HOLBEIN, Hans the Younger
(b. 1497, Augsburg, d. 1543, London)

Darmstadt Madonna

1526 and after 1528
Oil on limewood, 146,5 x 102 cm
Schlossmuseum, Darmstadt

The Meyer or Darmstadt Madonna is the last, most famous and most effective of Holbein's great religious works, above all in its depiction of individual human identities combined with spectacular spatial control and illusionism - as exemplified by the ruckled carpet.

Standing in a scalloped niche with projecting consoles, Mary, with the Christ Child in her arms, is surrounded by the Meyer family. The hooped crown, an allusion to the German imperial crown, identifies her as the Queen of Heaven. Typologically, the painting is a Schutzmantelbild (a `Virgin of Pity' painting), in which the donor, Jakob Meyer, invokes and gains divine protection for himself and his family. Unusually, the donor is shown as the same size as the Virgin.

Chastened by worldly failure and disgrace, Meyer no longer staunchly outstares the world but has his eyes fixed on other realms in meditative intensity. This introspection is echoed by his wives the enigmatic enwrapped profile of his first, Magdalena Baer (who had died in 1511) and Dorothea Kannengiesser. Before them kneels Anna, the only surviving child, whose portrait drawing in chalk shows her with free-flowing hair. Holbein repainted her hair tied in a band after her engagement.

In front of Jakob, in a Raphaelesque triangular pose deployed with subtlety and skill, his two deceased sons are depicted. The baby, with curly blonde hair and pudgy cheeks, has affinities with the Leonardo type. Also Leonardesque is the prowess shown in the foreshortening of the Christ-child's extended arm, and the naturalness of the baby's pose, which recall The Virgin of the Rocks.