Just two years into the reign of James I, a Dutch painter and poet named Karel van Mander toured Whitehall Palace and came upon something truly memorable: a large wall mural of two generations of Tudors. Dominating the nine foot by twelve foot mural was the long-dead Henry VIII. At his side was his third wife, Jane Seymour; above the couple were his parents, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York.
|Whitehall mural, a 17th century painting reproduction|
Van Mander was stunned. He wrote that Henry VIII "stood there, majestic in his splendor...so lifelike that the spectator felt abashed, annihilated in his presence."
Lifelike. This was the supreme achievement of the mural's creator, Hans Holbein. then and now. Peter Ackroyd has written, "He illustrates his sitters in the light of some sudden but characteristic emotion, as if he had caught their thought on the wing."
|Hans Holbein the Younger|
It is in part because of Holbein that we feel we know the Tudor personalities, from Henry VIII and Jane Seymour to Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell to a baby Prince Edward. But do we really know Holbein?
It seems to us now as if Hans Holbein the Younger was always there, the favorite, the prize artist of the king. But in fact his artistic reign was fairly brief. He did not become "court painter" until shortly before painting that famous mural. It had taken years to win the trust of Henry VIII and secure royal commissions. Just three years after the Whitehall mural, he was under a cloud because of his painting of Henry's fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. Three years after that, he was dead.
Hans Holbein was born in 1497 in Augsburg, now the third largest city in Bavaria, Germany. Then it was a "free Imperial city" within the Holy Roman Empire, faithful to emperor and pope. Hans Holbein the Elder came from a family of talented artists and made sure to teach his son everything he knew. The father painted mostly altarpieces, church windows and other religious works--in the late medieval age, this was where artists found their majority of paying work.
Martin Luther transformed Germany--and then the rest of Christendom--when he challenged papal authority in 1517, nailing his 95 theses to the door of the castle church of Wittenerg. Two years earlier, Hans and his older brother Ambrosius had moved to the thriving Swiss city of Basel to work as journeyman painters. He created portraits and murals and designed woodcuts for printers. But soon enough Hans Holbein was engulfed in Luther's revolution.
|Dance of Death, the Abbot|
|Holbein's cover of the Luther bible|
It is in his woodcuts that Hans Holbein the Younger gives some indication of his religious beliefs. He designed the title page of Martin Luther's bible. And he created woodcuts for The Dance of Death, an eerie series of drawings showing a skeleton reaching for people across every level of society: merchant, king, abbess, old woman---and pope. Death came to everyone, high or low, was the message.
But in the first of several ironies, when Holbein came to England, his sponsor was Sir Thomas More, known for his hatred of Luther and determination to destroy the books written by those who wanted to reform the church.
Holbein departed from Basel in 1526, leaving a wife and children behind. Religious commissions had dried up as Lutheranism ignited. No one wanted altarpieces anymore. To earn enough money to live--and to, hopefully, find fame--he'd need to establish himself in a foreign court. He tried France first, but nothing happened. The famous Dutch Renaissance humanist Erasmus, whom Holbein had painted at least twice, gave him a letter of recommendation to be given to Sir Thomas More, a fellow Humanist and one of the most valued councilors of Henry VIII.
|Sir Thomas More|
Holbein may have lived in More's Chelsea home for a time. What is known for certain is that he painted a famous portrait of Sir Thomas as well as many of his family members. More raved about the artist's abilities in a letter to Erasmus. If he knew about Holbein's belief in religious reform, he'd decided to overlook it.
In 1529 Sir Thomas More became chancellor of England. It would seem that Holbein couldn't have picked a better patron.
But More was devoted to Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII, and although he tried hard to avoid it, he got caught up in the Great Matter of the king's divorce. More did not have a high opinion of Anne Boleyn, who would eventually become Henry's second queen, and could not swear an oath of supremacy to king over pope. In 1532 he resigned as chancellor, in anguish, claiming illness.
Holbein was not damaged by his patron's fall from power because he'd returned to Basel, to his family and his circle of artist friends. But this was no place for an artist. The pendulum had swung so far in Basel that religious reformers were destroying statues and works of art in churches. It is believed that some of Holbein's paintings were burned in the rages of iconoclasm. Holbein decided to go back to England. Before he left, he painted his wife, looking undeniably sad.
|Holbein's wife and two of their children|
There was a whole new group running the Tudor court in 1533, and Holbein headed for the top. His new patron? The stylish Anne Boleyn. He designed decorations for her coronation; pieces of jewelry; and several silver cups. It is believed that he painted Queen Anne's portrait, but after her fall, Henry VIII had many images of his second wife destroyed. One that survives is a sketch of Anne signed by Holbein.
Perhaps the greatest contribution Anne made to the legacy of Holbein was sponsoring his painting The Ambassadors, considered his master work. The strongest clue that Anne commissioned the work is that on a table between the two Frenchmen is a wooden cylinder used to determine dates. Visible is April 11, the day that the court was officially told that Anne Boleyn would be awarded royal honors.
|Holbein's sketch of Anne Boleyn|
Anne's execution in May 1536 could have led to Holbein's downfall. Instead, he shifted again, becoming the favored painter of Henry VIII himself and Thomas Cromwell, who many believe concocted the charges against Anne of adultery and incest.
|Henry VIII, the year Anne Boleyn was executed|
Holbein painted Jane Seymour, Anne Boleyn's prim-looking replacement as queen, and the family mural in Whitehall. He received the all-important commissions to paint the king himself and his heir, Prince Edward. He painted Cromwell. This was when Holbein's status at court became official and he earned an annual salary of thirty pounds.
Jane Seymour died the same year that the mural was painted. Henry VIII was reluctant to marry a foreign princess without having any idea of what she looked like. So Holbein was sent to various courts to paint the candidates: France, Flanders, Germany.
|Anne of Cleves|
In Cleves, he painted Anne, the older sister of Duke William, and Henry was charmed by her appearance. Yet from almost the moment he set eyes on her when she arrived, days before their wedding, he loathed Anne of Cleves. "I like her not," the king declared.
Did Holbein, the artist celebrated for his lifelike images, over-flatter Anne of Cleves in his painting? Did he feel pressure from Cromwell, who supported the marriage alliance to a German power, to make her look more attractive than she was? Cromwell was arrested and then executed in 1540, and one of the reasons for his shocking fall from power was that Henry felt his minister had bungled his fourth marriage. "I am not well handled," the king said, menacingly.
Did Holbein handle his part well? Others have said that Anne of Cleves' painting must have been accurate because, unlike Cromwell, Holbein was not punished in the fallout of the Cleves divorce. Which is strictly true. But Hans Holbein did not receive any more high profile royal commissions. He concentrated on private commissions, such as miniatures of various members of the nobility, like Katherine Willoughby, the young wife of the Duke of Suffolk.
In late 1543 at the age of 45, Hans Holbein died, perhaps of the plague, in London. He left a will, written in haste. His debts were settled and some of his monies went to the care of the children in Basel he had left behind. His grave is unmarked.
Ackroyd, Peter, The Life of Thomas More
Ives, Eric, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn
Thurley, Simon, Whitehall Palace: An Architectural History of the Royal Apartments, 1240-1690
Weir, Alison, Henry VIII: The King and His Court
Wolf, Norbert, Hans Holbein the Younger, the German Raphael
Nancy Bilyeau is the author of an award-winning trilogy of historical thrillers set in the time of Henry VIII. The protagonist is a Dominican novice. Her trilogy, The Crown, The Chalice, and The Tapestry, is on sale in North America, the United Kingdom, Spain, Russia, and Germany.
* This blog post originally ran on English Historical Fiction Authors.