Illustration: Hans Holbein the Younger Coloured Chalks. Basel Museum
LITTLE BOOKS ON ART GENERAL EDITOR: CYRIL DAVENPORT
BY BEATRICE FORTESCUE
WITH FORTY-SIX ILLUSTRATIONS
METHUEN & CO. 36 ESSEX STREET W.C. LONDON
First published in 1904
HOLBEIN'S PERIOD, PARENTAGE, AND EARLY WORK
Historical epoch and antecedents—Special conditions and character of early Christian art—Ideals and influence of the monk—Holbein's relation to mediaeval schools—His father, uncle, and Augsburg home—Probable dates for his birth and his father's death—Troubles and dispersion of the Augsburg household—From Augsburg to Basel—His brother Ambrose—Erasmus and the Praise of Folly; some erroneous impressions of both—Erasmus and Holbein no Protestants at heart—Holbein and the Bible—Illustrated Vernacular Bibles in circulation before Luther and Holbein were born—Holbein's earliest Basel oil-paintings—Direct and indirect education—Historical, geographical, and scientific revolutions of his day—Beginning of his connection with the Burgomaster of Basel—Jacob Meyer zum Hasen—Holbein's woodcuts—His studies from nature—Sudden visit to Lucerne—Italian influence on his art—Work for the Burgomaster of Lucerne 1
HOLBEIN BASILIENSIS (1519-1526)
Holbein Basiliensis—Enters the Painters' Guild—Bonifacius Amerbach and his portrait—The Last Supper and its Judas—The so-called "Fountain of Life" at Lisbon—Genius for design and symbolism in architecture—Versatility, humour, fighting scenes—Holbein becomes a citizen and marries—Basel in 1519—Froben's circle—Tremendous events and issues of the time—Holbein's religious works—The Nativity and Adoration at Freiburg—Hans Oberriedt—The Basel Passion in eight panels—Passion Drawings—Christ in the tomb—Christ and Mary Magdalen at the door of the sepulchre—Rathaus wall-paintings—Birth of Holbein's eldest child—The Solothurn Madonna: its discovery and rescue—Holbein's wife and her portraits—Suggested solutions of some biographical enigmas—Title pages—Portraits of Erasmus—Journey to France, probably to Lyons and Avignon—Publishers and pictures of the so-called "Dance of Death"—Dorothea Offenburg as Venus and Lais Corinthiaca—Triumph of the Protestant party—Holbein decides to leave Basel for a time—The Meyer-Madonna of Darmstadt and Dresden, and its portraits 45
CHANCES AND CHANGES (1526-1530)
First visit to England—Sir Thomas More: his home and portraits—The Windsor drawings—Bishop Fisher—Archbishop Warham—Bishop Stokesley—Sir Henry Guildford and his portrait—Nicholas Kratzer—Sir Bryan Tuke—Holbein's return to Basel—Portrait-group of his wife and two eldest children; two versions—Holbein's children, and families claiming descent from him—Iconoclastic fury—Ruined arts—Death of Meyer zum Hasen—Another Meyer commissions the last paintings for Basel—Return to England—Description of the Steelyard—Portraits of its members—George Gysze—Basel Council summons Holbein home—"The Ambassadors" at the National Gallery; accepted identification—Coronation of Queen Anne Boleyn—Lost paintings for the Guildhall of the Steelyard; the Triumphs of Riches and Poverty—The great Morett portrait; identifications—Holbein's industry and fertility—Designs for metal-work and other drawings—Solomon and the Queen of Sheba 114
PAINTER ROYAL (1536-1543)
Queen Jane Seymour—Death of Erasmus, and title-page portrait—The Whitehall painting of Henry VIII.—Munich drawing of Henry VIII.—Birth of an heir and the "Jane Seymour Cup"—Death of the Queen—Christina, Duchess of Milan—Secret service for the King—Flying visit to Basel and arrangements for a permanent return—Apprentices his son Philip at Paris—Portrait of the Prince of Wales and the King's return gift—Anne of Cleves—Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk—Catherine Howard—Lapse of Holbein's Basel citizenship—Irregularities—Provision for wife and children—Residence in London—Execution of Queen Catherine Howard—Marriage of Catherine Parr—Dr. Chamber—Unfinished work for the Barber-Surgeons' Hall—Death of Holbein—His will—Place of burial—Holbein's genius: its true character and greatness 156
CATALOGUE OF PRINCIPAL EXISTING WORKS 188
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
1. HOLBEIN Frontispiece Self Portrait. From a photograph in the Rischgitz Collection.
2. "PROSY" AND "HANS" HOLBEIN 16 Drawn by their father, Hans Holbein the elder. Silver-point. (Berlin Cabinet.)
3. SCHOOLMASTER'S SIGNBOARD 26 Oils. (Basel Museum.)
4. JACOB MEYER (ZUM HASEN) 31 Oils. (Basel Museum.) From a photograph in the Rischgitz Collection.
5. DOROTHEA MEYER (nee KANNEGIESSER) 31 Oils. (Basel Museum.) From a photograph in the Rischgitz Collection.
6. BONIFACIUS AMERBACH 46 Oils. (Basel Museum.)
7. FIGHT OF LANDSKNECHTE 58 Washed drawing. (Basel Museum.) From a Photograph in the Rischgitz Collection.
8. THE NATIVITY 72 Oils. (University Chapel, Freiburg Cathedral.) From a photograph by G. Roebke, Freiburg.
9. THE PASSION 74 I. GETHSEMANE. II. THE KISS OF JUDAS. III. BEFORE PONTIUS PILATE. IV. THE SCOURGING. V. THE MOCKING. VI. THE WAY TO CALVARY. VII. "IT IS FINISHED." VIII. THE ENTOMBMENT. Eight-panelled Altar-piece. (Basel Museum.)
10. CHRIST IN THE GRAVE 78 Oils. (Basel Museum.)
11. THE RISEN CHRIST 82 Oils. (Hampton Court Gallery.)
12. THE SOLOTHURN, OR ZETTER'SCHE, MADONNA 86 Oils. (Solothurn Museum.) From a photograph by Braun, Clement, and Cie., Paris.
13. UNNAMED PORTRAIT-STUDY; NOT CATALOGUED AS HOLBEIN'S 94 Silver-point and Indian ink. (Louvre Collection. Believed by the writer to be Holbein's drawing of his wife before her first marriage, and the model for the Solothurn Madonna.) From a photograph by Braun, Clement, and Cie., Paris.
14. ERASMUS 98 Oils. (The Louvre.) From a photograph by A. Giraudon, Paris.
15. THE PLOUGHMAN; THE PRIEST 102 "Images of Death." Woodcut series.
16. DOROTHEA OFFENBURG AS THE GODDESS OF LOVE 104 Oils. (Basel Museum.) From a photograph in the Rischgitz Collection.
17. DOROTHEA OFFENBURG AS LAIS CORINTHIACA 106 Oils. (Basel Museum.) From a photograph in the Rischgitz Collection.
18. THE MEYER-MADONNA 109 Oils. (Grand Ducal Collection, Darmstadt.) From a photograph by F. Hanfstaengl.
19. THE MEYER-MADONNA 109 (Later Version. Held by many to be a copy.) Oils. (Dresden Gallery.) From a photograph by F. Hanfstaengl.
20. SIR THOMAS MORE 116 Chalks. (Windsor Castle.) From a photograph by F. Hanfstaengl.
21. JOHN FISHER, BISHOP OF ROCHESTER 118 Chalks. (Windsor Castle.) From a photograph by F. Hanfstaengl.
22. SIR HENRY GUILDFORD 120 Oils. (Windsor Castle.) From a photograph by F. Hanfstaengl.
23. NICHOLAS KRATZER 122 Oils. (The Louvre.)
24. SIR BRYAN TUKE 124 Oils. (Munich Gallery.) From a photograph by F. Hanfstaengl.
25. ELSBETH, HOLBEIN'S WIFE, WITH THEIR TWO ELDEST CHILDREN 126 Oils. (Basel Museum.) From a photograph in the Rischgitz Collection.
26. "BEHOLD TO OBEY IS BETTER THAN SACRIFICE." SAMUEL DENOUNCING SAUL 134 Washed drawing. (Basel Museum.) From a photograph in the Rischgitz Collection.
27. JOeRG (OR GEORGE) GYZE 142 Oils. (Berlin Museum.) From a photograph by F. Hanfstaengl.
28. "THE AMBASSADORS" 146 Oils. (National Gallery.) From a photograph by F. Hanfstaengl.
29. THE MORETT PORTRAIT 152 Oils. (Dresden Gallery.) From a photograph by F. Hanfstaengl.
30. QUEEN JANE SEYMOUR 158 Oils. (Vienna Gallery.) From a photograph by F. Hanfstaengl.
31. KING HENRY VIII. AND HIS FATHER 160 Fragment of cartoon used for the Whitehall wall-painting. (Duke of Devonshire's Collection.)
32. KING HENRY VIII. 162 (Life Study; probably for the Whitehall Painting.) Chalks. (Munich Collection.) From a photograph by F. Hanfstaengl.
33. DESIGN FOR THE "JANE SEYMOUR CUP" 164 (Bodleian Library.)
34. CHRISTINA OF DENMARK, DUCHESS OF MILAN 166 Oils. (National Gallery.) Lent by the Duke of Norfolk.
35. ANNE OF CLEVES 172 Oils. (The Louvre.) From a photograph by A. Giraudon, Paris.
36. THOMAS HOWARD, THIRD DUKE OF NORFOLK 174 Oils. (Windsor Castle.) From a photograph by F. Hanfstaengl.
37. CATHERINE HOWARD 176 Chalk drawing. (Windsor Castle.)
38. DR. CHAMBER 180 Oils. (Vienna Gallery.) From a photograph by F. Hanfstaengl.
HOLBEIN'S PERIOD, PARENTAGE, AND EARLY WORK
Historical epoch and antecedents—Special conditions and character of early Christian art—Ideals and influence of the monk—Holbein's relation to mediaeval schools—His father, uncle, and Augsburg home—Probable dates for his birth and his father's death—Troubles and dispersion of the Augsburg household—From Augsburg to Basel—His brother Ambrose—Erasmus and the Praise of Folly; some erroneous impressions of both—Erasmus and Holbein no Protestants at heart—Holbein and the Bible—Illustrated vernacular Bibles in circulation before Luther and Holbein were born—Holbein's earliest Basel oil paintings—Direct and indirect education—Historical, geographical, and scientific revolutions of his day—Beginning of his connection with the Burgomaster of Basel—Jacob Meyer zum Hasen—Holbein's woodcuts—His studies from nature—Sudden visit to Lucerne—Italian influence on his art—Work for the Burgomaster of Lucerne.
The eighty-three years stretching from 1461 to 1543—between the probable year of the elder Hans Holbein's birth and that in which the younger, the great Holbein, died—constitute one of those periods which rightly deserve the much-abused name of an Epoch. The Christian era of itself had known many: the Yellow-Danger of the fifth century making one hideous smear across Europe; the Hic Jacet with which this same century entombed an Empire three continents could not content; the new impulse which Charlemagne and Alfred had given to Progress in the ninth century; the triumphant establishment of Papal Supremacy, that Napoleonic idea of Gregory VII.—Sanctus Satanas, of the eleventh, and grand architect in a vaster Roman Empire which still "humanly contends for glory"; and lastly, at the very threshold of the Holbeins, the invention of movable printing types about 1440, and the fall of Constantinople in 1453, which combined to drive the prodigies and potencies of Greek genius through the world.
Each of these had done its own special work for the advancement of man—as for that matter all things must, whether by help or helplessness. Not less than Elijah did the wretched priests of Baal serve those slow, sure, eternal Purposes, which include an Ahab and all the futile fury of his little life as the sun includes its "spots."
But although the stream of History is one, and its every succeeding curve only an expansion of the first, there has probably been no century of our era when this stream has been so suddenly enlarged, or bent so sharply toward fresh constellations as in that of the Holbeins,—when Religion and Art, as well as Science, saw a New World upon its astonished horizon. So that we properly call it a transition period, and its representative men "transitional."
Yet we shall never get near to these real men, to their real world, unless we can forget all about the pose of this or the other Zeitgeist—that tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.
For we must keep constantly in mind that what we call the Middle Ages or—worse yet—the Dark Ages, made up the Yesterday of the Holbeins and was the flesh and blood transmitted to them as their own flesh and blood with all its living bonds toward the Old and all its living impulses toward the New.
A now famous New Zealander is, we know, to sketch our own "mediaevalism" with contemptuous pity for its darkness. But until his day comes, our farthing-dips seem to make a gaudy illumination. And, meantime, we are alive; we walk about; we, too, can swell the chorus which the Initiated chant in every century with the same fond confidence: "We alone enjoy the Holy Light."
The New is ever becoming old; the old ever changing into New. And if we ask why each waxes or wanes just when it does and as it does, there is, in the last analysis, no better answer than Aurora's explanation for chancing on the poets—
Because the time was ripe.
And the Holbein century is one of stupendous Transitions because the time was ripe; and not simply because printing was invented, or Greek scholars were driven from Constantinople to scatter abroad in Europe, or Ferdinand and Isabella wanted a direct route to Cathay, or Friar Martin nailed ninety-five Theses to the door of Wittenberg's church, and built himself thereby an everlasting name as Luther.
And because the time was ripe for a new Art, even more than because this or that great painter entrained it, it also had its transition period, and Holbein is set down in manuals as a transitional painter. Teutonic, too; because all Christian art is either Byzantine or Italian or Teutonic in its type.
When it first crept from the catacombs under the protection of the Constantinople Court it could but be Byzantine; that strange composite obtained by stripping the Greek "beast" of every pagan beauty and then decking it out with crude Oriental ornament. But who that prizes the peculiar product of that fanaticism would have had its cradle without this sleepless terror, lest for the whole world of classic heathendom it should lose the dear-bought soul of purely Christian ideals? Or who, remembering that in thus relentlessly sacrificing its entire heritage of pagan accumulation it put back the clock of Art to the Stone Age, and had to begin all over again in the helpless bewilderment of untaught childish effort,—could find twice ten centuries too long for the astounding feat it achieved? Ten centuries, after all, make but a marvellous short course betwixt the archaic compositions of the third century and the compositions of Giotto or Wilhelm Meister.
A great deal of nonsense is talked about the "tyrannies" which the Monastic Age inflicted on Art. Of course, monasticism fostered fanaticism. It does not need the luminous genius that said it, to teach us that "whatever is necessary to what we make our sole object is sure, in some way or in some time or other, to become our master." And with the monk, the true monk in his day of usefulness, every knowledge and every art was good or bad according as it served monastic ideals. But it is absurd to say that the monk—qua monk—"put the intellect in chains." The whole body of his oppression was not so paralysing as the iron little finger of Malherbe and his school of "classic" despots. To charge upon the monk the limitations of his crude thought and cruder methods is about as intelligent as it would be to fall foul of Shakespeare because boys played his women's parts.
The springs of Helicon were the monk's also, as witness Tuotilo and Bernard of Clairvaux; but it was by the waters of Jordan that his miracles were wrought. As Johnson somewhere says of Watts, "every kind of knowledge was by the piety of his mind converted into theology." And for the rest,—by the labour of his hands, by his fasting from the things of the flesh, by his lofty faith—however erring or forgotten or betrayed, in individual cases,—by every impressive lesson of a hard life lived unto others and a hard death died unto himself, century after century it was the monk who taught and helped the barbarian of every land to turn the desolate freedom of the wild ass into a smiling homestead and the savage Africa of his own heart into at least a better place. The marvel is that he could at the same time find room or energy to make his monastery also a laboratory, a library, and a studio. And yet he did.
To say that he abhorred Greek ideals is to say that the shepherd abhors the wolf. His life was one long fight with the insidious poison of the Greek. He did not,—at any rate in his best days—believe at all in Art for Art's sake; and had far too intimate an acquaintance with the "natural man" to do him even justice. What he wanted was to do away with him.
Yet with all its repellent features, it is to this unflinching exclusiveness of the monkish ideal that we owe one of the most exquisite blossoms on the stock of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries,—their innocent and appealing art; an art as original and as worthy of reverence, within its own peculiar province, as the masterpieces of Greece or Italy. You must turn from the beauty of Antinous to the beauty of, say, the Saint Veronica, among the works of the Cologne school at Munich, before you can estimate the Gulf of many things besides time which for ever divides the world of the one from the world of the other. And then you must essay to embody the visions of Patmos with a child's colour-box and brushes, before you can compare the achievements—the amazing achievements—of the monkish ideal with the achievements of classic paganism.
With the school of Wilhelm Meister this tremendous revolution had accomplished itself; and solely through the indomitable will of the monk. The ideal of Greece had been to show how gods walk the earth. This Christian ideal was to show how devout men and women walk with God. Their ineffable heavenly faces look out from their golden world—
Inviolate, unwearied, Divinest, sweetest, best,
upon this far-off, far other world, where nothing is inviolate, and divinest things must come at last to tears and ashes.
But the monk had had his day as well as his way. The so-called Gothic architecture had expressed its uttermost of aspiration and tenuity; and painting had fulfilled its utmost accommodation to the ever more slender wall-spaces and forms which this architecture necessitated. And once again, in the fifteenth century, the time was ripe for a new transition. Art was now to reveal the realities of this world, and to concern itself with Man among them. And just as the law of reaction flung the mind into religious revolt from the outworn dogmas and overgrown pretensions of the monkish ideal, so did it drive the healthy reaction of art into its own extravagances of protest. And we shall see how even a genius like Holbein's was unable to entirely free itself from this reactionary defect. For with all his astonishing powers, imaginative and technical, he never wholly overcame that defect of making his figures too short and too thick-set for grace, which amounted to a deformity in the full-length figures of his early work, and was due to his fierce revolt from the unnaturally elongated forms of an earlier period.
Yet we should make a grave mistake if we were to regard Holbein as cut off by this reaction from all affinities with the monkish ideals of the Cologne school. On the contrary. We shall see, especially in his religious pictures, how many of those ideals had fed the very springs of his imagination and sunk deep into his art; only expressing themselves in his own symbolism and in forms unlike theirs.
* * * * *
In the Augsburg Gallery there is a painting by Holbein's father, the "Basilica of St. Paul," in which there is a group introduced after the fashion of the period, which has a special biographical interest. This group, in the Baptism of St. Paul, is believed by many authorities to be a portrait-group of the painter himself,—Hans Holbein the Elder, and his two young sons, Ambrose (or Amprosy, as it was often written) and Johannes, or "Hanns." The portrait of the father is certainly like Holbein's own drawing of him in the Duke d'Aumale's Collection, which Sandrart engraved in his account of the younger Holbein; while the heads of the two boys are very like those which we shall find later in a drawing in the Berlin Gallery. From the pronounced way in which his father's hand rests on little Hans' head, while the left points him out,—and even his elder brother "Prosy" shows by his attitude the special notice to be taken of Hans,—it is clear that if this is a portrait-group either it was painted when the boys were actually older, or the younger had already given some astonishing proof of that precocity which his early works display; for in this group the younger boy cannot be more than eight or nine years old.
Hans Holbein the Elder, who stands here with his long brown hair and beard falling over his fur gown, was a citizen of Augsburg, living for a while in the same street with the honoured Augsburg painter, Hans Burgkmair, and occasionally working with him on large commissions. That he was a native of Augsburg, and the son—as is generally believed—of "Michel Holbain" (Augsburg commonly spelt Holbein with an a), leather-dresser—I myself cannot feel so sure as others do. There is no documentary evidence to prove that the Michael Holbein of Augsburg ever had a son, and there is both documentary and circumstantial evidence to prove that the descendants of Hans Holbein the Elder claimed a different origin. That a man was a "citizen," or burgher, of any town, of course proves nothing. It was a period when painters especially learned their trades and practised it in many centres. And this, when guilds were all-powerful and no one could either join one without taking citizenship with it, or pursue its calling in any given place without association with the guild of that place, often involved a series of citizenships. The elder Holbein was himself a burgher of Ulm at one time, if not of other cities in which he worked.
But that Augsburg was his fixed home for the greater part of his life is certain; and the rate-books show that after the leather-dresser had disappeared from their register of residents in the retail business quarter of the city, in the neighbourhood of the Lech canals, Hans Holbein the Elder was, in 1494, a householder in this very place. For some years the name of "Sigmund, his brother," is bracketed with his; but about 1517 Sigmund Holbein established himself in Berne, where he accumulated a very respectable competence, which, at his death in 1540, he bequeathed to his "dear nephew, Hans Holbein, the painter," at that time a citizen of Basel. Sigmund also was a painter, but no unquestioned work of his is known.
There is nothing to show who was the wife of Sigmund Holbein's elder brother, Hans. But by 1499 this elder Hans had either a child or children mentioned with him (sein kind, applying equally to one or more). In all probability this is the earliest discoverable record of Hans Holbein the Younger, and his elder brother Ambrose. In all probability, too, Hans was then about two years old, and "Prosy" a year or two older. At one time it was vaguely thought that the elder Hans had three sons; and Prosy, or "Brosie," as it was sometimes written, got converted into a "Bruno" Holbein. But no vestige of an actual Bruno is to be found. And as Ambrose Holbein's trail, whether in rate-books or art-records, utterly vanishes after 1519, it will be seen that for the most part of the younger Holbein's life he had no brother. Hence it is easy to understand how his uncle Sigmund's Will speaks only of "my dear nephew."
Hans the elder lived far on in his younger son's life. His works attest that he had talents and ideals of no mean order. But I do not propose to enter here upon the vexed question as to how far the "Renaissance" characteristics of the later works attributed to his hand are his own or his son's. Learned and exhaustive arguments have by turns consigned the best of these works to the father, to the son, and back again to the father. In at least one instance of high authority the same writer has, at different periods, held a brief for both sides and for opposite opinions! In this connection, as on the battlefield of some of the son's greatest paintings, the single-minded student of Holbein may not unprofitably draw three conclusions from the copious literature on the subject:—First, that a working hypothesis is not of necessity the right one; secondly, that in the matter of his pronouncements the critical expert also may occasionally be regarded as
Un animal qui s'habille, deshabille et babille toujours;
and thirdly, that in default of incontestable documentary proofs the modest "so far as I have been able to discover" of Holbein's first biographer, Van Mander, is a capital anchor to windward, and is at any rate preferable to driving forth upon the howling waters of Classification, like Constance upon the Sea of Greece, "Alle sterelesse, God wot."
But my chief reason for not pursuing the Protean phantom of Holbein's Augsburg period is that,—apart from my own disagreement with many accepted views about the works it includes, and the utter lack of data or determining any position irrefutably,—it is comparatively unimportant to the purpose of this little book. For wherever the younger painter was born,—whether at Augsburg or Ulm or elsewhere,—and whatever I believe to be his rightful claim to such paintings as the St. Elizabeth and St. Barbara of the St. Sebastian altar-piece at Munich, Fame, like Van Mander, has rightly written him down Holbein Basiliensis.
It is true that his father's brushes were his alphabet. It may be true, though I doubt it, that his father's teaching was his only technical school. But if he was, as to the last he gloried in being, the child of the Old Period, he was much more truly the immediate pupil of the Van Eycks than of his father's irresolute ideals; while Basel was his university. And whatever may have been his debt to those childish years when the little Iulus followed his father with trembling steps, his debt to Basel was immensely greater. The door-sill of Johann Froben's printing-house was the threshold of his earthly immortality.
When he turned his back on the low-vaulted years of Augsburg, it was because for him also the time was ripe. The Old Period had cast his genius; the New was to expand it to new powers and purposes.
Still, as the spiral grew, He left the past year's dwelling for the new; Stole with soft step its shining archway through, Built up its idle door, Stretch'd in his last-found home and knew the old no more.
* * * * *
It may easily have been the elder Hans' continuous troubles, whether due to his fault or his misfortune it is idle now to inquire, which made his sons leave Augsburg. Certain it is that he but escaped from the clutches of one suit for debt after another in order to tumble into some fresh disaster of the sort, until his own brother Sigmund appears among his exasperated creditors. After 1524 Hans Holbein the Elder vanishes from the records. Probably, therefore, it was at about this date that he paid,—Heaven and himself only knowing how willingly,—the one debt which every man pays at the last.
At all events his sons did leave Augsburg about 1514; or, at any rate, Hans did, since there is a naive little Virgin and Child in the Basel Museum, dated 1514, which must have been painted in the neighbourhood of Constance in this year,—probably for the village church where it was discovered. As everything points to the conclusion that Holbein was born in 1497, he would have been some seventeen years old at this time, and "Prosy" eighteen or nineteen. Substantially, therefore, they must have looked pretty much as in the drawing which their father had made of them three years before; that precious drawing in silver-point which is now in the Berlin Collection (Plate 2). Over the elder, still with the curly locks of the group in the "St. Paul Basilica," is written Prosy; over the younger, Hanns. The age of the latter, fourteen, may still be deciphered above his portrait, but that of Ambrose has quite vanished. Between the two is the family name, written in Augsburg fashion, Holbain. At the top of the sheet stands the year of the drawing, almost illegible, but believed to be 1511.
Illustration: PLATE 2
"PROSY" AND "HANNS" HOLBAIN [Drawn by their father, Hans Holbein the elder] Silver-point. Berlin Cabinet
Of the elder brother all that is certainly known may be said here once for all. In 1517 he entered the Painters' Guild at Basel, where he is called "Ambrosius Holbein, citizen of Augsburg." He made a number of designs for wood-engraving, title-pages, and ornaments, for the printers of Basel—all of fair merit. He may also have worked in the studio of Hans Herbster, a Basel painter of considerable note. Herbster's portrait in oils, long held to be a fine work of the younger brother,—now that it has passed from the Earl of Northbrook's collection to that of the Basel Museum, is attributed to Ambrose Holbein. But little else is known of him; and after 1519, as has been said, the absence of any record of him among the living suggests that he died in that year.
In the late summer of 1515 came that momentous trifle which has for ever linked the name of young Hans Holbein with that of Erasmus. Whether, as some say, the scholar gave him the order, or, as seems more likely, some friend of both had the copy, now in the Basel Museum, on the margins of which the lad drew his spirited pen-and-ink sketches,—it is on record that they were made before the end of December, and that Erasmus himself was delighted with their wit and vigour. And, in truth, they are exceedingly clever, both in the art with which a few strokes suggest a picture, and in that by which the picture emphasises every telling point in the satire. But a great deal too much has been built upon both the satire and the sketches; a great deal, also, falsely built upon them.
They have been made to do duty, in default of all genuine proofs, as supports to the theory by which Protestant writers have claimed both Erasmus and Holbein as followers of Luther in their hearts, without sufficient courage or zeal to declare themselves such. I confess that, though myself no less ardent as a Protestant than as an admirer of Holbein, I cannot, for the life of me, see any justification for either the claim or its implied charge of timorousness.
Erasmus's Praise of Folly—like so many a paradox started as a joke,—had no notion of being serious at all until it was seriously attacked. Some four years before its illustrations riveted the name of a stripling artist to that of the world-renowned scholar, Erasmus had fallen ill while a guest in the sunny Bucklersbury home where three tiny daughters and a baby son were the darlings of Sir Thomas More and his wife. To beguile the tedium of convalescence the invalid had scribbled off a jeu d'esprit, with its punning play on More's name, Encomium Moriae, in which every theme for laughter, in a far from squeamish day, was collected under that title. Read aloud to More and his friends, it was declared much too good to be limited to private circulation; and accordingly, with some revision and expansion, it was printed. That it scourged with its mockery those things in both Church and State which Erasmus and More and many another fervent Churchman hated,—such as the crying evils which called aloud for reformation in the highest places, and above all, that it lashed the detested friars whom the best churchmen most loathed,—these things were foregone conclusions in such a composition. But a laugh, even a satirical laugh, at the expense of excrescences or follies in one's camp, is a very far cry from going over to its foes. As a huge joke Erasmus wrote the Praise of Folly; as such More and all his circle lauded it; as such Froben reprinted it; and as such young Holbein pointed all its laughing gibes.
And it was part and parcel of the joke that he launched his own sly arrow at the author himself. Erasmus could but laugh at the adroitness with which the young man from Augsburg had drawn a reverend scholar writing away at his desk, among the votaries of Folly, and written Erasmus over his head. But it was hardly to be expected that he should altogether relish the witty implication, or the presumption of the unknown painter who had ventured to make it. Nor did he. Turning over a page he also contrived to turn the laugh yet once again, this time against the too-presuming artist. Finding, perhaps, the coarsest of the sketches, one in keeping with the "fat and splendid pig from the drove of Epicurus," he in his turn wrote the name of Holbein above the wanton boor at his carousals. It was a reprisal not more delicate than the spirit with which subjects too sacred to have been named in the same breath with Folly,—the very words of our Lord Himself,—had been dragged into such company. But though it, too, was a joke, this little slap of wounded amour propre has found writers to draw from it an entire theory that Holbein led a life of debauchery!
Yet even this feat of deduction is surpassed by that which argues that because Erasmus and Holbein lashed bad prelates and vicious monks with satire, therefore they detested the whole hierarchy of Rome and loathed all monks, good or bad. "Erasmus laid the egg which Luther hatched" is the oft-repeated cry; forgetting or ignoring the plain fact that Erasmus eyed the Lutheran egg with no little mistrust in its shell and with unequivocal disgust in its full-feathered development. "What connection have I with Luther," he writes some three years after Holbein illustrated Stultitia's worshippers, "or what recompense have I to expect from him that I should join with him to oppose the Church of Rome, which I take to be the true part of the Church Catholic, or to oppose the Roman Pontiff who is the head of the Catholic Church? I am not so impious as to dissent from the Church nor so ungrateful as to dissent from Leo, from whom I have received uncommon favour and indulgence."
As to Holbein's "Protestant sympathies"—using the name for the whole Lutheran movement in which Protestantism had its rise,—the assertions are even less grounded in fact, if that be possible. If he had it not already in his heart, through Erasmus and Amerbach and Froben and More and every other great influence to which he yielded himself at all, he early acquired a deep and devout sense of the need of reform within the Church. Like all these lifelong friends, he wanted to see the Church of Rome return to her purer days and cast off the corruptions of a profligate idleness. Like them he couched his lance against the unworthy priest, the gluttonous or licentious monk, the wolves in sheep's clothing that were destroying the fold from within. Like them, as they re-echoed Colet—the saintly Dean of St. Paul's,—he passionately favoured the translation of the Scriptures into the vernacular and placing them in the hands, or at any rate bringing them to the familiar knowledge, of peasant as well as prelate. But surely one must know very little of the teachings of the stoutest Churchmen of Holbein's day and acquaintance not to know also that they encouraged if they did not plant these opinions in his mind.
"Duerer's woodcuts and engravings, especially his various scenes from the Passion," writes even Woltmann, the biographer to whom every student of Holbein owes so grateful a debt, "had prepared the soil among the people for Luther's translation of the Bible. Holbein's pictures from the Old Testament followed in their wake, and helped forward the work." Yet it seems difficult to suppose that Woltmann could have been ignorant of the facts of the case. So far were Holbein's, or any other artist's, Bible illustrations or Bible pictures from arguing a "Lutheran" monopoly in the vernacular Bible, that in Germany alone there were fifteen translated and illustrated editions of the Bible before Luther's appeared; and of these fifteen some half-dozen were published before Luther was born. Quentell, at Cologne, for instance, published a famous translation with exceedingly good woodcuts in 1480,—three years before Luther's birth. While some nine years before Quentell's German translation, the Abbot Niccolo Malermi published his Biblia Vulgare in the Italian vernacular, which went through twenty editions in less than a century: one of which,—brought out at Venice in 1490 by the Giunta Brothers,—was illustrated by woodcuts of the greatest beauty. So widespread was the demand for this "Malermi Bible" that another edition, with new illustrations of almost equal merit, was produced at Venice in 1493, by the printer known as Anima Mia. All of these were vernacular Bibles; all illustrated; all widely known throughout Italy and Germany before Holbein was born or Luther was in his tenth year. And certainly it has not yet been suggested by the most rabid Protestantism that either these or any of the many other illustrated vernacular Bibles printed long before Luther's great translation,—a translation with a special claim to immortality because it may be said to have set the standard for modern German,—were anything but Roman Catholic Bibles. They were translated and illustrated in behalf of no doctrine which Protestantism does not hold in common with the Church of Rome.
To lose hold of these things, to lose sight of the true attitude of Holbein in his Bible woodcuts and his "Images of Death," or of either Erasmus or Holbein in their satires on the flagrant abuses within their Church, and their unwavering devotion to that Church,—is to deliberately throw away the clue to the most vital qualities in the work of either, and to the whole course and character of Holbein himself, no less than to that of his lifelong friend and benefactor.
* * * * *
In 1515 the young painter who had come to Basel to better his fortunes painted a table for Hans Baer's wedding. The bridegroom marched away, carrying the Basel colours, to the bloody field of Marignano (or Melegnano) in this same year, and never came back to sit with his smiling bride around Holbein's most amusing conceits—where "Saint Nobody" was depicted among all the catastrophes of which he is the scapegoat, and a few ordinary trifles—a letter, a pair of spectacles, etc.—were marvellously represented, as if dropped by chance above the painted decorations, so that people were always attempting to pick them up. But Hans Baer's sister had been the first wife of a certain brave comrade—Meyer "of the Hare," who did come back and played an important part in young Holbein's career. Long lost among forgotten rubbish, Hans Baer's table has been unearthed, and is now preserved in the town library at Zurich.
But although Holbein had got his foot on the ladder of fame in this year's beginning of his connection with Froben, he was as yet very thankful to accept any commission, however humble. And as a human document there is a touch of peculiar, almost pathetic interest about the Schoolmaster's Signboard preserved by Bonifacius Amerbach, and now with his collection in the Basel Museum (Plate 3). It is a simple thing, with no pretension to a place among "works of art"—this bit of flotsam from 1516, when it was painted. Originally the two views, the Infant Class and the Adult Class, were on opposite sides of the sign; but they have been carefully split apart so as to be seen side by side. In the one is the quaint but usual Dame's School of the period; in the other the public is informed how the adults of Basel may retrieve the lack of such early opportunities. The inscription above each sets forth how whosoever wishes to do so can be taught to read and write correctly, and be furnished with all the essentials of a decent education at a very moderate cost; "children on the usual terms." And there is a delightful clause to say that "if anyone is too dull-witted to learn at all, no payment will be accepted, be it Burger or Apprentice, Wife or Maid."
Somehow, looking at the young fellow at the right of the table, in the Adult Class, sitting facing the anxious schoolmaster, with his own brow all furrowed by the effort to follow him and his mouth doggedly set to succeed,—while the late, low sun of a summer afternoon streams in through the leaded window,—one muses on the chance that so may the young painter from Augsburg, now but nineteen, himself have sat upon this very bench and leaned across this very table, in a like determination to widen out his small store of book-learning. He could have had little opportunity to do so in the ever-shifting, bailiff-haunted home of his boyhood. And somewhere he certainly learned to write quite as well as even the average gentleman of his day; witness the notes on his drawings.
Illustration: PLATE 3 SCHOOLMASTER'S SIGNBOARD Oils. Basel Museum
Somewhere, too, and no later than these first Basel years, he acquired the power to read and appreciate even the niceties of Latin, though he probably could not have done more than make these out to his own satisfaction. All his work of illustration is too original, too spontaneous, too full of flashes of subtle personal sympathy with the text, to have emanated from an interpreter, or been dictated by another mind than his own. And this very Signboard may have paid for lessons which he could not otherwise afford. For if there is any force in circumstantial evidence it is certain that Holbein not only wrote, but read and pondered and thought for himself in these years when he doubtless had many more hours of leisure than he desired, from a financial standpoint.
And the greatest pages of his autobiography, written with his brush, will be only so many childish rebuses if we forget what astounding pages of History and Argument were turned before him. In Augsburg he had seen the Emperor Maximilian riding in state more than once, and heard much talk about that Emperor's interests and schemes and fears; and of thrones and battlefields engaged with or against these. Augsburg was in closest ties of commerce with Venice; and the tides of many a tremendous issue of civilisation rolled to and fro through the gates of the Free Swabian City.
Child and lad, his was a precocious intelligence; and it had been fed upon meat for strong men. He had heard of Alexander VI.'s colossal infamies, and those of Caesar Borgia as well; and of the kingdoms ranging to this or that standard after the death of Pope and Prince. He was nine years old then. Old enough, too, to drink in the wonderful hero-tales of one Christopher Columbus of Genoa, whose fame was running through the Whispering Gallery of Europe, while he himself lay dying at Valladolid—ill, heartbroken, poor, disgraced,—yet proudly confident that he had demonstrated, past all denial, the truth of his own conviction, and touched the shores of Cathay, sailing westward from Spain. Da Gama, Vespucci, Balboa, Magellan,—theirs were indeed names and deeds to set the heart of youth leaping, between its cradle and its twenty-fifth year.
Holbein was twelve when Augsburg heard that England had a young king, whom it crowned as Henry VIII. He was setting out from his home, such as it was, to fight his own boyish battle of Life, when the news spread of Flodden's Field. None of these things would let such an one as he was rest content to apprehend them as a yokel. From either the honest dominie of the Signboard or some other, we may be sure he sought the means to read and digest them for himself. And if he learnt some smattering of the geography of the earth and the heavens after the crude notions of an older day, he could have done no other, at that time, in the most enlightened Universities. Ptolemy's Geographia was still the text-book, and the so-called "Ptolemaic Theory" still the astronomical creed of scholars. Copernicus was, indeed, a man of forty when Holbein was painting this Signboard in 1516. But Copernicus was still interluding the active duties of Frauenburg's highly successful governor, tax-collector, judge, and vicar-general,—to say nothing of his brilliant essays on finance,—with those studies in his watch-tower which were to revolutionise the astronomical conceptions of twenty centuries and wheel the Earth around the Sun instead of the Sun around the Earth. But his system was not actually published until its author was on his death-bed, in the year of Holbein's own death. So that these stupendous new ideas were only the unpublished rumours and discussions of circles like that of Froben and Erasmus, when Holbein first entered it.
But it is no insignificant sidelight on the history of this circle and this period to recall that the subversive theories of Copernicus,—far as even he was from anticipating how a Kepler and a Newton should one day shatter the "Crystalline Spheres," and relegate to the dustheap of antiquity the "Epicycles," to which he still clung,—had their only generous hearing from influential churchmen of Rome. Luther recoiled from them as the blasphemies of "an arrogant fool"; and even Melanchthon urged that they should be "suppressed by the secular arm." Nor let it be forgotten that these matters were never a far cry from those Basel printing-presses where the greatest master-printers were themselves thorough and eager scholars; "Men of Letters," in the noblest sense of the word. And the discussion of all these high concerns of history and letters was as much a part of the daily life surging around their printing-presses as the roar of the Rhine was in the air of Basel.
Illustration: PLATE 4 JACOB MEYER (ZUM HASEN) Oils. Basel Museum
Illustration: PLATE 5 DOROTHEA MEYER (nee KANNEGIESSER) Oils. Basel Museum
As has been said, the sister of that Hans Baer for whom Holbein painted the "St. Nobody" table had been the first wife, Magdalena Baer—a widow with one daughter, when she married him—of Jacob Meyer, "of the Hare" (zum Hasen). Magdalena died in 1511, and about 1512 Meyer zum Hasen married Dorothea Kannegiesser. And now in 1516, a memorable year to Holbein on account of this influential patron, the young stranger was commissioned to paint the portraits of Meyer (Plate 4) and his second wife, Dorothea (Plate 5). These oil paintings, and the drawings for them, are now in the Basel Museum. And no one can examine them, remembering that the painter was but nineteen, without echoing the exclamation of a brilliant French writer: "Holbein ira beaucoup plus loin dans son art, mais deja il est superbe." These warm translucent browns are instinct with life and beauty.
Against the rich Renaissance architecture and the blue of the sky-vista the massive head of Meyer and the blonde one of his young wife,—the latter so expressive of half-proud, half-shy consciousness,—stand out in wonderful vigour. From the scarlet cap on his thickly curling brown hair to the piece of money between his thumb and finger, the Burgomaster's picture is a virile and masterly portrait. And just as forcefully is the charm of his pretty wife,—with all her bravery of scarlet frock, gold embroidery, head-dress and chains,—her own individual charm. They are both as much themselves in this fine architectural setting as in their own good house "of the Hare" which adjoined the rising glories of the new Renaissance "Council Hall" (Rathaus) in which Meyer was to preside so often.
In 1516 he had just been elected Mayor for the first time; but after this he had many consecutive re-elections in the alternate years which permitted this. For no burgomaster could hold office for two years in actual succession. Previous to being Mayor he had been an eminent personage as master of the guilds. And both before and after his mayoralty he was a distinguished soldier,—rising from ensign to captain in the Basel contingent which served at different times among the Auxiliaries of France and of the Pope.
But what made this election of 1516 a civic epoch was that Meyer zum Hasen (there were many unrelated Meyers in Basel, and two among Holbein's patrons, who must be carefully distinguished according to the name of the house each occupied) was the first Burgomaster ever elected in this city from below the knightly rank. While the piece of money in his hand, far from fulfilling the absurd purpose sometimes suggested,—that of showing his claim to wealth!—marks another civic event of this year. For it was on the 10th of January, 1516, that the Emperor Maximilian had just issued the Charter which gave to Basel the right to mint her own gold coins. In the painting the pose of Meyer's right hand has been altered, and the position which Holbein originally gave it can still be made out. The monogram and date are on the background.
In accordance with his invariable rule for portraits in oils, Holbein first made a careful drawing of each head on the same scale as the finished picture, carrying it out with great freedom but at the same time with astonishing care and finish. So that his studies for portraits are themselves works of art, sometimes invested with even more spirit than the oil painting, which was never made direct from the living model,—at any rate, until ready for the finishing touches. Drawn with a point which could give a line as bold or as almost impalpable as he wished, and modelled to the very texture of the surfaces, the carnations are so sufficiently indicated or rendered with red chalk as to serve every purpose. Sometimes notes are also added. Thus in the upper corner of the drawing for Meyer's head the artist has noted "eyebrows lighter than the hair" in his microscopic yet firm writing.
With these fine portraits, painted as if united by the same architectural background, Holbein began a friendship of many years. After some four centuries it is not possible to produce written records of such ties except in occasional corroborative details. But neither is it possible to mistake the painted records of repeated commissions. While as the lifelong leader of the Catholic party in Basel, it was natural that Meyer zum Hasen should have much in common with a painter who all his life held firmly to his friendships with the most conspicuous champions of that party.
Johann Froben was another of these; and from 1515 until Froben's death eleven years later Holbein had more and more to do for this printer. Occasionally, too, he drew for other Basel printers; but not often. The eighty-two sketches on the margins of that priceless copy of the Praise of Folly, which Basel preserves in her Museum, had been suited to their company. Admirable, though unequal, as are their merits, they are sketches, whose chief beauty is their happy spontaneity. Such things are among the trifles of art, and are not to be put into the scales at all with the finished perfection of his serious designs for wood engraving. These were drawn on the block; and even these cannot properly represent the drawing itself except when cut by some such master hand as his own. Since in preparing the design for printing the background is cut away, leaving the composition itself in lines of relief,—it follows that everything, so far as the reproduction is concerned, must depend upon the cleanness and delicacy of the actual cutting. A clouded eye, a fumbling touch, and the most ethereal idea becomes its travesty—the purest line debased. Hence the necessity for taking the knife into consideration in judging such work.
This is not the place for any fraction of that hot debate which Kugler ironically styles "the great question of the sixteenth century"; the debate as to whether Holbein himself did or did not cut any of his own blocks. Assuredly he could do so. The exquisite adjustment of every line to its final purpose, the masterly understanding of the proper limitations and field of every effect, all prove that he had an unerring knowledge of the craft no less than of the art of Illustration. But in his day that craft, like every other, had its own guild; and it would not have been likely to tolerate any intrusion on its rights.
We know, too, that those woodcuts which most attest Holbein's genius were engraved by that mysterious "Hans Luetzelburger, form-cutter, called Franck" (Hans Luetzelburger, Formschnider, genannt Franck), who still remains, after all the researches of enthusiastic admirers, a hand and a name, and beyond this—nothing. But it is when Holbein's designs are engraved with Luetzelburger's astonishingly beautiful cutting that we can appreciate how wonderful was the design itself. To compare these fairy pictures with the painter's large cartoons is to get some conception of the arc his powers described. It seems incredible that the same hand could hang an equal majesty on the wall of a tiny shell and on that of a king's palace, and with equal justness of eye. Yet it is done. He will ride a donkey or an elephant with the like mastery; but you will never find Holbein saddling the donkey with a howdah.
It is not always possible to subscribe to Ruskin's flowing judgments; but I gratefully borrow the one with which he sums up thus, in a lecture on wood-engraving: Holbein does not give many gradations of light, the speaker says, "but not because Holbein cannot give chiaroscuro if he chooses. He is twenty times a stronger master of it than Rembrandt; but therefore he knows exactly when and how to use it, and that wood-engraving is not the proper means for it. The quantity of it which is needful for his story he will give, and that with an unrivalled subtlety."
And the student of Holbein's art can but feel that Ruskin has here touched upon a characteristic of the painter's peculiar power in every phase of it;—the power to be Caesar within himself; to say to his hand, "thus far," to say to his fancy, "no farther." Those who have come to know Holbein something more than superficially, or as a mere maker of portraits, will smile at the dictum of some very recent "authority" which pronounces him wanting in imagination; or at the hasty conclusion that what he would not, that he could not.
He has given us, for instance, no animal paintings or landscapes pure and simple, or, at least, none such have come down to us. And yet what gems of landscape he has touched into his backgrounds here and there! And what drawings of animal life he made! There are two, for instance, in the Basel Museum which could not be surpassed; studies in silver-point and water-colours of lambs and a bat outstretched. No reproduction could give the exquisite texture of the bat's wings, the wandering red veins, the almost diaphanous membrane, the furry body,—a miracle of patience and softness. It is all purest Nature. Like Topsy one can but "'spec' it growed" rather than was created.
And they are not only beautiful in themselves but full of living meanings. Many an hour the young painter enjoyed while he made such studies as his lambs on the pleasant slopes about Basel; the mountains scalloping the horizon, and all the sweet fresh winds vocal with tinkling bells or the chant of the deep-throated Rhine. Many of "the long, long thoughts" of youth,—those thoughts that ring like happy bells or sweep like rushing rivers, kept him company as he laid these delicate strokes and washes that seem to exhale the very breath of morning across four hundred years.
In the next year after painting the portraits of Meyer and his wife there is a sudden break in the painter's story which has always puzzled his biographers. After such a brilliant start in Basel it is perplexing to find the young man, instead of proceeding to join the Painters' Guild and take the necessary citizenship, suddenly turn his back on all these encouragements and leave the town for a long absence and remote journeys. As will be seen when we come to consider the story of Holbein's married life, however, I have a theory that the influence which sent him south in such an unexpected fashion was apart from professional affairs.
Whether this is a good shot or no, certain it is that he did now go far south,—as distances were in those days; and that, paying his way as he went by his brush, he went first to Lucerne, where the evidence goes to show that he apparently thought of settling instead of at Basel,—and then on beyond it. And it seems highly probable that at this time he pushed on over the Alps and made his way into Italy,—already the Mecca of every artist.
Here he could not now, in 1517, have hoped to see either Bramante or Leonardo da Vinci in person. The former had died at Rome two years before; but, without getting even as far as Pavia, Milan could show some splendid monuments to his sojourn within her walls; characteristic examples of that architecture of the closing fifteenth century which Holbein loved as Bramante himself. Leonardo was now in France; but in the refectory of the Santa Maria Monastery was his immortal, though, alas! not imperishable, masterpiece—"The Last Supper." Time had not yet taught Leonardo, much less Holbein, the fleeting nature of mural oil-painting; the only so-called "fresco" painting which the latter ever attempted, so far as is known. But the great Supper was still glowing in all the splendour of its original painting, and would impress itself indelibly on an eye such as Holbein's. In more than one cathedral, too, as he wandered in such a holiday, he would have noted how Mantegna had made its architecture the background for his own individual genius.
At any rate each of these, somehow and somewhere, set its own seal upon the reverent heart of Holbein at about this time. Whether through their original works or copies of them,—already familiar to Augsburg as well as Lucerne,—the lad sat humbly at the feet of both Leonardo and Mantegna. By the first, beside many a loftier lesson, he was confirmed and strengthened in his native respect for accurate studies of the living world around him. From the second he learned a still deeper scorn of "pretty" art. Yet though he sat at their feet, it was as no servile disciple. He would fain be taught by them; fain follow them in all humility and frankness. But it was in order to expand his own powers, not to surrender them; to speak his own thoughts the better, not theirs, nor another's.
And, in any event, on such a journey Lucerne must come first. And that he thought of making some long stay here when he returned is shown by his having joined in this year 1517, the Guild of St. Luke, the Painters' Guild of Lucerne, then but newly organised. "Master Hans Holbein has given one Gulden," reads the old entry. Two other items of this visit give us glimpses of its flesh-and-blood realities, perhaps of its unrest. The first, that he also joined a local company of Archers, the Militia of his day, seems to bring his living footfall very close. A resonant, manly, wholesome footfall it is, too! This broad-shouldered young fellow is as ready to draw a good stout bow among mountain-marksmen as a lamb among its daffodils. The second item makes it still clearer that he had other elements as well as the pastoral in his blood. On the 10th of December he got himself fined for his share in a street-scrimmage, where he would seem to have decidedly preferred the livelier to the "better part" of valour.
And then he would appear to have shaken the dust, or more likely the snows, of Lucerne off his feet for the road to Italy, if not for Italy itself. Whatever his objective, he got, at any rate, well on toward the Pass of the St. Gothard. The scanty clues of such works as have remained on record prove that he reached Altdorf. But there the actual trail is altogether lost. If he spent the entire interval brush in hand, or if—as I believe—he treated himself to a bit of a holiday beyond the Alps, can be but a guess in the dark.
By this time the New Year of 1518, then falling in March, could not have been far off, before or behind him. And in 1518 Holbein executed the commission which must have been the envy of every local artist. Jacob von Hertenstein, Burgomaster of Lucerne, had now got his fine new house ready for decoration; and it was to Holbein that he gave the splendid commission to decorate it to his fancy,—the interior as well as the facade.
And a renowned triumph the painter made of it; a triumph such as, perhaps, no other artist north of Italy could then have equalled. It is idle now to dwell upon the religious subjects of one room, the genre paintings in another, the battle scenes of a third, and so on through those five famous rooms which were still in existence and fair preservation so late as 1824, but are now for ever lost; to say nothing of the painted Renaissance architecture and the historic legends which looked like solid realities when the facade was studied. But "Mizraim is become merchandise"; and all that is now left of what should have been a treasured and priceless heirloom is but a monument to the shame of that citizen, a banker, who could condemn such a thing to destruction as indifferently as if it had been a cowshed, and to the shame of the municipality which, at any cost, did not prevent it. Some hasty sketches—due to individual enterprise and a sense of the dignity of Holbein's fame—an original drawing for one of the facade-paintings, and a few fragments of the interior paintings, which still show themselves, by chance, in the banker's stable wall—these are all that remain to speak of what must have been the enthusiastic labour of the greater part of Holbein's twenty-first year!
Holbein Basiliensis—Enters the Painters' Guild—Bonifacius Amerbach and his portrait—The Last Supper and its Judas—The so-called "Fountain of Life" at Lisbon—Genius for design and symbolism in architecture—Versatility, humour, fighting scenes—Holbein becomes a citizen and marries—Basel in 1519—Froben's circle—Tremendous events and issues of the time—Holbein's religious works—The Nativity and Adoration at Freiburg—Hans Oberriedt—The Basel Passion in eight panels—Passion Drawings—Christ in the tomb—Christ and Mary Magdalen at the door of the sepulchre—Rathaus wall-paintings—Birth of Holbein's eldest child—The Solothurn Madonna: its discovery and rescue—Holbein's wife and her portraits—Suggested solutions of some biographical enigmas—Title pages—Portraits of Erasmus—Journey to France, probably to Lyons and Avignon—Publishers and pictures of the so-called "Dance of Death"—Dorothea Offenburg as Venus and Lais Corinthiaca—Triumph of the Protestant party—Holbein decides to leave Basel for a time—The Meyer-Madonna of Darmstadt and Dresden, and its portraits.
And now it is 1519, and with it the true Hour of Holbein's destiny is striking. Take away the coming seven years and you will still have what Holbein is too often thought to be only—a great portrait-painter. No greater ever etched the soul of a man on his mask. His previous and his after achievements would still amply justify the honour of centuries. But add these seven years, from 1519 to 1526, and dull indeed must be the intelligence that cannot recognise the great Master, without qualification and in the light of any thoughtful comparison with the very greatest.
His Basel career may be said to begin here; his earlier work furnishing the Prologue. On the 25th September, 1519, when he was about two-and-twenty, he joined the Basel Guild of Painters; that same "Guild of Heaven" (Zunft zum Himmel) which his brother Ambrose had joined two years earlier and from which he seems to have passed to the veritable guild of Heaven at about this latter date.
And hardly is the ink dry upon the record of his membership than Holbein painted one of the most beautiful of his portraits—that of Bonifacius Amerbach (Plate 6). He stands beside a tree on which is hung an inscription. Behind him is Holbein's favourite early background,—the blue of the sky, here broken by the warm brown and green of the branch, and the faint glimpse of far-away mountains. Under his soft cap, with a cross for badge, his intensely gleaming blue eyes look out beneath grave brows. The lips are softly yet firmly set; the mouth framed by the sunny beard which repeats the red-brown of his hair. The black scholar's gown, with its trimming of black fur, discloses his rich damask doublet and white collar.
Illustration: PLATE 6 BONIFACIUS AMERBACH Oils. Basel Museum
Well may the inscription assert—above the signature, the name of the sitter and the date 14th October, 1519—
"Though but a painted face I am not far removed from Life; but rather, By truthful lines, the noble image of my Possessor. As he accomplishes eight times three years, so faithfully in me also Is Nature's work proclaimed by the work of Art."
For here in truth is a work of Nature which is no less a work of Art.
This is the Amerbach who began and inspired his son Basilius (so named after Bonifacius's brother) to complete the Holbein Collection, which the Basel Museum bought long afterwards. And such was the love of both that they included, perhaps deliberately, much that has small probability of claim to be Holbein's work. They would reject nothing attributed to him; thinking a bushel of chaff well worth housing if it might yield one genuine grain. And in view of these expressive facts, it is hardly necessary to argue in behalf of the tradition that more than a conventional friendship bound the two young men together,—printer's son and painter's son, musician-scholar and scholar-painter, Churchman and Churchman; the one twenty-four, the other twenty-two.
Bonifacius was the youngest of Johann Amerbach's three gifted sons. As all the world knows, Johann had been also a scholar as well as a printer, and great in both capacities. The most eminent scholars of his day gravitated as naturally to this noble personality as they afterwards did to that of his protege and successor, Johann Froben. He had educated his sons, too, to worthily continue his life-work and maintain his devout principles. Bonifacius was the darling of more than one heart not given to softness. He had been more the friend than the pupil of Ulrich Zasius at the University of Freiburg, before he went to Avignon to complete his legal studies under Alciat. Five years after this portrait was painted he became Professor of Law in the Basel University. "I am ready to die," writes Erasmus of him, "when I shall have seen any young man purer or kinder or more sincere than this one."
Very possibly it was for Bonifacius himself that Holbein painted his own portrait about this time (Plate 1, frontispiece). It is a worthy mate, at all events. In the Amerbach Catalogue it was simply called "Holbein's counterfeit, in dry colour" (ein conterfehung Holbein's mit trocken farben); the frame, too, was catalogued, though the painting was kept in a cabinet separately when the Basel Museum acquired it with the Collection.
The vigour and finish of this portrait on vellum, done in crayons or body-colour, make it a gem of the first water. The drawing was done in black chalk, and the tints have been rubbed in with coloured crayons or given with the point where lines of colour were required. The work has the delicacy of a water-colour and the strength of oils. The broad, soft, red hat, though so fine a bit of colour, is clearly worn as part of a simple everyday habit. There is no suggestion of studying for effect, or even caring at all about it. He wears his hat pulled soberly down over his brown hair exactly as when he wore it thus about the business of the day. The plastic modelling of the puckered brow and the mobile mouth is beautifully indicated. The bluish tone left by the razor is just hinted. In his drab coat with its black velvet bands, with his shirt, on which the high lights have been applied, slightly open at the throat, Holbein himself seems to stand before one as in life.
Among the "early works" of the Amerbach Catalogue there is one which shows strong traces of Leonardo's and even more of Mantegna's influence on him at this time. It is a Last Supper, painted in oils on wood. But it was so mutilated in the iconoclastic fury of 1529, and has been so cobbled, re-broken, re-set, and "restored" generally, that it can no longer be called Holbein's work without many reservations. There is also another Last Supper, one of a coarsely painted set on canvas, which is attributed to him on much more doubtful grounds, to judge by the composition and colouring. Myself I should be inclined to see the inferior hand of Ambrose, Hans the elder, or perhaps even Sigmund Holbein in these, if they are genuine Holbein works at all.
But there are still to be seen the traces of his own hand and mind in the Last Supper in oils on wood. St. John's head must originally have been very beautiful; very manly, too,—dark with sudden anguish and recoil. There is a separate head of St. John, in oils, in the same collection, which shows how fixed was this noble originality of type in Holbein's conception of "the beloved apostle." But it is in Judas that the patient student will find, perhaps, most of Holbein's peculiar cast of thought, when once the initial repulsion is overcome.
By a very natural arrangement he is brought into the immediate foreground and sits there, already isolated, already damned, in such a torment of body and soul as haunts the spectator who has had the courage to reconsider the dictum of authorities who call him "a Jew of frightful vulgarity." Frightful he may be; but it is a strange judgment which can find him vulgar. Unfortunately, the painting is no longer in a condition to justify reproduction; but such as study this yellow-robed, emaciated, shivering, fever-consumed Judas will, I venture to assert, find food for thought in it even under all the injuries the work has undergone.
It is a demon-driven soul if ever there was one. He is in the very act of springing to his feet and rushing away anywhere, anywhere out of this Presence;—no more concerned about his money-bag than about the food he loathes. Thirty pieces of silver! If the priests have lied, if this is in very truth the Messiah his heart still half believes Him, will thirty pieces of silver buy his soul from the Avenger? Is there time still to escape? What if he break the promise given when he was over-persuaded in the market-place the other day? But did not the High Priest himself declare that this is Beelzebub in person,—this fair, false, dear,—oh! still too dear Illusion? Up! Let him be gone out of this!—from the sound of that Voice, from the sight of that Face, get the thing over and done, done—done one way or another! If God's work, as the priests swear, well and good. He will have earned the pity of God Himself. If the devil's, as his heart whispers, well, too! Let him take his price and buy himself a rope long enough to house his soul in any Hell, rather than sit on in this one! It is all painted, or was once; all written on that sunken cheek, that matted hair and clammy brow; in that cavernous socket, that eye of lurid despair; on the whole anatomy of a lost soul. The hand that did it was very young, very immature; but it had the youth and the immaturity of a Master.
There is another and a very different work, an oil painting, in the Royal Collection at Lisbon, signed IOANNES HOLBEIN FECIT 1519, which, if by the younger Hans, would almost put the question as to whether the painter knew the landscapes of Italy, beyond doubt; so southern is the type of its background. The work, however, has been rejected by Woltmann, on the strength of an old photograph not quite perfect. He held the signature to be spurious, and attributed the picture to the school of Gerard David. And he gave to the work the name by which it is now generally styled in English works: "The Fountain of Life" (Der Brunnen des Lebens). He did so from the inscription within the rim of the well immediately in the foreground; but a literal translation of this inscription, PVTEVS AQVARVM VIVENCIVM, is, I think, to be preferred: The Well of Living Waters.
The majority of those competent to form a judgment in such matters are inclined to attribute the work to Hans Holbein the Elder, who did not die until some years later, and who made use of a very similar form of signature. And for myself I find it hard to see how anyone familiar with Hans the Younger could accept it as his work at any period of his career; least of all at the date given in the signature. So that equally whether Woltmann is right in believing the signature itself spurious, or those are right who hold it to be the genuine signature of Hans the Elder,—a more detailed description of the composition does not fall within the scope of this little volume. But the whole matter is most clearly set forth, and a very beautiful reproduction in colours given of the painting itself, in Herr Seeman's article upon it, which will be found in the appended List of References.
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Considerably before 1519, as has been said, Holbein had begun to develop his special genius for Design, and to apply it to glass or window-paintings, as well as to metal and wood-engravings. The beautiful drawings, whether washed, or etched with the point, in chalks or Indian ink, of which examples may be seen in almost every great collection, private as well as public, that year after year were created by that fertile brain and ever more masterly hand, constitute an Art in themselves. And since so many (perhaps the greater number as well as the greater in subject) of his paintings have perished, it is chiefly in his drawings that the progression of his powers can be followed, or the plane and scope of his imagination recognised at all. There is seldom a date on them; but they will be found to date themselves pretty accurately by certain features. In his earliest, for instance, that defect of which mention has been made,—the short thick figures due to the energy of his rebound from Gothic attenuation is a grave fault. There is a Virgin and Child among his washed drawings for glass-paintings in the Basel Museum, for example, which, when you cut it off at the knees, is one of the most charming pictures of Mother and Child to be found in any painter's treatment of this subject. And behind them is a gem of landscape. Yet the whole, as it stands, is utterly marred by the Virgin's dwarfed limbs. But although Holbein never entirely overcame this fault, he did very greatly do so, as the years passed.
His architectural settings, too, tended to greater simplicity in his later years. Yet this is not a safe guide. Some early designs have simple forms; some comparatively late ones, a very ornate architecture. For the truth is that these architectural backgrounds and settings remained, so long as his fancy had any free field for disporting itself, an integral part of his conception. But only as inseparable from the Symbolism, the under-tow, of his imagination. To my thinking, at any rate, they make a gravid mistake who look for "realism" in these things.
His stately pillars and arches, his fluid forms of ornament, are not his idea of the actual surroundings of the characters he portrays, any more than they are your idea, or mine, of those surroundings. Is it to be supposed that he thought the dwellings of our Lord were palaces? Or that he could not paint a stable? Those who maintain that Holbein was a Realist in the modern sense of the word must reconcile as best they can the theory with the facts. But when we see the stage set with every stately circumstance,—the Babe amid the fading splendours of earthly palaces, our Lord mocked by matter as well as man,—I dare to think that we shall do well to cease from insisting on an adobe wall, and to study those "incongruous" circumstances to which the will and not the poverty of Holbein consents. We shall, at least, no longer be dull to "the tears of things" as he saw them.
But it would be no less a mistake to think of Holbein as one without a sense of laughter as well. His drawings of open-mouthed peasants gossiping in a summer's nooning, or dancing in some uncouth frolic,—and still more his romping children, dancing children, and the chase of the fox running off with the goose,—all of these are full of boyish fun. Would that they could be given here without usurping the place of more important works! But that is impossible. And so, too, with the costume-figures of Basel, among which is the charming back view of a citizen's wife, with all the women bent far backward in the odd carriage that was then "the latest fashion" among them.
He was particularly happy, also, in his drawings of the Landsknechte, those famous Mercenaries of "Blut und Eisen"; always ready to drink a good glass, and a-many; to love a good lass after the same liberal fashion; to troll a good song or fight a good fight; and all with equal zest. He had not mixed with these masterful gentry for nothing; nor they with him to wholly die. There are a number of drawings where they are engaged in combat, too, which show that Holbein's heart leapt to the music of sword and spear as blithely as does Scott's or Dumas's—as blithely as did the hearts of the Reislaeufer themselves. Look at the mad rush, the hand-to-hand grapple, in a drawing of the Basel Collection, for instance (Plate 7). The blood-lust, the heroism, the savagery, the thrust, the oath, the dust-choked prayer, the forgotten breathing clay under the bloodstained foot; the very clash and din of the fray;—all is told with the brush. And yet not one unnecessary detail squandered. It is as if one watched it from some palpitating refuge, just near enough to see the forefront figures distinctly and to make out the interlocked hubbub and fury where the ranks have been broken through. It would be a great day for Art could we but chance upon some lost painting for which such a study had served its completed purpose.
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On the 3rd of July, 1520, Holbein fulfilled what was then the requirement of almost every guild, and purchased his citizenship; a citizenship to reflect unfading honour on Basel, and of which she has ever been justly proud. And somewhere about the same time he married Elsbeth Schmidt, a tanner's widow, who had one child, Franz.
Illustration: PLATE 7 FIGHT OF LANDSKNECHTE Washed Drawing. Basel Museum
For the past four or five years Basel had been steadily becoming more and more democratic. And at a period when its elite were scholars and printers and civic officials of every origin,—when the illegitimate son of a Rotterdam doctor was the true prince, and Beatus Rhenanus, the grandson of a butcher, was his worthy second in the reverence of Basel,—the widow and son of a reputable tanner and a rising young artist, who had already the suffrages of the most influential citizens, would find no doors closed to them on the score of social disabilities. The friendship of such men as Erasmus, Froben, Bonifacius Amerbach, and the Mayor,—all conspicuous stars in the Church party,—would have ennobled a man of less genius than Holbein in the eyes of his fellow-citizens; and rightly. But as to the exact locality in which Holbein set up his first married roof-tree—that Bethel of sacred or saddest dreams—no documentary evidence has yet come to light. Circumstantial evidence, however, amounts to a strong probability in favour of the Rheinhalde of Great-Basel.
If there was an emblem peculiarly abhorrent to the Basilisk (the Device of Basel) it was the Crescent-and-star. But nothing could better serve to recall the rough outline of Basel in Holbein's day than this very emblem. As the Rhine suddenly swerves from its first wild rush westward and races away, northerly, to the German Ocean, it shapes the hollow of the crescent in which Little-Basel (Klein-Basel) nestled as the star; and, appropriately enough, since it was here that the Catholic's Star of Faith rallied when overcome across the river, where curved the crescent of Great-Basel (Gross-Basel). And the relative proportions of the two would be fairly enough represented by the symbols respectively used.
Great-Basel's northern face was protected by the Rhine, while the stout city wall secured its convex curve. Of this wall the eastern horn was St. Alban's Gate; its north-west was St. John's Gate (St. Johann Thor); beside which stood the decaying Commandery of the Knights of Malta, which had contributed a large sum toward the expanded wall, in order to be included within it. And just as these spots still mark the horns of the old crescent, the Spalen Thor shows where it had its greatest depth, midway between the other two.
A straight line running due north-east from this Spalen-Thor would cross the big square of the Fish-market (Fischmarktplatz) pretty nearly as the uncovered stream of the Birsig, or "Little Birs," did before the quaint little bridge, which then united the two halves of the Fischmarkt, was absorbed in the paving over of stream and square before Holbein's day. This same straight line would of itself draw the "Old Bridge" (Alte Bruecke) with approximate exactness, the even then ancient bridge which centred the star of Klein-Basel to its crescent. And in the Historical Museum, where the Barefooted Friars worshipped then, we may still see the grotesque piece of clockwork, the wooden "Stammering King" (Laellenkoenig), that for centuries used hourly to roll great eyes and stick out its tongue a foot long across the river from the Gross-Basel end of the bridge. It is often said that this monster was set up as a public token of the hatred which the triumphant Protestantism of the south bank felt for the stubborn Catholicism of Klein-Basel. But the thing was a famous ancient joke before party feeling turned it into a gibe.
Bonifacius Amerbach's home, the "Emperor's Seat" (Kaiserstuhl, now 23, Rheingasse), was in Klein-Basel. Johann Amerbach had bought it, near to his beloved friends, the Carthusians. In 1520 the good old man had slept for six years in the cloisters of the monastery; where to-day the children of the Orphan Asylum play above his grave.
But all the conditions of Holbein's daily life would lead him to prefer Basel proper, and to choose the quarter in which he bought a home eight years later. This was then the western quarter of Gross-Basel, along the river-face of which ran the high southern and western bank of the Rhine, the Rheinhalde, now St. Johann Vorstadt. About where the present Blumenrain ends stood the arch, or Schwibbogen. Further on still stood the "Gate of the Cross" (Kreuzthor), by the House of the Brothers of St. Anthony, the ancient Kloesterli of Basel. Before the Commandery of St. John got themselves included within the city wall the Kreuzthor was its western gate. The whole district of ze Crueze, so called because its boundaries were crosses before towers replaced them, has however become absorbed in the St. Johann Vorstadt, while the Kreuzthor has disappeared altogether. The quarter was a favourite one with members of the Fishers' Guild and with decent folk of small mean s.
As early as 1517 the Fishers' Company had extended itself so greatly as to become a notable institution of the Vorstadt, including many members from Klein-Basel also; while its military record was a proud one. But it was in this year, while Holbein was making his visit to Lucerne and beyond, that this guild took the more truly descriptive name which it bears to this day, that of the "Vorstadt Association" (Vorstadtgesellschaft). And to this association, which in after years gave him a famous banquet, Holbein, we know, belonged later on, if not now.
Every day would take him to the Fischmarkt,—the great square humming with activity, crowded with inns, public-houses, shops, booths, dwelling-houses,—the trade mart of every nationality. The Cornmarkt near by, now the Marktplatz, with its almost finished Rathaus, was the centre of official civic life. When the great bell clanged on the Rathaus, and its flag was flung out, not only every professional soldier, but every guild and every male above fourteen, knew his appointed place at the wall, and took it. But every day, and all day, the Fischmarkt flung out its peaceful standards, or rallied men to this side or to that with the tocsin of its presses,—the old Amerbach printing-house "of the Settle" (zum Sessel), which was Johann Froben's home and printing-house in 1520.
Morning after morning, and year upon year, Holbein turned his back upon St. Johannthor, and walked eastward along the Rheinhalde;—the river racing toward him on his left hand, the University rising in front of him beyond the bridge, and the delicate Cathedral towers beyond the University. For the Basel Minster was still the Cathedral of the great See of Basel. Passing the wall of the Dominican Cemetery, on which was painted the ancient Dance of Death with which his own after-creations were so often to be confused, Holbein must many a time have studied the famous old copy. For though the Dominican painting was then nearly a century old, it was a copy of a still older original in the Klein-Basel nunnery of Klingenthal, a community under Dominican direction.
But he would pass another spot—one day to be of far more living importance to him. In 1520 it was a corn warehouse, known by the name of ze Cruez, which belonged to Adam Petri, the printer, who had inherited it from his uncle, the famous printer Johann Petri, by whose ingenious improvements the art of printing was so greatly facilitated. Two years later, in 1522, Froben bought this granary, ze Cruez, and converted it into the book-magazine which was known all over Europe as "Froben's Book-house." And in this latter year Adam Petri, greatly to Luther's disgust, pirated Luther's translation of the New Testament, which had appeared three months before.
Holbein drew a superb title-page, ante-dated 1523, for this "enterprise" of Petri—the New Testament "now right faithfully rendered into German,"—with the symbols of the Evangelists at the four corners, the arms of Basel at the top, the device of the printer at the foot, and the noble figures of St. Paul and St. Peter on either side; figures which will bear comparison with Duerer's "Four Temperaments" of a later date. Later still he designed another striking title-page for Thomas Wolff's translation; and his beautiful title-pages and ornaments for Froben, with whom his connection was not a temporary matter such as these others, would need a volume to themselves.
Holbein's only rival, if he could be called such, in work of this sort was the talented goldsmith, Urs Graf, who, as an exceedingly loose fish, lived most appropriately in the Fischmarkt in his own house near the old Birsig Bridge, when he was not in the lock-up for one or another of his constant brawls and scandals. But to compare the best work of both is to recognise a difference in kind as well as degree: the essential difference between even negligent genius and the most elaborate talent. High talent Urs Graf had unquestionably; though stamped,—I think,—with the lawless caprices of his own character. Holbein's every design has not only what Urs Graf lacked—that ordered imagination which is Style—but over and above all, the subtle expression of Power.
Many a time, too, just where he would turn away from the Rhine for the business centre of Gross-Basel, the artist would make some little pause at the old "Flower" Inn (zur Blume), which gave its name to the Blumenplatz, and is still commemorated in the greatly extended Blumenrain of to-day. All the world now knows the famous hotel of "The Three Kings"; and where it reaches nearest to the Old Bridge stood the "Blume" of Holbein's time, even then the oldest of the Basel inns. This Blume, not to be confused with later inns of the same name, shared with its no less famous contemporary,—"The Stork," in the Fischmarkt,—the special patronage of the chief printers. Basilius Amerbach, for instance, the brother of Holbein's friend Bonifacius, lived at the Blume; and often the painter must have turned in for a friendly glass with him and a chat about Bonifacius, away at his law studies in Avignon.
As for the Stork, its very rooms were named in remembrance of the envoys and merchant traders who flocked to it on all great occasions. There was a "Cologne Room," for instance, and a "Venetian Room," among many others. The men of Venice, indeed, had a particular affection for it. Here Holbein met with all nationalities, and learned much of the great centres of other countries. Here came all the Basel magnates and printers. And here, a few years later on, came that bizarre personage who was for a very brief time Basel's "town physician," the Paracelsus Theophrastus Bombastus to whom we owe our word bombastic. Holbein was on a visit to England during the latter's short tenure of office, when the combined scholarship and poverty of Oporinus made him the hack of Paracelsus and the victim of many a petty tyranny. At that time Oporinus,—the son of that Hans Herbster, painter, whose portrait is now attributed to Ambrose Holbein,—was glad to place his remarkable knowledge of Greek at Froben's service. He was not yet a printer, as later when Holbein drew a clever device for him. And neither he nor the painter could know that one day the daughter of Bonifacius Amerbach should marry him out of sheer pity for his unhappy old age,—somewhat as he himself, when but a lad of twenty, married an aged Xantippe from gratitude.
But in 1520, when Holbein was just married, Oporinus was still a student and Bonifacius unmarried. Erasmus, too, did not permanently take up his home with Froben until the following year, and was now at Louvain. Yet what a true university was that little house zum Sessel (now 3, Todtengaesslein, the little lane where the old post-office stood) to an intelligence such as Holbein's! And what a circle was that of Froben's staff! From Froben himself, above whom Erasmus alone could tower in scholarship, down through every member to the youngest, and from such men as Gerard Lystrius on the one hand and the literally "Beatus" Rhenanus on the other, what things were not to be learned!
And what discussions those were that drew each man to give of his best in the common talk! Venice sent news of the "unspeakable" Turk, whom she had such good cause to watch and dread. For fifty years his name had ceased to blanch the cheek of other nations; but now it was said, and said truly, that the dying Selim, "the Grim," had forged a thunderbolt which Suleyman II. would not be slow to hurl. No man could know the worst or dared predict the end, as to that Yellow Terror of Holbein's time. And closer still, to keen eyes, were the threats of the coming Peasant Terror. Wurtemberg had battened down the flames, it is true; but the deck of Europe was hot under foot with the passions that were soon to make the Turks' atrocities seem gentle in comparison.
The death of Maximilian and the election of Charles V. were a year old now. But none knew better than the Basel printers how much the League of Swabia and the Swiss Confederation had weighed in the close contest of claims between those three strangely youthful competitors for the Emperor's crown;—Charles, but nineteen; Francis I., one-and-twenty; and Henry VIII., not twenty-five. Basel also knew that Charles had only bought his triumph by swearing to summon the Diet of Worms. All the more, therefore, was she intensely alive to the possible issues of the Arabian-Nights-Entertainment which had but just concluded on the dreary Calais flats when Holbein became one of Basel's citizens. Erasmus had come back full of it. Marco Polo's best wonders made but a dingy show beside the "Field of the Cloth of Gold," where in this June the two defeated candidates for imperial honours had kissed each other midway between the ruined moat of Guisnes and the rased battlements of Arde.
Then, on top of this, came the rumours of the English King's undertaking to answer Luther's most formidable attack on Rome. It was in 1520, the year after his great disputation with Eck at Leipzig, that Luther published his cataclysmic addresses: "To the Christian Nobles of Germany" and "On the Babylonian Captivity,"—the latter of which itself contains the whole Protestant Reformation in embryo. "Would to God," exclaimed Erasmus of it, "that he had followed my counsel and abstained from odious and seditious proceedings!" Bishop Tunstall, then in Worms, had also written of it:—"I pray God keep that book out of England!" But before the year was out "that book" had reached England, and Henry VIII. had sworn to annihilate its arguments and to triumphantly defend the dogmas of Rome. The eagerly-awaited "Defence" did not get printed, and would remain in Pope Leo's hands for a year yet. But Basel knew, through More and Erasmus,—whose canny smile probably discounted its critical quality,—pretty much its line of defence. Nor was Froben's circle one whit more surprised than its royal author when its immediate reward was that formal style and title—Defender of the Faith,—to which a few years more were to lend so different a significance.
By this latter date Ulrich von Hutten had fled to Basel, only to find that his violent "heresies" had completely estranged Erasmus, and closed Froben's door, as well as all other Roman Catholic doors, against him for ever. He lodged, therefore, at the Blume until the Basel Council requested him to leave the town, a little before his death, in 1523. But in 1520 Hutten was still at Sickingen's fortress, digging with fierce ardour the impassable gulf between him and the band of friends and Churchmen among whom Holbein ever ranged himself.
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Among the five lost works which Patin says Holbein painted, there was a "Nativity" and an "Adoration of the Kings." It is impossible now to say what resemblances, if any, existed between these and the same subjects, executed not much later, which are now in the University Chapel, Freiburg Minster. These latter are the only known works of Holbein that still hang in a sacred edifice. They were evidently designed to fold in upon a central altar-piece with an arched top, thus making, when open, the usual triptych; but the central painting has vanished. This large work was a gift to the Carthusian monastery in Klein-Basel; and the arms of the donor, Hans Oberriedt, are displayed below the Nativity, as well as the portraits of himself and his six sons. Below the corresponding right wing, the Adoration, are the arms of his wife and her portrait, with her four daughters.
In both wings what I can only describe as the atmosphere of Infancy,—and a touching atmosphere it is too—is strengthened by keeping all the figures small and heightening this suggestion by contrast with a grandiose architecture. In both, too, the sacred scenes reveal themselves like visions unseen by the Oberriedt family, who face outward toward the altar and are supposed to be lighted by the actual lights of the church. The whole work must once have been a glorious creation, with its rich colours, its beautiful architectural forms, and its mingling of purest imagination with realism. What would one not give to see the lost work these wings covered?
Illustration: PLATE 8 THE NATIVITY Oils. University Chapel, Freiburg Cathedral
In the left wing, the Nativity (Plate 8), Holbein has remarkably anticipated the lighting of Correggio's famous masterpiece, not finished until years after this must have been painted, by the conditions of Oberriedt's history and Basel's as well. The Light that is to light the world lights up the scene with an exquisite enchanting softness,—yet so brilliantly that the very lights of heaven seem dimmed in comparison. The moon, in Holbein's deliberate audacity, seems but a disc as she bows her face, too, in worship. Shining by some compulsion of purest Nature, the divine radiance glows on the ecstatic Mother; and away above and beyond her—"How far that little candle shines," and shines, and shines again amid the shadows! It illumines the beautiful face of the Virgin, touches the reverent awe of St. Joseph, plays over marble arch and pillar, discovers the wondering shepherd peering from behind the pillar on the left, and irradiates the angel in the distance, hastening to carry the "glad tidings." The happy cherubs behind the Child rejoice in it; and as they spring forward one notices how Holbein has boldly discarded the conventional, and attached their pinions as if these were a natural development of the arm instead of a separate member.
The same union of unfettered fancy symbolism and realism displays itself throughout the right wing,—where the Virgin is enthroned in front of crumbling palaces. The sun's rays form a great star, of such dazzling light that one of the attendants shades his eyes to look upward, and an old man with a noble head, wearing an ermine cape, presents his offering as the chief of the three kings; while a Moorish sovereign, dressed in white, makes a splendid figure as he waits to kneel with his gift, and his greyhound stands beside him. The colouring of both paintings must have had an extraordinary beauty when the painter laid down his brush.
To carp at such conceptions because their architecture is as imaginative and as deeply symbolical as the action, is to demand that Holbein shall be someone else. These pictures, beyond the portraits below them, are the farthest possible from aiming at what we demand of Realism, though their own realism is astonishing. Holbein all too seldom sounds them, but when he does choose to stir only a joyous elation in the heart he rings a peal of silver bells. Here all is glad thanksgiving. The Divine has come into a sick and sorry world; and, behold, all is changed! Nothing sordid, nothing shabby, consists with the meaning of this miracle. Therefore it is not here. All is transformed; all is a New Jerusalem—splendour, peace, ineffable and mysterious Beauty.
With the dominance of the anti-Catholic party, which unseated Meyer zum Hasen in 1521, his friend Oberriedt also fell into trouble. And soon after Erasmus and Bonifacius Amerbach,—disgusted with the iconoclast fanaticism of 1528 and 1529,—took refuge in Catholic Freiburg-in-the-Breisgau, Oberriedt also left Basel for that city. He took these wings with him to save them from the destruction which probably overtook the central work. The latter was, perhaps, too large to conceal or get away. During the Thirty Years' War they were again removed, and safeguarded at Schaffhausen. And so great was their fame that they were twice expressly commanded to be brought before a sovereign; once to Munich, to be seen by Maximilian of Bavaria; and again to Ratisbon for the Emperor Ferdinand III. In 1798 they were looted by the French, and were only restored to Freiburg in 1808.