Gallery (Národní Galerie) in Prague, the painting and its movements were important to nascent identities and the enabling of cultural memories in multiple communities, as linked with the painting’s movements and upheavals. This history is marked by the trauma and healing that the painting itself experienced, which will be explained by way of physical damage endured and attempts at restoration. As we shall see, the late 19th and early 20th century historiography that surrounds the painting makes this an object with veritable links to past emotions that continue to be enacted in the present. In what follows, the focus is especially on how a Habsburg identity and lineage for the painting was preserved for its later reception even as the painting and the Habsburg Empire itself fell into ruins. By attending to the painting’s ruined status – its physical deterioration and palpable damage – as much as the shifting contingencies of its identity, we can view the Feast of the Rosegarlands as an emotional object that has suffered greatly. At the same time, it has also fostered solidarity and strength amongst communities of artists, scholars, and indeed, citizens. The responses of critics and viewers indicate the painting was a seen as a troubled and maligned object – even if on a metaphorical level. The wounding and healing it experienced are bound up within a broader and emotive context of reception and response in the interwar period in Habsburg Prague and Vienna.

Figure 1: Albrecht Dürer, The Feast of the Rosegarlands, 1506. Oil on panel, 161.5 x 192 cm. Praha, Národní Galerie.

[3] My approach is twofold: In the first part of my discussion, I will explore the specific histories, memories, and experiences of trauma attached to the painting, which endured migrations and physical damage. The Feast of the Rosegarlands was central to three major communities before reaching its final home in the National Gallery in Prague. Commissioned by the German immigrant community in Venice in 1506, the painting was acquired in 1606 by the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II in Prague for his court. In 1793, it was then moved to the Premonstratensian Monastery in Strahov, before finally being acquired by the Czech state in 1934 (Kotková 2006). At various stages in this provenance, it was subject to physical stress and deterioration, controversial restoration attempts, and became known as a damaged object during these processes. By the nineteenth century, it was frequently characterised as a ruin. In 1876 the art historian Moritz Thausing, stated that: “the picture has suffered greatly” (“die Tafel hat ungemein gelitten”) (Thausing 1876: 262). This diagnosis was repeated by the following generations of scholars, and in 1928 Hans Tietze put it simply: “The painting is a ruin” (“Das Gemälde ist eine Ruine”) (Tietze 1927-28: 373).

[4] The painting as ruin was lamented on numerous occasions; its fragile and precarious state required explanation and recounting. At the same time, by the turn of the century, the Feast of the Rosegarlands, a much admired and prime exemplar from the Northern Renaissance’s greatest artist, would take on a central position in the projection of a Northern Renaissance conceived as both distinct from, and in dialogue with, Italy. It is now generally accepted that the painting in its conception and execution presents a dialogue between north and south, Germany and Italy (Aikema 1999, Humfrey 1991), or even an exemplar of sixteenth-century Venetian painting (Campbell/Cole 2012: 364). But how exactly did this understanding develop in the late nineteenth century, especially given the painting’s status as a ruin? In the second part of this discussion, from trauma to healing, my article considers the later exhibition history of the painting, and the role it played in the flourishing of art-historical scholarship, especially for the emerging Vienna School of Art History. Two exhibitions bookend this section: a label on the back of the painting indicates that in 1873 it was exhibited at the World Fair in Vienna, and in 1928 it was part of a major Dürer exhibition in Nuremberg (Albrecht Dürer Ausstellung im Germanischen Museum). After the traumas of isolation, neglect, and physical deterioration, a process of healing was enacted when the Feast of the Rosegarlands assumed its role as a bridge between multiple cultures.

1 Trauma

[5] We return to the initial question. What is an emotional object? Objects have afterlives, they move through changed circumstances of ownership and different communities with different needs. A vital task for the art historian is to consider not only points of origin, but also later contexts and receptions for works of art as they move through time and adapt to different places. What if we go further and invest these objects with real experiential possibilities?

[6] For the Feast of the Rosegarlands, these questions are taken quite literally, and trauma and suffering are interpreted as genuine possibilities for works of art. This means reconsidering potential flexibility of the verb Nachleben, and focusing on its meaning as ‘survival’ as opposed to ‘afterlife’, as proposed by Aby Warburg and Fritz Saxl (McKewan 2009). Paintings that carry and generate layers of memories, paintings that are known to have been subjected to damage and deterioration, or to have survived some calamity, present us with correspondingly charged conditions of experience.

[7] In doing so, we are in good company with the painting’s creator Albrecht Dürer, whose corpus of writings includes remarkable instances of animating the inanimate. Thanks to a remarkable suite of letters in Dürer’s hand from 1506, a great deal is known about his time spent in Venice whilst working on his major commission, the Feast of the Rosegarlands. “I have a panel to paint for the Germans,” Dürer stated in January. By September of that year, he could report on the positive responses to his painting (Dürer/Conway trans. 1958: 47). In ten lively (often quoted) letters addressed to his close friend Willibald Pirckheimer in Nuremberg, Dürer gives rich accounts of his working life in Venice, his growing circle of acquaintances and supporters, and painstaking details of his household affairs and accounts. He also draws attention to, and repeatedly mentions, his recent acquisitions of things such as rings, feathers, and carpets. Most relevant here are the instances in which he appears to enable these objects to speak to his correspondent Pirckheimer: “My French mantle greets you and my Italian coat also”; and later “My French mantle, my doublet, and my brown coat send you a hearty greeting” (Dürer/Conway 1958: at 55 and 57). Finally, in a remarkable passage written in September 1506, Dürer gives voice to the Feast of the Rosegarlands itself: “My picture, you must know, says it would give you a ducat if you could see it; it is well painted and beautifully coloured” (Dürer/Conway 1958: 55). The painting is given agency by the artist, anthropomorphised apparently with an ability to speak, and has already become a point of pride for the artist: “I have stopped the mouths of all the painters who used to say that I was good at engraving, but, as to painting, I did not know how to handle colours. Now everyone says that better colouring they have never seen” (Dürer/Conway 1958: 55). This could also be seen as a performative assertion on the part of Dürer, as he upheld his stature as an artist rather than as a mere craftsman. His self-importance is made palpable and visible for his audience and patrons.

[8] Dürer was not alone in anthropomorphising his own paintings. One of the artists he encountered while in Venice was Giovanni Bellini, whom he greatly admired and described in an earlier letter as “still the best painter of them all”; the admiration seems to have been reciprocated, with Dürer further reporting that, “Giovanni Bellini has highly praised me before many nobles” (Dürer/Conway 1958: 48). The artistic kinship between Dürer and Bellini has often been commented on, a cornerstone of the dialogue between north and south, their encounter cemented in Dürer’s own writing, with each artist actively engaged in the other’s work (Aikema 1999, Frara 2019). In the Rosegarlands painting, the colouring that Dürer was so proud of owed a great deal to his viewing and absorption of Venetian techniques developed by Bellini; a further nod to Bellini’s influence can be seen in Dürer’s inclusion of the music-playing angel in the foreground, a motif that Bellini had initiated and developed in his own altarpieces (Panofsky 1943, Levey 1961). Arguably an even more remarkable kinship is how Bellini, like Dürer, anthropomorphised one of his own paintings in an accompanying text. Bellini’s so-called Brera Pietà (1465-70) shows the pale figure of the dead Christ with his wounds on display pressed into the foreground, supported by the Virgin Mary and Saint John who both have swollen and tearful eyes (fig. 2).

Figure 2: Giovanni Bellini, Pietà, 1465-70. Tempera on panel, 86 x 107 cm. Brera, Pinacoteca.

[9] This is a painting saturated with heightened grief and extreme emotion. Emphasising this is the painted cartellino – Italian for “little paper”, this is an illusionistic depiction of a written note – with Latin text placed on the front of the sarcophagus at the bottom of the painting that includes Bellini’s name. As Charlotte Guichard has discussed elsewhere, in the early-modern period the inclusion of the name of the artist on a painting could serve multiple purposes, and such ‘autographs’ were not necessarily always added by artists themselves – they could be commercial trademarks, or indicators of provenance for works to be exported, as much as signals of authorial intent (Guichard 2018). In this instance, the cartellino is a veritable register for emotional response, and reads as follows: “Since these swelling eyes almost elicit sighs, Giovanni Bellini’s work might be able to shed tears” [“HAEC FERE QVVM GEMITVS TURGENTIA LVMINA PROMANT BELLINI POTERAT FLERE IOANNIS OPVS”] (translation from Włodzimierz Olszaniec 2009: 235). Norman Land notes a parallel between the inscription on the Bellini painting and the verses of the Augustan poet Propertius, who wrote of the swollen eyes of a soldier mourning (Land 1995). In other words, the painted tears of the Virgin and Saint John evoke an emotional response in the viewer to such an extent that it is as if the painting itself is crying (Land 1995: 17). The Bellini painting speaks to its own palpable emotions and is even imagined to be capable of shedding tears, the most visceral of emotional responses. This is only possible because of Bellini’s great skill as an artist, as is made unequivocal by the poetic cartellino (‘Dichtkunst’, as Hans Belting phrased it, Belting 1985).

[10] While Dürer imagined his Feast of the Rosegarlands cheerfully sending a greeting and hoping for visitors, Bellini by contrast characterised his Pietà as having the capacity to weep. These paintings are clearly operating in very different emotional and temporal registers. The subject matter of a Pietà conjures suffering by definition: the agony and sacrifice of Christ with his visible wounds being mourned by his mother and closest friend. The Feast of the Rosegarlands is, by comparison, a joyous event, a scene awash in bright colours and figures gathered in what obviously is a celebration. Swathed in a brightly coloured blue gown, the Virgin Mary is shown enthroned and holding the Christ child, while two cherubs hover above holding a richly ornamented crown. They are surrounded by dozens of admirers, who are all being crowned with rosegarlands. This is the veneration of the Queen of Heaven by an imagined community of the faithful. The scene is set in a wooded landscape, with nearby flowers, grasses, mushrooms, and trees all identifiable, mountainous terrain and a small town in the distance, all flanked by a cheerful and clear blue sky. This is hardly a scene of doom and gloom – and yet the purpose of this section is to characterise this painting in terms of trauma. What might cause a painting like the Feast of the Rosegarlands to shed tears? If initially characterised with such cheer by its creator, why eventually was it defined by trauma? And how is this particular to the traumas of the Northern Renaissance afterlives?

[11] To answer these questions, we must now consider how a painting that was so essential to the devotional and political aspirations of a powerful community could be sold and transported to another community a century later. As Andrew John Martin has explained, the 1506 installation of the painting on the high altar of the church of San Bartolomeo in Venice marked a beginning for the social existence of the German confraternity in Venice (Martin 2006: 53). The church was adjacent to the Fondaco dei Tedeschi and the Rialto bridge, where all mercantile activities were focused, and would have had a great significance for all the German merchants, travellers, and residents of Venice: “by the seventeenth century, thousands of Germans would already have seen the painting” (Martin 2006: 56). And what would they see? Beyond devotion to the rosary and the Virgin herself, the painting contains overt and topical political messages. Featured prominently and kneeling on the left side of the Virgin is the Habsburg King Maximilian I (1459-1519), who receives the great honour of being crowned with a rosegarland by the Virgin herself. On the Virgin’s right, also in immediate proximity to the central throne, is a papal figure whose tiara has been placed on the ground while he similarly receives the crown of rose-garlands from the Christ child. On the same side as Maximilian, observing from the background, is a self-portrait of Dürer himself, the first time he included himself in an altarpiece in such a manner (in assistenza). There are various proposals for the identities of the remaining individuals, but one thing is clear: these are important members of the German and Venetian communities (for a full list of proposed identities, see Kotková 2006: 86).

[12] This iconography, and especially the presentation of Maximilian, is critical to understanding that what Dürer called “the German picture” could equally be referred to as “The Habsburg picture.” At the time of Dürer’s sojourn in Venice (1506), Maximilian was planning a march on Rome to have himself crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope, an event that Dürer was keen to attend (Kotková 2006: 15). Because of political resistance, this march never happened, and Maximilian would instead proclaim himself Emperor in Trent two years later (1508), thus breaking a long-standing tradition of a requisite papal coronation in order to bestow the title. In Dürer’s painting the presentation of Maximilian on equal footing with the pope, both in a harmonious and joyous dual coronation by the Queen of Heaven and the Son of God, would have been seen as topical, perhaps even controversial. This was a visualisation of the Habsburg quest and demand for power. Arguably the communion portrayed goes beyond the actual figures and is further emphasised by the balanced and cheerful surroundings, with Venetian trees and northern European oaks, and an idyllic town and serene Tyrolean mountain-scape in the distance. A painting both Venetian and German, papal and imperial, exuding fact and fiction – this potential friction is mediated in the accord made possible by paint. It is a political message designed to be consumed by the community of Germans abroad.

[13] The dynastic overtones and political arguments of the “Habsburg picture” would have appealed to its subsequent owner Rudolf II (1552-1612), who acquired the painting a century later. A Habsburg descendent of Maximilian, Rudolf II was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1576 and ruled from his seat in Prague until 1612. An avid collector, Rudolf’s collection would eventually hold the largest assemblage of works by Dürer ever – at least 250 works on paper, three handwritten manuscripts, three major altarpieces and eight paintings (Bubenik 2013). But it was Dürer’s Feast of the Rosegarlands with its extroverted political symbolism that would matter especially at Rudolf’s court, guaranteeing a view of his Habsburg ancestor and predecessor as Holy Roman Emperor as equal in power to the papacy. Lengthy negotiations to acquire The Feast of the Rosegarlands are documented in a series of letters, and it was officially purchased on March 10, 1606 (Martin 1998: 175-88). The painting’s journey was described by Joachim Sandrart in 1675: the painting was “carefully wrapped in rags and much cotton wool and baled in wax cloth. At the Emperor’s orders, it was carried on poles by a group of strong men all the way from Venice to the Imperial residence in Prague” (Sandrart 1675/1925, 1:223). Given the length and arduous nature of such a journey on foot, it has often been surmised that this journey occasioned the first damage for the painting (Martin 1998: 175-88). However, evidence discovered by Andrew John Martin suggests that the painting was relinquished by the German community in Venice because it was already damaged. According to an entry in the register book of the German confraternity from 1606, “the colors have greatly peeled off the panel and in a short time [the painting] would become nothing” (as translated by Martin 2006: 61). A century of use had already taken its toll.

[14] After Rudolf’s death in 1612 the seat of the Habsburg Empire was eventually transferred to Vienna, and the famous Prague Kunstkammer was dispersed (many of its contents are now resident in the Vienna Kunsthistorischesmuseum). One of the paintings that remained in Prague was the Feast of the Rosegarlands, and it would remain there when even more paintings were removed by the invading Swedish army in 1648, with Queen Christina of Sweden famously dismissive of Dürer as an artist. In a letter subsequent to 1648 the Swedish ruler and collector wrote:

In fact the whole Prague Gallery is here now… some by Albrecht Dürer and other German masters whose names I do not know. Everyone likes them very much – except for me, that is. I swear I would give them all away for a few Raphaels. (as quoted in Buckley 2004: 94)

In the eighteenth century, the painting was again characterised as a ruin and remained out of sight for about a century. In 1782 it was offered for sale at an auction, and purchased (for one guilder and 18 gorschen) by a professor at Prague University, who died six months later, whereupon the painting went to a new owner, the Postmaster of Prague. His heirs then sold the painting in 1793 to the Abbot of Strahov monastery, Vaclav Meyer who paid twenty-two florins for the painting, and one hundred florins for a frame (Šidlovský 2006: 161). The frame was considered to be worth more than the painting itself. From then on, the commentaries on the painting frequently alludes to its ruined state. Gustav Friedrich Waagen (1794-1868) during his period as director of the Bode Museum in Berlin described it as being in such poor condition that he discouraged its purchase, claiming that more than a half of the work had been overpainted (1836) (Kotková 2002: 8). Add to this the comments, mentioned at the outset of this paper, by Moritz Thausing (1838-1884) who stated: “the picture has suffered greatly” and later Hans Tietze (1880-1954) who opined that “The painting is a ruin”, and the collective sense of irreparable damage is palpable (Tietze 1927-1928: 373).

[15] The painting’s present state is the result of the restoration work undertaken between 1839-1841 by Johann Gruss the Elder (1790-1855), who repainted most of the central figures. Whilst working on the painting, Gruss wrote to his patron the Abbot of Strahov and expressed regrets about his painstaking process, undertaken “in order to heal the wounds that time and ill-treatment had left on this painting, a task for which, however, these gloomy days of winter are ill suited” (Kotková 2006, 200, note 36). Gruss experienced delays and much torment, and characterised the painting in tragic terms: “the exceptional painting by Albrecht Dürer has less reason for lamentation than I” (Kotková 2006, 197, note 33). Finally, Gruss fully anthropomorphised the painting just as Dürer had done three centuries earlier, only now, the cheerful greeting of the painting is replaced by tears and trauma, and a hope for healing:

In postponing continuation by so many weeks Dürer’s painting must not weep, but I can prove to him that he sheds tears only by misunderstanding, for on the contrary I know that in the realm of ghosts, Dürer rejoices for his greatest and best painting will be all the prettier and would look as though newly born again. (Kotková 2006, 200, note 39)

As Olga Kotoková has pointed out in her translation and analysis of these passages, Gruss describes the weeping of the Feast of the Rosegarlands at least three times, before detailing how he will tend to and heal the painting’s wounds. However, when Gruss’ work was displayed to the public in 1841 it was immediately criticised and has been ever since.

[16] As Gruss himself recognised, the Feast of the Rosegarlands is a painting that has survived much damage, and the characterisation of trauma is entirely apt. There is a passage from Goethe (1749-1832) that is poetically suggestive of the physical stress endured by works of art:

Hauling paintings to and fro,
Lost and new obtained;
Back, across, and forth they go
What’s left to us is maimed
(quoted in Schlosser and Kaufmann, 2021: 204)

While not referring specifically to Dürer, Goethe’s remark is indicative of an era that was marked by an ever-increasing appetite for collecting and the rise of gallery spaces. Removed from their original locations and travelling long distances to be embedded in new collections, physical damage was always possible. In using the verb “maimed” Goethe implies a violent and scrutable impact.

[17] In 1907, the Viennese art historian Julius von Schlosser included this poetic passage by Goethe in the conclusion of Die Kunst und Wunderkammern der Spätrenaissance. Published in 1907, Schlosser’s text was the first to give an account of the phenomenon of encyclopaedic collecting that was endemic to the courts especially of central Europe, including the Habsburg courts in Prague and Vienna that formed the core of the present day Kunsthistorisches Museum. Schlosser was also active in the intellectual circles that generated a modern approach to art history, and a notable figure for the Vienna School of Art History. In quoting Goethe – who at the turn of the century was upheld as a cultural ideal – Schlosser sought to bolster his own argument against a tendency for the increased movements of paintings, and a criticism of modern museum practices.

[18] It is important to point out that no other painting by Dürer had been “hauled to and fro” as much as the Feast of the Rosegarlands. A century after its creation for the church of San Bartolomeo in Venice, where it functioned as an integral part of the community of German immigrants, it was extricated from its original site and carried by porters on a trans-Alpine journey to Prague. It changed hands several more times only to later endure damages and a controversial restoration. Gruss may have sought to heal as he saw them, the visceral wounds of the painting, but it would require more than physical attention to rejuvenate the painting’s misfortunes. During the late nineteenth century, there is yet another turn in the painting’s history of reception. In the next section, I will consider anew the later exhibition history of the painting, and the importance accorded to it by the first generation of Vienna School scholars.

2 Healing

[19] In Part I, by attending to the physical state of the Feast of the Rosegarlands, the painting was characterised in terms of damage and trauma. It could be perceived as an ‘emotional object’ or as an object charged with an affective history due to the palpable loss of the very colouring that made it famous in the first place. It was anthropomorphised by its creator Albrecht Dürer in 1506, and then later by its restorer Johann Gruss in 1841. The initial appeal of the painting to an emotional register as a projection of self-worth, had dramatically changed to a tearful lament three centuries later.

[20] In this way, Dürer’s Rosegarlands joins Bellini’s Pietà as a painting with the power to move, to cause shedding of tears. We have already seen how text could be used by an artist to reinforce emotional content, as Bellini did with the inclusion of a cartellino for his crying Pietà. Dürer also included a cartellino in the Feast of the Rosegarlands: “Exegit quinque/mestri spatio Albertus Durer Germanus/MD.VI/AD.” There is much to be considered with the vivid and illusionistic manner in which Dürer asserts his authorship, a form of complex and self- conscious statement of creative status, as has been documented for contemporaneous Venetian paintings (Matthew 1998). In this indication of pride as much as authorship, Dürer extols his German origins and the length of time it took him to complete his major commission in Venice. But Dürer did more than simply insert this information: he included himself in the scene, actually holding the cartellino while locking eyes with the viewer. In this unmistakable self-portrait, Dürer is wearing a fur-trimmed and boldly coloured coat, perhaps the very coat that he imagined as sending greetings to Pirckheimer. Reading the painting from left to right, Dürer is one of the last figures to be in the field of vision, and thereby seals his role as witness to the event.

[21] Things – the cartellino, the coat – are given a projected agency here, in part through the prosopopoeia that give them voice. Dürer’s presence is doubly asserted, with self-portrait and signature rendered as marks of his authenticity. Physical examination of the painting has shown that the restorer Gruss did not heavily alter the self-portrait or the cartellino, presumably because there was less or no damage to this area of the painting (Kotková 2006, 90-92). Even as paint disappeared elsewhere, this articulation of authorship remained intact, leaving no doubts as to the painting’s origins. But there is another physical and textual marker on the painting that has not yet been fully explored. Three centuries later, and a generation after Gruss’ restoration, another label became part of the painting’s history: a label affixed to the back of the painting from the World Exhibition in Vienna in 1873.

[22] If this label is representative of the painting’s actual exhibition this would be the first time the painting left Prague since 1606, for exhibit on an international stage. The World Fair was held in Vienna in 1873 between May and November and brought together a multitude of nations in more than 26,000 exhibitions of industry, culture and art, all sprawling across 233 hectares of the Prater Park, next to the river Danube (Rampley 2011: 111). In emulation of similar events in London and Paris, the Vienna World Fair in fact sought to surpass them, as a grand statement of the Austro-Hungarian empire’s advanced economy and industrial might. As Matthew Rampley maintains: “The Vienna Fair offered a clear symbolic presentation of the Habsburg state’s geopolitical aspirations… to give visual expression to the new political identity of the empire as a bridge between East and West” (Rampley 2011: 111). It will do well to note that after the dual monarchy was created in 1867, the Czech lands (including Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia) were governed from Vienna, while Slovakia fell under Hungarian administration, until the unification of the two as Czechoslovakia in 1918.  The tradition of national pavilions, instituted in the earliest international exhibitions of the 1840s and 1850s, would have been less relevant to Czech art and industry. Given these geo-politics the Feast of the Rosegarlands, with its home in Prague, would likely have fallen under the remit of the Austrian pavilion; or perhaps the German one, if the roots of its creator were taken into consideration.

[23] Unfortunately, the aforementioned label is (thus far) the only confirmation of the painting’s presence at this exhibition, and no further documentation regarding the painting has been located in the catalogues associated with the World Fair (catalogues consulted include Weltausstellung Wien, Officieller Kunst-Catalog Wien 1873/1; Katalog der Gemälde alter Meister aus dem Wiener Privatbesitz; Exh. Cat. Kaiserlich-Königlich Österreichisches Museum für Kunst und Industrie Wien: 1873/2). The range of exhibition photographs examined for the sections devoted to fine arts do not confirm the presence of Dürer’s painting. Is it possible that the painting was transported to Vienna, but never displayed? Was its damaged state perceived as detrimental to its display? Was it sent there for further restoration? Or is it possible that the painting’s Czech provenance, with its German creator and Italian history, meant the painting defied tidy classification, as befitted the organising principles of a World Fair with its nationalistic pavilions? Or perhaps it was even withheld as part of a protest from its Czech owners? It has been documented elsewhere that some representatives of Czech businesses, institutions, and societies made their mark at the Vienna World Fair “not by their presence, but by their absence. They refused to take official part in the event because they were denied their own exhibition space and saw the entire World Fair as too Germanic” (Filipová 2022: 147). The label affixed to the painting seems to indicate its presence in the ‘Amateurs’ pavilion, which adds to the perplexing situation.

[24] Without further original documentation one can only speculate. At any rate, the label’s very intimation of a connection to the Vienna World Fair is now a part of the painting’s history. It indicates that beyond the construct of north and south, Italy and Germany, the painting features other aspirations for cultural transfer and identity, with the signification of Austrian and Czech cultural zones now added to painting as a vehicle for and bearer of turbulent memories. Dürer’s “Habsburg picture” would have had a particular significance in Imperial Vienna. The Habsburgs were pivotal to the power and influence exerted by the Holy Roman Empire, including both Maximilian I, featured in the Dürer painting, and later Rudolf II, owner of the Dürer painting. When the Holy Roman Empire was dissolved in 1804, the House of Habsburg endured in the new geo-political reality of the Dual Monarchy in the Austro-Hungarian Empire until its fall at the end of the First World War. We have already seen that the Feast of the Rosegarlands features palpable Habsburg and imperialist iconography; the label on its back is yet another reminder of its relevance to what we might loosely call Austro-Hungarian ideologies. This Habsburg picture, acquired by a Habsburg collector, was (likely) presented at a global fair designed to emphasise the power and strength of a revamped Habsburg Empire, an Empire that continued to have aspirations to contain and represent a multitude of Czech, German, Hungarian and Italian-speaking citizens.

[25] Past ideologies could be used to bolster present ones, and another painting that was exhibited in Vienna in 1873 demonstrates this cultural multitude very well. Albrecht Dürer visited by Emperor Maximilian While at Work (fig. 3), painted in 1870 by Wilhelm Koller (1829-1884), was included in the Austrian pavilion for “Art of the Present” (Wien 1873: 1). The painting was sold at auction to Ketterer Kunst for 18,125 Euro on May 25th, 2016 (currently in a private collection). The work shows Dürer elevated on scaffolding to draw the outline for a painting, while Maximilian points to another sketch held by a servant, as if to indicate to Dürer how he should proceed. The pair are surrounded by onlookers in historical costumes that indicates the scene is set in Nuremberg. This freely-imagined meeting attests to the interest in Dürer’s art-making process, as much as the importance accorded to Maximilian I as a patron who was actively invested in artistic outcomes. More than this, the figures are easily recognisable in their kinship with the Feast of the Rosegarlands, as can be seen in Dürer’s head and disposition, and the presentation of the Emperor in his fur-lined Imperial robes. The catalogue indicates that Koller was born in Olmütz, or Olomouc, in Moravia, and he is cited elsewhere as having studied as a history painter at the Academy of Fine Art in Vienna (Cat. 414 in Wien 1873/1). As Jeffrey Chipps Smith has put it, Dürer had become an object of historical fascination and historicist tropes (Smith 2017: 329-43). But also, the Habsburg connection is being asserted by a Moravian born and Viennese trained artist, all for display in the Austrian pavilion. Clearly, an identity beyond “German” is being articulated here for Dürer.

Figure 3: Wilhelm Koller, Albrecht Dürer wird von Kaiser Maximilian bei der Arbeit besucht, 1870. Öl auf Holz, 87 x 139 cm. Privatbesitz.

[26] Beyond the World Fair itself, the 1873 exhibition affords an opportunity to understand the central role played by art history for the Habsburg Empire, and Dürer’s role for a construct of a Northern Renaissance within the burgeoning Vienna School of Art History. As Matthew Rampley has argued, “the state had a heavy hand in the establishment of art history as a discipline”; he continues: “The Vienna school of art history developed at a crucial time in the history of the Habsburg Empire; the modernity that gave rise to the professionalization of the study of art also prompted the fundamental social, political, and cultural tensions that eventually contributed to the downfall of the empire” (Rampley 2009: 469). Between September 1st and 4th, 1873 the first art-historical congress took place concurrently with the World Fair of that year, a congress that consolidated the status of art history as a distinct profession. The congress was convened by Rudolf von Eitelberger (1817-1885), who was born in Olomouc and studied in Vienna. As well as being the Director of the Museum of Art and Industry, Eitelberger was appointed the first professor of art history and archaeology at the University of Vienna in 1852 (Rampley 2011: 56). At the congress, discussions focused on the place of art history within school and university curricula, the introduction and development of common standards for recording and documenting art works, the role of the state in supporting art historical research, and especially issues of conservation: how to best conserve art works? What kind of training should be provided? (Rampley 2011: 72). Eitelberger was especially interested in the historical context of objects, and pioneered a series called Quellenschriften, a series of eighteen primary historical texts published between 1871-1882 that were accompanied by critical commentary.

[27] One of Eitelberger’s most notable successors, and an art historian of great importance for Dürer’s reception, was Moritz Thausing (1838-1884). Born in Schloß Tschischkowitz (modern Čižkovice, near Litoměřice in Bohemia), Thausing first studied in Prague before moving to Vienna. He was the first trained art historian to direct the Albertina, and the second chair in art history at the University of Vienna 1873 (Johns 2009). Thausing is of special importance here, because he contributed to elevating the status of the Feast of the Rosegarlands despite its acknowledged status as a ruin. For the Quellenschriften in 1873 he compiled Dürer’s letters and diaries from his travels, making him one of the first to bring Dürer’s Venetian experiences to broader attention. He authored an important monograph on Dürer in 1876, which was translated into French and English in 1878 and 1882 (fig. 4). The chapter on Dürer in Venice is exacting and based on documentary evidence, drawings, and of course, the Feast of the Rosegarlands.

Figure 4: Moritz Thausing, Dürer: Geschichte seines Lebens und seiner Kunst, 1876. Leipzig: E. A. Seemann, 1876.

[28] Thausing describes the painting as follows: “Strictly harmonious, while showing great freedom of design, full of solemn feeling and at the same time of life, original and yet adapted in a measure to the Venetian taste of that day” (Thausing 1882: 345-346). At the same time, he acknowledges the painting as ruin: “There is but little means of judging its much-praised execution, for the picture has suffered greatly. Scarcely one of the twenty-four heads below, or of the twelve cherub heads in the sky, remains untouched. Large pieces of the surface have fallen away, especially in the middle, and nearly the whole has been painted over” (Thausing 1882: 346).

[29] In his monograph, Thausing included outline engravings after original works by Dürer, mostly reproductions of drawings and engravings, and also initials from the leaves of Emperor Maximilian’s prayer book in Munich. The one notable exception is the Feast of the Rosegarlands, the only painting that Thausing included in his suite of reproductions (fig. 5). Friedrich Wilhelm Bader (1828-1907), an engraver based in Vienna, is named as the author of the work, Thausing had previously commissioned him to create prints after drawings of costumed figures. As for this particular reproduction, it is clear that Thausing attached great significance to it, as a way of commemorating what he saw as the ruined painting: “It is only from little bits here and there, and by comparing it with other well-preserved pictures of Dürer’s, that we can form some vague idea of its original brilliance. The drawing for our wood engraving has been executed from the best attainable sources and is chiefly founded upon a tracing in the year 1840, previous to the latest and most injurious restoration” (Thausing 1882, 346). Even stripped of all colour, the painting was viewed as culturally significant, in part because of how Thausing tended to the injured object with great care.

Figure 5: Line drawing of Feast of the Rosegarlands. From Moritz Thausing, Dürer: Geschichte seines Lebens und seiner Kunst, 1876.

[30] In short: the late nineteenth-century century reception of the Feast of the Rosegarlands was very much enacted in Austro-Hungary as the emergent Vienna School developed a historiography for the Northern Renaissance. The first art historians to conduct serious study of the painting, Eitelberger and Thausing, were both Czech-born emigrés to Vienna and at the forefront of the intellectual circle that would become known as the Vienna School of Art History. The painting’s mixed identity – created by a German artist with Hungarian roots in Italy – was analogous to the way that pluralistic identities within Austro-Hungary defied borders. Both solid and fragmented, the painting’s movements – from Venice to Prague to Vienna – raises questions around what was meant by the centre and the periphery in both geo-political terms of the Empire, and its associated and burgeoning discipline of art history. Where did this object truly belong? Where does any migrant belong?

[31] In his history of the Vienna School written in 1934, Julius von Schlosser noted that “not a single professor in this department from Eitelberger to Dvořak was a native of Vienna – this can also be seen in the appended list of graduates and affiliates” (Johns and Schlosser 2009: 49). For Schlosser, this migratory spirit was endemic to the context of Vienna: “This city with its diverse ethnic mixture since before recorded times, Celtic-Roman in antiquity, Germanic and Romance in its development with Slavic influences” and the “unique mixture of northerly-southerly and westerly-easterly elements that have accounted for the magical attraction of this one true ‘imperial city’ in the German speaking area” (Johns and Schlosser 2009: 49).

[32] Clearly, a certain kind of idealism and projection is at work here, one that diminishes the very real grievances some cultural and ethnic groups felt under Austro-Hungarian rule. Imperialism is not the same as multiculturalism. By the turn of the century, the cracks in the façade of Austro-Hungary would be palpable, with its ultimate collapse after the First World War. As Rampley argues: “The rise of new industrial classes also led to the emergence of mass political movements, ranging from pan-Slavism to socialism to German nationalism, all of which overwhelmed the liberal hegemony from the 1880s onwards” (Rampley 2003: 232). To discuss these developments is beyond the scope of this essay. However, it does seem that, just for a moment, the Feast of the Rosegarlands assumed a prominent place in scholarship as a ruin that was generative of a plural identity and a past in which migratory possibilities could be celebrated. It hardly seems incidental that its earliest researchers were migrants themselves.

[33] A different reception awaited the painting in Nuremberg in 1928, where the painting would travel on the occasion of a large-scale exhibition for the 400th anniversary of Dürer’s death. Here, the painting would assume its role in a presentation of a complete, overtly nationalistic, and German Dürer. The exhibition catalogue addresses the restoration of 1663, the purchase of 1793, and the later restoration of 1840 (Nuremberg 1928: cat no 55). The public response was huge, and the exhibition was attended by over 350,000 visitors. Immediately prior to the exhibition, the art historian Hans Tietze qualified the painting as a ruin yet again, but this time evincing a strident sense of nationalism: “The painting is a ruin that will always remain venerable in German art history, because it represents the remains of one of the proudest monuments of German art in its heyday” [“Das Gemälde ist ein Ruine, die der deutschen Kunstgeschichte immer ehrwüdig bleiben wird, weil sie der Rest eines stolzesten Denkmaler der deutschen Kunst in ihrer Blüezeit darstellt”] (Tietze 1927-1928: 373). By this time an overwhelming picture of Dürer as a German cultural hero had emerged. It was the last time the painting would travel.

[34] In 1934, following various attempts by the Strahov Monastery to sell the painting to museums in Germany and even America, the Feast of the Rosegarlands was sold to what was now the Czechoslovakian state for nine and a half million crowns, the most expensive state acquisition of a painting in pre-War Czechoslovakia (Kotková 2006: 243-244). The rehabilitation of the Feast of the Rosegarlands in two exhibitions and its central place in modern art history highlights how Dürer’s reputation could be appropriated within a multitude of ideologies, as the appeal of his painting shifted from pluralism to nationalism to tourist attraction.


[35] In his 1905 lecture on Dürer and Antiquity, Aby Warburg described his wish to “cast a more general light on the circulation and exchange of expressive forms in art,” and described his “initial excavations along the route of the long migration that brought antique superlatives of gesture from Athens, by way of Rome, Mantua, and Florence, to Nuremberg and into the mind of Albrecht Dürer” (Warburg 1999: 558). He seeks to understand Dürer’s response to “this migrant rhetoric”, “the interchange of artistic culture, in the fifteenth century, between past and present, and between North and South” (Warburg 1999: 558). Warburg’s language of circulation, excavation, and exchange, along with his advocacy of a migrant rhetoric and his focus on the interchange of artistic cultures, was made in reference to a plate of his Bilderatlas (1929, panel 57) that included Dürer’s Christ among the Doctors, also executed in Venice around the time Dürer worked on the Feast of the Rosegarlands. When Warburg positioned Dürer as part of an age of migrant images, he opened up possibilities for the project of art history.

[36] It has been shown here that for our understanding of the Northern Renaissance we must expand beyond the binary of north and south and embrace for the Feast of the Rosegarlands an even more expansive history and cultural identity. From trauma to healing, this object emerges as salient for the display and staging of a ‘Northern’ Renaissance – not only in German, French or English – but also in an often misunderstood and understudied Czech and Austrian historiography. Like Dürer himself, the reception of his “Habsburg picture” is complex and never a matter of simple binaries. Contra the definitions of Dürer as the quintessential Northern Renaissance artist, which would reach an apex in the 1930s and 1940s, the earlier historiography for this painting encompasses a plural approach or at the very least a transnational interest and appeal via its location in Prague and reinvigoration in Vienna. The painting’s movement and afterlives between two imperial capitals indicates a cosmopolitan and fluid status for this particular Northern Renaissance object. It is now a truism that the painting in its very execution holds a dialogue between north and south, Germany and Italy. But this dialogue is complicated given the painting’s location in Prague since the seventeenth century and its presence in Vienna at the turn of the twentieth century. It raises issues around what counts as central and peripheral, and the narratives that are developed around later receptions for migratory objects.

[37] In the mid-to late nineteenth century the groundwork was laid for interpretations of the Feast of the Rosegarlands as Dürer’s most mobile picture. After the trauma caused by migrations and restorations, a sort of healing was enacted when the Feast of the Rosegarlands became pivotal for an expanded construct of a ‘northern’ Renaissance that was linked to a central European axis of cultural transfer and identity. Despite having been described as ‘a ruin,’ the painting is now well known as the major output from Dürer’s time in Venice, his first major altarpiece, and the commission that made his reputation as a painter. Yet, we must also recall that Dürer’s most Italian picture, created for a German community of immigrants in Venice, found its way to the seat of the Habsburg Empire in Prague – and later enabled border-crossing for cultural identities in the emergent field of modern art history on the eve of the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.


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Andrea Bubenik, University of Queensland

Andrea Bubenik is a Senior Lecturer in Art History at the University of Queensland (UQ), Australia. Her research and teaching is focused on early modern art (especially Albrecht Dürer and his followers), histories of printmaking, links between art and science, court cultures and collecting, the historiography of art from ancient times to the present, and theories of reception. Her books include: The Persistence of Melancholia in Art and Culture (edited, 2019), Perspectives on the Art of Wenceslaus Hollar (co-edited with Anne Thackray, 2016), and Reframing Albrecht Dürer: The Appropriation of Art, 1528-1700 (2012). In her role as an Associate Investigator with the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for The History of the Emotions, Andrea curated two major exhibitions at the UQ Art Museum: Ecstasy: Baroque and Beyond (2017), and Five Centuries of Melancholia (2014); she edited the accompanying exhibition catalogues for both exhibitions.

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