Hans Holbein was born in Augsburg in Bavaria in 1497. His father and uncle ran a successful workshop in the city, producing devotional work and portraits.
As part of my research for The King’s Painter, I rediscovered the earliest portrait of Hans Holbein the Younger . It forms part of a series of portraits and self-portraits that Holbein the Elder, his father, incorporated in works he executed for the same religious institution in the first two decades of the C16th. This was the Dominican convent in the heart of Augsburg, and Holbein the Elder’s extensive work for it provides a uniquely personal glimpse into his family life at the time.
In 1502 Holbein the Elder painted a memorial to the Walther family which was to be placed in St Catherine’s Convent, in Augsburg. Ulrich Walther was one of Augsburg’s high-ranking merchants, and part of the Welser family’s extensive international trading empire. Two of Walther’s daughters held senior positions at the convent, which was populated by an elite group of women, and was conveniently situated just behind the Welser’s substantial residence and business premises on Maximilianstrasse. Anna Walther was the convent’s prioress from 1498 to 1503 and her sister Maria its sexton. Together they oversaw the extensive remodeling of the main monastery building. Veronika Welser succeeded Anna, and oversaw the innovative redesign of the convent’s church. This group of powerful nuns and their influential Augsburg families commissioned a series of art works associated with these renovations that provided consistent work for the Holbein workshop in the late C15th and early C16th.
The Walther memorial, shaped to fit within one of the convent’s gothic arches and to surmount a written epitaph, is in the form of a triptych featuring the Transfiguration of Christ in its central panel, with the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes on its left hand panel, and the Healing of the Demoniac on the right. Ulrich Walther and his sons and grandsons are featured at the bottom of the left hand panel while his wife Barbara, her daughters (including Anna and Maria) and granddaughters are shown on the right.
It is in Holbein the Elder’s rendition of the story of Jesus feeding the multitude that Hans Holbein the Younger first emerges. In the biblical story according to the gospel of St John a very small boy presents Jesus with the two small fish and five loaves that the Messiah then shares with five thousand followers. Holbein the Elder features this small boy in the dead centre of his composition, and without a doubt his five-year-old son was the model.
It is not just the round face and specific clothing of the young child that closely resembles other, later, portraits of the young Holbein, but it is also the tenderness and pride that his father endows upon the image that signals the identity of the boy. Just above the child’s head, Jesus hands a piece of bread to a bystander. The extended hand of Christ and the hand of the recipient form the shape of a heart. The junior member of the Holbein family was clearly cherished. The question is whether his incorporation into the panel painting was a purely private reference for the enjoyment of his immediate family, or whether his prominent inclusion in the panel suggests something more? Could it be that news of a very talented young child had already spread around Augsburg ?
Certainly just two years later Holbein the Elder made another painting, for the same institution, again featuring his son. In a depiction of the Baptism of St Peter Holbein the elder presents himself and his two boys as witnesses to the event. But no one It is as if the father already understood the enormous talent of his youngest boy and felt the need to record his juvenile image for posterity.