HOLBEIN, Hans the Elder
(b. 1460/65, Augsburg, d. 1524, Isenheim)
Virgin and Child with St Anne1490s
Oil on panel, 44 x 35 cm
This small devotional panel depicts the very tender scene of the Virgin and Child with St Anne, a subject that had been popular in Germany from the 14th century onwards. The Christ Child, seated between the Virgin and St Anne, seems quite independent although perhaps somewhat precariously balanced as he reaches for the Virgin's prayer book with his right hand. The three figures are all seated on an elaborate golden throne; its base is a barbed quatrefoil, a common motif in Gothic architectural design, which is strewn with roses. Two flying angels hold up a cloth behind the Infant while above his head flutters the Dove of the Holy Spirit.
The influence of the sculptor Nicolaus Gerhaert on Holbein's overall conception of the subject is noted. In Gerhaert's Virgin and Child with St Anne we see a similar sense of freedom in the depiction of the Child, who leans away from the Virgin to reach St Anne, as well as that same element of instability, as if in his enthusiasm, he might well topple over. The figures, too, with their thin, elegant bodies, large heads, and the sharp, well-defined folds of the drapery look back to the late Gothic style that characterizes Gerhaert's sculpture.