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Hans Holbein the Younger and Reformation Bible Production

  • David H. Price


Hans Holbein the Younger produced a large corpus of illustrations that appeared in an astonishing variety of Bibles, including Latin Vulgate editions, Desiderius Erasmus's Greek New Testament, rival German translations by Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli, the English Coverdale Bible, as well as in Holbein's profoundly influential Icones veteris testamenti (Images of the Old Testament)—to name only his better-known contributions. This essay discusses strategies that the artist developed for accommodating the heterogeneity of the various humanist and Reformation Bibles. For Erasmus's innovative Bibles, Holbein connected the text to the expansive concept of Renaissance humanist art, simultaneously portraying the new Bible and humanist art as part of a broadly defined cultural-philosophical discourse. Similarly, Holbein's production of Protestant Bibles, most importantly the epochal Luther Bible, associated the new text with the humanist Bible and, in so doing, conceptualized the humanist biblical image as a validation of religious art in a new context. Ultimately, the reliance on humanist art as a cultural authority mitigated perception of the heterogeneity of the text to the point that the publishers of Holbein's Icones completely displaced the text with the daring creation of a new genre: the picture Bible. With the exception of the iconography of royal supremacy in England, Holbein's Bible image was exceedingly movable, an artistic efficiency designed to contribute to the stability of the Bible image across a wide humanist and multiconfessional spectrum.

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1 Zijlma, Robert, Ambrosius Holbein to Hans Holbein the Younger, in Hollstein's German Engravings, Etchings and Woodcuts 1470–1700, ed. Falk, Tilman, vols. 14, 14A, 14B (Roosendaal: Koninklijke van Poll, 1988) (hereafter cited as Hollstein), lists the first use of each image systematically and otherwise includes extensive coverage only for early reprints. Many more reprints of Holbein's images are identified in Hieronymus, Frank, Basler Buchillustration 1500–1545: Oberrheinische Buchillustration, vol. 2 (Basel: Universitätsbibliothek, 1984), but not systematically and without an overview on Holbein. A unified bibliography based on Hieronymus's learned but scattered observations would be of great value for the study of Holbein's graphic art. I have tallied seventy-two Bible imprints in the bibliography of Hollstein, 14B:168–175, along with two plenaria listed separately in Hollstein, 14, no. 11. The Hollstein list of Bibles includes several editions of the Icones.

2 This tally is also based on the partial bibliography in Hollstein, 14B:180–188.

3 According to Nuechterlein, Jeanne, Translating Nature into Art: Holbein, the Reformation, and Renaissance Rhetoric (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011), 174 , the force of tradition was so strong that “prominent artist [such as Holbein] were willing in their illustrations to hold back their independent creativity.” Nuechterlein's discussion of Holbein's biblical imagery focuses mostly on the 1523 designs for Revelation.

4 An important reason that Holbein's personal stance on the Reformation remains a mystery is the remarkable paucity of written documentation (in stark contrast to Dürer and Cranach). In one rare, but potentially telling, record, Holbein appears to have resisted making formal allegiance to a new ecclesiastic identity. His name appears on a document listing members of the painters guild who were not attending the new Basel church services in 1530; see His, Eduard, “Holbeins Verhältnis zur Basler Reformation,” Repertorium für Kunstwissenschaft 2 (1879):158 . In three instances, he produced woodcuts that supported Luther's opposition to scholastic theology and the campaign against the practice of selling indulgences. Nonetheless, those are not positions that would indicate allegiance to Lutheran or Protestant theology. See Hollstein, 14, nos. 1 (“Luther as Hercules Germanicus”), 3 (“Christ as the True Light”), and 4 (“Selling of Indulgences”). See Saxl, Fritz, “Holbein and the Reformation,” in Lectures (London: Warburg Institute, 1957), 1:277–285, for an attempt to stress the impact of Erasmus on Holbein's reception of Luther.

5 See Müller, Christian, Hans Holbein d. J.: Die Druckgraphik im Kupferstichkabinett Basel (Basel: Schwabe, 1997), 13 .

6 Holbein also briefly visited Basel in September 1538; see Foister, Susan, Holbein and England (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press for Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2004), 1314 .

7 Schmid, Heinrich Alfred, Hans Holbein der Jüngere: Sein Aufstieg zur Meisterschaft und sein englischer Stil (Basel: Holbein, 1945), 1:208–209.

8 Holbein worked for at least seven local printers—Johannes Froben, Adam Petri, Thomas Wolff, Andreas Cratander, Valentin Curio, Johannes Bebel, and, perhaps once, Pamphilus Gengenbach—as well as for Melchior and Gaspard Trechsel in Lyon and for the Zurich printer Christoph Froschauer.

9 At least eighteen—possibly twenty—separate printings of the Latin Bible appeared in Basel between 1468 and 1502. See the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue, British Library, accessed 10 February 2017,

10 Plenaria, which included German translations of biblical readings, were printed in Basel prior to 1522.

11 See Price, David Hotchkiss, Albrecht Dürer's Renaissance: Humanism, Reformation and the Art of Faith (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003), 199200 . The design was based on Albrecht Dürer's title page for Jerome, Saint, Epistolare (Basel: Kessler, 1492).

12 Guggisberg, Hans R., Basel in the Sixteenth Century: Aspects of the City Before, During, and After the Reformation (St. Louis, Mo.: Center for Reformation Research, 1982), 1317 .

13 See Bietenholz, Peter G., “Printing and the Basle Reformation, 1517–65,” in The Reformation and the Book, ed. Gilmont, Jean-François, trans. Maag, Karin (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998), 246249 . Bietenholz estimates that by 1536 over 400 Erasmus imprints had been produced in Basel.

14 On iconoclasm in Basel, see Wandel, Lee Palmer, Voracious Idols and Violent Hands (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 148189 .

15 Erasmus, Desiderius, ed. and trans., Novum Instrumentum omne (Basel: Johannes Froben, 1516), fol. aaa5v: “Permulta reperire licet in ethnicorum libris, quae cum huius doctrina consentiant.” The translations throughout this essay are mine. For a complete translation, see Erasmus, Desiderius, Christian Humanism and the Reformation, ed. Olin, John C., 3rd ed. (New York: Fordham University Press, 1987).

16 See Erasmus, Novum Instrumentum omne (1516), fols. aaa4r, aaa5v.

17 See Schmid, Heinrich Alfred, ed., Erasmi Roterodami Encomium Moriae . . . Faksimile-Ausgabe (Basel, 1931); and Michael, Erika B. Goodman, The Drawings by Hans Holbein the Younger for Erasmus’ Praise of Folly (New York: Garland, 1985), for the most extensive analyses of the drawings. Current scholarly opinion attributes seventy-nine of the marginal drawing to Hans Holbein the Younger and three further drawings to Ambrosius Holbein.

18 See Schmid, ed., Erasmi Roterodami Encomium Moriae, fols. L3v, M1v.

19 For both images, Erasmus's text in Praise of Folly refers humorously to problems of imputing too much significance to art objects.

20 For a Froben anthology of satires that included Praise of Folly, Urs Graf created a metalcut title page in a similar style with a representation of a satyr, probably as a reference to the genre of satire. See In hoc opera contenta . . . Erasmi Roterodami Moriae Encomium (Apud inclytam Germaniae Basileam: Johannes Froben, 1515), reproduced in Erasmus von Rotterdam: Vorkämpfer für Frieden und Toleranz; Ausstellung zum 450. Todestag des Erasmus von Rotterdam verantstaltet vom Historischen Museum Basel (Basel: Historisches Museum, 1986), 85, 182. On the Italianate style of the 1516 metalcuts, see Hieronymus, Basler Buchillustration, 145–147.

21 Hollstein, 14, no. 19a, image by Ambrosius Holbein. This was probably originally designed for an edition of Velleius Paterculus, Historiae Romanae duo volumina, an ancient work that offers a heroic portrayal of Arminius. The title page was reused several times, including as the title page for the second volume, the Annotationes, of Erasmus's third edition of the New Testament in Greek (1522). The border was first printed in a Froben edition of the Greek philosopher Maximus Tyrius (January 1519).

22 See Cast, David, The Calumny of Apelles: A Study in the Humanist Tradition (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981), 9899 .

23 Hollstein, 14A, no. 43a, has the wrong image reproduced for the title page of the 1522 New Testament in Greek. The border reproduced erroneously is the same as Hollstein, 14A, no. 33b. Schleier, Reinhart, Tabula Cebetis (Berlin: Mann, 1973), has the correct image as fig. 7.

24 See Schleier, Tabula Cebetis, 34–36. The first Tabula Cebetis design by Holbein was used for an edition of Tertullian, Opera, ed., Beatus Rhenanus (Basel: Johannes Froben, 1521). See Hollstein, 14A, no. 33b. For the editions of the New Testament in Greek (1522 and 1527), the second Tabula Cebetis woodcut was used for the frame to the beginning of the Annotationes to Matthew. As of 1519, Erasmus's commentary, the Annotationes, was printed as a second volume.

25 Hollstein, 14A, no. 50, a woodcut that would be reprinted and copied with great frequency.

26 For a general study of Holbein's reception of Italian styles in his painting, see Bätschmann, Oskar and Griener, Pascal, Hans Holbein (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997), 120148 .

27 Pseudo-Hegesippus, , Egesippi . . . de rebus a Judaeorum principibus . . . gestis (Cologne: Soter, 1525).

28 Hollstein, 14A, no. 62, which corresponds to Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in München, ed. Verzeichnis der im deutschen Sprachgebiet erschienenen Drucke des XVI. Jahrhunderts (Stuttgart: Hiersemann, 1988) (hereafter cited as VD 16), L7071.

29 Hollstein, 14A, no. 62, which corresponds to VD 16 L7456. This border was used subsequently in several publications, including many Basel editions of Sebastian Münster's Cosmographia. See Hieronymus, Basler Buchillustration, 476–477 (no. 428).

30 Rümelin, Christian, “Hans Holbein und die Druckgraphik,” in Hans Holbein d. J.: Die Jahre in Basel 1515–1532, ed. Müller, Christian (Munich: Prestel, 2006), 125126 , dates the broadside to ca. 1519. Hieronymus, Basler Buchillustration, 360–361, with considerable circumstantial evidence, suggests 1522.

31 See Novum Instrumentum omne, fol. aaa3v.

32 Koegler, Hans, Johann Froben, 1460(?)–1527: Gedächtnis-Ausstellung (Basel: Gewerbemuseum, 1927), 2324 , on Froben's return to unadorned title pages.

33 In 1518, Froben published an influential edition of Luther's collected works in Latin that sold briskly all over Europe. In a letter of February 14, 1519, Froben wrote to Luther that he had shipped 600 copies to France and Spain and many also to Italy. See D. Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe, Briefwechsel, ed. Bebermeyer, Gustav, Clemen, Otto, Wolgast, Eike, Müller, Norbert, Köckert, Christian, Volz, Hans, and Ebeling, Gerhard, 18 vols. (Weimar: H. Böhlau, 1930–1985), vol. 1, no. 146; and Bietenholz, “Printing and the Basle Reformation,” 249–250.

34 For a convenient list of the printings of Luther Bibles during Luther's lifetime, see Reinitzer, Heimo, Biblia deutsch: Luthers Bibelübersetzung und ihre Tradition (Wolfenbüttel: Herzog August Bibliothek, 1983), 116127 .

35 See Hieronymus, Basler Buchillustration, 423; and Schmidt, Philipp, Die Illustrationen der Lutherbibel 1522–1700 (Basel: Reinhardt, 1962), 235236 . Brylinger's Bible combined the phrasing of the Zwingli and Luther translations. The illustrations, derived from the 1531 Zurich Bible, are based on Holbein designs. Brylinger's is the first and only complete German Bible translation printed in Basel until 1660. Eventually in the nineteenth century, even though Basel remained a Reformed polity, Luther's version would be produced there.

36 See Koerner, Joseph Leo, The Reformation of the Image (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 38 .

37 Petri had recently been fined for offending the canton of Luzern in one of his reprints of a Lutheran tract and, perhaps, wanted to avoid unnecessary provocation of the Basel city government.

38 Hollstein, 14A, no. 48a. Adam Petri's first printing of Luther's translation of the Pentateuch, Das Alte Testament deutsch (Basel: Adam Petri, 1523; which corresponds to VD 16 B2891), makes an even stronger connection to the scholarly Bible by using an Urs Graf classicizing title page frame in the style of those used for the Erasmus Bibles.

39 Das New Testament (Basel: Adam Petri, 1522), fol. CXX v.

40 Ephesians 6:17.

41 On illustrated plenaria, see Kottmann, Carsten, Das buch der ewangelii und epistel: Untersuchungen zur Überlieferung und Gebrauchsfunktion südwestdeutscher Perikopenhandschriften (Münster: Waxmann, 2009); and Knappe, Karl, “Bibelillustration,” in Theologische Realenzyklopädie, ed. Krause, Gerhard and Müller, Gerhard (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1980), 6:148. Twenty-four plenaria were printed between 1475 and 1519, according to Reinitzer, Heimo and Schwencke, Olaf, “Plenarien,” Die deutsche Literatur des Mittelalters: Verfasserlexikon, ed. Wachinger, Burghart, Keil, Gundolf, Ruh, Kurt, Schröder, Werner, and Worstbrock, Franz Josef (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1989), 7:737–763.

42 See Hollstein, 14A, no. 11; Das Boek des hillighen Evangelij (Basel: Adam Petri, 1517); and Das Neu Plenarium (Basel: Adam Petri, 1518).

43 Hollstein, 14A, nos. 48b–48i. The portrait of Paul was printed several times throughout.

44 See Hieronymus, Basler Buchillustration, no. 391.

45 See Foister, Holbein and England, 2, for her perceptive remarks on the “sensation of immediacy” in Holbein's style.

46 Holstein 14A, nos. 48b–48e. See also the reproductions in Müller, Hans Holbein d. J.: Die Druckgraphik im Kupferstichkabinett Basel, nos. 93a–d (p. 120).

47 Hollstein, 14A, no. 52.

48 See Hollstein, 14A, no. 55; and Hieronymus, Basler Buchillustration, no. 399. Wolff used the woodblocks in 1523–1524 for his octavo and quarto productions (four quartos and three octavos), then the woodblocks went in 1524 to Strasbourg (Knobloch), in 1525 back to Basel (Bebel), in 1530 back to Strasbourg (Köpfl), and then in 1531 to Zurich (Froschauer).

49 In challengingly small formats, measuring 2.8 x 11.3 cm (top), 8.7 x 2.7 cm (left side), 8.7 x 3.5 cm (right side), and 4.0 x 11.3 cm (base).

50 Hollstein, 14A, no. 66.

51 Hollstein, 14A, no. 49.

52 Das gantzs neuw Testament (Basel: Thomas Wolff, 1523): “Auch die Offenbarung Ioannis mitt hübschen figuren, ausz welchen man das schwerest leichtlich verston kan.”

53 See the excellent reproductions in Müller, Hans Holbein d. J.: Die Druckgraphik im Kupferstichkabinett Basel, nos. 94.1–94.21 (pp. 122–130).

54 The figure being anointed looks like the older Lucas Cranach the Elder with a long beard. It is possible that Cranach has suggested his own features but projected them somewhat into the future. He was fifty when the Septembertestament woodcuts were designed.

55 Schmidt, Die Illustrationen der Lutherbibel, 97.

56 Les choses contenues en ceste partie du nouveau testament (Basel: Johannes Bebel for Schabler, 1525).

57 Hieronymus, Basler Buchillustration, 421–424 (no. 300).

58 Michael, Erika, Hans Holbein Icones Historiorum Veteris Testamenti, Lyon, 1547 (Palo Alto, Calif.: Octavo, 1999), 1 .

59 Illustrated in Foister, Holbein and England, 12–13. On Nicolas Bourbon and Holbein, see also Bätschmann and Griener, Hans Holbein, 31, 34.

60 See Michael, Hans Holbein “Icones Historiorum Veteris Testamenti,” Lyon, 1547, 4–5.

61 For detailed description, see Hieronymus, Basler Buchillustration, 501–503.

62 Johann Heinrich Hottinger, seventeenth-century reformed theologian and biblical scholar, quoted in Himmighöfer, Traudel, Die Zürcher Bibel bis zum Tode Zwinglis (1531) (Mainz: Philipp von Zabern, 1995), 368 .

63 See Kästner, Manfred, Die Icones Hans Holbeins des Jüngeren (Heidelberg: Esprint, 1985), 1:1–2.

64 Michael, Erika, “The Iconographic History of Hans Holbein the Younger's Icones and Their Reception in the Later Sixteenth Century,” Harvard Library Bulletin, n.s. 3, no. 3 (Fall 1992): 35 .

65 Erasmus cites the rebuilding of the temple and Josiah's restoration of temple worship in the dedication of the New Testament in Greek to Leo X, where he makes an analogy between the rebuilding of Saint Peter's Basilica and reform of the church. See Erasmus, Novum Instrumentum omne (1516), fols. aa2r–aa2v.

66 Hollstein, 14A, no. 72e.

67 Historiarum veteris instrumenti icones (Lyon: Melchior and Gaspar Trechsel, 1538), fol. A1v.

68 Cited according to Icones historiarum veteris testamenti (Lyon: Jean Frellon, 1547), fol. A2v: “Icones hae sacrae tanti sunt . . . / Artificis, dignum quod uenereris opus.”

69 Icones (1547), fols. A3r-A3v: “L'oeil corporel, qui se tourne, et varie, / Y peut avoir un singulier plaisir. . . . auront plaisir, et au coeur et au yeulx.”

70 This is the interpretation of Strong, Roy, Holbein and Henry VIII (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965), 1416 ; also adopted by King, John N., Tudor Royal Iconography (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989), 5463 .

71 On “Law and Gospel,” see Price, David H., “The Bible and the Visual Arts in Early Modern Europe,” in New Cambridge History of the Bible, ed. Cameron, Euan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 3:731732 .

72 A painting of the Allegory of the Old and New Law, which reflects the basic Cranach iconography and composition, has been attributed to Holbein. See Foister, Holbein and England, 154–159; and Bonnet, Anne-Marie and Kopp-Schmidt, Gabriele, Die Malerei der deutschen Renaissance (Munich: Schirmer/Mosel, 2010), 382383 .

73 Myles Coverdale's dedication to Henry VIII, in Biblia ([Antwerp?]: [Marten de Keyser?], 1535), preliminary fol. +2r, says that “the ryght and iust administracyon of the lawes that God gaue unto Moses and unto Josua” are now given to the king.

74 This passage, as propaganda for Henry VIII's new Bible politics, was also used in Joos van Cleve's portrait of the king. See Strong, Holbein and Henry VIII, 8.

75 See the 1523 title page for Jacques Lefèvre's Commentary on the Four Gospels; Hollstein, 14A, no. 53a.

76 See Strong, Holbein and Henry VIII, 68. According to Strong, during his second English period, 1532–1543, Holbein “invented the English royal portrait as a means of propaganda.”

77 See Hollstein, 14A, p. 212, for a partial list of many more Bibles based on Holbein's designs for the Icones. Pierre Regnault, for example, printed six complete Bibles in Paris using metalcuts after Holbein designs. For more examples, see Hieronymus, Basler Buchillustration, 500–506. The Paris printer Benedictus Prevotius also printed a complete Vulgate from a separate set of woodcut copies after Holbein's Icones.

I wish to acknowledge that I received many valuable suggestions for this essay from Anne-Marie Bonnet, Daniel Görres, Robert Seidel, Larry Silver, and Volkhard Wels. I am also very grateful for the generous support from the staffs at the Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel, and the Kunstmuseum Basel, especially the expert assistance and advice of Annika Baer.

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  • David H. Price


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