The Holy Family in the Open by Hans Baldung

The Holy Family in the Open by Hans Baldung (Grien) c.1512

For me, the joy of walking around art galleries is to discover artist I had never heard of and then later examine their life and other works of art they have completed.   When I was walking around The Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna I came across this quirky picture of the Virgin and Child which was unlike any other I had seen before.  It is often used on Christmas cards as it has a jolly feel to it.  The painting entitled The Holy Family in the Open is by Hans Baldung, a German Renaissance artist born in Swäbisch Gmund in 1484.   In Briesgau and Strasbourg he was the dominant influence on religious panel painting in the early sixteenth century.

Baldung joined the Albrecht Dürer workshop in 1503 and remained there for four years where he was looked upon as a most talented pupil and was even left in charge of it whilst Durer made his second journey to Italy.   Maybe because of his love for the colour green, which he used a lot in his works, he was nicknamed Grien.  His work was very varied in its nature and included religious paintings, allegorical and mythological pictures, portraits, and designs for stained glass, tapestries and book illustrations.   He also had a great fascination with witchcraft and made many beautiful images on this subject in different medias some of which were of an erotic nature. 

In 1509 he bought a citizenship to the, then, German city of Strassburg, now the French city of Strasbourg, where he became a member of the town council and owned a number of local properties.  He died there at the age of sixty one.

Today’s painting; The Holy Family in the Open, tempera on wood, was painted around 1512.  Baldung adopted a view of landscape that was close to the Danube School and reflected the unique romantic character of the alpine foothills.  Today’s painting features this atmospheric mountainous landscape.  The main character in this composition is Mary who lovingly holds the Christ Child in her arms.  She can be seen sitting on the ground beneath the crown of a vast mossy tree which acts as a canopy, and the scene is set in the midst of a flowery meadow with animals and plants.  A spring trickles out of the earth besides her where a small putto quenches his thirst, secretly watched over by Joseph.

All the elements in this picture, namely, the spring, the stream, the lush meadow, the shady tree, Mary embracing the child in such a loving manner all call to mind the atmosphere of a paradise garden even though it is not enclosed but incorporated in a mountainous scene.