HOLBEIN, Hans the Younger
(b. 1497, Augsburg, d. 1543, London)
Oil on wood, 43 x 33 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris
Born in Rotterdam in 1469, Desiderius Erasmus was the greatest European scholar of the 16th century. Using the philological methods pioneered by Italian humanists, he helped lay the groundwork for the historical-critical study of the past, especially in his studies of the Greek New Testament and the Church Fathers. His educational writings contributed to the replacement of the older scholastic curriculum by the new humanist emphasis on the classics. By criticizing ecclesiastical abuses, while pointing to a better age in the distant past, he encouraged the growing urge for reform, which found expression both in the Protestant Reformation and in the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Finally, his independent stance in an age of fierce confessional controversy - rejecting both Luther's doctrine of predestination and the powers that were claimed for the papacy - made him a target of suspicion for loyal partisans on both sides and a beacon for those who valued liberty more than orthodoxy.
The painting shows Erasmus writing the first lines of his "Comments on the Gospel of St Luke" dated 1523. The lines are not legible on this painting but it is legible on another smaller version of the portrait in the museum of Basel.
As in the Basel portrait, Holbein here depicts Erasmus as the learned author actively pursuing his vocation as a writer - his gaze is lowered and he focuses entirely on the text he is writing. Even though the scholar's study chambers is not shown, the tapestry with its pattern of plants and fabulous beasts and the wooden paneling explicitly indicate, unlike the background of the Basel version, that this is an interior.
Holbein's greatness is demonstrated in this fine portrait not only in its technical mastery but also in its comprehension and presentation of the salient features of the subject's personality and activity. The scale of Erasmus' bulk within the picture space is prodigious; previously, scholars had been portrayed in book-lined studies, surrounded by the tools of their trade, musing as does Saint Jerome in Dürer's woodcut of 1514, complete with shaggy lion. (Erasmus himself edited Saint Jerome's works, thus identifying with the patron saint of translators.) Saint Augustine was also popularly depicted in a monastic study, as in Carpaccio's appealing image of 1505.
Holbein's treatment is more intimate; to be able to look over the scholar's shoulder at the pen poised on the paper (engaged on the Paraphrase of Saint Mark) is an honour the nervous Erasmus would have granted only to intellectual equals. It has been concluded that Sir Thomas More was the intended recipient of this version: Erasmus was usually posed in a more formal three-quarter view. Such portraits were often exchanged by humanists as tokens of mutual esteem, which explains the considerable number of painted and engraved copies in existence; aspiring scholars would use these to adorn their studies as encouragement to their emulatory efforts.
Erasmus lived through writing and above all, by correspondence; ironically, in 1533 he was to censure Holbein for delaying in Antwerp which was preventing Erasmus' mail being delivered (Holbein being the bearer). Here, as in other portraits of him, we see the great master of North European humanism in his self appointed role as educational conscience of the age.
In the Web Gallery of Art you can view several portraits of Erasmus by Renaissance painters, such as Hans Holbein the Younger, Albrecht Dürer and Quentin Massys.