What did Henry VIII look like? We can Google a number of images, but in answer we see the defiant, bull like, assertive paintings created by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543). This was the King as he wanted to be seen and Holbein’s success in meeting his patron’s requirements makes him one of the great propagandists of all time. The life-like studies of Henry, his wives and attendants, reflect the glittering, refined court of a Renaissance monarch. What we miss is the high drama of an artist and patrons caught up in one of the most turbulent periods of history.
Holbein lived and worked intermittently in England from 1526 to 1543 during the establishment of the Reformation. In 1527 when Henry wished to be rid of his wife, Katherine of Aragon, in order to marry Anne Boleyn; all for the sake of a male heir; he demanded an annulment from the Pope but was refused. One thing led to another, the English breaking away from Rome, Henry dissolving monasteries and the church of England becoming Protestant. To persuade the English people to accept these changes the monarchy relied on all kinds of propaganda including painted and printed images. Holbein, a Swiss immigrant of German origin, rose high in royal favor because he provided many of these tools.
As an artisan trying to make a living, he also hoped to make a fortune. Young Hans and his older brother Ambrose apprenticed themselves to the painter Herbst in Basel, befriending Desiderius Erasmus, and illustrating Myconius’ ‘In Praise of Folly’. Basel being a liberal magnet attracting free thinkers from all over Europe, where radicals could exchange daring new ideas, preach what elsewhere would be dubbed heresy and publish challenging books and pamphlets. An increasing amount of Holbein’s time was devoted to images for the reformed faith and he provided 30 illustrations for editions to Martin Luther’s translation of the New Testament printed in Basel. It was also about this time that Hans produced his most remarkable religious image, Christ in the Tomb, a startling image of the humanity of Christ. No one had ever portrayed Christ as a decaying corpse, but the quest for truth was the driving force of Holbein’s work, the quality that lies beyond realism.
While religious opinions were changing and forming, the quest for the elusive fortune continued. He traveled to France hoping to gain work at the court of Francis I, but after two years he continued on to England. His friend Erasmus provided him with letters of introduction to Thomas More, a member of Henry VIII’s council, and the tour de force began with a painting of More’s family. While other court members sought his work including the Boleyns, Hans found it exceedingly difficult to continue working during the religious struggles of the Lutheran and German factions of England. He returned to Basel in 1529 only weeks after Thomas More became Lord Chancellor, the most powerful man in England under the King.
Three short years later, 1532, the see-saw world of Henry’s court had turned More out. Refusing to accept anti-papal legislation going through parliament, he suddenly found himself out of favor and resigned the chancellorship. This defiance led to imprisonment in the Tower and inevitably, execution.
Holbein returned to England, gaining a powerful patron in Thomas Cromwell. A ruthless politician and brilliant man, he recognized the artist’s potential, commissioning anti-papal illustrations for books and pamphlets. When the first English Bible is prepared for the press, Holbein designed the title page. As the country moved towards Lutheranism, with Cromwell at the helm of the propaganda machine that was making Henry rich, Holbein prospered. In 1536 he reached the summit of his career with the appointment as the King’s Painter. Hans was now the creator of official images that portrayed the Tudor regime as Henry wanted it pictured. The privy chamber of Whitehall Palace was dominated by a massive mural painted to glorify the Tudor dynasty, it could not fail to impress those admitted to the inner sanctum. Those less fortunate could view the title page of the English Bible showing the benign King handing the holy scriptures to his bishops to be shared with his people.
Unfortunately for Holbein, the pendulum of royal policy had not stopped swinging. Cromwell had many enemies, and in 1540 they gained ascendancy and then the king’s ear. Cromwell’s fall from power was swift and he followed other loyal servants to the block. Holbein’s career never fully recovered and he was only beginning to gain a new client base in 1543 when he died from the plague.