A child hidden in plain sight. How to draw a picture of the Holbein world
I had a betrayal in Augsburg. The Bavarian city, perhaps, is best known for being the center of Messerschmitt’s production during the war. However, here I discovered the earliest known portrait of one of the world’s greatest painters, the unknown portrait of Hans Holbein Jr., painted in 1502, when he was only five years old. Aside from being an unexpected career high for me, it is a discovery that sheds new light on his astonishing story. Holbein (c1497–1543) was a German painter who became a citizen of England, depicting the Tudor’s court with his images of a monument to Henry VIII. In his day he was considered as great as Leonardo or Michelangelo, although today their prestige exceeds his prestige in the popular imagination, unjustly. That’s why I started Holbein’s new biography, I tried to rediscover the Europe he inhabited in the first half of the 16th century. At that time, Augsburg was a cultural epicenter that competed with Venice, Milan or Florence. It was also a vibrant trading union that brought home a number of commercial bankers whose abilities matched and even surpassed those of the Italian Medici. Like their Italian counterparts, these powerful Germans were tremendous patrons of the arts. It is not uncommon for Augsburg to become home to so many artists: Hans Burgkmayr the Elder, J Բրrg Braun the Elder, and Holbein’s father, Holbein the Elder. Holbein Jr. was born in 1497 in the city. Today, Augsburg’s vast central Maximilianstrasse is the same as it was in Holbein’s time, lined with palace mansions built by his banking dynasties. Holbein the Elder’s workshop, the Holbeinhaus, still stands in a part of town where winding medieval streets are characterized by craft shops and studios. One of its main sponsors was the Dominican Congregation of Augsburg, St. Catherine. It was run by well-connected, erudite nuns, many of whom were daughters of the city’s banking elite. The State Gallery used to be the site of the Congregational Church, so many of Holbein Sr.’s paintings still hung on the walls they were originally intended for. It was here that the forgotten portrait of little Hans was hidden in plain sight. The gallery is a painting by Elder Holbein 1504, which depicts St. Paolo’s Fouri le Mura Basilica (outside the walls) with scenes from the life of St. Paul. Pictured on the cover of the gallery guide: բ No biography or television documentary about Holbein would be complete without a quote, as Holbein the Elder famously introduced his family portrait there as witnesses to the baptism of St. Paul. Seven-year-old Hans Jr. shows his older brother Ambrose tenderly hugging him, while Holbein Jr. proudly shows off his younger son. On my first day in Augsburg, I laid the groundwork for the Basilica. But when I looked at young Hans, who had so lovingly separated his father, I realized that I had just seen another, very similar-looking child in the same gallery. Taking my steps back, I scanned the paintings until I saw the Walter Family Memorial, painted by Holbain the Elder two years before the Basilica. The painting on the left hand depicts a miracle from the Gospel of John, in which a little boy presents Jesus with two fish – five loaves, which the Messiah then shares with the 5,000 followers. I was convinced that this boy was in fact another portrait of Hans Jr., this time only five years old. The discoveries are all there. For one, Holbein the Elder signals how special this little figure is. He is placed in the center in a composition, and above his head the hands of Jesus և St. Peter meet և form the heart և. Moreover, while the other characters in the parable are in biblical costumes, the little boy is wearing a modern costume. Red robe, the belt of which is fastened with a tool belt, a ribbon և piece. The only other people in the modern dress are the Walter family at the base of the panel. The boy’s outfit is not only almost identical to the seven-year-old version of Hans painted in the Basilica, but his features are the same. Her blonde hair was cut short, revealing a wide forehead, wide eyes, a brittle nose and chubby cheeks. Didn’t anyone notice this picture of young Holbein hanging in the same gallery as the other famous family portrait? Not daring to believe my own eyes, I contacted Dr. Bodo Brinkmann, a leading Holbein expert, curator of the old masters of the Basel Kunstmuseum, which holds the largest collection of Holbein works. To my relief, Dr. Brinkmann endorsed my research, and when they consulted with Holbein specialists in Augsburg, Munich, and Vienna, they all confirmed the news.