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

Noli me Tangere (detail)

c. 1524
Oil on oak panel
Royal Collection, Hampton Court

Single detached religious paintings by Hans Holbein the Younger are relatively rare in his oeuvre. However, having been trained by his father in Augsburg, Holbein did produce two large altarpieces during the early part of his career: the Oberried altarpiece of about 1520 (Münster, Freiburg-im-Breisgau) and the Passion altarpiece of about 1524 (Basel, Öffentliche Kunstsammlung), both designed in the traditional Gothic style with several compartments. The `Noli me Tangere' is comparable with The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb dated 1522 (Basel, Öffentliche Kunstsammlung) to which it is close in date and in its own way no less dramatic.

The foreground is dominated by the two principal figures who surprise one another in front of the tomb depicted on the right. Behind in the middle distance are two disciples, Saint Peter and Saint John, making their way to Jerusalem which can be espied in the valley below. On the left is Calvary where, unusually, the artist has shown more than three crosses. The scene is carefully composed, with the verticals established by the risen Christ and Mary Magdalen continued by the trees. The dialogue between the main figures is echoed by the poses of the two disciples, whose forms are contained in the space between the chief protagonists. As the disciples hurry away so they lead the eye down the hill and over the distant landscape. The fluid handling of the paint (some changes are visible around the door of the tomb and to the outlines of the Magdalen) and the firm drawing of the figures are characteristic of the younger Holbein, as is the precision with which the green sward in the foreground is rendered. Other features though, such as the sombre colours, the distinctive faces with high foreheads, long noses and small chins, the fast moving clouds seen between the trees, and the luminous interior of the tomb reveal the residual influence of the elder Holbein, as well as of Hans Baldung Grien and Hans Burgkmair.

The painting may well have been made in 1524, the year of Holbein's visit to France, or shortly afterwards. Rowlands contends that the Magdalen is dressed in the French fashion and that the ointment jar is recognisable as French faience. In addition, he argues that Holbein shows some knowledge of the style of Leonardo da Vinci and his followers, whose works were represented in the collection of Francis I at Amboise and Blois. Other works by Holbein of similar date (The Last Supper, Venus and Cupid, Lais of Corinth - all in Basel, Öffentliche Kunstsammlung) reveal Leonardesque elements which in the present painting are most evident in the tension between Christ and Mary Magdalen, the fluency of their movements, and in the treatment of the landscape seen from above. It may be added that the face of the Magdalen is particularly reminiscent of the types painted by Andrea Solario, a follower of Leonardo da Vinci who worked in France from around 1507-11 (compare, for example, Solario's Salome with the Head of Saint john the Baptist - New York, Metropolitan Museum). On the other hand, it has been suggested on the evidence of the oak panel (oak was uncommon in France) that the painting was undertaken in Antwerp in 1526 as Holbein travelled to England.

However, there is some corroborative evidence that the painting was executed in France. The picture was not recorded in the Royal Collection until it was seen by John Evelyn in 1680 at Whitehall Palace. Yet it may be identifiable with a picture that hung in the bedroom of Henrietta Maria while in exile at Colombes until her death in 1669, when Charles II would seem to have acquired it. This implies that the painting could have remained in France since the sixteenth century.

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