Master Hans | The Cameraman at the Court of the Tudor King

German artist and print-maker Hans Holbein the Younger, was born c. 1497 in Augsburg, Germany. He is called “the Younger” to distinguish him from his father, Hans Holbein the Elder; an accomplished painter of the Late Gothic school. Holbein the Younger is known as one of the greatest portraitists of the 16th century. As a young artist in Basel, he painted murals and religious works and created designs for stained glass windows and printed books. Holbein’s works have been described as being of a Northern Renaissance style.  He attained artistic status after completing a portrait of the Reformist, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, during the Humanist Renaissance. With a recommendation from Erasmus, Holbein travelled from Basel to England in search of work in 1526. There, he was welcomed into the humanist circle of statesman, scholar and Chancellor of England, Sir Thomas More; the author of Utopia (1516) and a friend of Erasmus. Holbein’s portraiture reputation grew after he painted a portrait of More and another of More and his family.

  • After heading back to Basel for four years, Holbein returned to England in 1532 where he painted many courtiers, landowners, and visitors. His most famous and perhaps greatest painting of this period is The Ambassadors. This life-sized panel painted in the tradition of the Northern Renaissance Style, portrays Jean de Dinterille, an ambassador of Francis I of France; and Georges de Selve, Bishop of Lavaur and ambassador of Charles V, who visited London in 1533. Together, they lean on a table alongside a magnificent collection of astronomical and musical instruments, sitting on top of a carpet which is now referred to as one of the ‘Holbein carpets‘ featured in some of his works. The Ambassadors incorporates symbols and paradoxes encoding enigmatic references to learning, religion, mortality and illusion  At the bottom of the work between the two men is an anamorphic (distorted) skull acting as a ‘momento mori‘ amongst the display of refinement and knowledge. The skull is recognizable only when seen from a certain angle.

By 1535, Holbein became King’s Painter to King Henry VIII and his portrait style altered. He focused more intensely on the sitters’ faces and clothing, largely omitting props and three-dimensional settings. Holbein applied this clean, craftsman-like technique to miniature and grand portraits. He not only painted portraits but created designs for jewellery, plates and other precious objects and festive decorations.

In 1537, Holbein painted what has become perhaps his most famous image King Henry VIII standing in an heroic pose with his feet planted apart. The House of Tudor monarch,  (1491-1547) is best known for his six wives: Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Katherine Parr. There is a famous rhyme which recalls the fate of each wife: “Divorced, Beheaded, Died: Divorced, Beheaded, Survived”. Henry suffered a riding accident in 1536, which marked the turning point in his health. This fall was serious enough to prevent Henry from jousting and the athletic activities he loved as a young man. The consequent reduction in physical activity led to obesity; which characterizes his portraits from this time. Henry’s increasing ill temper in his later years was largely due to his physical disability and the ulcer on his leg which was so painful, it often rendered him speechless. From 1545 the monarch was carried around in a sedan chair.

  • Jane Seymour (1512-1537) was Henry’s third wife and came from an old established landed family from Wiltshire. She appears to have been something of a cypher used by her brother, to advance the family interests; and looking at this portrait, it seems to indicate that the match was hardly one based on passion. Jane died in October 1537 at the age of 25, shortly after bearing Henry’s only son, the future Edward VI. Despite the many wives, Henry chose to be buried with Jane at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor. [Portrait from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Lugano].

Princess Mary or Mary Tudor (1516-1558) was Henry’s first born and the daughter of Catherine of Aragon. She became, Queen of England and Ireland from July 1553 until her death in 1558. Mary ascended the throne after her half-brother Edward VI (son of Jane Seymour) died from illness, aged 14. During Mary’s five year reign, she had over 280 religious dissenters burned at the stake in her attempt to reverse the English Reformation put in place during her father’s reign. This gave her the ‘Bloody Mary‘ title. After Mary’s death in 1558, her re-establishment of Roman Catholicism was reversed by her younger half-sister and successor, Elizabeth I, daughter of Anne Boleyn, ending the rule of the House of Tudor and returning the Crown and country to the Church of England. (National Portrait Gallery, London).

Cecily Heron (nee More) (1507-1540) was the youngest of Thomas More’s three daughters. She married Giles Heron on 29 September 1525 in a double wedding ceremony with her sister Elizabeth who married William Dauncey. She was well educated and with her sisters, performed in court before Henry VIII. After her marriage her husband Giles (who had been a ward of her father Thomas More) fell out of favour with not only the More family but with the King and he was executed for treason in 1540. After this, much of Cecily’s property was confiscated and she is thought to have died the same year as her husband.

  • Hans Holbein died somewhere between 7 October and 29 November 1543 at the age of 45, possibly from the plague. The site of Holbein’s grave is unknown and may never have been marked; but his 16th Century portraiture-style art has become a visual record encapsulating the life at the court of the Tudor King.

Walder, John. Henry VIII: 100 Colour Illustrations. Octopus: London (1973)

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