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

Solomon and the Queen of Sheba

1534-35
Vellum, 22,9 x 18,3 cm
Royal Library, Windsor

The encounter of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, who has arrived from the East with a large retinue to pay homage to the wise king and bring gifts, is described in the Old Testament. The subject matter is made explicit by the words REGINA SABA written quite clearly in the foreground. In iconographical tradition, the Queen of Sheba is often taken to represent the Church, and Solomon to represent Christ, to whom the Church pays homage.

This delicate and elegantly constructed group of courtly figures clearly alludes to Henry VIII, in the swaggering pose of the seated, bearded king, while the architecture is reminiscent of that in the Whitehall painting. Henry VIII was known to consider himself a Solomonic figure, an identification which allowed him to take over the spiritual guidance of the state after 1536 with a modicum of conscience. The Queen of Sheba herself symbolizes the Church's new subservience to the Crown, made explicit by the altered quotation, from II Chronicles 10, v7-8, which adorns the scene.

It is difficult to date the work but it has been suggested that, like the Washington portrait of Edward, Prince of Wales, it was a presentation work for the court for New Year's Day, 1540. Its small size is also unusual in Holbein's oeuvre; the intricate working of pen and brush watercolour, bodycolour and gold paint; particularly in the architectural detailing, belongs as much to old-fashioned Tudor gothic as to contemporary mannerism.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 3 minutes):
George Frideric Handel: Solomon - The arrival of the Queen of Sheba