Archive for Hans Holbein

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

Hans Holbein: Tricks of the Trade

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2010 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Oh Stranger, would you like to see pictures that appear to be alive? Then look at these, made by the hands of Holbein. Nicolas Bourbon

Hans Holbein (the Younger), Henry VIII, 1540
Oil on wood, approximately 35 x 29 1/3 inches
(Galeria Nationale d’Arte Antica, Rome)

Three European countries claim Hans Holbein (the Younger) as their own—Germany, where he was born (in the Bavarian town of Augsburg circa 1497 or 98); Switzerland, where he received his artistic training; and England, where many of his most celebrated works were produced under the patronage of Henry VIII.

Hans Holbein (the Younger), Jane Seymour, ca. 1536
Oil on panel, approximately 35 x 26 inches
(Künsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

Henry was notoriously passionate about splendor and Holbein had the artistic ingenuity that allowed him to fulfill any of the King’s many and varied whims. By 1537 Holbein was not only the most fashionable painter at Henry’s court, he was functioning as the King’s “designer,” creating interiors, jewelry, place settings and other precious objects.

It is safe to say that the more than 100 miniature and full-sized portraits completed by Holbein during his time at court have informed all subsequent generations’ sense of the Tutor era.

Hans Holbein, Thomas More, 1527,
oil on oak panel, 29 1/2 in. x 23 3/4 inches
(Frick Collection; Henry Clay Frick Bequest)

Holbein is judged today as a virtuoso portraitist, in part because much of his other work—monumental and religious paintings—survives only through preparatory drawings. Through the portraits one immediately grasps the ways in which Holbein differentiated himself—a brilliant mastery of the paint medium; obsessive attention to visual detail; and access to the important personages of his day whose own reputations would endure through history.

Holbein’s style was driven by reason, rather than emotion. He was obsessed with the richness of details, compelled to precision in rendering the myriad of visual “facts” that lay before him. According to expert Paul Ganz Holbein “was an artist who attained his mastership by long and hard struggle; under every conceivable circumstance he trained himself to keep his eyes open to see and learn. . . ”

Hans Holbein (the Younger), Anne of Cleves, 1523,
Watercolor on parchment, approximately 25 1/2 x 19 inches
(Louvre, Paris)

Contemporaries have left records marveling at his ability to capture the exact likeness of sitters and the elegance of their garments. Indeed, his figures are so real as to seem as if they could walk off their picture planes plastically intact.

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

Yet, Holbein’s true genius may have lain in his ability to effectively edit the details. He grasped the notion that a sitter is defined by his/her salient physical features.  In the portrait of Erasmus above, for example, he perfectly captures the essence of a scholar absorbed in concentration. We know, because he’s pursing his lips in profile.

Hans Holbein (the Younger), Merchant George Grisze, 1532
Oil on wood, 96.3 x 85.7 cm
(Gemaldegalerie, Berlin)

In his 1923 The Mastery of Drawing, art historian Joseph Meder advanced the theory that Holbein had utilized the tracing (perspective) apparatus first described by Albrecht Dürer in his The Painter’s Manual (1525). Or perhaps, like the artist below, he painted on glass to get contours and spatial relationships just right.
Albrecht Dürer—Woodcut illustration from his Underweysung der Messung. . . (Instruction in Measurement. . . ), 1538.

Albrecht Dürer—see above.

It’s not so far-fetched an idea. In his fascinating book book Secret Knowledge , David Hockney posits a similar theory about Ingres, Velázquez, and Caravaggio (among others) use of optics and lenses to “improve” their draftsmanship, and with it portraits that were far and away more naturalistic than those of their contemporaries.

Hans Holbein (the Younger), Margaret More (daughter of Thomas More), 1535
Vellum laid on playing card, approximately 1 3/4 inches in diameter
(Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY)

It is widely acknowledged that Holbein started with chalk drawings of his sitters, which he (or others) transferred (in puzzle assembly mode) to larger wood panels using the pouncing method or metal stylist.

Some contemporary scholars, however, are not at all persuaded by Meder’s argument. Through infrared investigation they conclude that Holbein’s drawings were not meant to be complete finished likenesses of his sitters, but simply records of their essential features. Further, their studies confirm that many of Holbein’s drawings were in fact used as patterns for other paintings, both by him and by others after his death. In some cases the drawing and “corresponding” painting are not as closely related as had been supposed. All of which would argue against “tracing.”

The jury is still out. Whatever the case may be, let’s remember that in most hands a tool is just a tool.

Hans Holbein (the Younger), Nicolas Bourbon, ca. 1535
Colored chalks, pen and ink on paper, 38.4 × 28.3 cm
(Royal Collection, Windsor Castle)

Wider Connections

Holbein and England (Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art)
The Rare Book Room
Holbein Portrait Drawings (Dover Art Library)
SUNY-Oneonta—“Albrecht Dürer: Artist Drawing a Nude with Perspective Device

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