Holbein: Eye of the Tudors – A Culture Show Special
Written, directed and presented by Waldemar Januszczak. BBC2
This is a documentary looking at Holbein the Younger’s contribution to recording the English history of the Tudor monarchs and notable figures of the day. If it wasn’t for Holbein, the programme tells us, we probably would be unaware of the overpowering, visual presence of King Henry VIII.
Some facts about Holbein:
- Book illustrator in Basel Switzerland – worked closely with Erasmus, who wrote the book “In Praise of Folly”. Young Holbein (teenage years) drew in the margins of one of the books, unofficially illustrating the tales of raucous goings on. Even then his drawings were full of vivid, graphical descriptions of the human condition and its vices, expertly rendered and drafted.
- He became a figurative painter of religious scenes, following in the footsteps of his father, unsurprisingly named Holbein the Elder. Young Holbein had a strong Catholic background and his paintings were strikingly realistic. This was, however, a tumultuous time religiously, with the Lutherans becoming more vocal and demonstrative shall we say, therefore, increasing in support. They were vehemently against idolising religious figures, thinking it ostentatious and decadent, this was in direct opposition to the Church of Rome.
- Hans Holbein left to come to England in 1532 and under the patronage of Sir Thomas More became painter to the royal court of King Henry VIII. He was by this time in his late twenties and was not strictly a portraitist. However, his observation and skill with the brush soon created his reputation as such.
Without going into depth about the overwhelming power of Henry VIII and the changes affected by his insatiable appetite for bettering each wife he had, I’d like to mention a few of the portraits Holbein painted during this period.
The famous painting of Sir Thomas More, now hanging in the Frick Collection in New York, is fabulous in it rendering. The slightly unshaven whiskers look so realistic. The gaze is mesmerising and alive. Holbein seems to have looked deep inside his subject and makes the sitter real, not as in a photograph (how could he have, no such thing then), but as in being actually sat in front of you.
Holbein’s portraits of Henry (of which there were many – used almost like business cards) have left an
imposing impression of a powerful and authoritarian ruler, who thought nothing of upturning his country’s religious allegiance to Rome to pursue his own interests.
Henry’s servant in ridding England of the Catholic influences was Thomas Cromwell, another subject of Holbein. This portrait is also now exhibited in the Frick Musem, New York, uncomfortably positioned the opposite side of a fire place to Sir Thomas More. Again, Holbein has observed his subject with scrutiny, this time however, the result is an impression of a joyless, dour and stony faced man.
In 1535, Holbein became painter to the King himself, rather than to the court as a whole. This was fortuitous as Sir Thomas More, finding himself (a Catholic of standing) more and more at odds with Henry’s religious cleansing. He experienced the fate of so many others at Henry’s bidding and was beheaded as a traitor. Another saviour for Holbein was the then Queen, Anne Boleyn, who engaged him to design many items in the Royal household, from jewellery to cutlery to a grand fireplace. As eventually, Anne Boleyn lost favour and then her head and Jane Seymour died from complications from childbirth, Henry cast about for a suitable wifely replacement. Holbein was instructed to visit Europe and paint the portraits of potential future Queens – one of which was 16 year old Christina of Denmark. (Incidentally, the French Anne of Cleves, whose portrait had previously been painted and deemed worthy of becoming Henry’s Queen, was considered “repulsive” by the charming monarch in real life and discarded/divorced. Luckily for Holbein, it was Thomas Cromwell who bore the blame for arranging the match, was tried for treason and was, yes, beheaded!) Anyway, back to Christina of Denmark…
Christina had already been married and was widowed at 16. Consequently, her full length portrait showed her in mourning dress. This served to emphasise the luminosity of her face and had an ethereal quality. It is said that Holbein had one three hour sitting with Christina and the resultant painting was simply beautiful. Henry was obviously impressed as a proposal was despatched, sensibly, Christina declined!
As time went on, Holbein and Henry drifted apart professionally, and where Holbein had been commissioned to paint 5 out of the 6 wives of the King, the final Queen was not afforded that honour. Hence, we have no record of Katherine Parr’s appearance by Holbein.
Holbein continued painting wealthy and influential clients, one of the most famous being commonly known as The Ambassadors. Holbein, as have many other artists, employed the use of symbolism in his paintings. Most of which seem to be related to time and the frailty of such. The over-riding symbol in The Ambassadors is of course the distorted skull. Many theories abound about its inclusion, however, in this film it is offered that it is a reminder of the certainty of death, and that its distortion is related to the youth of the subjects. The bench/table between the two men has two shelves, the top one clearly points to their professions as an ambassador and a bishop
and appears full of positivity and wealth, the second has more hidden, symbolic meaning to its objects. (I also have to say that the tapestry that drapes the shelf is painted so beautifully and observed so clearly, that it is absolutely stunning.) It houses, among other items, a book of Lutheran hymns and a mandolin with a broken string. Waldemar explains that broken strings in art symbolises discord and appears to be relevant to the Lutheran hymn book and therefore the religious movement itself, foretelling its demise. Added to that the crucifix subtly positioned in the top left corner, visible beneath the drapery, hinting that the Roman Catholic religion is still strong, waiting for the Lutheran Society to fade from popularity.
The film also comments on the Vanitas – Latin for vanity. In the context of symbolism in art, the vanitas is to remind one that time is transient, as is life and as
such that wordly pleasures, material belongings and shackles are of no importance or permanence.
Another point relating to symbolism was made regarding the positioning of items on a table, the nearer an edge, the more precarious and/or mortal it is. Waldemar referred to the painting Boy Bitten by a Lizard by Caravaggio (National Gallery, London), where the youth of the boy is played against the attack of the lizard, where the lizard symbolises old age, confirming it comes to us all.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this documentary, the details and history wrapped up in an artistic blanket courtesy of Holbein. I knew little of his history, and had only been aware of the most famous of his paintings – now I feel more acquainted with this wonderfully observant and truthful painter of portraits – even in this snippet of his life. Waldemar Januszczak has a quirky story telling style and whereas I appreciate he may be akin to that yeast extract spread, he drew me into his weird and wonderful world and I’m glad he did!