Darmstadt Madonna

 Image Credit: Web Gallery of Art

The Darmstadt Madonna painted by Hans Holbein the Younger. Originally finished in 1526, and edited in 1528.

Painting’s Commission

The Darmstadt Madonna, sometimes referred to as the Madonna of the Bürgermeister Meyer (Pettegree 23), was commissioned by Jakob Meyer zum Hasen—the former Bürgermeister (mayor) of Basel. Holbein had his workshop in Basel; he and his brother, Ambrosius, had moved there in 1514 (Pettegree 22-3). The Darmstadt Madonna is done in the style of a Schutzmantelmadonna, or Virgin of Mercy painting (Bätschmann and Griener 211, Somers Cocks). The Virgin’s cloak encompasses the family, as if bestowing protection (Somers Cocks). The Darmstadt Madonna was finished in 1526 (Bätschmann and Griener 153, Pettegree 23). The figures around the Virgin and Child were Jakob, and his sons (or, it has been argued, his son holding a baby St John the Baptist), his second wife Dorothea Kannengiesser, and their daughter Anna (Bätschmann and Griener 155). But in 1528 Meyer asked Holbein to edit it the painting (Bätschmann and Griener 154). The Darmstadt Madonna was altered to:

  • add Jakob’s first wife, Magdalena Baer, who had died in 1511
  • remove the cloth that covered most of Dorothea’s face
  • change Anna’s long unbound hair to a rather elaborate plait, which symbolized she was betrothed.

The figures on the right are now—in order—Magdalena, Dorothea, and Anna. X-rays have been used to see where the painting had been altered (Bätschmann and Griener 154). The Darmstadt Madonna is considered somewhere between a votive painting and an epitaph in function (Bätschmann and Griener 212). If the painting was a donor portrait, and hanging in a church, then it is probable that Meyer’s alterations saved the painting from being destroyed (Bätschmann and Griener 147). Iconoclasm fervor swept through Basel in 1528, while the painting was safely in Holbein’s workshop, destroying works that had not been hidden away (Bätschmann and Griener 147).

Holbein’s Technique

One of the main influences of Humanism on the arts during the Renaissance was the realistic depiction of human figures, or, in other words, expressing the beauty found in the human form. The main technique that allowed painters to do this is chiaroscuro—creating light and shadows to give the illusion of three dimension to a two dimensional depiction. Holbein uses chiaroscuro, or shading, in his painting to great effect (Pettegree 25). In the Darmstadt Madonna Holbein uses this to give depth to the scallop behind the Virgin and to give volume and shape to the figures. The result is an almost photo-realistic depiction of the Meyer family. Not just in the bodies, but in the folds of the clothes—particularly the pleating of Anna’s white dress—and even in the rucked-up edge of the carpet. The other Humanist influence on the arts that is evident in Holbein’s Darmstadt Madonna is the humanization of the Virgin and Child (Bätschmann and Griener 168). The figures of the Virgin and Child were commonly seen with golden disks or halos in the middle ages, during the Renaissance this changed. In the Darmstadt Madonna Holbein’s more human Virgin and Child are sans halos and to scale with the other figures (Bätschmann and Griener 177). Holbein, however, does put a crown in the Virgin’s head, signifying she is the “Queen of Heaven,” it is a close rendition of the crown of Charlemagne and shows a bit of the influence of nobility on his work (Bätschmann and Griener 158). Holbein was also influenced by other Renaissance artists, in particular “many art Historians have seen evidence of Holbein’s fascination fro Leonardo” (Bätschmann and Griener 208). In the Darmstadt Madonna Holbein is considered to have put a “Leonardesque face on his figure of the Virgin” (Bätschmann and Griener 208). In 1524 Holbein traveled to France (Bätschmann and Griener 8,198). While in France he learned a new technique for using chalks in drawing—probably from someone in “Leonardo’s circle” (Bätschmann and Griener 198). Holbein used this new chalk technique to draw studies, or reference pictures, for his Darmstadt Madonna. There is a surviving chalk drawing of Anna, wearing the same dress as in the final painting, and with her hair down as in the original version.

Image Credit: Web Gallery of ArtImage Credit: Web Gallery of Art

— Anna: chalk referance —                          — Anna: final version, hair in braids —

While in France Holbein was also influenced by Jean Clouet and his style of court painting, which Holbein uses as a court painter in England (Bätschmann and Griener 198-9). Basel, where the Darmstadt Madonna was painted, was a center of culture during the Renaissance (Pettegree 22). It was located on major trade routes, had a well known university, was connected to Erasmus—the well known Humanist—as well as others in the Humanist movement, and was a center for book production (Pettegree 23). It was with woodcuts and engravings that Holbein originally made a name for himself (Pettegree 23). Holbein was also undoubtedly influenced by his association with Erasmus, of whom he painted four portraits (Bätschmann and Griener 229). Three of which were painted in 1523, early in his career. It was also by Erasmus’s recommendation that Holbein found work in the English court after the Reformation had dried up his work in Basel (Bätschmann and Griener 233, Pettegree 24-5).

Aesthetic Appreciation

The Darmstadt Madonna is a beautiful work, it has even been considered by some to be the “northern equivalent of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna” (Somers Cocks). I was first caught by the figure of Anna, kneeling in the lower right of the painting. The detail work in her dress is extraordinary. The golden embroidery on the sleeves and bust, which is done in a delicate flower motif, is an eye-catching detail. There is heavier embroidery or beading at the collar; and, of course, the heavy woven embroidery in Anna’s headpiece. All of this is fine detail-work which took great skill. Even more eye-catching though is the pleating in her gown—the ruff at her elbow and in the skirt. It is a stunning show of how chiaroscuro can be used to bring depth and volume to a painting. Anna’s body has shape, in her arm and fingers in particular, but the skirt is pleating and then draped—that is amazing to see in a painting. The faces of the Meyer family are also quite expressive. Holbein has captured the realistic details of Jakob’s face, particularly the creases around his eyes, and the shading of Dorothea’s face gives it defined plains and even a natural ruddiness. The other thing that caught me about the Darmstadt Madonna was the use of color. The color of the Virgin’s dress—a lovely blue—anchors the painting, but it is the pops of red that move the eye around. From the beads in Anna’s hands, to the boy’s tights, to the Virgin’s sash and the string of her cloak, to the red in Anna’s hairpiece. There are some interesting details in the background of the Darmstadt Madonna as well. For instance the scallop that is behind the Virgin, and the scrolling detail on the niche extending from either side. Again this is a lovely display of control over shadow. The rug on the floor of the space in the painting is rucked up. The wit of making it imperfectly perfect lends a realism to the painting; giving the illusion that the viewer could step into the scene. I am not much for religious paintings in general but I am fascinated by great craftsmanship and the process behind a work. So for me, part of the appeal of the Darmstadt Madonna was the surviving chalk portrait of Anna and how that differs from the final painting. It is interesting to see how, even when keeping the figures realistic, Holbein made subtle changes to enhance his subjects. As well as how he was able to translate a sitting pose, to a kneeling one.


Works Cited

Bätschmann, Oskar, and Pascal Griener. Hans Holbein. 2nd ed. London: Reaktion, 2014. Adobe Digital Editions. Pettegree, Andrew. “Holbein: Court Painter Of The Reformation. (Cover Story).” History Today 48.2 (1998): 22. Academic Search Premier. Web. 11 Feb. 2015. Somers Cocks, Anna. “Greatest German Renaissance Madonna Sold by Prince.” The Art Newspaper. 15 July 2011. Web. 6 Feb. 2015. <http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/Greatest-German-Renaissance-Madonna-sold-by-prince/24331>.

Pictures sourced from:

Holbein, Hans, The Younger. Darmstadt Madonna. Digital image. Web Gallery of Art. Web. 6 Feb. 2015. < http://www.wga.hu/html/h/holbein/hans_y/1531/1darmst.html>. Holbein, Hans, The Younger. Darmstadt Madonna (detail). Digital image. Web Gallery of Art. Web. 6 Feb. 2015. <http://www.wga.hu/feames-e.html?/html/h/holbein/hans_y/1531/1darmst3.html>. Holbein, Hans, The Younger. Portrait of Anna Meyer. Digital image. Web Gallery of Art. Web. 6 Feb. 2015. <http://www.wga.hu/html/h/holbein/hans_y/2drawing/1530/09meyer.html>.

One Comment on “Darmstadt Madonna

  1. I have seen this painting several times during the course of classes, and I’ve always really liked it, due to the realistic faces of the people represented. It just looks so real, and conveys their emotions perfectly, which is a base ideal in Humanism, as you have discussed. Your blog entry is extremely well put together, and I learned a lot while reading it. If I were to change anything, I would possibly move the Humanism and Aesthetic section to the top, since it is more interesting to most readers, but if your target audience is art experts, that wouldn’t be necessary. Like I said, great post, and your whole blog is impressive.

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