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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 . 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.

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 , 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 färben); 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.

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 . 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.

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.

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 Frobens 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 “hérésies” 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.

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?

In the left wing, the Nativity, 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.

Another great religious picture, once no less renowned than Oberriedt’s altar-paintings, has suffered a worse fate. This is the eight-panelled altar-piece of the Passion, now in the Basel Museum . So far back as is known it was preserved, probably after being hidden from the fury that attacked all church pictures, in the Rathaus. Maximilian I., of Bavaria, the zealous collector of Duerer’s works, offered almost any price for this altar-piece by Duerer’s great contemporary. But Basel, unlike Nueremberg, was not to be bribed; and the world-famous painting remained to draw art-lovers from every country in Europe. Nor did the most competent judges fail to envy Basel her jewel, and to eulogise its perfections. Painters such as Sandrart, looking at it after it had survived a hundred and fifty years of vicissitude, could exclaim: “It is a work in which the utmost that our art is capable of may be found; yielding the palm to none, whether of Germany or Italy, and justly wearing the laurel-wreath among the works of former times.”

Alas! this laurel, too, has been filched from Holbein’s fame. In 1771 the altar-piece was consigned to the collection where it now is; and it was then decided to gild the gold and paint the lily. The work was subjected to one of those crude “restorations” which respect nothing save the frame. And no monarch will ever again compete for its possession. Red is over red and blue over blue, doubtless; but in place of Holbein’s rich harmony a jangle of gaudy conflicting colours now sets one’s teeth on edge. So that only in a photograph can one even enjoy the composition all that is left of the Master.

But here it can be seen with what art the painter has so combined eight separate and distinct pictures, each a gem, into one, by such a distribution and balance that the whole is as integral as a pearl. The scene on the Mount of Olives, which a great critic once pronounced worthy to compare with Correggio’s work, is only to be surpassed by the Entombment. And in every scene what freedom, action, verve! From the first to the last all passes with the swift step of Calamity, yet all with noble dignity.

The Basel Museum possesses also a set of ten washed drawings in Indian ink, scenes of the Passion designed for glass-painting, which must be conned and conned again before one can “know” Holbein at all in his deepest moods. They are a great Testament, though they seem unbearably harsh at a superficial glance. But put aside your own ideas and humbly study the ideas of Holbein, sure that they must be well worth the reverence of yours or mine, and little by little you will be made free of that Underworld where Holbein’s true self has its home; you will pierce its gloom and find its clue and understand its tongue. It is a small matter whether you and I find ourselves in sympathy with that world, or can never be acclimatised. The great matter, the only matter, is to understand it; to see in its skeletons something more than lively bones, in its graves something besides Horror.

Without mastering the logical sequence of these ten drawings, where scene by scene the Divine recedes before our eyes, and the Son of Man assumes more and more the whole burden of Sin and Death, it is inevitable that the life-size painting of Christ in the Grave, also in the Basel Museum , should seem just a ghastly and “unpardonable” piece of realism. Realism of the most ghastly truthfulness, as to a corpse in the grave, it certainly is. But although it may be questioned whether such a picture should ever be painted, no one who looks through the form to the thought that shapes it would pronounce even this awful utterance “unpardonable.”

There have been those who could see in this dead Christ, lying rigid in a green sarcophagus that throws over the waxen flesh the ghastly threat of that decay which would follow if no miracle intervened, there have been those, I say, who could see in it only superb technique. And others see only the negation of all idealism, if not of all faith.

Yet put this painting, the acme of technical beauty as well as of ruthless realism, at the close of the ten Passion drawings, and I venture to believe that the one coherent conception that runs through them all will legitimately find its conclusion here.

Here He lies that surrendered Himself to the punishment of Sin and the penalty of Death for all men and all time. His pale lips are set with the superhuman agony of the cry with which He paid the uttermost farthing of that bond. Man has died for man, martyrs for faith; here God has died unto Himself, for us. There has been no playing at death. All the pitiless terrors of the grave are here, with Him who for love of us has chosen to know Mortality “like at all points” with mortal men. What He bore for us, shall we shrink from so much as realising? The great eyes are fixed in a look whose penetrating, almost liquid sweetness not even the rigor of the final anguish could obliterate. Divine devotion, devotion more than mortal, still lingers in those sockets. The heart may well dilate before this sight; the soul fall on its knees. By each of those bloodstained steps, by the sting of this death, we have been paid for. Here, here only, as Holbein saw it, is the leverage the heathen philosopher vainly sighed for to move the world; God’s leverage, Infinite Love.

This is anything but a theological tangent. A great artist has bequeathed us his beliefs, drawn and painted in many works, with every patient, virile, expressive power at his command. There has been enough and to spare of shrieks or scoffs. A little humility and a little study is in place, too. For the rest, let us not forget that this large painting was made for some altar; and that many a weeping penitent, many a devout heart, has been pierced with its message. On the edge of the stone coffin, which is tinted a warm green within, and lit by some opening at the foot, is the inscription in gold letters: “JESUS NAZARENUS REX JUDAEORUM.” The stigmata are painted with unsparing truth. The work is dated 1521.

There is in the Hampton Court Gallery a little painting which has only comparatively recently been recognised as Holbein’s, but which forms the beautiful and fitting close of this set of religious pictures. As is the case with so many of his works, the critics are not unanimous upon it. But the authorities who have no doubts as to its being a genuine Holbein of this period are so weighty that I need not argue the point in support of my own convictions.

In the Hampton Court Catalogue it is styled “Mary Magdalen at our Lord’s Sepulchre,” but I prefer to call it the Risen Christ . It must once have been supremely beautiful; for even now its ideal loveliness shines through all the evil fortunes which have once again defaced the handiwork of Holbein. The type of Christ, and indeed the work throughout, bears a marked resemblance to the eight-panelled Basel altar-piece.

The painter has chosen the moment recorded in the twentieth chapter of St. John. In that early dawn, “when it was yet dark,” Mary has brought spikenard in a marble cup, if not to anoint the sacred Dead at least to pour it on the threshold of the sealed tomb, with tears and prayers. She has fled to tell St. John and St. Peter of the sacrilege of the open tomb, has followed them back, still mechanically clasping her useless spikenard, has seen them go in where her trembling knees refused to follow, and then go homeward, as we can see them in the distance, arguing the almost incredible fact.

Poor Mary has had no heart for discussion. She has stayed weeping by the empty grave until two pitying angels have appeared to recall her from despair, and she has “turned herself back,” too frightened to stay for comfort. And then she has seen near her a Face, a Form, she was too dazed to recognise until the unforgettable Voice has thrilled through her, and she has flung herself forward with the old, instinctive cry, “Master!” to touch, to clasp that Hand, so dear, so familiar, so all-protecting, and find it a reality.

It is this tremendous moment that Holbein has seized. And with what exquisite feeling for every detail of the scene, every great emotion! Had the painting been preserved, as it deserved to be, surely it too could claim a part of that laurel wreath which Sandrart averred could not be torn from the Basel altar-piece by any rival, whether Italian or German.

The misty landscape, with the crosses of Golgotha and the eastern hills catching the first brightness of the new Day dawning over mortality; the broken clouds of night, scattered like the conquered horrors of the grave, and the illuminated tomb where Hope and Faith henceforth ask us why we weep; the hurrying agitation of St. Peter and the trusting serenity of St. John, expressed in every gesture; the dusky trees; Mary’s quivering doubt and rapture, touched with some new awe; and the simple majesty with which our Lord stays that unconscious innocent presumption, Touch me not.

What forbidding tenderness in that Face lighted by the grave He has passed through! What a subtle yet eloquent suggestion of the eternal difference, henceforth, between Love and love is in these mortal linéaments that have evermore resumed their divinity! No face, no type, no art, can ever realise Christ; yet when this little painting was first added to the great roll of Holbein Basiliensis, it must have gone as near to realising its subject as the colours of earth can go.

But every man, happily for himself, has a material as well as an immaterial world with which he must be concerned. To transpose Bagehot’s profound little saying, Each man dines in a room apart, but we all go down to dinner together. And though Holbein knew the pinch of narrow means, he had no lack of good cheer as well as austere food in his art.

On March 12th, 1521, the Great Council held its first meeting in the new Rathaus; and Meyer zum Hasen, who presided over it as Burgomaster, entrusted to his protege the enviable task of decorating the Council Chamber. Fifty-six years after Holbein’s work was completed these wall-paintings were described as “representations of the noblest subjects done by the German Apelles.” By this title the painter was everywhere recognised throughout the greater part of his lifetime.

In all, there would seem to have been six large pictures or set pieces; but two were not done until years later. One wall being too broken up by windows to be suitable, there remained three, of which “the back wall” adjoining Meyer’s house was not touched at this time. Ostensibly the reason was want of funds; but as a matter of fact the Protestant party (to anticipate this name), which grew strong enough to unseat Meyer before the year was out, was at this time indifferent to art when not positively inimical to it.

Whether treating a façade or an interior it was Holbein’s custom to make a flat wall-space assume the most solid-looking forms of Renaissance architecture. Iselin once said of a façade of Holbein’s, that there was a dog painted on it so naturally that the dogs in the street would run up and bark at it. And so astounding was the realism with which he threw out balconies, and added windows, cornices, and statues, and the richest carvings, pillars, arches, and vistas of every sort, that no eye could credit them with illusion. Horses neighed in the courtyards, flowers bloomed in the gardens, dogs leaped beside master or mistress, and children played in the spacious balconies, or moved to and fro between the splendid marble pillars and the distant wall. To study the copies that remain of such works is to be astounded by their feats of perspective.

Inside would be kindred illusions. Large pictures would seem to be actually taking place without, and beheld through beautifully carved archways or windows; while the apparent walls would have niches filled with superb marble statues and the ceiling be supported by pillars, behind which people walked and talked or leaned out to watch the chief scenes.

And so it was with the Council Chamber. But nothing now remains of these works except fragments and a few drawings for the principal features. So far as can be judged, each wall had two large scenes; the four pictures of this period being chosen from the heroic legends of the Gesta Romanorum; the two painted later, from the Old Testament.

But while these large works were going forward Holbein was busy with many others; private commissions for Froben, occasionally for other printers, and for altar-pieces or portraits. All through his life his industry and accomplishment left him small time for leisure or the dissipations of leisure. Nor is there any year of his life when his work does not attest a clear eye and a firm hand. These things are their own certificate of conduct; at any rate, of “worldly” conduct.

In 1522 occurred two important events in his life. His first child, the son he called Philip, was born; and he painted an altar-piece which is in some respects the most beautiful of his extant works. The latter now in the Solothurn Museum, and therefore called the “Solothurn Madonna” has had one of the most extraordinary histories to be found in the records of art.

The background of this picture, a massive arch of grey sandstone supported by iron stanchions, was evidently designed to suit the surrounding architecture of some grey-walled ancient structure. On a dais covered with a green carpet, patterned in white and red and emblazoned with the arms of the donor and his wife, sits the lovely Madonna with the Child held freely yet firmly in two of the most exquisite hands which even Holbein ever painted. Her dress is a rich rose-red; her symbolical mantle of universal Motherhood, or “Grace,” is a most beautiful ultramarine, loaded in the shadows and like a sapphire in its lights. The flowing gold of her hair shimmers under its filmy veil, and the jewels in her gold crown flash below the great white pearls that tip its points. Where the sky-background approaches Mother and Child, its azure tone is lost in a pure effulgence of light; as if the very ether were suffused with the sense of the Divine.

The Child is drawn and painted superbly. The carnations are exquisite; the gravity of infancy is not exaggerated, yet fittingly enforces the gesture of benediction. The left hand is turned outward in a movement so peculiar to happy, vigorous babyhood that it is a marvel of observation and nature. The little foot is admirably foreshortened, and the wrinkled sole a bit of inimitable painting. But perhaps most wonderful of all is the art with which, amid so many splendid details, the Child is the centre of interest as well as of the picture. How it is so, is Holbein’s own secret.

To right and left of the Virgin stand two fine types of spiritual and temporal authority. Behind and at her right, almost hidden by the amplitude of her mantle, kneels a poor wretch who is introduced here by some necessity of the commission itself, but is skilfully prevented from obtruding his needs on the serene beauty of the scene. Dropping gold into his alms-bowl with a hand effectively contrasted with his brown thumb, stands “the sinner’s saint” the good Bishop of Tours; while some other condition of the work has embroidered St. Martin’s red mitre with the figure of St. Nicholas. There is one other striking circumstance about St. Martin; and that is that, although he is in the Virgin’s presence, he wears the violet chasuble of an Intercessor. The chasuble is lined with red, and it and the rich vestments, on which scenes of the Passion are displayed, are the patient verisimilitude of ancient vestments. In St. Martin’s gloved left hand is his crozier and the right glove, which he has drawn off to bestow his alms.

Opposite to him stands the patron-saint of Solothurn, St. Ursus, a hero of the Theban legend, dressed from head to foot in a suit of magnificently painted armour. His left hand grasps his sword-hilt; his right supports the great red flag with its white cross. Nor is that flag of the year 1522 the least interesting detail of this work. With the crimson reflections of the flag streaking the cold gleams of his glittering armour, his stern dark face and the white plumes tossing to his shoulder, St. Ursus is a figure that may well leave historical accuracy to pedants. Below his foot are the initials H.H., and the date, 1522; as if cut into the stone.

This work was commissioned by Hans Gerster, for many years Town Archivist of Basel, in which capacity he had to convey important state papers to other councils with which that of Basel had negotiations. From this it came about that from the year when Basel entered the Swiss Confederation, in 1501, Gerster was almost as much at home in the “City of Ambassadors” as in his own, and the Dean or Probst of the Solothurn Cathedral the “Cathedral of St. Ursus and St. Victor” became not only his spiritual director, but one of his most intimate friends. Many circumstances which cannot be given here make it pretty evident that in 1522 Gerster, probably under the advice of the Probst, the Coadjutor Nicholas von Diesbach, made this picture an expiatory offering for some secret sin of grave proportions. There are hints that point to treachery to the Basel troops, in the Imperial interests, sympathy with which finally cost him, as well as his friend Meyer zum Hasen, his official position. Gerster himself was not a native of Basel, although his wife, Barbara Guldenknopf, was.

Be this as it may, it is apparently in direct connection with this confessed sin that “the sinner’s saint,” St. Martin of Tours, is chosen as Intercessor for Gerster, wearing the prescribed chasuble for this office. And it seems likely that the addition to his mitre of the figure of St. Nicholas was Gerster’s wish, in order to specially associate the name-saint of his friend Nicholas von Diesbach with this intercession. It is assumed by those who have patiently unearthed these details of circumstantial evidence, that the beggar is introduced to mark the identity of the boundlessly charitable Bishop of Tours. But I venture to suggest still another reason: this is, that in the uplifted, pleading face of the mendicant, whose expression of appeal and humility is a striking bit of realism in these ideal surroundings, we may have the actual portrait of the donor, Hans Gerster himself. That this should be so would be in strict accord with the methods of the period. There is a striking parallel which will occur to all who are familiar with the St. Elizabeth in the St. Sebastian altar-piece at Munich. Here the undoubted portrait of Hans Holbein the elder is seen as the beggar in the background.

It is, as has been said, a marvellous story by which this glorious painting, in which the introduction of the patron-saint of Solothurn proves that it was created for one of her own altars, was completely lost to her, and to the very histories of Art, and then returned to the city for which it was originally destined; all by a chain of seemingly unrelated accidents. But only the skeleton of that story can be given here.

In all probability this Madonna was executed for the altar of the ancient Lady Chapel of the Solothurn Cathedral. A hundred and twenty-six years after it was painted, this chapel was pulled down, to be replaced by a totally different style of architecture; and as the picture was then smoke-stained and “old-fashioned” it would in all likelihood drop into some lumber-room. At all events, it must have become the property of the Cathedral choirmaster, one Hartmann, after another five-and-thirty years. For at this time he built, and soon after endowed, the little village church of Allerheiligen, on the outskirts of the industrial town of Grenchen, which lies at the southern foot of the Jura.

Facilis descensus! Another turn of the centuries’ wheel and the gift of this chapel’s founder was once again thought unworthy of the altar to which it had been presented. When Herr Zetter of Solothurn first saw it in the queer little Allerheiligen chapel, it hung high up on the choir wall; blackened, worm-eaten, without a frame, suspended by a string passed through two holes which had been bored through the painted panel itself. Yet his acute eye was greatly interested by it. And when, during an official visit in 1864, he heard that the chapel was undergoing a drastic renovation, he was concerned for the fate of the discoloured old painting. At first it could not be discovered at all. Finally he found it, face downward, spotted all over with whitewash, under the rough boards that served for the workmen’s platform. A few hours later and it, too, would have been irrevocably gone; carted away with the “old rubbish”!

He examined it, made out the signature, knew that this might mean either any one of a number of painters who used it, or a clumsy copy or forgery, yet had the courage of his conviction that it was Holbein’s genuine work. He bought it of the responsible authority, who was glad to be rid of four despised paintings, for the cost of all the new decorations. He had expert opinion, which utterly discouraged his belief; but stuck to it, took the risks of having it three long years (so rotten was its whole condition) under repairs which might at any moment collapse with it, yet leave their tremendous expenses behind to be settled just the same; and finally found himself the possessor of a perfectly restored chef-d’oeuvre of Holbein’s brush, which, from the first, Herr Zetter devoted to the Museum (now a fine new one) of Solothurn.

To-day this work, which some forty years ago no one dreamed had ever existed, smiles in all the beauty of its first painting; a monument to the insight and generous enthusiasm of the gentleman whose name is rightly connected with its own in its official title “The Zetter-Madonna of Solothurn.” And it smiles with Holbein’s own undebased handiwork throughout. Pace Woltmann’s blunder, its network of fine cracks, even over the Virgin’s face, attests that it has suffered no over-painting. The work has been mounted on a solid back, the greatest fissures and the holes filled up to match their surroundings, the stains and defacements of neglect cleared away, and the triumph is complete. It might well be the “swan song” of a veteran artist at such work. Whatever the mistakes of Eigener’s career, the restoration of the Solothurn Madonna was a flawless achievement for himself and his associates.

This work, too, is the most precious of all that have come down to us of Holbein’s imaginative compositions, from the fact that his first-born, Philip, who was born about 1522, was the model for the Child, and that a portrait of Elsbeth, his wife, served as a study for the Virgin. This portrait is an unnamed and unsigned drawing in silver-point and Indian ink, heightened with touches of red chalk, now in the Louvre Collection. .)

That this is a portrait of Holbein’s wife any careful comparison with her portrait at Basel must establish. Feature for feature, allowing for the changes of sufficient years, the two faces are one and the same. The very line of the shoulder, setting of the head, and even the outline of the fashion in which the low dress is cut, is alike in both. And equally unmistakable is the relation between this Louvre drawing and the Madonna of Solothurn.

Yet I am unable to accept Woltmanns theory that the drawing was made in 1522 for the Virgin. He assumes that the lettering which borders the bodice in this drawing ALS. IN. ERN. ALS. IN.... and the braids in which the hair is worn are simply some “fancy” dress. But surely if ever hair bore the stamp of unstudied, even ugly custom, it does so here. Then, too, Woltmann himself, as are all who adopt this explanation, is unable to reconcile the oldest age which can be assigned to this sitter with the youngest that can be assumed for the Basel painting of 1529 upon a hypothesis of only seven years’ interval. Temperament and trouble can do much in seven years; but not so much as this. I say temperament advisedly; because all the evidence of Holbein’s life substantiates the assertion of Van Mander, who had it from Holbein’s own circle of contemporaries, that the painter’s life was made wretched by her violent temper. We shall find him far from blameless in later years; but though it may not excuse him, his unhappy home must largely explain his alienation.

Yet that it can explain such an alteration as that between the Louvre drawing and the Basel portrait I do not believe. Nor could I persuade myself either that any married woman of the sixteenth century wore her hair in that most exclusive and invariable of Teuton symbols “maiden” plaits; or that any husband ever thought it necessary to advertise upon a picture of his wife that he held her “in all honour.”

Myself, I must believe, then, that this portrait was made years before 1522; probably in the young painter’s first months in Basel, in 1515; and thus some fourteen years before the Basel group of 1529 was painted. It may well have been that some serious misunderstanding between them was at the bottom of that otherwise inexplicable departure in 1517, and the two years’ absence in Lucerne and still more southern cities. Of course this is mere guesswork; so is every hypothesis until it is proved. But all the simple commonplaces of first love, estrangement, separation, and a renewed betrothal after Elsbeth’s early widowhood with one child, could easily have run a natural course between 1515 and their marriage, somewhere about 1520.

As for the inscription, it is a detail that Woltmann thinks represents a repetition of the one phrase, and that I imagine to have suggested what for some reason Holbein did not wish to proclaim: “In all honour. [In all love.]” But nothing can shake my conviction that in it we hear the faint far-off echoes from some belfry in Holbein’s own city of Is. The realities of that chime are buried, whether well or ill, four hundred years deep in the seas that roll over that submerged world of his youth and passion. But living emotion, we may be sure, went to the writing and the treasuring of this pledge to Elsbeth or himself; a pledge redeemed when she became his wife.

Thus for the altar-piece of 1522 there would be this portrait of Elsbeth in her girlhood ready to his hand. But even so, see how he has idealised it, made a new creature of it, all compact of exquisite ideals! He has eliminated the subtle sensuousness which has its own allure in the drawing. Every trait is refined, purified, vivified, raised to another plane of character. Genius has put the inferior elements into its retort, and transmuted them to some heavenly metal far enough from Holbein’s home-life.

Throughout all these years, as has been said, he was busy for the printers also. In 1522 he drew the noble title-page for Petri’s edition of Luther’s New Testament, with the figures of St. Peter and St. Paul at either side, of which mention has been made. And in Thomas Wolff’s edition of 1523 there is a series of his designs. His alphabets, borders, illustrations of all sorts, continued to enrich the Basel press from this date, and were often borrowed by printers in other cities. In 1523 there came to Basel that masterly wood-cutter who has been already referred to, Hans Luetzelburger. And from this time on, therefore, Holbein’s designs may be seen in their true beauty.

He had painted, besides portraits of Froben and others, at least three portraits of Erasmus by 1524. For in June of this year the latter writes to his friend Pirkheimer, at Nuernberg, to say that he has sent two of these portraits by the “most accomplished painter” to England; while the artist himself, he adds, has conveyed still a third to France.

The smaller of the two sent to England, two-thirds the size of life, is probably the one now in the Louvre . It is a masterpiece of penetration and technique. Erasmus is here seen in the most unaffected simplicity of dress and pose; in profile against a dark-green tapestry patterned with light green, and red and white flowers. The usual scholar’s cap covers his grey hair. The blue-grey eyes are glancing down at his writing. Studies for the marvellously painted hands are among the Louvre drawings. The very Self of the man the lean, strong, thinking countenance, the elusive smile, shrewd, ironical, yet kindly, stealing out on his lips, is alive here by some necromancy of art.

The portrait now in the Basel Museum, in oils on paper, afterwards fastened to the panel, is in all likelihood that third portrait which Erasmus told Pirkheimer the painter himself had taken to France. So that Holbein must have painted it for, and carried it to, Bonifacius Amerbach, who was then, in 1524, finishing a renewed course of study at Avignon. Probably it was during this visit to France, too, that he made the spirited sketches of monuments at Bourges. In that case it would seem that he struck across by way of Dijon to the Cathedral City, in connection with some matter not now to be discovered, and from there took the great highway to Avignon by way of Lyons; carrying with him the gift of his sketches from the monuments of Duke Jehan of Berri and his wife. These were treasured in Amerbach’s collection.

Whatever the reason that sent him abroad on this journey, whether unhappiness at home or the troubled state of public affairs during the Peasants’ War of 1524 and 1525, or whether he simply had business in France which delayed him there for a year or two at all events, all records fail as to his wanderings or work in this long interval. And many circumstances go to show that it was at this time that he entered upon the immortal work which was published at Lyons, by the Trechsel Brothers, many years later; those “Images of Death” which have borrowed the old name in popular parlance, and are generally called Holbein’s “Dance” of Death.

Just why the Trechsels did not issue the publication until 1538 it is impossible to say. As one of the largest Catholic publishing-houses of France, they would be governed by circumstances entirely outside of Holbein’s history or control. But more than one circumstance presses the conclusion that the designs were made between 1523 and 1526. And there is a certain amount of evidence for the belief that they may have been first struck off in Germany, possibly by some one of the multifarious connections of the Trechsels, as early as 1527. But this is a large subject, not to be dealt with as an aside.

All the world knows these wonderful designs; their beauty of line, power of expression, and sparkling fancy. Among them all there are only two where Death is a figure of violence; and but one, the knight, transfixed by one fell, malignant stroke from behind where Death exhibits positive ferocity. In both of these, the Count, beaten down by his own great coat-of-arms, is the other, it is easy to read a reflection of the actualities of the Peasants’ War then raging.

For the rest, the grim skeleton wears no unkind smile; though that he is Death makes it look a ghastly-enough pleasantry. But toward the poor and the aged he is better than merry; he is kind. His fleshless hand is raised in benediction over the aged woman; and the bent patriarch leans on his arm, listening to Death’s attendant playing the sweet old melodies of Long-Ago as he stands on the verge of the great Silence.

But where a selection must be made, there are two drawings with their own special claim to consideration. These are the Ploughman and the Priest. The former has been cited by Ruskin as an example of a perfect design for wood-engraving; but even higher than its art, to my thinking, is its feeling. To the labourer of this sort, poor, patient, toilworn, Holbein’s heart is very gentle. And so is Death who muffles up his harsh features and speeds the heavy plough with a step like that of Hope. And at the end of the long, last uphill furrow, see how the setting sun shines on “God’s Acre!”

The second selection, the Priest, is its own proof, if any were needed, of how sharply Holbein distinguished cloth from cloth. In it, nearly a decade after he had pointed Erasmus’s satire on the unworthy prelate or the unclean friar, may plainly be read that reverence for the true priest which Holbein shared with all his best friends. In the quaint, quiet street this solemn procession is too familiar a sight to draw any spectator from the hearth where the fire of the Living is blazing so cheerily. The good Father, very lovingly drawn, casts his kind glance around as he passes on his Office with the veiled Pyx carried reverently. Before him goes Death, his Server, hastening the last mercy with eager steps. Under his arm is the tiny glass that has measured the whole of a mortality; the sands have lost their moving charm, and all their dazzle makes but a little shadow now. In his hand is the bell that sounds Take heed, Take heed, to the careless; and Pardon, Peace, to dying ears that strain to hear it. But largest of all his symbols is the lamp in his right hand; his own lamp, the lamp that dissipates Earth’s last shadows the Light of Death.

Holbein must have had his own solemn memories of the Last Office as he drew this picture of the good parish priest. For it was just about this time that the Viaticum must have been administered to his father. In 1526 the then Burgomaster of Basel wrote to the monastery at Issenheim, where Hans Holbein the Elder had left his painting implements behind him years before, in which he recalls to the Fathers how vainly and how often “our citizen,” Hans the Younger, had applied to get these costly materials restored to their owner during his life; or to himself as his father’s heir afterwards. This application was no more successful than Holbein’s own, apparently; and the painter was told to seek his father’s gold and pigments among the peasants who had pillaged the monastery.

By 1526 Holbein was back in Basel; but two works of this year would go to show that he was little less separated from his wife in Basel than when away. The first of these, about one-third life-size, is a portrait of a woman with a child beside her who grasps an arrow to suggest the Goddess of Love attended by a wingless Cupid . The little red-haired child does not do much to realise the ideal; but the woman, though not an ideal Venus, might nevertheless well pose as a man’s goddess. A “fair” woman in more senses than her colouring. Her dark-red velvet dress slashed with white; wide sleeves of dusky gold-coloured silk; her close-fitting black head-dress embroidered with gold; the soft seduction of her look; the welcoming gesture of that pretty palm flung outward as if to embrace; these are all in keeping.

This was a lady whose past career might have warned a lover that whatever she might prove as a goddess, she could play but a fallen angel’s part. The annals of Basel knew her only too well. This was Dorothea, the daughter of a knight of good old lineage, Hans von Offenburg. But the knight died while she was quite young, and her mother, better famed for looks than conduct, married the girl to a debauched young aristocrat, Joachim von Sultz. His own record is hardly less shameless than Dorothea’s soon became, though the latter is chiefly in archives of the “unspeakable” sort. At the time when this picture was painted she must have been about two-and-twenty.

Unhappy Holbein, indeed! The temper of Xantippe herself, if she be but the decent mother of one’s children, might work less havoc with a life than this embroidered cestus. But “the German Apelles” was no Greek voluptuary, ambitious in heathen vices, such as that other Apelles whose painting of Venus was said to be his masterpiece. And when Holbein inscribed his second portrait of Dorothea with the words LAIS CORINTHIACA, the midsummer madness must have been already a matter of scorn and wonder to himself. His whole life and the works of his life are the negation of the groves of Corinth.

The paint was not long dry on the Goddess of Love at any rate, her dress was not worn out before he had seen her in her true colours; “the daughter of the horse-leech, crying Give, Give.”

And so he painted her in 1526; to scourge himself, surely, since she was too notoriously infamous to be affected by it. As if in stern scorn of every beauty, every allure, he set himself to record them in detail: something in the spirit with which Macaulay set himself, “by the blessing of God,” to do “full justice” to the poems of Montgomery. Lais is far more beautiful, and far more beautifully painted, than Venus. No emotion has hurried the painter’s hand or confused his eye this time. In vain she wears such sadness in her eyes, such pensive dignity of attitude, such a wistful smile on her lips. He knows them, now, for false lights on the wrecker’s coast. No faltering; no turning back. He can even fit a new head-dress on the lovely hair, and add the puffed sleeves below the short ones. He is a painter now; not a lover. And lest there should be one doubt as to his purpose, he flings a heap of gold where “Cupid’s” little hand would now seem desecrated, and inscribes beneath it the name that fits her beauty and his contempt. The plague was raging in Basel all through that spring and summer, but I doubt if Holbein shuddered at its contact as at the loveliness he painted. The brand he placed upon it is proof of that Lais Corinthiaca, the infamous mistress of the Greek Apelles.

But in 1526 men sat among the ashes of far goodlier palaces and larger interests than personal ones. The party in power was not friendlier to Art than to the Church of Rome. In January the Painters’ Guild had presented a petition to the Council, humbly praying that its members, “who had wives and children depending on their work,” might be allowed to pursue it in Basel! And so hard was Holbein himself hit by the fanatical excitement of the time that the Council’s account-books show the paltry wage he was glad to earn for painting a few shields on some official building “in the borough of Waldenburg.”

Small wonder that an artist such as Holbein should feel his heart grow sick within him, and should turn his thoughts with increasing determination to some fresh field. Even without the bitterness that now must have edged the tongue of a wronged wife, or the bitterer taste of Dead Sea fruit in his own mouth, he must have been driven to try his luck elsewhere. And of all the invitations urged upon him, the chances which Erasmus’s introductions could give him in England would probably offer the greatest promise.

But before he set out with these letters, in the late summer of 1526, he executed yet one more great commission for his old friend, Jacob Meyer zum Hasen, now leader of the Catholic party in opposition. This was the work known now to all the civilised world as “The Meyer Madonna.” For centuries the beautiful picture which bears this name in the Dresden Gallery has been cited by every expert authority and critic as this work. But since the mysterious appearance of the Darmstadt painting, which suddenly turned up in a Paris art collector’s possession, from no one knows where in 1822, the tide of belief has slowly receded from the Dresden painting. Until now there are only a few judges who do not hold especially since the public comparison of the two works at Dresden in 1871 that the Dresden picture is “a copy by an inferior hand.”

Unquestionably the painting now in the Schloss at Darmstadt is the earlier version. And unquestionably, too, the changes introduced in the Dresden copy, the elevated architecture, slenderer figures, and less happy Child, are so great as to lend weight to the arguments of those who still claim that no copyist would ever have made them. But, as has been said, the contention that the Dresden work is a replica by Holbein of the older Darmstadt altar-piece, is now maintained by only a very small minority of judges. The painting of the Darmstadt work is admitted by all to be more uniformly admirable, more completely carried out; the details more finished (except in the case of the Virgin), and the colours richer and more harmonious. Yet both works should be studied to appreciate fully their claims and differences.

In the Darmstadt work the Virgin’s dress is wholly different in tone from her robe at Dresden; otherwise the colouring aims to be the same in each. Here, in the original altar-piece, it is a greenish-blue. The lower sleeves are golden, a line of white at the wrist, and a filmier one within the bodice. Her girdle is a rich red; her mantle a greenish-grey. Over this latter her fair hair streams like softest sunshine. Above her noble, pity-full face sits her crown of fine gold and pearls.

The woman kneeling nearest to the Madonna is commonly believed to be Meyer’s first wife, who had died in 1511, the mother of one child a daughter by a previous husband. Between this stepdaughter and Meyer there was considerable litigation over her property. The younger woman, whose chin-cloth is dropped in the painting though worn like the others in the drawing for her portrait, is Meyer’s second wife, Dorothea Kannegiesser, whom he married about 1512, and with whom he was painted by Holbein in 1516. The sombre garments of both women are echoed by the black of Meyer’s hair and coat, the latter lined with light-brown fur. Meyer’s face, in its manly intensity of devotional feeling, is a wonderful piece of psychology in the Darmstadt picture.

In the drawing for the young girl, Anna Meyer, who kneels beside her mother with a red rosary in her hands, she has her golden-brown hair hanging loose down her back, as befits a girl of thirteen. But in the painting it is coiled in glossy braids beneath some ceremonial head-dress; this is richly embroidered with pearls, with red silk tassel and a wreath of red and white flowers above it. This head-dress is painted with much more beautiful precision in the older work, and the expression of the girl’s face is much more deeply devout; her hands, too, are decidedly superior to those of the Dresden work.

This is true also of the carpet, patterned in red and green, with touches of white and black, on a ground of deep yellow. The Dresden carpet is conspicuously inferior in finish and colour to that of Darmstadt, so much so that Waagen and others, who believe the former a replica, think a pupil or assistant may have been responsible for this and other details, which for some reason Holbein himself was unable to finish.

The elder boy, with the tumbled brown hair, dressed in a light-brown coat trimmed with red-brown velvet, and hose of cinnabar-red, with decorations of gold clasps and tags on fine blue cords, has a yellowish-green portemonnaie, with tassels of dull blue hanging from his girdle. All the carnations are superb, and in the Darmstadt picture the infant Christ wears a sweet and happy smile. In that of Dresden He looks sad and ill; a fact which has given rise to the theory Ruskin adopted that the Virgin had put down the divine Child and taken up Meyer’s ailing one. But the absence of wonder on the faces of Meyer’s family, and, indeed, the familiar affection of the elder boy, would of itself negative this theory. I have my own ideas as to this point, but it would serve no useful purpose to go into them in this place. Of these two sons of Meyer there is no other record. Anna alone survived her mother, who married again after Meyer’s death. Anna’s daughter married Burgomaster Remigius Faesch, or Fesch, whose grandson Remigius Faesch, counsellor-at-law was the well-known art collector whose collection and manuscript are also in the Basel Museum, where there is an oil-copy of the Dresden Meyer-Madonna.

Even the cool eye of Walpole was warmed by this great work of 1526, as he saw it in the Dresden painting then hanging in the Palazzo Delfino at Venice. “For the colouring,” he exclaims, “it is beautiful beyond description; and the carnations have that enamelled bloom so peculiar to Holbein, who touched his works till not a touch remained discernible.” Twenty years earlier Edward Wright had written of Meyer’s youngest boy “The little naked boy could hardly have been outdone, if I may dare to say such a word, by Raphael himself.” And in our own day that fine and measured critic, Mrs. Jameson, has spoken for generation upon generation who have thought the same thought before the Meyer-Madonna of Dresden, when she says of it: “In purity, dignity, humility and intellectual grace this exquisite Madonna has never been surpassed; not even by Raphael. The face, once seen, haunts the memory.”

When Wright and Walpole saw this Dresden work at Venice, it was supposed to be the family of Sir Thomas More Meier having slipped into “More” in the course of centuries, which had retained only the vivid impression of Holbein’s association with the latter, and knew that the painter had drawn him in the midst of his family. That living association was now, late in the summer of this year, about to begin.