Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Branding the Divine: Albrech Durer's Praying Hands and the Branding of Iconography

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Branding the Divine: Albrech Durer's Praying Hands and the Branding of Iconography

Article excerpt

On the eve of the Reformation, in 1508, Albrech Durer, a painter from Nurnberg, Germany, was commissioned by Jakob Heller to design the Altar of St. Thomas. On the right of the finished altar, Durer painted an apostle with hands clasped in prayer. In order to execute this pose, he sketched a small figure study of his own hands in silver paint on blue paper (Wimmer 1999) (see Figure 1). (1) This sketch, which was never intended to be publicly viewed, was first shown in Vienna in 1871 and achieved dramatic popular appeal. Thanks to new techniques in art reproduction, in 1896 the Durers Betende Hande, as they were known, began their long life as public and private symbols of faith. In other words, this sketch became an icon (Bauer 1972, 48).

The Betende Hande, or Praying Hands, can now be found on candles, plates, guitar picks, funeral cards, lockets, flower planters, basins, place mats, automobile license plates, and water towers (see Figures 2-4). Why? What is it that makes this study by an artist that was never meant to be seen so popular even in the twenty-first century? More importantly, why does the proliferation of this image deserve comment?

The Betende Hande is an interesting case study of popular religion, consumer culture, and the intersections of public and private worship. Unlike iconography of saints, the Hande is not condemned by iconoclastic Protestant sensibilities. In fact, much of its proliferation has occurred in the heavily Protestant United States. It is this creation of an icon in American popular religion that this paper intends to explore.




Popular culture and religion have never been discrete cultural phenomena. Despite the tendency of the academy at large to encourage distinct specializations, one can only really begin to understand the religious in everyday life if one takes a cross-discipline approach. This discursive approach to the study of religion certainly owes a great deal to Foucault's concepts of discourse and power. Richard King provides a succinct summation of why one cannot view the religious as an isolated aspect of culture:

I wish to argue for an awareness of the mutual imbrication of religion, culture and power as categories. This is not to say that religion and culture can be reduced to a set of power relations but rather that religion and culture are the field in which power relations operate. Materialist and cultural analyses are not mutually exclusive, "either/or" explanations. Power is not mere material conditions without cultural trace since there is no power in the abstract--power, indeed, is constituted in particular cultural forms. Equally, cultural forms are embedded in a field of power relations. What is required, therefore, is an approach that avoids materialist reductionism (which denies culture) or culturalist reductionism (which denies power) with a renewed emphasis upon the mutual imbrication of the two. (King 1999, 12)

It is from this model of interdisciplinary technique that the project of this paper is derived. One of the most startling changes at the end of the nineteenth century was the formation of a distinct consumer culture. The factors that contributed to this new consumption-driven society, the technological advancements that revolutionized manufacturing, transportation, and communication have long been noted by historians of popular culture, but the influence on the religious aspect of communal and individual lives and the intersection between religion and consumer culture is only just starting to be explored. As Jeffrey Mahan writes in his critical essay "Reflections on the Past and Future of the Study of Religion and Popular Culture,"

Though earlier religious communities were also formed by the culture of their day, the rapid acceleration of ways in which religion and popular culture interact in late modern and postmodern society demands particular attention. …

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