Waldemar’s ‘Holbein’: lots to think about.

On Saturday we watched Waldemar Jauszczack’s brilliant Holbein: Eye of the Tudors on BBC2 this weekend; you can watch it on iplayer here. It was a treat to begin with early works that I overlook from an English viewpoint, like the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1520 – 22), or the Darmstadt Madonna (1526). They put Holbein in the front rank of Renaissance painters.

Holbein Dead Christ in the tomb

(c) Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel


(c) Städelsches Kunstinstitut

Waldemar had a very personal take on Holbein, engaging, irresistible, full of gusto, pro-Catholic, slightly subversive; rather like Waldemar himself perhaps. He gave us much to think about. I wouldn’t agree that Holbein squandered his potential by becoming Henry’s Court painter. His work for Henry is the equal of anything he painted before. The Thyssen Henry VIII (1536) is an exquisite, portrait, jewel-like as Waldemar said and breathingly real; and the Whitehall Mural (1537) in its full glory would have been a thunderclap of a picture, completely new in European art. I am biased though. I prove Waldemar’s point that one of the things that makes this period so exciting and real to us is the fact its players are brought to life by Holbein.


(c) Thyssen Bornemisza Collection.

The idea that Holbein was an anti-Lutheran who left subtle, subversive hints in his painting was new to me. I’d thought that he was a Protestant, but perhaps this was naive of me. How clearly-formed were most people’s beliefs at this date? I can well imagine Holbein as an Erasmian moderate, in favour of some reform but against radicalism and scarred by the iconoclastic violence back home. I’d thought that the allusion to Lutheran discord in the Ambassadors (1533) was the patron Jean de Dinteville speaking, but I’m sure that he and Holbein would have agreed on it, a heartfelt wish for a return to calm and normality.


A lute with a broken string, emblem of Discord, and a Lutheran hymnal. (c) National Gallery, London

Henry’s own beliefs wouldn’t have caused Holbein much heartache; in his own mind the King was largely Catholic and conservative. A moderate could have engraved the frontispiece of Henry’s English Bible 1535 without crossing his fingers behind his back.


(c) Laurence Shafe

Waldemar pointed out the difference between the portraits of Sir Thomas More (1527) and Cromwell (1533/4) in the Frick; More, one of the most serene and graceful expressions of Holbein’s art, and one of the best portraits ever painted by anyone; Cromwell lumpily characterised, broadly painted: a brutal potato.

19121077a.jpg        Unknown

(c) Frick Collection, New York

Waldemar believes this is clear statement of Holbein’s own feelings; that his religious and personal sympathies were with More, not Cromwell. I’m sure Holbein was ad unum with More his patron and fellow Erasmian in 1527, the lull before the storm. By 1533 More was disgraced and Holbein was working for Cromwell and his circle; whatever Holbein thought of him privately – and Cromwell’s portrait was painted while More was in the Tower – it is unlikely that he would do less than his best for such an important patron. His portrait of Sir Richard Southwell (1536/7) shows that he could still produce a masterpiece of an unlovable sitter.


(c) Uffizzi

Perhaps Cromwell disliked having his portrait painted and was an unresponsive sitter. He doesn’t engage with the viewer and seems keen to be elsewhere, his eye fixed on the world outside the window. But it may equally be that the painting’s condition means that what we see now is not as Holbein left it. I will explore this next time, along with another tantalising thought. Waldemar said that English patrons, as early as the 1520s when Holbein first came to this country, were more interested in portraits than Madonnas. This is usually a comment made about English painting from the mid-1530s onwards, post-Reformation. It got me thinking: what was happening with English painting at this date? There’s a solid tradition of religious panel painting in situ right up to the 1520s – the rood screens of Devon and East Anglia, for example – but what was the state of play with easel paintings? Something to be looking into.

2 thoughts on “Waldemar’s ‘Holbein’: lots to think about.

  1. I was fascinated by the programme. I thought that part of Holbein’s greatness lay in his characterization of Henry, pleasing the monarch but also showing his brutal side. I’ve admired his portraits of More and Cromwell, I didn’t know the dates. This adds weight to Janusczak’s point that Cromwell resembled the vulpine Leo McKern in A Man for All Seasons rather than the Mantel characterization. Very interesting to see the Southwell portrait in this regard. Holbein seems to have captured the character of his sitters brilliantly. I ought to add I am riveted by the serialization of Wolf Hall and especially by Rylance’s performance.

  2. I completely agree Richard – you’re right that Holbein’s power lies in his truthfulness as a painter. His portraits are uncompromising and they manage to satisfy their patrons at the time, and our need for psychological honesty.

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