The Holy Family with Three Hares, c. 1496
woodcut on laid paper
38.6 x 28 cm
National Gallery of Canada (no. 2925)
Dürer’s subject draws upon the traditional repertoire of the Holy Family, but with an unprecedented lyricism evoked by the landscape and three playful hares. The Holy Family is depicted in an enclosed garden ("hortus conclusus"), whose entrance gate can be seen on the far left. The plants that surround the Virgin reveal the artist’s close observation of nature, and the background topography is suggestive of the Upper Rhine. Note also the contrasting emotional states of each figure during a moment of revelation. The Christ Child holds the Scriptures in which his destiny has been prophesied, Joseph realizes the implications and appears distressed, his aged features a counterpoint to the youthful vitality of the Virgin, who is about to be crowned as the Mother of God. The three rabbits have been interpreted variously as symbols of fertility, the Trinity, and the followers of Christ.