Archive for Hans Holbein the Younger

The Humanist & The Radical: Faces of the Reformation

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Printmaking with tags , , , , , , , , on April 3, 2010 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Quentin Massys, Portrait of Erasmus, 1517
Oil on wood, 54 x 46.5 cms.
(Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome)

Lucas Cranach (the Elder), Martin Luther, 1526
Oil on panel
(Private Collection, Hamburg)

It’s a little early to be celebrating the 2017 cinquecentennial of the Reformation. But with Easter falling in a week jammed with news of the still duplicitous Church of Rome, this 16th century dissidence is not-s0-strangely relevant.

The Reformation had far-reaching consequences for Europe (later, the world), chief among them: establishment of a highly individual form of devotion; the shattering of the all-powerful Catholic Church and religious unity in Europe; the growth of the modern nation-state; creation of an environment that fostered political liberty (which, some might argue, paved the way for the Enlightenment).

Two of the most influential personalities of the Reformation—Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (1466?-1536) and Martin Luther (1483-1546)—both owed their intellectual maturation to the Church and, yet, were vociferous in their criticism of the contemporary Church. Although they were colleagues for a time in the effort to reform, they came to occupy substantially different positions in regard to how that reformation would best be achieved.

The great artists of the era—Hans Holbein, Albrecht Dürer, Quentin Massys and Lucas Cranach—provide rich documentation of these two men. While noteworthy for their display of technical proficiency, the portraits also provide wonderful clues as to the differences in two men’s personalities.

Hans Holbein (the Younger), Erasmus, 1523,
Oil on wood, approximately 29 x 20 inches
(National Gallery, London)

Lucas Cranach (the Elder), Martin Luther, 1529
Oil on panel
(Uffizi Gallery, Florence)

Born illegitimately as Gerrit Gerritszoon in Rotterdam, Erasmus rose from humble beginnings to become the most respected scholar of his age. He entered a world dominated by the Church’s doctrine that God was the dominant force in the world and the clergy possessed enormous intercessional powers.

By the dawn of the 16th century the Church had become utterly corrupt. It held vast wealth (in land as well as treasuries), exercised enormous political power over the monarchies of Europe, and waged war to protect its assets. Under Pope Leo X (a Medici son) administrative positions were filled according to patronage system, resulting in individuals who were more interested in increasing their own wealth than in the well-being of the faithful.

Nevertheless, it was a world in which the winds of change were already blowing. More than 100 years earlier, Petrarch (1304-1374) had first advanced the notion of that Europe could recover from its “age of Darkness” through study of the lessons provided by classical Greek and Roman civilizations. By the late 14th century, Petrarch’s ideas were well-disseminated through the intellectual capitals of Europe.

Hans Holbein (the Younger), Erasmus, ca. 1523
Oil on limewood, approximately 17 x 23 inches.
(Louvre, Paris)

In 1492 Erasmus had entered the Augustine order. He became fluent in Latin, the language of the Church and the scholarly educated class. But he also taught himself Greek, a singular achievement in that day. Erasmus was a prolific writer, accomplished in any number of genres. He came to embrace Petrarch’s ideas; like Petrarch, he wouldn’t have seen any conflict between Humanism and Christianity.

The “Prince of Humanists” is perhaps best known today for his 1516 Latin-Greek New Testament, a compilation based on texts he arduously sought out or outright discovered and translated from the original Greek. Martin Luther used this document as the source for his translation of the New Testament into German. Luther’s translation of Erasmus’ text was arguably the first radical act in reforming the Church, as it made biblical texts comprehensible to the general population in their own language (those who could read, anyway).

Erasmus was a man of contradictions: on the one hand he was deep thinker; on the other, he was reputed to have been quite vain. He sat for many of the great painters of the day expressly to give the portraits as gifts to patrons and admirers. (16th century PR?) As befitting a man of extraordinary learning, Erasmus is generally depicted in a library-like setting, surrounded by his books. Lest his “profession” be lost on viewers, his hands always physically connect with one or another of the volumes he penned, either by resting on it or through the act of writing it. To me the 1523 Holbein portrait best captures the vanity of Erasmus, note the luxurious fur and velvet (?) robe which envelopes him.

Lucas Cranach (the Elder), Martin Luther, 1532
Oil on panel,
(Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Albrecht Dürer, Erasmus, 1520
Etching, approximately 37.3 x 26 cms
(Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

By contrast, Martin Luther was born into comfortable circumstances in Eisleben (Germany) and was well-educated by his family through the university level. In 1505, as is oft reported, an “act of Nature” caused Luther to abandon his law studies and enter the Augustine order. There he read the Scriptures “assiduously” and was ordained in 1507. Many accounts portray Luther as being fully dedicated to monastic life, which included the performance of good deeds as well as fasts, flagellation, long hours in prayer/pilgrimages, and constant confession.

Lucas Cranach, like his patron, Duke Frederick III (Elector of Saxony) was friendly with the Protestant Reformers at a very early stage; he may have met Luther as early as 1520. In any case, Luther is known to have used his printing press. As befitting the monastic side of Luther, Cranach presents a solemn and plain man devoid of the accoutrements of the secular world.

Off the pulpit, however, it seems Luther was given to wry commentary (see Off the Record with Martin Luther). Luther’s great sense of humor doesn’t show up particularly well in the rather dour Cranach depictions, though one detects a hint of a smile in the upturned lips of the 1532 portrait.

In 1513, after a sojourn in Rome, Luther was given an appointment at university in Wittenberg as lecturer on the Bible. His immersion in the book as a result was to change his life and the the course of history.

Raphael, Pope Leo X, 1518-1519
Oil on panel, 60.6 x 40.9 inches
(Uffizi Gallery, Florence)

Erasmus was infuriated with the abuses in the Roman Catholic Church, especially those of the clergy. These are vividly described in his most popular satirical essay, The Praise of Folly (which he wrote in 1512 at the estate of his friend Thomas More.) Erasmus called for reform from within the Roman Catholic Church. Unlike Luther, he steadfastly steadfastly believed all his life that the Church could change from within.

In his studies as a Monk and university professor, Luther became persuaded that the Roman Church had abandoned several essential doctrines of the Christian faith, chief among them Sola Fide, i.e. the notion that God’s pardon for guilty sinners is granted to and received through faith or belief alone in Jesus Christ, to the exclusion of all human efforts or works. In this context, Luther was mightily upset by the Church’s practice of indulgences, the earning of religious merit (and less time in Pergatory) by paying (literally) respect to relics of saint. The particular catalyst for Luther was Pope Leo’s announcement in 1517 of the availability of new indulgences to fund the building of St. Peter’s. On October 31, 1517, he nailed his 95 Theses (Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences) to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, a common method then of initiating scholarly discussion.

Erasmus and Luther had started out as admirers. But with this act the chasm between the two men grew.

Using the newly-invented movable-type printing press (Lucas Cranach’s?), Luther’s Theses were quickly copied and disseminated all over Saxony. Even Pope Leo received a copy, after which he is said to have inquired, “What drunken German monk wrote these?”

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Wider Connections
Leaders of the Reformation
Biography of Martin Luther
The Day the Middle Ages Ended
Disiderius Erasmus—Praise of Folly
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen—“Images of Erasmus” exhibition

The Beautiful Vagabonds: Birds in Art

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, XC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

The very idea of a bird is a symbol and a suggestion to the poet. A bird seems to be at the top of the scale, so vehement and intense his life. . . . The beautiful vagabonds, endowed with every grace, masters of all climes, and knowing no bounds — how many human aspirations are realised in their free, holiday-lives — and how many suggestions to the poet in their flight and song! — John Burroughs (1837-1921)

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, center panel, detail,
c. 1503-04
Oil on wood
The Prado, Madrid

In his mysterious and enigmatic allegorical triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights, Netherlandish master Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516) painted enormous fruits and giant birds cavorting with tiny people of all races in a sumptuous garden. This painting presents a complex labyrinth of seemingly contradictory ideas and motifs. The triptych has been interpreted as a critique of the Catholic Church, a panorama of the Creation or a reflection on the humanist writings of Thomas More. Whatever his intent, Bosch’s giant birds are wonderful examples of the way that painters throughout history have used birds—as symbols of nature and the soul, as go-betweens, harbingers and messengers—and as intriguing examples of the wonders of nature.

Here are some of my favorites.

Roman garden painting, detail, first century A.D.
Casa del Bracciale d’Oro, Pompeii

Roman garden painting, detail, first century A.D.
Casa del Bracciale d’Oro, Pompeii

Gardens were often depicted in tomb and wall paintings in the ancient world. There is evidence that many types of gardens flourished—domestic gardens for both relaxation and as sources of food, gardens with sacred and religious meaning, cemetery gardens, opulent orchards and parks. Where there are gardens, there are birds.

Hans Holbein, A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling, c. 1526-1528
Oil on oak
National Gallery of Art, London

German painter Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8-1543) was a very versatile artist who did portraits, religious paintings, frescoes and woodcuts, as well as designing jewelry and metalwork. Holbein first traveled to England in 1528 with an introduction to Thomas More from the Renaissance Humanist scholar Erasmus, whose portrait Holbein had painted in  1523. Holbein moved to England permanently in 1532, as court painter to Henry VIII, and there he perfected his art as a portraitist. This wonderfully detailed painting is a study in contrasts, the serious pose of the sitter playing against the lively squirrel and starling (which may have represented the lady’s family coat of arms.) A luminous and rich blue background sets this enigmatic and fascinating portrait off like a jewel.

Georg Flegel, Fruit and Dead Birds, n.d.
Oil on canvas
Private collection, Germany

German still-life painter George Flegel (1566-1638) specialized in paintings of tables set for meals with food, wine and flowers. I find this particular painting of Flegel’s very unusual and idiosyncratic. The elements of the composition are very deliberately laid out on the table and amidst the dead birds, feathers and fruits—all rather scientifically painted in a presentational manner—is perched a little goldfinch, very much alive.

Melchior d’Hondecoeter, The Floating Feather, c. 1680
Oil on canvas
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Melchior d’Hondecoeter (1636-1695) was a Dutch Baroque painter who specialized in painting animals, particularly birds. What is interesting to me about d’Hondecoeter is that he didn’t paint birds merely as trophies of the hunt or table, but as creatures with moods as well as relationships, feelings and inner lives.

Jan van Kessel, Concert of Birds, c. 1660-1670
Oil on copper
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Flemish painter Jan Van Kessel (1626-1679), the grandson of the great floral painter Jan Breughel the Elder, did beautifully detailed intimate paintings on copper. He was an avid student of the scientific naturalism of his day and excelled at painting insects. I am particularly interested in his panoramic scenes of birds—with their attention to detail and rich coloration, they have a cabinet of curiosities ambiance. Van Kessel also did some very beautiful still lifes, like this one, which includes a lively little bird that is depicted with wonderful movement and energy.

Carel Fabritius, The Goldfinch, 1654
Oil on panel
Royal Picture Gallery, Mauritshuis, The Hague

This delightful painting by Dutch painter Carel Fabritius (1622-1654) is very much a portrait—you feel he has captured the essence of a particular bird. Fabritius, a student of Rembrandt, was very interested in exploring spatial effects and trompe l’oeil. This little goldfinch looks like he could fly off his perch at any moment—if he was not held captive by the little chain attached to his leg. Fabritius very much created his own style. Eschewing the dark backgrounds and dramatically lit subjects popular at the time, he applied paint thickly, using a light-colored textured background and subtle lighting on his subjects.

Indian miniature, Akbar period, 1600-1605
Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Royal figures with their falcons are a fairly common theme in Indian miniatures. In this beautifully naturalistic portrait, the bird is imbued with a definite personality and temperament. Only a member of a royal family would have worn such a magnificent robe. The silk brocade, which depicts animals, birds and plants in a lush landscape, was probably woven in Iran.

Mark Catesby, The White Crown Pigeon, The Coco Plum
Natural History, Volume 1, Plate 25
Hand-colored Etching, London, 1727-1731

Mark Catesby (1682-1749) was an English naturalist who spent 10 years in the American colonies observing the natural history of the New World and collecting specimens. The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, which he wrote and illustrated, is a magnificent achievement. Catesby’s etchings were innovative—whenever possible, he drew from life, and he often portrays his subjects in flight or in motion, with bits of plants and landscape that suggest their native habitat. His fascination and love of the natural world is evident in each illustration, especially the ones from the original edition, which he personally hand-colored.

John Anster Fitzgerald, The Captive Robin, c. 1864
Oil on canvas
Private collection

At first glance, the work of  Victorian fairy painter John Anster Fitzgerald (1819-1906) is very deceptive—the intense, saturated colors and the beauty of the images initially distract from the often macabre, nightmarish or sadistic subtexts. There’s plenty of evidence that Fitzgerald’s imagery owed more than a little to opium and laudanum use, not an uncommon vice in Victorian England. Robins have a complicated role in fairy-lore which is often ambiguous—they are variously allies and enemies. Fitzgerald painted a number of paintings about robins. As was often the case with fairy paintings, The Captive Robin is mounted in a large hand-made gilded twig frame that is quite extraordinary.

Paul Klee, Twittering Machine, 1922
Oil transfer drawing on paper with watercolor and ink on board with gouache and ink borders
Museum of Modern Art, New York

Swiss artist Paul Klee (1879-1940) brings us into the modern era, which reveals a new kind of menace. His Twittering Machine seems to be about the uneasy alliance between nature and the mechanical, with the distinct possibility that mayhem will ensue. Klee’s nervous, edgy line, contrasted with the soothing blue and violet background, adds another layer of meaning to this unsettling fusion of bird and machine.

René Magritte, The Natural Graces, c. 1961
Oil  on canvas
Private collection

Belgian Surrealist painter René Magritte (1898-1967) transformed and juxtaposed every day things—the changed context jolts us into seeing things we thought were familiar in a new light. Magritte described painting as:

…the art of putting colors side by side in such a way that their real aspect is effaced, so that familiar objects—the sky, people, trees, mountains, furniture, the stars, solid structures, graffiti—become united in a single poetically disciplined image. The poetry of this image dispenses with any symbolic significance, old or new.

Remedios Varo, Troubadour, 1959
Oil on masonite
Private collection

Remedios Varo (1908-1963) was a Spanish-born Surrealist painter who adopted Mexico as her home. Varo’s imagery was drawn from nature, and she had an intense and abiding interest in science. As a child she often visited the Prado with her father, and it there that she discovered Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, whose mixture of wit and menace she found inspiring. Birds play a large role in Varo’s personal iconography and appear often in various stages of transformation in her work.

Walton Ford, Eothen, 2001
Watercolor, gouache, pencil and ink on paper
Courtesy Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York

American watercolorist and printmaker Walton Ford (1960-) creates beautifully rendered large-scale images of nature gone amok. At first we are seduced by the beauty of the image, then we realize that the work is haunted by a sense of impending doom—something sinister and violent is taking place. Ford’s work operates on several levels at once, seeming to celebrate the romantic beauty of the work of naturalist John James Audubon while it satirizes colonialism and consumerism, mourns the extinction of species and dispassionately chronicles the destructive forces inherent in nature.

Darwin’s finches from the Galapagos Islands

No other creatures in nature represent as complex and intriguing a variety of qualities as birds. Artists have pictured them in many guises—as harbingers of doom, symbols of resurrection and as intermediaries between man and the Divine. They represent dreams, magical powers, clairvoyance and the mysteries of the unconscious. With their enormous variety and often spectacular beauty they embody the infinite and fearful powers of nature. As Charles Darwin wrote:

We behold the face of nature bright with gladness. We do not see, or we forget, that the birds singing around us live on insects or seeds, constantly destroying life.


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