Hans Holbein the Younger

The glowing intensity of Albrecht Dürer’s painting shows why he was considered the most influential artist of the Northern Renaissance. Take his picture of Burkhard of Speyer, one of the highlights of this powerful survey of Northern Renaissance images in the Royal Collection. Executed in Venice, where Dürer lived between 1505 and 1506, it portrays a man who may have been a chaplain attached to the German church of San Bartolommeo. The artist’s brush incisively delineates his prominent nose, compressed lips and narrowed eyes. Alongside this puritanical toughness, though, Burkhard’s sensuous golden hair suggests another side of his personality. It also proves how much Dürer learnt from the hedonism of Venetian colour, which enriched his painting for the rest of his career.

But the show also emphasises that Dürer won much of his international fame through printmaking. His virtuoso engravings and woodcuts were widely disseminated and studied, especially his 1498 book of apocalyptic images, which chimed with the popular belief that the world would end in 1500. But he was equally impressive when scrutinising animals. His penetrating ink drawing of a lithe greyhound was used as a model for a dog in his engraving of St Eustace, the Roman general whose conversion to Christianity supposedly occurred when he was out hunting and discovered a Crucifixion nestling in a stag’s antlers.

Dürer’s range was astonishing, encompassing at one extreme the macabre menace of “A Knight, Death and the Devil” and, in another mood, the famous, if anatomically inaccurate, woodcut of an Indian rhinoceros. But his wittiest print is “The Bath House”, where men are shown holding flowers, chatting and playing music. The obese seated figure quaffing his beer is a cheeky portrait of Dürer’s friend Willibald Pirckheimer, while the leering man who positions his groin suggestively close to a water pipe is the artist himself.

Erotic amusement can likewise be discovered in Lucas Cranach the Elder’s painting “Apollo and Diana”. Acquired in 1844 by Prince Albert, who enriched the Royal Collection with many rare Renaissance masters, this exceptional panel shows the sun god Apollo flaunting his physique while shooting an arrow. His dynamism is contrasted with his twin sister Diana, a goddess associated with hunting and chastity. But the impish Cranach ensures that the naked goddess adopts a seductive pose as she sits on a stag’s well-groomed back; her hair-tresses curl shamelessly around the beast’s antlers.

Sexual references abound in Northern Renaissance art. Cranach’s painting of Lucretia, also bought by Prince Albert in 1844, should be a tragic image of a suicidal woman shamed by her loss of honour after suffering blackmail and rape. Yet Cranach focuses provocatively on the moment when Lucretia is about to plunge a pristine dagger into her bared, ample breast. In Jan Provoost’s “Triptych: The Virgin and Child with Saints and Donors”, it is the Virgin Mary’s breast that is on show. Based in Antwerp and Bruges, Provoost was so modest that he never signed his work. All the same, he has no inhibitions about showing the Virgin as she presses her right breast to direct milk towards an ardent St Bernard gazing up at her nearby. He was, legend has it, praying before a statue of the Virgin when drops of milk fell from the statue’s breast on to his lips.

The flipside of physical gratification is guilt. At first, Jan Gossaert’s monumental “Adam and Eve” seem to rejoice in their well-developed bodies, flaunted in the foreground of his painting. Gossaert learnt a great deal when he left his native Netherlands and visited Rome, avidly studying antique sculpture. But as well as expertly depicting Adam’s musculature, he also makes sure that we can see the fateful bite-mark in the apple clutched by Eve. Adam gazes at her with frowning anguish, lodging a finger in his mouth as if still tasting the fruit in disbelief. He seems to stagger, and reaches out with his other hand to prevent Eve from falling.

Another masterly Gossaert here is his poignant portrait of the three little children of the exiled Christian II of Denmark. Their mother died at the beginning of 1526, the year when this panel was painted. Their fine mourning costumes cannot offset the sorrow on their blanched faces; the fruit provided for them on the table lies largely untouched and reminds us of the mortality haunting “vanitas” still-lifes.

François Clouet also depicts bereavement in his portrait of the adolescent Mary, Queen of Scots. Painted around 1560-61, its subject had suffered the loss of her husband, mother and father-in-law in a traumatic 18-month period. Hence Mary’s bleached, phantom-like features, heightened by her white mourning dress. But she still looks determined, calculating and resilient, caught by an artist shrewd enough to define Mary’s stubborn defiance.

Clouet’s contemporary, Hans Holbein the Younger, is represented by some masterly portraits. Notable among them is a coloured chalk drawing of Sir Thomas More. Even though he is wrapped in fur, Holbein’s first London patron and landlord looks almost frozen as he contemplates the uncertainties of his relationship with Henry VIII.

Holbein, the young painter from Basel eager to establish his reputation at the English court, must have been aware of the need to please his new patrons. Derich Born was only 23 when Holbein painted him as a London-based merchant from Cologne. But he looks supremely poised and confident, resting one firm hand on another and leaning on a notably solid parapet. The bold inscription below reads: “If you added a voice, this would be Derich his very self. You would be in doubt whether the painter or his father made him.”

All the same, Holbein was no mere flatterer. His drawing of Sir Richard Southwell reveals a man notorious for his ruthlessness, even disclosing the scars on Southwell’s neck. As for Sir John Godsalve, he looks shifty enough to be fearful that his lucrative misdeeds while overseeing the textile trade might, at any instant, be found out. Portraits as penetrating as these persuade us that Holbein was brave enough to take risks and tell the pictorial truth.

Until January 15, www.royalcollection.org.uk

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