Hans Holbein the Younger (1497–1543) contributed to a greater number and a greater variety of Bible editions than did any other artist of the early Reformation. Although only a partial compilation, the bibliography of Holbein's book illustrations in Hollstein's German Engravings, Etchings and Woodcuts tallies some seventy-two Bible productions, in seven languages, that used his artwork.Footnote 1 His designs also appeared in other biblical works, including major commentaries and at least eighteen editions of Desiderius Erasmus's influential Paraphrases of the Bible.Footnote 2 Despite such a prodigious output and despite Holbein's prestige as a painter, relatively little scholarship has been devoted to interpreting his approach to Bible illustration. Nearly all the research thus far has addressed questions of attribution (a significant matter because very few Holbein woodcuts are signed) and, especially, the genealogy of his iconography.Footnote 3 Yet, Holbein's career unfolded as part of a truly revolutionary moment in the history of the Bible: the proliferation of printed Bibles in original language editions as well as in new translations. In the aftermath of Erasmus's first ever publication of the New Testament in Greek (1516) and Martin Luther's first ever German translation of that original text (1522)—and the massive Bible movement they helped launch—the cultural status of the Bible became paradoxical: philologists, theologians, artists, publishers, and, of course, rulers firmly established the Bible as the ideological authority for Christian culture, yet, in the process of making biblicism hegemonic, they shattered the unity, even the textual uniformity, of the Christian Bible.
The new heterogeneity of the Bible and the sociopolitical upheavals of the religious innovations presented challenges with which publishers and artists, such as Holbein, had to contend. His work appeared in rival Protestant versions—the translations by Luther and Ulrich Zwingli—as well as in the French humanist translation by Jacques Lefèvre and the first complete Bible in English, the Coverdale Bible (1535). Moreover, his art also illustrated a host of Catholic-oriented Bible texts, including the Vulgate as well as Erasmus's Bible editions and paraphrases. At first glance, this striking ecumenicity seems to intensify a conundrum in Holbein research: despite his prolific production of religious art, it has proven impossible to define Holbein's personal stance on the reform movements.Footnote 4 Although perceived as vexing in Holbein studies, this conundrum should not be agonized over as an unfortunate lacuna in our biographical knowledge but rather embraced as a foundation for interpreting his biblical art. As this essay will argue, Holbein created designs capable of transcending the textual and confessional heterogeneity of the Bible, an approach that developed from various efforts, both practical and ideological, to rationalize the production of illustrations for innovative and diverse Bibles.
I. Rationalizing Production and Humanist Style
For Holbein, the Bible image was fundamentally collaborative, and his capacity to have such a pervasive presence depended largely on the rationalization of book production, especially in advanced printing centers such as Basel. Holbein's work was limited to creating designs for illustrations that were transformed into woodcuts or metalcuts by other highly talented and often highly successful artists called “Formschneider.” The printers of Basel, and not the artists, had attracted some of the most talented woodcut and metalcut makers in Europe, including Hans Lützelburger and Jacob Faber, who were able to turn Holbein's designs into prints with consummate skill and sensitivity.Footnote 5 This division of labor enabled Holbein to achieve astonishing productivity during his tenures in Basel (1515–1516, 1519–1526, 1528/1529–1532).Footnote 6 In one scholar's reckoning, he created over 1,300 images and over 1,000 initials,Footnote 7 even as he was also in great demand as a painter. An exceedingly important aspect of the production rationalization was the reuse of images in numerous imprints, including many books that, we can safely assume, were designed without input or even awareness of the artist. As can be seen in many fifteenth-century examples, the movability of woodcuts was a well-established design efficiency from the very beginning of the print industry. Nearly every Holbein image, including many Bible illustrations, appeared in multiple imprints, often on different subjects.
Holbein's contributions to the early modern Bible grew out of the production strategies of Basel publishers, even if the major work of the 1530s would be printed in other cities.Footnote 8 From its inception, the Basel print industry was notable for its production of scholarly Bibles. Beginning with a circa 1468 imprint by Berthold Ruppelt, some twenty of the ninety-four Latin Bibles printed during the fifteenth century were published in Basel,Footnote 9 whereas not a single German Bible was printed there until December 1522.Footnote 10 The most significant printer of scholarly Bibles in Basel was Johannes Froben. After an apprenticeship at the prolific Nuremberg press of Anton Koberger, Froben established himself in Basel, initially under the auspices of Johann Amerbach, who had printed four important Latin Bibles between 1479–1486. Amerbach's 1479 imprint was the earliest known “fontibus ex graecis” Bible, an attempt to correct the Latin text through comparison with Greek manuscripts. Froben's first imprint in Basel (1491) is also of the “fontibus ex graecis” text, but set in an innovative format, the first time that a complete Bible was printed in octavo. Froben's 1495 reissue of his “ex fontibus graecis” Vulgate has the further distinction of being the first Latin Bible with a printed illustration, fittingly, a title page woodcut of Jerome with the opening words of Genesis rendered xylographically from the Septuagint Greek and the Vulgate Latin.Footnote 11 His octavo Bibles appeared in a small gothic font, but soon, in imitation of Italian printers, Froben developed antiqua and italic fonts and engaged artists to design humanist illustrations. His breakthrough in achieving an Italianate typography came with his 1513 deluxe edition of Erasmus's Adagia, illustrated by Urs Graf.
As humanism became firmly established in Basel during the first two decades of the sixteenth century,Footnote 12 a novel ideological basis for production rationalization appeared: the uniform presentation of classical and Christian texts. This innovation was nowhere more pronounced than at Froben's press, which consistently coalesced the designs for diverse books across a spectrum of Greco-Roman literature, early Christian writings, and humanist scholarship. For Froben, this was not only a production efficiency but also the embodiment of an aspiration to create an expansive humanist discourse of classical antiquity and Christianity. In this calling, he was inspired by the Venetian printer Aldus Manutius and by the writings of Erasmus. The aesthetic, intellectual, and, especially, the moral-philosophical compatibility of non-Christian and Christian ancient culture was a fundamental principle in Erasmus's Christian humanism. After the success of the 1513 Adagia, Froben worked closely with Erasmus, soon becoming his quasi-exclusive publisher, creating editions and translations of early Christian writers, the Bible paraphrases, humanist educational texts, and, above all, the Greek Bible editions.Footnote 13 For nearly a decade, 1521–1529, Erasmus worked in Basel, residing next to Froben's house and press. He left Basel in February 1529, after iconoclastic riots and the abolition of the Catholic Mass,Footnote 14 but maintained his close relationship with the press, returning in 1535 to live in the house of Froben's son, Hieronymus, until his 1536 death.
Although deeply Christian and doctrinally within the norms of Catholicism, the Froben-Erasmian discourse of Christian humanism promoted classical and Christian history, philosophy, literature, rhetoric, and myth as valid sources of knowledge and art. This can be seen in the overall scope of their publishing program and in the complexity of individual works. For example, the Adagia embodied the humanist syncretism of pagan learning and ancient Christianity, for the moralistic axioms are derived broadly from classical, early Christian, and biblical sources. Most importantly, in Erasmus's view, the New Testament itself was not only divine revelation of religious mysteries but also philosophical literature (litterae) that warranted consideration alongside of Socratic and Platonic ethics. In the preface to his path-breaking edition of the Greek New Testament, Erasmus described a methodology of reading the Bible as moral philosophy, an articulation of a “philosophia Christi,” that in general terms can be compatible with the moral-philosophical study of classical history, philosophy, and myth: “We may find in the books of the pagans very much that expresses the same thought as his (Jesus's) teaching.”Footnote 15 As a sign of a composite Christian-Classical ethical perspective, the preface to the Bible has several lists of ancient philosophers (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Diogenes, Epictetus, and so on) whose moral teachings are implicitly authoritative.Footnote 16 In fact, addressing his humanist readers, Erasmus's special plea was actually for the elevation of the philosophical status of New Testament writings, insisting that Christ's teachings embody a philosophy that deserves to be taken as seriously as the thought of the ancient philosophers.
This composite discourse of Christian humanism informed Hans Holbein's earliest known attempt at book illustration, the seventy-nine drawings he created for Erasmus's Praise of Folly in 1515–1516.Footnote 17 Holbein's comprehensive visual interpretation unfolds as a series of thematically diverse but stylistically coherent images from the classical and Christian worlds, often set in complex juxtapositions. For example, an image of the classical Greek artist Apelles painting his famous Aphrodite Anadyomene precedes a drawing of nuns venerating a statue of the Madonna.Footnote 18 As images of images, both compositions invite reflection on the function of visual art in humanist classicizing culture and Christian devotion, and do so without implying a clash between the art of Venus and the art of Mary.Footnote 19
As we turn more strictly to Bible production, we will see a fundamental aspect of the Froben-Erasmus aesthetic: the Bible was construed in a sufficiently classical way to allow for the presence of Greco-Roman motifs and myths among its illustrations. The breakthrough publication in the history of Bible production at Basel (and Europe) was Erasmus's Greek New Testament (in five editions: 1516, 1519, 1522, 1527, and 1535), a research project sponsored and printed by Froben's press. The book immediately commanded international attention, for Erasmus not only challenged scholastic theology with a revolutionary philological-historical methodology but also undermined the authority of the Vulgate. In essence, he confronted theologians with a new Bible: the original Greek texts along with a new Latin translation and extensive philological commentary.
Given the new philological focus on the text, the illustrations of the Froben-Erasmus Bible imprints may at first glance seem surprisingly unbiblical. In the first edition of 1516, Urs Graf created ornamental metalcut borders for three pages—the dedication to Leo X, the first page of Matthew (that is, the initial immersion into the Greek text; fig. 1), and the beginning of the Annotationes—that feature opulent festoons, lively putti, cherubim, an intriguing satyr, an hermaphroditic faun, Italianate columns, and candelabra, but without any specifically biblical ornamentation.Footnote 20 Rather, the Graf-Froben design makes it clear that this new Greek text has emerged out of classical antiquity and that ancient Christian texts are constituent elements of that classical culture. One opens the new humanist Greek text, as if entering the Sistine Chapel, seeing the great substance of the Bible set in a classicized world teeming with putti and ignudi, a visual frame that celebrates the humanist embrace of ancient aesthetics and culture generally.
Perhaps even more daringly, Erasmus's second edition of the Bible (1519) has a title page border, designed by Holbein's brother, Ambrosius, that depicts Mercury and Apollo, Apollo and Daphne, and a Venus among the pagan gods, as well as, at the base of the page, a moralistic scene of the woes of courtly life (probably derived from the ancient satirist Lucian) but, again, without any reference to the Bible or Christian God (fig. 2).Footnote 21 Ambrosius Holbein also designed a new dedication page to Pope Leo X, which consists mostly of two motifs from classical history (fig. 3). The top frieze presents a German-humanist patriotic image of The Battle of Teutoburger Forest between Roman general Varus and German leader Arminius, an event Northern humanists repeatedly cited to raise ancient Germans to a level of classical heroism. The lateral borders feature four personifications of virtues—Temperance, Justice, Charity, and Fortitude—as dynamic sculptures on plinths. At the base of the page, Ambrosius Holbein recreated The Calumny of Apelles (based on the ancient description by Lucian), a painting by Apelles of a near miscarriage of justice that he suffered under King Ptolemy.Footnote 22 It is also particularly important that, with the Calumny of Apelles, Ambrosius Holbein portrayed the ancient artist, in addition to the philosopher, as a source for moral philosophy since it is a story that exemplifies the didactic function of art—the capacity of visual art to teach and uphold social morality. By construing the Greek Bible editions as part of the larger humanist recovery of classical antiquity, grounded in the Erasmian approach to the Bible as a guide for moral edification and devotional reflection, the illustrations contribute to the destabilization of the Vulgate, suggesting that there is a vastly larger historical context for Christian authority than the medieval Latin text. Nonetheless, unlike the paratexts of Erasmus's Bible that excoriate scholastic methodology, no polemical tones emerge from the illustrations, perhaps because, from Ambrosius Holbein's classicizing perspective, scholasticism has simply been submerged fully out of sight.
Hans Holbein's contributions to the Erasmus-Froben Bible began in 1522 with the third edition, which was arguably the high point of Erasmus's editorial achievement and also the most lavishly decorated of the Greek imprints. The 1522 Bible reprints the borders by Urs Graf and Ambrosius Holbein from the previous editions, although in different places, and also presents an elaborate new title page border by Hans Holbein, the Tabula Cebetis (Painting of Cebes).Footnote 23 The composition, which was so significant to Holbein that he created three additional title page designs using the same complex theme, one of which was also used for the second volume of the 1522 Bible,Footnote 24 exemplifies the function of the visual arts as a philosophical discourse. In the Renaissance, the ancient Greek dialog titled the Painting of Cebes enjoyed great prestige because it was thought to be an authentic source of Socratic ethics written by Cebes, a student of Socrates. Now the dialog is almost completely forgotten because scholars have downgraded it to a pseudo-epigraphical work, probably written between the first century b.c.e. and the first century c.e. The Painting of Cebes unfolds as a discussion of a painting hanging in a temple of Cronos that reveals in a single composition all the ethical challenges of life. Both an ekphrasis and an allegorese of the painting, the dialog explains how people move through the stages of life assisted by virtues and assailed by vices, struggling past “falsa disciplina” to “vera disciplina” and the ultimate achievement of the “arx verae felicitatis” (citadel of true happiness). Especially in the aftermath of Holbein's four separate graphic reconstructions of the painting, the motif proliferated in European art, though only Holbein's images were ever used to illustrate a Bible. As the title page to the authoritative edition of the Christian Bible, this woodcut is a bold assertion of humanism: construed as an image of Socratic ethics, Holbein's Painting of Cebes conveys the idea that the Bible and classical philosophy together inform moral understanding, the path to “true happiness.”
Classical art also informs one of Holbein's most successful title page frames for a Froben Bible, the editio princeps of Erasmus's Paraphrase of the Gospel of John (1523; fig. 5).Footnote 25 Notable for the energy unleashed by the absence of borderlines, allowing the figures to torque freely into open space, the composition resembles an Italian Renaissance memorial monument, albeit in a parodistic way since Holbein's monument depicts tyranny. In a tour de force of humanist subject matter and technique, the base shows the suicide of Cleopatra as a classical recumbent nude—with the pose suggestive of pediment sculpture—after she conspired unsuccessfully against Augustus and the new Roman imperium. Equally dramatic, both sides of the sculptural monument represent a notorious ancient case of art vandalism: the sacrilegious plundering of temples by the tyrant Dionysius I of Syracuse (depicted on both sides). Among the Italianate features are the muscular contrapposto and the powerful movement of the statues, which evoke the manner of early sixteenth-century Italian sculpture and sculpturesque painting created in the aftermath of the 1506 discovery of the Hellenistic statue Laocoön and his Sons in Rome (fig. 6).Footnote 26 Holbein's representation of statuary coming alive in a moral-philosophical drama is yet another example of his desire to add an aesthetic layer of meaning to the composition, for it draws attention not only to the moral message but also to the fact that it is visual art that conveys that message. Because of the absence of biblical reference, scholars have often surmised that this was originally intended for the imprint of a classical text, but there is no evidence for that, and, on the contrary, the classicizing motifs are entirely consistent with the style of other Froben productions of Erasmian biblical texts. This is especially appropriate in this context because, after all, a major part of the rationale behind Erasmus's Bible Paraphrases was to recast and amplify the biblical text with the elegance and clarity of classical rhetoric. Thus, the visual ornatus of the Froben-Erasmus Bible imprint evokes an ideal embodied by the classicizing rhetorical amplifications of the text. The design was used frequently in subsequent books, including Polydore Vergil's Christian humanist Adagia (Opus adagiorum, 1525), as well as, in an exceedingly well-cut copy, for a history of the destruction of Jerusalem: Pseudo-Hegesippus's adaptation of the Jewish Wars.Footnote 27
In the 1522 borders of the Painting of Cebes and in the 1523 title page for the Paraphrase of the Gospel of John, the validation of representational art may indicate awareness of early Protestant iconoclasm. In 1523, Holbein also created an exuberantly classical title page for Petri's publication of Luther's first major rejection of iconoclasm: Von anbetten des Sacraments des heyligen leichnams Christi (Concerning the Veneration of the Sacrament of the Sacred Body of Christ; fig. 7).Footnote 28 Moreover, Petri reused the same woodcut frame in his 1525 reprint of Luther's definitive rejection of iconoclasm: Wider die himelischen propheten, von den bildern vnd Sacrament (Against the Heavenly Prophets, Concerning Images and the Sacrament).Footnote 29 The woodcut represents a triumphal arch with statues of Hercules's first and final labors (defeating the Nemean lion and Cerberus) as well as a portrayal of the myth of Orpheus evoking an idea of the metaphysical power of music and art generally. Hercules was used occasionally to portray the force of Luther's early movement, as in a broadside woodcut attributed to Holbein in which Hercules/Luther smashes scholastic theologians and the pope;Footnote 30 and the myth of Orpheus had become a commonplace for humanists championing the cultural-political power of poetry and rhetoric, as can be seen even in Erasmus's preface to the New Testament (titled Paraclesis), where he cites the supernatural force of Orpheus's music to express his own longing to master persuasive rhetoric.Footnote 31 Thus, Holbein used humanist strategies—in a general way engaging the entire humanist discourse on the power of ancient art—as validation of the function of images in a Christian context. Ultimately, it is hard to measure with any precision the relationship of Holbein's Bible illustrations to the emergence of iconoclasm in the Reformation movements. In any event, Froben maintained the 1522 humanist art in the fourth Greek edition of 1527, including one version of Holbein's Tabula Cebetis. Yet, all of the images disappeared from the final 1535 edition of Erasmus's Bible, which Froben's son, Hieronymus, printed after the February 1529 iconoclastic riots and the ensuing iconophobic policy in Basel.Footnote 32
II. Re-forming the Reformation Bible
Hans Holbein was the first artist outside of Wittenberg to design artwork for a Luther Bible, a feat he achieved for a folio edition published by Basel printer Adam Petri in December 1522. Petri had already played a key role in the early promotion of Luther's writings, having been, among other contributions, the first to print the Ninety-Five Theses as a pamphlet, which he accomplished in December 1517. Now, in immediate response to the initial release of Luther's New Testament in September 1522, Petri and Thomas Wolff, another prolific Basel printer, became major forces in promoting the broad distribution of the revolutionary work. The Froben press continued printing important biblical material by Erasmus but never entered the fray for the new German-language Bible market. In fact, Froben suddenly ceased publication of Luther's writings after 1518, certainly under the influence of Erasmus, who had already become apprehensive about Luther's theology and the emerging schism.Footnote 33 Although Wittenberg production would soon become proportionally more significant, Luther's Bible was initially distributed most extensively through the spontaneous efforts of printers elsewhere, specifically in Augsburg, Basel, Nuremberg, Strasbourg, and even Zurich. During the first two years of production (1522–1523), partial Bibles translated by Luther appeared thirty-four times, with only six of them produced in Wittenberg.Footnote 34 Of these initial thirty-four Luther Bibles, no fewer than twelve were printed in Basel, even though Basel had had no prior tradition of vernacular Bible production. Although the first Basel imprint was Petri's stately folio, the two Basel printers were also the first anywhere to produce inexpensive small format German Bibles. In 1523, Petri issued the first Luther New Testament in octavo, and Wolff created the first quarto, two further innovations that used Holbein illustrations. Altogether, Petri and Wolff produced some thirty-four imprints between 1522 and 1527, after which, in a sudden halt, no further Luther versions appeared in the city, apart from a 1552 complete Bible printed by Nicolaus Brylinger (which also featured Holbein's designs).Footnote 35 The year 1526 marked the beginning of strong religious turmoil in Basel, which resulted in Holbein's first departure for England, an event that, in turn, occasioned Erasmus's foreboding complaint that “here the arts freeze.”Footnote 36
Petri's initial folio reproduces the entire text of the Septembertestament with all of Luther's daring paratexts—prefaces, annotations, and the revolutionary canon—even if, like the Wittenberg original, it does not disclose the translator's name.Footnote 37 It replicates the Wittenberg original in every important detail except the program of illustration: it removed Cranach's illustrations for Revelation, redesigned the woodcut author portraits throughout, and added an elaborately historiated title page. Indeed, a major departure from the Septembertestament is the absence of the twenty-one full-page woodcuts illustrating Revelation, an alteration that visually cleanses the imprint of Wittenberg partisan polemic. Revelation remained unillustrated in Petri's Luther Bible imprints until his third octavo edition in 1525. These illustrations, moreover, were not imitations of the Cranach woodcuts but, rather, recut images from the Koberger Bible (1483). Tellingly, Petri also omitted one Koberger image (the third woodcut) of a pope being destroyed and had the fifth Koberger image redesigned, substituting a cardinal for a pope perishing in the apocalyptic mayhem.
Holbein designed a new title page in part to make the German Bible appear compatible with humanist culture (fig. 8).Footnote 38 The original title page has a simple, unhistoriated woodcut of the words “Das Newe Testament Deůtzsch” in an elegant gothic script with balanced arabesque flourishes, followed by a simple, but ominous, type-set word: “Uuittemberg” (fig. 9). In the new Holbein title page, a center-top banderole reads “Inclyta Basilea” (glorious Basel), thus trade-marking the imprint as the latest distinguished international Bible production from Basel. Froben, after all, had proclaimed on the title page of the 1516 Erasmus Bible: “apud Germaniae inclytam Basileam,” “inclyta” having become the proud epithet of humanist Basel. The connection of the city, as a scholarly brand, to the new, but unnamed, Luther Bible is reinforced by the rendering of the coat of arms of Basel—the emblazoned bishop's crozier—flanked by two basilisks (center top). Animal symbols are the leitmotif of the design: the Petri device of the Christ child on a lion (base of page), the two basilisks of Basel, and the four traditional animal symbols of the evangelists in the corners make the upper and lower registers of the design cohere tightly. The new title page also promises a scholarly achievement, a Bible that has been accurately translated (recht grüntlich teutscht) with learned and reliable notes, as would be expected of a Basel Bible. For example, one note at the end of 1 Corinthians ostentatiously quotes Greek and Hebrew words, both languages seamlessly typeset.Footnote 39 Yet, reliable scholarship is a novel claim for a vernacular Bible and one that the Wittenberg first edition did not explicitly make. With a nod to Erasmus's “philosophia Christi,” the title page also makes the assertion that the New Testament is the only source that teaches Christ “accurately and clearly” (recht vnd klärlich).
Moreover, in the midsection of the title page, Holbein places the unnamed Luther Bible in an Italianate architectural frame, not unlike those used for Erasmus imprints, though with the important difference that the statuary of the Luther imprint is strictly limited to biblical motifs. The portraits of Peter and Paul, as authors of biblical texts and biblical saints, are rendered with their traditional symbols (emphasizing salvation with Peter's keys and the authority of the Bible with Paul's swordFootnote 40 ) but also as if they are statuary installed in half-dome shell niches of an Italian Renaissance structure. As in the 1523 title page of Erasmus's Paraphrase of the Gospel of John, the statues replicate the powerful forms of Italian sculpture as the figures move off their plinths in action. The aesthetic ambivalence of the representation—are they woodcut renderings of the apostles or woodcut renderings of sculptural representations of the apostles?—allows the image to operate on two levels simultaneously, as a validation of the veneration of biblical saints and of the integrity of biblical art.
We can also view Holbein's title page as an adaptation (and evocation) of the iconography of the German-language plenaria. The plenaria, usually richly illustrated books designed for lay readers, included German translations of the readings from the Gospels and Epistles arranged in the order used during the annual cycle of Masses.Footnote 41 As can be seen in earlier plenaria imprints by Petri, two of which featured Holbein designs,Footnote 42 the dominant iconography of the title page was the four symbols of the evangelists and portraits of the two major epistle authors, Paul and Peter. The connection to the plenarium also induced Petri and Wolff to prefix to their imprints a calendar for the weekly readings (not included in the Septembertestament), enabling use of the new scholarly translation instead of the German plenaria as a guide to the annual cycle.
As in the title page representation of Peter and Paul as sculpture, biblical artwork looms large in the interior illustrations. While Petri dropped the anti-papal illustrations to Revelation of the Septembertestament from his design, he did include woodcut author portraits at the beginning of New Testament books, as was the case in the Septembertestament. Altogether, Holbein designed eight new woodcuts but in considerably more ambitious and complex compositions than in the Wittenberg original: seven biblical author portraits and one woodcut of Pentecost (for the introduction to Acts).Footnote 43 Petri also recycled four other woodcut author portraits from his own 1516 printing of the plenarium.Footnote 44 The illustrations were used in Petri's folio editions, but their dimensions (8.0 × 6.6 cm) indicate that Holbein designed them for the octavo layouts, where they also subsequently appeared. Moreover, Holbein's author portraits are notable for the detailed portrayal of the figures, with strong facial expression and convincing psychologies, engaged dramatically in motion and action, even though they are seated at their desks, writing the Gospel accounts. The convincing realism of the portraits of scholars in action depends greatly on Holbein's elegant rationalization of space in his perspectival compositions. The sensation of immediacy—that something powerful is happening—prefigures his development of a dramatic approach to representing the narratives of the Old Testament.Footnote 45 In all four Gospels, Holbein embedded a narrative from Christ's life that enacts the meaning of the four traditional symbols of the evangelists.Footnote 46 For three of the four portraits, Holbein incorporated these narratives as works of art that depicted the evangelists as being inspired by a sacred image of Christ's life. Matthew is contemplating a painting of the Nativity, the event that reflects the meaning of his symbol, the man, as the Incarnation of God (figs. 10 and 11). Mark studies a representation of the Resurrection, since the lion symbolizes Christ's victory over death (fig. 12). Luke is shown with a painting of the Crucifixion, since the ox represents Christ's sacrifice. Holbein expressed the meaning of John's symbol, the soaring eagle, as a vision (apparently not a painting) of the Ascension of Christ. These images of images recall the focus on humanist art in the Erasmus Bibles, except that now Holbein is explicitly representing the power of Christian biblical imagery for the formation of Christian devotion instead of focusing on the philosophical validity of the works of ancient art.
Holbein also created title page designs for important small format Bibles printed by Petri and Wolff, as well as by Christoph Froschauer in Zurich. For Petri's 1523 octavo imprint of the new Bible,Footnote 47 Holbein adapted the figures of Peter and Paul from the folio title page but muted the Italianate style, as well as the focus on art, by removing the architectural setting, thereby rendering the composition more evocative of the plenarium. While the new title page does not have any representations of artwork, the interior illustrations include seven of the Holbein author portraits from the folio edition, including the three depictions of the evangelists being inspired by biblical painting.
The 1523 designs for Thomas Wolff's quarto Bible introduced an innovation for Holbein: the realistic portrayal of the Bible as history in small format compositions (fig. 13).Footnote 48 The title page frame consists of four separate woodcuts,Footnote 49 representing, at the top, the baptism of Christ flanked by symbols of the four evangelists; on the left, Philipp's baptism of the chamberlain (Acts 8:35); on the right, Paul at Melita (Acts 28); and, at the base, the printer's device of Thomas Wolff flanked by the conversion of Saul (Acts 9) and Peter's vision of the unclean animals (Acts 10). All of these images express an aspect of salvation—Peter's vision may suggest abrogation of the Old Testament law (since in his vision he is told that he may eat the unclean animals)—but they do so by recording events from the Bible as history. This historical approach is also reflected in an octavo design printed by Froschauer in 1524. At the base of that metalcut frame, Christ appears as the good shepherd, serving the weak and sick. The border was also used, probably earlier in 1524, for the printing of Zwingli's tract Der Hirt (The Shepherd). Otherwise, this title page evinces a more general humanist spirit with the portrayal of trophies and musical instruments on the sides, and a faun and a female nude at the top.Footnote 50
Another innovation, this one published by Wolff in both his quarto and octavo Bibles, was Holbein's adaptation of the Cranach illustrations for Revelation in the Septembertestament,Footnote 51 which, as stated on the new title page, were being promoted as another example of visual art abetting understanding of the text: “The Revelation of John with attractive illustrations, from which the most difficult passages can be easily understood.”Footnote 52 Although closely based on the Cranach scenes, the Holbein designs are careful efforts to reconstruct Cranach in accord with Renaissance conventions of representation. This is most evident in Holbein's consistent perspectival rationalizations of space, as can be seen in his scrupulous revision of Cranach's skewed rendering of the Measuring of the Temple (Revelation 11; figs. 14 and 15).Footnote 53 As we will see in his images for the Icones, Holbein also achieved a more realistic rendering of deep landscape vistas, including the integration of buildings and figures in a convincingly naturalistic scale, in the challengingly narrow format. This is especially obvious in his revision of Cranach's rough, expressionist landscape of the city of Rome as Babylon (Revelation 14) as well as in the cityscape of Luzern that replaces Cranach's New Jerusalem (Revelation 21). Holbein also subtly altered the facial appearances of many figures engaged in the apocalyptic drama, evidently trying to soften the political contentiousness of the Wittenberg Bible, even if he wanted to retain the impression that his figures were individual portraits. For example, in “Angels Holding Back the Four Winds” (Revelation 7), the original quasi self-portrait of Cranach as the first to be anointed has been slightly altered so that it is no longer an obvious tribute to the painter.Footnote 54 Holbein removed Emperor Maximilian from a group of bystanders in Cranach's “Animal from the Sea” (Revelation 13) and modified the composition for the “Babylonian Harlot” (Revelation 17) just enough to efface recognizable traits of Charles V, Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, and Duke George of Saxony, even if Holbein retained the papal tiara on the Harlot of Babylon.Footnote 55 Most noticeably, Holbein altered Cranach's portrait of John as Luther in the second image, “Book with the Seven Seals” (Revelation 5). The new pictures were not only elegant, drawn firmly in a rationalized space, but also practical, executed in smaller dimensions (12.4 × 7.5 cm) that would work well in inexpensive book designs. The movability of Holbein's designs was greatly facilitated by his mastery of the small format woodcut that could be used with great flexibility in the newly fashionable octavo and small quarto formats, as well as in two column layouts for small folios. The original blocks were used in numerous printings: some seven editions by Wolff, a Strasbourg imprint by Johann Knobloch, a Basel French Bible of 1525,Footnote 56 and Froschauer's deluxe edition of the Zurich Bible in 1531.Footnote 57 The designs were also recut for several subsequent imprints, achieving a vastly broader dissemination than did the original full-page designs by Cranach and workshop. Over all, Holbein tried to stabilize (and thereby contain) the Wittenberg Bible by reconfiguring it as a humanist and, therefore, more international image.
III. The Icones
Images of the Stories of the Old Testament (1538), usually called the Icones, is regarded as a “pivotal moment in the history of Bible images,”Footnote 58 the first major picture Bible, a genre that expresses the narrative sweep of the Bible visually. For Holbein, the Icones represents the ultimate medium for transcending the heterogeneity of the Renaissance Bible since it is a Bible without a biblical text. The book, published in quarto by Jean and François Frellon, with presswork by Melchior and Gaspar Trechsel in Lyon, consists of some ninety-two woodcuts, eighty-eight of which are in a small oblong format (6.0 × 8.5 cm), with four reprints from Holbein's Dance of Death in an upright format (6.5 × 5.0 cm) at the beginning of the series. The initial 1538 publication has a brief Latin introduction by Jean Frellon as well as superscript captions for each picture. Beginning with the third edition (1539), a poetic tribute to Holbein by Nicolas Bourbon was added, as were a poetic preface and postscript by Gilles Corrozet. Corrozet also composed a quatrain for each image, thus creating the standard emblematic structure of superscript inscription, picture, and subscript epigram. Of the contributors, Bourbon is known to have had strong Protestant leanings in the 1530s and to have associated with Holbein at the court of Henry VIII in 1535, where Holbein produced at least two portraits of him.Footnote 59 (Bourbon returned to Lyon in 1536, but, however intriguing that connection may sound, any role he may have played in the 1538 printing of the Icones has remained obscure.) Altogether, the Icones appeared in French, Spanish, Latin, and English versions and exerted an immense impact on subsequent Bible production, including the launch of a prolific tradition of emblematic Bible books.
The work has been universally acclaimed for its aesthetic achievement, in particular, the elegant simplicity and the monumentality of the small format compositions. Holbein's virtuoso command of perspective and form enabled the creation of miniature compositions so spatially coherent and so realistically detailed that, if enlarged, they could produce compelling oversize murals. An important aspect of this miniature monumentality arises from the shift from a vertical to horizontal Bible illustration, a reorientation that allowed Holbein to perfect a wide and deep perspectival organization of space, which, in turn, facilitated dramatic enactment of biblical epic. The strong contrapposto and the ability to set figures in motion going in any direction—movement to the interior, exterior, and sides of the compositional space, as well as figures torqueing in place—are Italianate elements that inform Holbein's narratology of action.
The creation of these woodcuts is fraught with mystery for we do not know the original circumstances of their commission. According to some reconstructions, the designs predate the death of Hans Lützelberger in 1526, often thought to be the primary Formschneider of the blocks. Other scholars, using stylistic comparisons, believe the designs were created around 1530, when Holbein was in Basel working on monumental murals for the Basel City Hall.Footnote 60 Whatever the date of design, there is a further mystery in that two separate sets of woodblocks were created early on from the same designs or, possibly, a second set of sixty-seven woodcuts was created from proof prints of the first set.Footnote 61 The second set, which has less modeling and facial detail as well as slightly smoother contour lines, provided the illustrations for the 1531 imprint of the complete Zurich Bible, a masterful piece of typography and book design—called the “editio perfectissima et absolutissima”Footnote 62 —that also used Holbein's 1523 woodcuts for Revelation. The more detailed and more complete set of blocks in the Icones was also used for an unusually elegantly designed 1538 Latin Vulgate (also printed by the Trechsels, but for the publisher Hugo à Porta), which, in all likelihood, was printed before the Icones.Footnote 63
Although the time and circumstances remain unknown, it appears that Holbein was commissioned to recreate the illustrative program of a pre-Reformation Vulgate printed by Jacques Sacon in Lyon in 1518 and again, with alterations, in 1520 (both editions for the Nuremberg publisher Anton Koberger the Younger).Footnote 64 Indeed, there are few iconographic departures from the Sacon-Bible in the Icones, even if Holbein totally reimagined the style of every single scene. The Sacon woodcuts feature two exceedingly dissimilar styles: images copied after the 1490 Malermi Bible (printed by Lucantonio di Giunta) and new replacement versions of many Malermi images by the Nuremberg artists Hans Springinklee and Erhard Schön. The Italian designs are simple, airy, and two-dimensional, whereas the German designs are denser and somewhat more realistic, even if the bodies and faces in both remain awkward and inexpressive. The important point is that, his technical and stylistic brilliance aside, Holbein did not invent many new subjects. He did not reconceptualize the choice of chapters to be illustrated. Nor did he or his publishers challenge the biblical canon from a Protestant perspective, for the Icones adheres to the Vulgate canon including the intermingling sequence of canonical and deuterocanonical books. (Protestant Bibles isolated the deuterocanonical books in a separate section usually labelled “Apocrypha,” as in the 1535 Coverdale Bible.) Thus, the Icones is another practical production rationalization of the Bible, an economical exploitation of an earlier design, but also an ideological rationalization insofar as the Bible image references the Vulgate, a pre-Reformational, pre-heterogeneous Bible.
By stressing the significance of the Sacon iconography, I do not mean to disallow thematic analysis of the Holbein Icones. Holbein's realistic and dramatic style turned the woodcut Bible image into something entirely new: a visual epic. It is not an epic in a conventional literary sense of embodying a single coherent narrative; rather, it unfolds as a series of compelling epyllia (narrative vignettes), many of which portray the maintenance of religious and political order as a heroic epic struggle. Political force and violence form a leitmotif, with well over a two dozen images showing bloody battles, slaughter, maiming, execution, destruction, or other forms of violence and repression. Several vignettes are portrayed as if scenes from classical heroic epic, as in the battle of the “Angel of God Killing the Assyrians” (2 Paralipomena 32), or David, appearing as Hercules, smiting the Philistine King Hadadezer (2 Kings 8; fig. 16). Many of these scenes are starkly brutal, whereas in some instances the classicized violence strikes chords of pathos, as in the image of the capture of the Medianite women (Numbers 31; fig. 17), a composition that evokes ancient funereal relief sculpture.
Within this epic of many vignettes is the pervasive representation of political magistracy—usually expressed as monarchy—and its ability to restore or preserve religious order and, by implication, to contain any religious heterogeneity. Thus, in addition to battles with foreign enemies or executions of opponents within, we also experience the rebuilding of the temple (both an Erasmian and, later, a Protestant motif Footnote 65 ) in 1 Esdras 1 (fig. 18). Similarly, King Josiah restores Torah observance to the temple (4 Kings 23 and 24, that is 2 Kings 23 and 24) in a composition that shows Josiah presiding as monarch over high priest Hilkiah's reading from the rediscovered law (fig. 19). The authority of magistracy is glorified throughout, as in Esther's plea to Ahasuerus (Esther 1 and 2), with its starkly hierarchical composition, that suggests the monarchical ideology informing the portrait of Henry VIII in the Coverdale Bible.
Several images of the restoration or the defense of proper worship raise questions about the use of images and iconoclasm. Obviously, the Icones is not an iconoclastic work since it not only exemplifies the religious use of images but also adopts the traditional license of anthropomorphic representations of God, a sensibility that characterized the Lutheran aesthetic but was becoming controversial in other Protestant theologies. (Holbein's title page for the Coverdale Bible, for example, uses the Tetragrammaton to represent God in a verbal symbol.) Yet, depiction of artwork within the compositions is very limited. We find the biblical “sculpture” of the brazen serpent (Numbers 21:6–9), which in Christological interpretations expressed the salvific force of Christ on the cross (fig. 20). As a symbol of justification by faith, this scene was becoming a standard element in the Lutheran configuration of “Law and Gospel.” Holbein first depicted the motif in his 1524 designs for Petri's octavo reprint of Luther's Das Allte Testament deütsch.Footnote 66 His new rendition in the Icones evokes ancient sculpture in its close copy of the posture of one of Laocoön's sons in the portrayal of an afflicted Israelite (left side of the brazen serpent). Nonetheless, as we would expect, nearly all the temple interiors within the Icones are without images, the one striking exception being the woodcut of Solomon Preaching in the Temple (2 Paralipomena 6), which depicts the altar with a portrait in the style of a Roman bas-relief displaying, perhaps, the likeness of a ruler in profile (fig. 21). These few images of representational art are counterbalanced by several portrayals of the destruction of idols or temple objects. For example, the image of Josiah restoring the law to the temple also displays, on the right, the burning of idols removed from the temple. Thus, the Icones exemplifies the use of religious imagery in the context of acknowledging the danger of idolatry.
The paratexts, moreover, explicitly stress the integrity of religious images as well as the grounding of the Bible image in classical aesthetics, a humanist aestheticizing of Bible culture. François Frellon endorses the work as “pictures of the sacred laws” (sacrorum canonum tabulas) and as “sacrosanct icons” (sacrosanctas Icones) that display the “innermost mysteries of the holy writers” (hagiographorum penetralia).Footnote 67 Nicolas Bourbon celebrates the classical lineage of Holbein's art, which, according to his poem, has aroused the envy of ancient Greek artists (Apelles, Zeuxis, and Parrhasius), who are lamenting that Holbein has eclipsed their reputations. Perhaps it is a daring hyperbole when Bourbon claims that Holbein's images are so realistic that it appears only possible that God, not a human, could have created them. In any event, Bourbon also explicitly aligns the panegyric of Holbein's art with a traditional Christian use of religious images: “These holy images are by such a great artist that you will venerate a worthy work.”Footnote 68 Similarly, Corrozet recognizes both aesthetic pleasure and religious experience, emphasizing that the “corporeal eye” can experience a pleasure that will inform a devotional or spiritual response: “The corporeal eye, moving and wandering, can have a singular pleasure here, which will engender in the heart a certain desire to love God.” Everyone who looks at the pictures “will have pleasure both in the heart and the eyes.”Footnote 69
The theme of governmental authority connects the Icones to Holbein's title page for the 1535 Coverdale Bible, a carefully designed composition of four woodcuts that glorifies the new (and revolutionary) ideology of the ecclesiastical supremacy of the crown, as mandated in the 1534 Act of Supremacy (fig. 22). While on one level the title page forcefully expresses the new claims to an imperial authority over the state and the church,Footnote 70 on another level it deconstructs the Lutheran iconography of “Law and Gospel,”Footnote 71 effectively excising the doctrine of solafideism. Possibly inspired by slightly earlier works, Lucas Cranach developed a popular iconography of Luther's doctrine of justification by faith that contrasted biblical images of the law, such as Moses receiving the tablets on Mount Sinai and the fall of Adam and Eve, with pictures of the Gospel (the message of salvation through Christ), such as the Annunciation, the Crucifixion and, above all, the Resurrection (fig. 23 is an example of an early Lutheran title-page design of “Law and Gospel”).Footnote 72 Holbein adopted the basic Lutheran binary organization, with the law on the left and the Gospel/grace on the right, but utterly contradicted its binary opposition by portraying their complementarity instead of opposition. The woodcut of the law, Moses's dramatic reception of the tablets (Exodus 21) on Mount Sinai,Footnote 73 is paired with Christ's final commission to his disciples to preach the Gospel to the nations, set in a similarly rocky landscape. Both the “Law and Gospel” message of salvation through Christ are to be propagated: God says to Moses, on the left, “These are the lavves that thou shalt laye before them,” whereas, on the right, Jesus says to the apostles, “Go youre vvaye into all the vvorlde, and preach the Gospel” (Mark 16).Footnote 74 The meaning of the lower parts of each woodcut also inflects across the title page. On the left, in a literal rendering of 1 Esdras 9, Ezra reads the recovered law on a platform in front of the temple, while, on the right, Peter delivers the Pentecostal sermon (Acts 2) in a similar setting, thus founding the church for evangelization after Christ's ascension. Moreover, all the apostles carry the keys of salvation, a motif associated with Saint Peter and the papacy, but also used elsewhere by Holbein to project the saving power of preaching the word rather than the soteriological authority of the papacy.Footnote 75 Holbein's unity of “Law and Gospel” flows visually into the final woodcut, which does not depict a historical episode from the Bible, but rather the contemporary status of the Bible, newly legalized in England. However propagandistic (and radical) this imperial representation of the king as “the ymage of God vpon the earthe” may be,Footnote 76 the title page iconography does not articulate a shift in the doctrine of justification or in devotional piety. With Bible and sword in hand, Henry VIII presides, as the supreme head, over a unified sovereignty of church (Archbishop Thomas Cranmer on the left) and state (Vicegerent Thomas Cranmer on the right), as he distributes the Bible, flanked by statues of David with his harp and Saint Paul with his “sword of the spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17). The symbols of the two swords (temporal and spiritual), the book of the Bible, and the harp of the Psalms coalesce to articulate the immense scope of the monarch's authority under the Act of Supremacy. Thus, in the Coverdale title page, monarchy sustains the “Law and Gospel,” just as, in the Icones, we see that magisterial authority over religion, especially over worship, liturgy, and vigilance against idolatry—all portrayed as biblical history—became part of the discourse of the biblical image.
IV. Conclusion: An Artist for All Bibles
As far as the interpretation of Holbein's Bible illustrations is concerned, we are left with a meaningful paradox: Holbein's Bible images both expanded and contained Reformation biblicism, for the metatextual focus on the Bible as art and as history enabled Holbein to accommodate the heterogeneity of the various humanist and Reformation Bibles. With the exception of the iconography of royal supremacy in England, Holbein's Bible image was exceedingly movable, an artistic efficiency designed to contribute to the stability of the Bible image across a wide humanist and pluriconfessional spectrum.
Perhaps it is best to think of the Holbein image as a medium for enlarging the context of the printed Bible. For the revolutionary Erasmus Bible, Holbein tried to connect the text to the expansive discourse of Renaissance humanist art, simultaneously portraying the new Bible and humanist art as part of a broadly defined cultural-philosophical discourse. Similarly, Holbein's production of Protestant Bibles, most importantly the epochal Luther Bible, strategically associated the new text with the humanist Bible and, in so doing, conceptualized the humanist biblical image as a validation of religious art in a new context. Ultimately, the reliance on humanist art as a cultural authority mitigated perception of the heterogeneity of the text to the point that Holbein's publishers completely displaced the text in the Icones with the daring creation of a new genre: the picture Bible. It is important, moreover, to stress that, in each of these visualizations of disparate Bibles, the practical and ideological interests of publishers played a critical role.
The production of Holbein Bible images was so prolific and their distribution so broad that they manifestly contributed not only to the rapid popularization of the Bible but also to the vitality of the Bible image in Protestantism. The foundational 1531 Zurich Bible, with Holbein illustrations for the Old and the New Testaments, established a high standard, based on humanist conventions of representation, for the production of fully illustrated German Bibles. Froschauer would reprint this deluxe design, grounded in the Holbein image, in 1533, 1536, 1540, 1545, and 1551, and his successors would reprint the illustrations four more times.Footnote 77 This, moreover, happened in a culture of iconoclastic Protestantism well before the first complete Luther Bible, the profusely illustrated imprint of 1534, appeared in an iconophilic milieu. Holbein's image informs the experience of the Bible as art and as sacred history, not as text or theology—and his formulation of the narrative historical Bible image would soon proliferate in Protestant sensibilities.