During his lifetime Holbein was one the leading painters in south Germany with a large studio at his disposal. Today, however, we recognize his even greater historical significance because he was a bridge between the lingering Gothic elements of the 15thcentury, seen in works of great northern masters such as Rogier van der Weyden, and the full blown Renaissance style, as embodied in the paintings of his son, Hans Holbein the Younger. Holbein’s father was a tanner, but his mother, Anna Mair, was related to leading painters and sculptors in and around Augsburg, who provided an important influence for him in his formative years. In this, one of his earliest extant works, we can see his connection to an older generation of artists as well as his own remarkable talent and inventiveness. The Christ Child is seated between the Virgin and St. Anne. He seems quite independent although perhaps somewhat precariously balanced as he reaches for the Virgin’s prayer book with his right hand. On his other side, St. Anne grasps him loosely by his left wrist as she leans forward to offer him an apple. The Virgin, Christ and St. Anne are all seated on an elaborate golden throne; its base is a barbed quatrefoil, a common motif in Gothic architectural design, which is strewn with roses. Two flying angels hold up a cloth behind the Infant while above his head flutters the Dove of the Holy Spirit. The upper corners of the composition are closed off by gilded tracery in a pattern of twining branches.
Several commentators have noted the influence of the sculptor Nicolaus Gerhaert, on Holbein’s overall conception of the subject, probably known to him through a lost drawing or sculptural group.1 Certainly in Gerhaert’s Virgin and Child with St. Anne in the Deutsches Museum, Berlin (fig. 1), we see a similar sense of freedom in the depiction of the Child, who leans away from the Virgin to reach St. Anne, as well as that same element of instability, as if in his enthusiasm, he might well topple over. The figures, too, with their thin, elegant bodies, large heads, and the sharp, well-defined folds of the drapery look back to the late Gothic style that characterizes Gerhaert’s sculpture.
In terms of Holbein’s own oeuvre, the present work is closest in both style and spirit to the artist’s first dated altarpiece, the Afra Altar of 1490.2 The parallels with the panel of the Coronation of the Virgin are striking (fig. 2). Both works depend on a central grouping of three figures set on and in front of an architectural throne. Two winged angels hold up a green cloth of honor behind the middle figure, while the Dove of the Holy Spirit flies above. The drapery, the coloring and the figure types are all very similar, even the slightly eccentric depiction of the dove, but The Virgin and Child with St. Anne is livelier and more spirited. The angels’ drapery swings further away from their bodies, the gestures of the main figures are more relaxed and the dove appears ready to fly off. No doubt this was in large part due to the difference in function – its conception as a single devotional panel rather than being part of a larger altar. This difference also allowed Holbein a greater freedom, and here, early in his career, he took advantage of it to create a fresh and tender depiction of this extended Holy Family. In his later representation of the subject from the Katharinenaltar of 1512, now in the Staatsgalerie, Augsburg, the figures are larger and more sculptural and the Christ Child’s pose is a pure Renaissance contraposto. However, some of the spirit is lacking. In the present panel we have a far more direct connection to the scene before us in which the Christ Child is both the Savior and a very human baby, doted on by his mother and grandmother.
1. See Stange and Lieb, Loc. cit. and Beutler and Thiem, Op. cit. p. 26.
2. Only three panels of this altar have been preserved: The Death of the Virgin, The Coronation of the Virgin and The Burial of St. Afra, the first panel is now in the Kunstmuseum, Basel and is dated 1490 in two places; the second and third are in the Bishöfliche Hauskapelle, Eichstätt.
Please call 1-800-555-5555 to order a print catalog for this sale.
Online Registration to Bid is Closed for this Sale. Would you like to watch the live sale?Watch Live Sale