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Holbein: Court Painter of the Reformation

By Pettegree, Andrew | History Today, February 1998 | Go to article overview

Holbein: Court Painter of the Reformation


Pettegree, Andrew, History Today


Andrew Pettegree charts

Hans Holbein's path

from Germany to England

and points to the

ironies of his reputation

as a great Protestant painter.

Hans Holbein, who was born

500 years ago this year, was

one of the great painters of

the northern Renaissance. Born and

raised in Augsburg, he achieved

lasting fame in England, as the leading

artist at the court of Henry VIII.

Holbein's paintings of the king, his wives

and courtiers, provide some of the

most famous images of the age, and

enshrined his place in the trinity of

the great German artists of the

Reformation: Durer, Holbein, and

Cranach. Yet there is a certain irony

in celebrating Holbein as a great

Protestant painter. Holbein's career

was closely interwoven with the

events of the Reformation. He was

patronised by some of its leading

figures, and produced some fine

examples of the new Protestant art.

But personally he viewed Protestantism

with some distaste, not least

for its adverse effect on the artistic

traditions in which he had been

raised.

Hans Holbein came from a family

of artists. His father, Hans Holbein

the elder, was an accomplished

painter of religious paintings who

had made a distinguished career in

the German city of Augsburg. His

altarpiece for the city's Moritzkirche

was one of the most important paintings

recently commissioned by the

city fathers. Holbein's two sons, Hans

and Ambrosius (also a talented

painter, though he would die tragically

young), would have received

their early training in their father's

workshop, before in 1514 the two

boys moved together from Augsburg

to Basle. For young men eager to

make their way in the world this was

a shrewd choice. In the early decades

of the sixteenth century Basle was

one of the greatest cities of Europe,

and certainly one of its most

cultivated and cultured. Strategically

placed on the crossroads of Europe's

major trade routes, the city and

its university were already famous

through their association with Erasmus

and the other leaders of the new

intellectual movement of humanism.

Most importantly, Basle was also

one of Europe's leading centres of

book production, and it is quite

possibly this which attracted the young

artists to the city. In this period the

new science of book publishing

offered rich opportunities for the

graphic arts, but it was only the richest

and best established publishing

houses which had the capital to

embark on prestige projects which

required elaborate illustrated title-pages,

borders, and text illustrations.

In Basle, Holbein quickly made his

name as one of the finest exponents

of the new arts of the design of

woodcuts and engravings. Among his work

during this period was a superb

series of illustrations for bibles and

Old Testaments published in 1522,

1524 and 1526, the years when the

awakening interest in the new

evangelical teachings of Martin Luther

produced an almost insatiable

demand for vernacular scripture.

Holbein's designs had no particular

confessional slant: he also provided the

designs for illustrations of conventional

devotional literature. But he

used these years to cultivate contacts

among Basle's ruling elite, particularly

the humanist milieu which

would provide some of the most

outspoken exponents of religious

change.

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