"If I had seven lords, I could not make ONE Holbein“ - Hans Holbein the Younger

29 November 1543, Henry VIII’s former court painter, the German artist Hans Holbein the Younger, died of the plague in London.
“If I had seven peasants, I could make seven lords. But if I had seven lords, I could not make ONE Holbein“ (Henry VIII)

Hans Holbein the Younger's portrait of Anna of Cleves from 1539

The 15th and 16th century, the days when the Middle Ages finally came to an end in Europe, was shaped by upheavals in all spheres of life, from the lowest serfs to kings and popes, like few other transitions of ages. The old order of feudal lords had served its time and the developing bourgeoisie, the Reformation plunged the continent in deep spiritual turmoil that resulted in riots, persecutions and bloody wars more often than not, the printing press paved the way for mass media and a New World had been discovered. The arts saw a rediscovery of the imagery and achievements of the ancients, the time before the “Dark Ages”, illustrating the spirit of the new times and in Northern Europe, the conflicts between old and new, the clinging to the traditions of 300 years of Gothic art and influences of modern Italian models of perception and expression brought forth an own, distinctive variant, the Northern Renaissance, with the lugubrious religious imagery of Dutch and German paintings. Realistic portrait art became a specialty of some highly talented artists at that time, among them Hans Holbein the Younger.

Hans Holbein the Younger's portrait of Thomas Morus (1527)

Stepping out of the shadow of the famous family of Augsburg painters, most notably his father’s Hans Holbein the Elder, was certainly not easy for young Hans. He learned his trade from one of the best artists north of the Alps in a trade and art metropolis and began to earn a living by illustrating the Humanist works of Erasmus of Rotterdam and Thomas Morus and, at the age of 25, with painting the murals that would adorn the council chamber of Basel’s townhall, received Humanist patronage and worked in England until Thomas Morus fell out with Henry VIII and Master Hans became court painter, portraying the personages that went in and out of Henry’s court until the king sent him out back to the continent to look for a new bride after Jane Seymour’s death in childbed, fell in love with Holbein’s portrait of Anne of Cleves, was quite disappointed when he saw her in the flesh, probably and contrary to Tudor legend more of her demeanour than her appearance, nevertheless Master Hans fell out of favour with Henry, his other patron Thomas Cromwell was disempowered as well and Holbein spent the last three years of his life painting non-courtly scenes, miniatures and portraits until the plague got him.

Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of Henry VIII (c 1540)

The portrait of Henry VIII by Holbein has become a cultural icon of a whole era of history, subtly belying the headless tyranny of the Tudor monarch and contributing to his legend. His almost realistic approach, 300 years before Realism became a widespread artistic expression, preserved the age but had no real successors in English art until his late-Gothic and very late medieval features compared with his unique modernity were rediscovered by the Romantics in England and his native Germany, the latter cherishing especially his sacral art with its never before seen manifestation of human all-to-human features that made Dostoevsky write in his “Idiot” in 1867, Holbein’s “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb“ from 1522 “Why, a man's faith might be ruined by looking at that picture!"

Hans Holbein the Younger: “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb“ from 1522

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