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

The Solothurn Madonna

Limewood, 141 x 102 cm
Museum der Stadt Solothurn, Solothurn

The commission came from the city clerk of Basel, Johannes Gerster, and his wife Barbara Guildinknopf. The couple's coats of arms are woven into the cloth that covers the steps of the throne, which is also where Holbein signed and dated his work. The work is a sacra conversazione, a popular form of Madonna favoured in Upper Italy, especially by Bellini and Giorgione and their circles, where the Virgin is depicted almost always sitting or standing centrally and is flanked by saints. Holbein's composition enables praying believers to address the Virgin and Saints Martin and Ursus with the confidence that their intercession with God will grant the faithful the certainty of salvation. The Virgin looks at the viewers with a kindly gaze and gently inclined head, presenting to them the Christ Child, who raises His hand in a childlike blessing.

The Madonna sits beneath a bare tunnel vault, flanked by two saints. The figure on the left, the bishop giving alms to a beggar, is St Martin. The knight in armor, whose only attribute is a red flag with a white cross held in his right hand, must be St Ursus. The minster in Solothurn is dedicated to him, and he is also venerated in St Martin's in Basel. The picture must have been intended for this church, where the man who commissioned the picture, Johannes Gerster, was provisor.