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Connecting art and faith: Albrecht Dürer

Family portraits are precious reflections of close familial connections. They also record events and gatherings, extending us a window into our memory.

This woodcut, made in 1511 by artist Albrecht Dürer, offers us a glimpse at a portrait of the extended family of the infant Jesus in this intimate, crowded image. Dürer created many depictions of the Holy Family, along with countless other artists through time who have rendered the family with reverence and tenderness.

This version, a scene known as The Holy Kinship, is a rarer artistic representation. In addition to the core trio of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, we see Mary’s parents, Anne and Joachim, along with other extended family members. Two plump angels sit charmingly at the feet of Mary and Jesus, reminders of the family’s divine nature and importance. One cherub deftly plays the lute, a stringed instrument, lending a pleasant mood as we imagine the sound of music filling the scene. It’s an active group, with multiple conversations and exchanges, perhaps recalling family reunions and occasions when familial support is abundant. The arrangement of figures, with some sitting and others standing, is also reminiscent of a modern-day family portrait.

This image reminds us of Christ’s humanity and time on Earth. Christ’s earthly parents connected him to an entire network of family members. Scripture tells us some detail about this extended family of Jesus, and other sources from the Medieval period further elaborate. Much of the emotion and poignancy of the Holy Family’s dynamic also springs forth from the universal experience of family itself—the joys and the challenges. Artists often infuse historical and religious scenes with detail and emotion from the lived experience and aspiration of humanity, along with their own lives.

The welcoming, wondrous family of God encompasses humanity, and many Christians honor the concept of Christianity as a family community. No matter our family of origin, many Christians feel bonded as brothers and sisters, connected by faith. We acknowledge further a sense of the family of God in the Trinity when we worship God the Father, and Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Family can mean different things to different people. But it is central to the lives of many, from the moment we are born through the years as we grow and mature and create our own families. This image beautifully reminds us of the sublime feeling of family support and connectedness.

Joanna Reiling Lindell is the director and curator of the Thrivent Art Collection.

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What recollections of connectedness and joy have you found in your family?