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

The Triumph of Riches

Pen and brown ink with washes, chalk and bodycolour, 444 x 1193 mm
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

This, and its pendant the Triumph of Poverty, originally hung in the Great Hall of the German Steelyard in Blackfriars, London, even after Elizabeth I rescinded the company's privileges during the post-Armada surge of nationalism in 1589. In about December 1609 the works were presented to Henry, Prince of Wales (who died in 1612) and thence entered the Earl of Arundel's collection in Holland via Charles I in 1641. They were destroyed by fire at Kremsier Castle in 1752. Two sets of copies now exist, of which the coloured version by Lucas Vorsterman the Elder in Oxford is considered the most accurate.

The Triumphs give evidence that Holbein's continental interest in allegorical presentation, which frequently overflowed into his portraiture, was maintained in England despite the paucity of native interest in the increasingly reformist climate. The works functioned as a moral admonition to the denizens of the Steelyard, much as the allegorical designs often displayed in law-courts defined the qualities required of legal administrators.

Ancient Plutus, god of riches, is drawn along by wealthy men before whom blindfolded Fortuna throws money. The horses, as vices (for example, Avarice) are controlled by the virtues needed when wealth comes one's way. The Latin inscription, at one time ascribed to More, translates as `Gold is the father of deceit and the child of grief. He who lacks it is in sorrow; he who possesses it is fearful'. Mantegna can be cited as a visual source, primarily his Triumph of Caesar panels (now at Hampton Court), which Holbein probably knew through engravings.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.