a pair, the first oil on panel transferred to another panel; the second oil on panel transferred to canvas, both unframed
The Very Reverend Frederick M. Adams;
By whom given to Trinity Espicopal Cathedral, Trenton, in the mid-20th century.
Until very recently these two elegant figures remained unrecognized in Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Trenton, New Jersey. They have now been identified as an important addition to the oeuvre of Hans Holbein the Elder and together would have formed the right-hand wing of an as yet unidentified altarpiece dating from his early period in Augburg.1 At some point, probably in the early twentieth century, the panel was split and the outer image, St. Ursula, was transferred to canvas.
The two figures have long, attenuated bodies and roughly heart-shaped faces -- broad above but narrowing quickly below -- with small, rounded chins. Their noses are long and slightly bulbous and mouths small but full-lipped. Perhaps their most striking feature is their large, round eyes, which Holbein defines in clear strokes that follow the upper and lower edges of the socket. Below their eyes he adds a series of short strokes that might suggest tiredness in a secular subject, but here perhaps emphasize the seriousness of the saints' calling. The two saints hold their attributes in their hands: St. Odilia her eyes and St. Ursula arrows of her martyrdom. However, their gestures are very idiosyncratic and help identify Holbein as the painter. St. Odilia spreads her left hand, the index finger separated from the thumb, as she gathers the folds of her drapery; she also holds her book with the fingers spread apart rather than touching each other, as they rest along the tops of the pages. St. Ursula clutches the arrows in her right hand, but straightens her index finger so that she seems to point at something outside the composition; with her left hand she steadies the arrows in a gesture remarkably similar to St. Odilia.
Holbein appears to have had a very active studio by the mid-1490s and even in works that have been fully accepted as by him, we sometimes see elements that appear to be by different hands. This necessarily complicates the process of attribution. If we compare St. Odilia and St. Ursula to the extant panels of the Afra Altarpiece, Holbein's earliest recorded work, dating from about 1490, we see many of these same elements. In the Burial of St. Afra (Krause, fig. 13), now in the Bischöfliche Hauskapelle, Eichstätt, the woman's faces are very similar to St. Odilia and St. Ursula, though the proportions of their bodies are slightly more attenuated and the folds of their drapery a bit sharper.2 In The Death of the Virgin (Krause, color plate 1), in the Öffentlich Kunstsammlung, Kunstmuseum, Basel, the Virgin is strikingly similar to the present works in all respects, including her downcast expression and the unusual positioning of her hands and fingers as she holds a burning candle. In addition, the haloes of several of the saints are like those here with a red, patterned inner circle and a gold outer circle.
Perhaps more telling than the comparison of specific figures in Holbein's compositions is the examination of certain motifs that recur throughout his career. The distinctive treatment of the hands and eyes that we see in St. Odilia and St. Ursula are two such examples. In a drawing of St. Ursula (see fig. 1), now in the Öffentlich Kunstsammlung, Kupferstichkabinett, Basel, the saint uses a very similar gesture to steady the arrows that she holds. Two other standing saints, Ambrose and Margaret (Krause, fig. 98) from the altarpiece with the Legend of St. Odilia, of about 1509-10, now in the Nàrodní Museum, Prague, use now familiar gestures as they grasp the folds of their drapery. In much the same way, Holbein is very consistent in his treatment of eyes, almost invariably adding parallel lines below, to emphasize the lower part of the socket, as is particularly clear in the underdrawing of St. Ursula (see fig. 2). He includes these even in the faces of the very young, such as the Bust of a Youth with Lowered Eyes (Krause fig. 147), in the Öffentlich Kunstsammlung, Kupferstichkabinett, Basel.
Regrettably, we have not yet been able to identify the altarpiece to which the present works belong. Perhaps the inclusion of St. Odilia, a rather unusual subject, will provide a clue. She was a member of the Alsatian aristocracy and was also venerated in Augsburg, Holbein's main city of residence until about 1515. Later in his career he was commissioned to paint an altarpiece depicting her life for Hohenburg Klosterkirche on the Odilienberg, near Strasbourg (see above).
We are very grateful to Mr. Ludwig Meyer for his help in preparing this note.
1. L. Meyer first suggested this attribution in a letter of 20 April 2012, emphasizing the stylistic similiarities to Holbein's known works. (The attibution was made on the basis of digital photographs.) B. Konrad, in email correspondence of 25-27 April 2012, has suggested an alternative attribution to the Mattäus Guttrecht, and cites his article, B. Konrad, "Matthäus Gutrecht der Jüngere und seine Werkstatt," in Jahrbuch der Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen in Baden-Württemberg, vol. 29, 1992, pp.77-104, for a full discussion of the artist. (His attribution was made on the basis of digital images).
2. See K. Krause, Hans Holbein der Ältere for the illustrations cited here and in the text following.
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