Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 1, 1998
Oskar Bätschmann and Pascal Griener Hans Holbein Trans Pascal Griener and Cecilia Hurley Princeton University Press, 1997. 256 pp.; 70 color ills.; 190 b/w ills. Cloth $55.00 (0691005168)

This sumptuously illustrated volume on Hans Holbein the Younger is a welcome contribution to the scholarship on this important artist. Holbein is known for precise rendering of color, texture, and physical likeness in his celebrated portraits of wealthy merchants, aristocracy, and royalty. In addition to such renowned portraits as Thomas More of 1527 and the so-called French Ambassadors of 1533, among others, Bätschmann and Griener also include Holbein’s less familiar book illustrations and his “monumental decorative” work, such as designs for murals in Basle from the 1520s. The virtue of this new volume, which sets out to be “neither a biography nor a catalogue raisonné; but an essay that seeks to cast some new light on important problems posed by his work” is the inclusion of these less familiar works and the resulting fresh and balanced impression of Holbein’s total production.

In addition to covering a wide range of works of art, this book also explores varied themes. Discussions of images are arranged around issues relevant to sixteenth-century art as a whole: for example, Italian and Northern connections; portraiture and self-awareness; and the effect of the Protestant Reformation on artistic production. These categories provide an excellent structure for the abundant material Bätschmann and Griener command. Occasionally, however, this information does not always fit into these categories easily. In the absence of an overall argument—which is perhaps not necessary, because the book is an essay—the factual information is placed under thematic headings. But the material is not always explored explicitly in relationship to those headings, confusing for the reader.

For example, according to the summary in the preface, the first chapter, “Artistic Competition and Self-Definition” is about Holbein’s strategies for establishing himself as an artist in Basle. The chapter opens with a detailed discussion of Holbein’s design for a printer’s mark for the 1521 German edition of Erasmus’s Handbook of the Christian Knight, followed by an equally detailed analysis of Holbein’s marginal drawings for Erasmus’s Praise of Folly. Then the authors discuss sketches and murals for the 1520s Haus zum Tanz, a building in Basle with painted images of peasants dancing within an elaborate and fanciful architectural setting. Both books and the Haus zum Tanz connect through certain motifs: the hand of Apelles, Apelles painting Venus and a sketch of the mythological winged Chimaera. Yet association of these motifs with Erasmus, Apelles, and Horace, as well as their importance for book illustration or public images, overwhelms their connection to Holbein. Bätschmann and Griener seem to bury their important point that Holbein used these motifs to associate himself with the great painters of antiquity in order to establish his reputation.

The discussion of the Haus zum Tanz concludes with the assertion that “. . . the aim of art was the thorough imitation of nature, limiting the freedom to combine forms.” It is unclear whether this is a statement on the purpose of art in general, or on art in the sixteenth century, or on Holbein’s painting in particular. This is an example of how Bätschmann’s and Griener’s generalizations do not seem to provide a frame or scaffolding for their facts and interpretations, but rather seem to sit on top of their iconographic details.

The murals on the Haus zum Tanz are probably unfamiliar to lay readers and art historians alike. For this reason, had Bätschmann and Griener identified this monument, explained its historiography, or indicated how important and unusual it is for them to include it in a monograph on Holbein, the reader could better appreciate their important contribution. Without such background, however, the reader cannot recognize the importance of their sophisticated analysis of the mural’s perspective and intricate depiction of space and the ways in which Holbein used such virtuosity to align himself with the famous painters of antiquity.

Bätschmann and Griener do all scholars of sixteenth-century German painting a service by providing a much needed analysis of Holbein’s Reformation painting. Scholars of Holbein tend to overlook this aspect of his work in favor of his English and German portraits, while scholars of Reformation art often focus on Cranach and Dürer rather than Holbein. In the chapter called “Religious Works: The Making of Erasmian Art,” the authors analyze Holbein’s religious art from 1520 to 1526, including the Oberried Altarpiece, Body of Dead Christ in the Tomb, Solothurn Madonna, and the Darmstadt Madonna.

The status of religious art was a major concern for the Protestant reformers. Such radical reformers as Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt wanted to abolish religious art entirely, while more moderate Protestants, such as Martin Luther, approved of religious images that functioned to clarify points of doctrine. Despite this range of opinions on the image question, the authors suggest that Karlstadt “overruled” Luther, implicitly denying that there was any Protestant art at all. They therefore use the term “Erasmian” to describe Holbein’s religious painting of the early to mid 1520s. Included in this category of Erasmian art is The Allegory of Law and Grace, which the writers call The Old and the New Testament.

Most scholars of Reformation-period art agree that Holbein’s panel is based on a painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder, invented in consultation with Martin Luther, ca. 1529. Most scholars also agree that Cranach’s picture is the flagship Lutheran image, and that it exemplifies the Lutheran notion of salvation by grace alone. There are also a small number of art historians who contend that Holbein is the inventor of this pictorial type. Although Bätschmann and Griener do not enter into the debate about the origins of Law and Grace, they do write that Cranach’s woodcut version of the subject and Holbein’s painting are to be seen “in conjunction” with one another. Bätschmann and Griener date Cranach’s Law and Grace to “before 1530” and propose a date of ca. 1535 for Holbein’s painting, of which the exact date is uncertain.

These dates, which imply that Holbein followed Cranach’s example, ultimately confuse their interpretation of Holbein’s picture and their designation of the image as “Erasmian,” a term they do not explicitly define. If the Holbein dates from 1535 and is based on Cranach’s Lutheran model, the reader must wonder what it is about Holbein’s panel that is sufficiently different to justify the term “Erasmian.” One also wonders whether Bätschmann and Griener are implying that the Holbein painted his Law and Grace independent of Cranach. If they are indeed suggesting that Holbein, not Cranach, invented this pictorial type, then the proposed dates belie this claim.

Further, Bätschmann and Griener assume that there is a dichotomous split between Catholic acceptance of religious art and Protestant iconoclasm. They state that any potential Protestant art was “overwhelmed by fanaticism,” as though there were no intermediate category of Protestant images. At the same time, by discussing the versions of Law and Grace by Holbein and Cranach together, they concede that Holbein’s painting has at least some kind of connection to an image that is the quintessence of Lutheran Protestant painting, a type of art they do not acknowledge exists.

The thought-provoking penultimate chapter is an illuminating discussion of Holbein’s later portraits as they relate to the notions of transience and memento mori. The interpretation of the French Ambassadors reminds the reader of the essential idea of the picture, that it is concerned with the tensions between temporal knowledge and pleasures, on the one hand, and the inevitability of death on the other. To this end, the painting is constructed according to two perspectival systems, one for the top of the composition, with human figures, precious objects, and enticing textures, and one for the skull on the bottom, literally and symbolically forcing the viewer to change her/his perspective in order to recognize the inevitability and ubiquity of death.

One of the pleasures of this chapter is the concise and sensitive interpretation of the Portrait of Thomas Godsalve and his Son John, 1528. This portrait of an English landowner and his son claims two sources of immortality: the painted image, and posterity. The close family resemblance between father and son implies that the father himself will live on in the body of his son. This painting, which asserts triumph over mortality, forms an elegant contrast with the French Ambassadors, which insists on death as the ineluctable victor.

The portraits, Christina of Denmark, 1538, and Anne of Cleves, 1538–39, are not subject to the same evocative ideas and interpretations. These paintings of the potential wives of Henry VIII were not intended to be memento mori, but tools in marriage negotiation. Because of their inclusion in a chapter devoted to exploring the relationship between portraiture and transience, the reader expects a new interpretation, one that perhaps suggests that the images were indeed more than portraits of potential brides. A chronology of the major events of Holbein’s life and a history of his posthumous fame and historiography frame the main text of Hans Holbein, providing the reader with important background and context. This new book will make Holbein’s more obscure (or lost) works familiar, and also offer fresh insights into his most famous images.

Bonnie Noble
University of North Carolina at Charlotte