My painting today is the 1526 work by Hans Holbein the Younger and is known as the Meyer Madonna or sometimes as the Darmstadt Madonna as the painting was commissioned by Jakob Meyer zum Hasen a senior official and sometime mayor of Basel and the painting is housed in the Schlossmuseum, Darmstadt. It is considered to be one of the great masterpieces of European art. At first glance there seems nothing unusual about the figures in the painting but in fact nothing is quite as it seems. Let us look closely at what is being displayed.
Before Hans Holbein left Germany for England, he was approached by his early and most important patron, Jakob Meyer, to paint this family portrait which would hang in the Meyer chapel at Gross Gundeldingen. Meyer had a colourful and controversial life. He was a businessman who in 1516 was elected Burgermeister (Mayor) of Basel. In 1521, he was impeached for taking a large bribe from the French, imprisoned and when he protested at this treatment he was barred from office thereafter. Meyer was a staunch Catholic even after the city’s secession to the reformed religion and led the Catholic party in the city. Holbein started the painting in 1526 before journeying to England but on his return two years later, at Meyer’s request, made some changes to it.
In the upper central portion of the painting we have the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus. This is a Schutzmantelmadonna, a Virgin of Pity painting in which the Virgin Mary covers Meyer and his family with a mantle of protection and stands within a scallop-shell like niche. A friend of Holbein, possibly also his mistress and who appears in other Holbein paintings, Magdalena Offenburg, posed for the Madonna. The Virgin’s symbolic inclusion into this family portrait is because it was believed that by her intercession she can win the mercy of the Father. What such a figure represents is benign, protecting power of destiny. Holbein depicts the Madonna as a cloaked figure enthroned by the scallop shell, which symbolizes the womb, divine space, and femininity. The golden crown she wears is a symbol of sovereignty. The Child’s twisting body emphasizes the weight the Madonna’s arms must carry. To the left we have Meyer himself and two young boys who were thought to be his two sons. To the right are three women. In the foreground, kneeling, we have Meyer’s daughter Anna. In the middle we have Meyer’s second wife Dorothea Kannengiesser and the other lady is his first wife Magdalena Baer who died in 1511. So before you is a family portrait with religious connotations and so, what you see is how it was?
Well actually NO. What you see was not how it was. I suppose you may have reasoned that something was not quite right, seeing the two wives side by side and of course I had already said that Meyer’s first wife Magdalena had died fifteen years before Holbein had started the painting. Jakob Meyer, when he discussed the composition of the painting with Hans Holbein on his return to Basle two years later, stipulated that the artist included his first wife, even though she had died in 1511. Holbein had of course never seen her and that is probably why, not knowing her facial features , added her at the back of the group and almost covered her face in cloth. One should remember that this was what Meyer wanted to remember as having been his family at one time or another. However there is another unhappy twist in the saga of this deceptive looking happy family portrait.
This painting acted as a grim reminder to Meyer of his two sons who are seen in the painting positioned close to him. At the time of the painting both were dead. In fact only he and his daughter were alive at the completion of this work by Holbein but Meyer insisted that Holbein included all members of his family, living and dead, rather than omit any individual. Unlike Holbein’s depiction of Meyer’s daughter Anna, the figures of the boys are not portraits, since they lack any individual features. In his elegant face and hands, the seated youth shows a certain resemblance to the Mary figure. The naked boy, Meyer’s younger son and the Child Jesus also look similar and correspond to figure types found in Italian Renaissance paintings, and it is conceivable that Holbein was inspired by compositions by Raphael and Leonardo that he had seen on his trip to France.
As I said earlier, this painting was started by Holbein in 1526. He then left for England and did not return to Basle until 1528. It was on his return that Meyer asked Holbein to make changes to this family grouping. The main change was to be made to the portrait of his daughter Anna. When Holbein first made sketches of her for the painting she was shown seated, almost child-like, with long flowing hair, probably signifying her virginity. When Holbein returned two years later she was probably fifteen years old and at a marriageable age and Meyer wanted his daughter portrayed as a young woman not as a child.
In the final version of the painting, Anna is now seen kneeling next to the two wives and looks older. Gone are the long flowing locks and instead her hair is tucked into a chaplet headdress which was how girls of that age wore their hair when they went to church. In her hair one can see pink flowers which often symbolised a girl’s betrothal. So Meyer obviously wanted either to have his daughter portrayed as a girl of marriageable age or he wanted people to know that she was betrothed.
And so you see, at first glance this appears to be a simple family portrait with a religious connotation. We know by the clothes of the man that he is of some importance. We know by the elder son’s clothing that the family was wealthy. This wealth is also shown by how Holbein has included a beautiful and expensive-looking carpet. At first glance one may be slightly jealous and envious of the Meyer family’s depicted affluent and happy lifestyle but then once the facts are revealed one’s envy evaporates and one looks at the composition with some sympathy for this man who at one time had everything and then was left with just his painting and his memories.