Progression of Art
The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb
In this panel, Holbein has created a life-size image of Christ, lying in his tomb. The greenish hue to the skin, in particular around the wounds on the hand, feet and torso, as well as on his face suggest the putrefaction of flesh and results in an almost grotesque image. Rather than creating a sense of calm or peace, the mouth and eyes are shown wide open, so that the pain endured on the cross seems to continue into the tomb. These elements emphasize Christ's humanity over his divine status and this is compounded by the unnaturally stretched and emaciated body being confined in an uncomfortably narrow space, imbuing it with an uneasy claustrophobia.
The recess in which Christ is laid is painted with an incredible sense of depth and this adds to the realism of the piece. This is further enhanced by the loose strands of Christ's hair which have fallen over the edge of the surface upon which he lies and his finger which also reaches over the edge and into the viewer's plane, reinforcing the dimensionality of the space. This is an early example of Holbein's use of trompe l'oeil, a technique that he would later apply to great effect in many of his portraits.
It is possible that the panel was intended as part of a Holy Tomb, in place of a sculpture or perhaps as a lid over a sepulchre. Above the body, angels hold instruments of the Passion and a Latin inscription reads 'Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.' Art Historian Oskar Bsatschhmann notes that "Holbein transformed the image of the Christ at rest into the dreadful vision of a corpse, that of a man who had been condemned to death. Only the specific character of the wounds betray the identity of Christ." Although a fascination with the macabre was a common trait of early Protestant artists, their minds steeped in the apocalyptic horrors of the Reformation, this is not the only way in which to view Holbein's gory interpretation. The rotting flesh can also be seen to stress the sheer miracle of the Resurrection, occurring even after the human body has decayed.
Oil and tempera on lime wood - Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel, Switzerland
This Schutzmantelbid, or 'Virgin of Pity' painting, is also known as the Madonna of Jakob Meyer zum Hasen, shows Jakob Meyer, a Basel official, having invoked divine protection for himself and his family. He is portrayed to the left, his eyes looking upwards to heaven. Opposite him are his two wives, his first wife, Magdalena Baer, who died in 1511 is positioned behind in profile, and in front, is his second wife, Dorothea Kannengiesse, in three-quarter view. Before them kneels their only surviving child, Anna, but to the left, in front of Meyer, are thought to be his two deceased sons. Above them all towers the Madonna, cradling the infant Christ. The buckled carpet upon which they stand demonstrates Holbein's skill in creating life-like texture and light, but also serves as a symbol of wealth and to draw the viewer into the pictorial space, so that they too are welcomed into the group, sharing the divinity bestowed by the Madonna and Christ child. This is one of Holbein's most famous religious works and art historian Helen Langdon attributes its success to "its depiction of individual human identities combined with spectacular spatial control and illusionism".
As with the depiction of Christ in his tomb, Holbein includes human elements, in the individual portraits of donor and family, but more particularly in the Madonna and child. The twisting of the infant's body serves to emphasise the physical weight carried in the arms of his mother. For the Madonna herself, her face is not a stereotypical rendition in the tradition of Italian Renaissance painters such as Raphael, but rather was painted from life and is based on model, Magdalena Offenburg. In this manner, the painting retains the softness of the Italian tradition (particularly in the rendition of the two boys) but also brings to bear the realism of the Northern Renaissance, as Langdon notes, "Holbein achieved a combination of piety and grandeur, and interaction between the human and divine, to rival that of Van Eyck himself." The resulting group portrait is much more than a simple devotional image and as Holbein's final major religious work, marked his future in portraiture.
Oil on panel - Private Collection
Portrait of Georg Giese
This portrait of wealthy merchant Georg Giese shows the trader in a three-quarter view, standing behind a carpet-covered counter, with various objects displayed across its surface. The sitter's name is on the wall to the left, along with his motto "no pleasure without regret". There are also letters on both walls that identify him and mark familial links to other merchant families, signalling a network of important connections. In these trompe l'oeil details, Holbein has gone as far as to recreate the writing of Giese's own hand on some of the correspondence. Amongst the many symbolic objects are carnations to signify an engagement or betrothal, a clock alluding to the passage of time, as well as a collection of tools to reinforce the profession of the sitter and a number of details indicating wealth. Giese's gaze is fixed towards the viewer and this allows him to dominate the space so that, even when surrounded by a busy collection of objects, the eye is still drawn to him. Holbein's artistic skill is particularly evident in the delicate glass vase and the sleeves of Giese's jacket, showing a Mannerist interest in surface texture. This realism later influenced 19th century advocates of naturalism in portraiture and this can be seen in the works of artists such as Bastien-Lepage, particularly in his Portrait of the Prince of Wales (1879-80).
This portrait marks the first major work by Holbein at the beginning of his second stay in London, prior to his royal appointment. It illustrates his development in portraiture and the influence of other artists of the Renaissance on him, most notably Titian. The pose and sideward glance being reminiscent of the Italian artist's Man with a Quilted Sleeve (1510). Simultaneously, the delicately painted vase with light reflecting off it was a typical feature of early Netherlandish paintings and this indicates a coalescence of influences in the artist's work, which shaped his style of portrait-making. The continued success of this portrait is illustrated in its use on the German 100,000 mark banknote in 1923.
Oil on oak - Gemäldegalerie, Berlin
This double portrait depicts Jean de Dinteville, French ambassador to England, on the left and his friend Georges de Selve on the right. Selve was bishop of Lavaur and acted as ambassador to the Emperor, the Venetian Republic, and the Holy See. Their ages are revealed on Dinteville's dagger and the book upon which Selve is resting, as 29 and 25 respectively.
A range of objects fill the two shelves which separate the figures, including a celestial globe, a portable sundial and other instruments for measuring time or related to the study of heavenly bodies. These tell us something about the sitters, although some of the symbolic meanings have been lost over time. The terrestrial globe, for instance, has been customised so that in the center of the depiction Dinteville's chateau 'Polisy' is named, highlighting his identity and stature. In addition, a string on the lute is broken, a symbol of discord. This, in close proximity to Luther's translation of Veni Creator Spiritus, hints at spiritual guidance in resolving the religious and diplomatic tangles, which concerned these ambassadors.
The complex array of objects, however, remains ambiguous and presents more questions than clear answers. Overall it can be read as a portrait of the two diplomats, with allusions to the religious and political issues which preoccupied them, as well as the friendship between them. Holbein's finesse is not just evident the trompe l'oeil of these objects and the realism of the lustrous fabrics and fur trim, but also in his inclusion of an elliptical or anamorphic skull in the foreground, distorted unless viewed from a particular angle from the upper right or lower left of the painting.
Anamorphic imagery was popular during the 16th and 17th centuries, particularly in Baroque trompe l'oeil murals such as Andrea Pozzo's ceiling in the Church of St Ignazio in Rome (1690). It then fell out of favour in art until the 20th century, although the technique continued to be used in the fields of entertainment and popular culture. Modern examples can be seen the work of Dali such as Mae West Room (1974) as well as in large-scale public and land art installations. Michael Heizer, for instance, created Complex One (1972-74) in the Nevada Desert out of earth and concrete. When viewed from the correct angle it is visible as a rectangular perimeter that makes reference to the style and shape of Egyptian tombs. More recently, Felici Varini created Three Ellipses for Three Locks (2014) in Hasselt, Belguim, which is an image of three loops made up of sections painted on over 100 buildings in the city, it can only be seen in its entirety from a specific point.
Beyond demonstrating his skill, the skull also serves to remind the viewer of the vanitas, the transience of human life and this contrasts with the crucifix, partially hidden in the top right hand corner of the image, a symbol of resurrection. As Art Historian Neil MacGregor asserts, the "picture conjures a floating, fallible world, in which the certainties are death and salvation and the enduring delight is friendship." It has been suggested that these two symbols in conjunction could operate as a reference to the immortalization of the sitters in paint, preserving a memory of them, even after death. If this was the intention, Holbein was more than successful and this is considered one of his most famous and enigmatic works, continuing to spark appreciation, discussion, and debate nearly 500 years later.
Oil on oak - The National Gallery, London
King Henry VIII
This preparatory full-sized cartoon is all that remains of a large group portrait created by Holbein which was destroyed in a fire at Whitehall Palace in 1698. This left portion of the final piece shows Henry VIII with his father, Henry VII. The missing right-hand section originally showed Henry's third wife, Jane Seymour and his mother, Elizabeth of York. In this drawing the king is presented in a strong, authoritative pose with his barrel-chested figure commanding attention. His presence is enhanced by his dress, including his padded jewel-encrusted jacket and a prominent codpiece, itself highlighted by a dagger which draws the eye towards it. Henry's physical proportions have been deliberately distorted to create a more imposing figure, with elongated legs for a slimmer and more athletic appearance. Behind him, his father looks considerably less sturdy in comparison, his almost over-sized robe, further diminishing his proportions. Henry VII had died almost 30 years earlier, and this is reflected in his gaze, which unlike his son, does not confront the view but rather looks into the distance, in thoughtful contemplation. Holbein elevates the grandeur of the piece with details of wealth and extravagance, such as the decorated frieze in the background and the buckled carpet upon which Henry stands.
The work is considered a propaganda piece and this is evidenced by the fact that the king was 46 years old at the time and suffered from physical ailments and ill-health, yet appears young and healthy in the image. This was a period of religious turmoil, with Henry VIII deposing the Pope as head of the Church of England in 1531 and assuming the position himself after the Pope refused to annul Henry's first marriage to Catherine of Aragon. This decision led to the dissolution of monasteries, convents, and friaries and the, often, violent seizing of their lands and property by the Crown. This chain of events resulted in a range of criticism, both in England and abroad and significant local resistance in some areas of the country. In this context it was vital to the King to be able to project both his divine right to make such decisions and also his unrivalled power, so that he was seen as unchallengeable. These elements are reinforced in Holbein's image through Henry's immense and powerful physicality and the inclusion of Henry's deceased parents in the group, cementing his claim to the throne. At this point, and despite three marriages, Henry had failed to produce a male heir, as such the portrait also conveys Henry's masculinity, notably through his sturdy build and the prominence of his codpiece, which is at eye height.
Holbein's portrait was so much to the king's liking that Henry VIII encouraged other artists to copy the painting, and gave these copies to friends and ambassadors. In addition to this, nobles had their own copies of the painting created to show their loyalty to the king. This explains how the image has become so iconic, despite the destruction of the original in the Whitehall Palace fire.
Ink and watercolour - National Portrait Gallery, London
Portrait of Edward, Prince of Wales
This portrait of Henry's son Edward, is the earliest known likeness of the prince and the only painting of him by Holbein that has been preserved. It shows him at the age of two, although he looks considerably more mature, with Holbein instilling a kingly authority on the baby prince that is reminiscent of his father. He is regally attired in red and gold, wearing a tight cap called a coif, and feathered hat over the top, which is a miniature version of that worn by Henry in Holbein's earlier portraits of the king. In his left hand he holds a gold rattle, which evokes a royal sceptre. His royal appearance is further enhanced by the gesture of his right hand which is raised as if blessing the viewer, although this gesture is also reminiscent of images of the infant Christ, perhaps an allusion to the Crown's new religious role in post-reformation England. As such, Curator, Quentin Buvelot asserts that "the painting should be construed as an official portrait explicitly presenting the prince as the future king." This notion is reinforced by the Latin text at the base of the panel, which begins: "Little one, emulate thy father and be the heir of his virtue". The background, which has faded to a green-brown over time was originally a bright blue and its abstract appearance is countered by the shadow cast by the figure and the velvet covered balustrade behind which Edward stands, creating a real space for him to inhabit.
Although he painted many prospective brides whilst holding his position as court painter, Holbein only occasionally painted the king's family. Works such as this one, therefore, play an important part in informing our knowledge of the Tudor royal family, but such presentations must also be regarded with a critical eye. The image of Edward as a robust baby is in contrast to the prevailing view that he was frail and sickly. Langdon says that "this portrait is imbued with sad irony: this apparently healthy child would die of tuberculosis at sixteen." This illustrates the power of Holbein's images in creating and propagating a particularly narrative, often at odds with reality.
Oil on oak - National Gallery of Art, Washington DC