Successfully sat down: the story of a fly in Dürer’s painting

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An early copy of Albrecht Dürer’s altarpiece, The Feast of Wreaths of Roses, can be seen in an exhibition at the National Gallery in London. Most visitors do not pay attention to this insect, but, once noticed, it is no longer possible to “see” it.

The fly is almost in the center of the composition – sitting on a cloth covering the knees of the Virgin, just between the baby Christ and the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. The insect is painted in life size, while the people in the picture are about half smaller. So it turns out that Dürer portrayed the fly as if it had landed on the surface of the painting.

A copy of the altarpiece for the London exhibition, which runs until February 27, was provided by the Museum of Art History in Vienna. The original, which is not on display, dates back to 1506 and was written during the artist’s trip to Venice. The altar may have been damaged during the crossing of the Alps to Prague 100 years later or during the Thirty Years’ War – at some point it lost much of its colorful surface. The panel, which is now housed in the National Gallery in Prague, has been extensively restored several times since the 17th century. So the fly disappeared there a long time ago: either it just peeled off, or the restorers covered it, considering it inappropriate. And it is possible that it was added to the copy later.

But it is well known that Dürer did depict an insect in a painting. In a poem written a year after the work was completed, he is described as a “daring fly painter.” Olga Kotkova, curator of the painting department of the Prague National Gallery, is convinced that the fly was on the original. A copy of the altarpiece on which the insect has survived dates back to about 1600 and was written directly from the original.

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