04 Apr 2020
The "Darmstadt Madonna" by Hans Holbein the Younger is considered one of the most important Old Master paintings in the world. The painting, which can be seen today in Schwäbisch Hall, was painted in Basel in 1526. Its eventful history is closely linked to the Kunstmuseum Basel.
The Darmstadt Madonna, a work commissioned by the mayor of Basel, Jakob Meyer zum Hasen, left Switzerland in the 17th century. Nevertheless, the Renaissance painting was long considered a "national treasure". The city of Basel repeatedly showed great interest in the work – it would have fitted in well with the important Holbein collection of the Kunstmuseum Basel. In addition to the portrait sketches of the Darmstadt Madonna, the museum also owns other works from this phase of Holbein's career, such as The Dead Christ in the Tomb, the Portrait of the Writing Erasmus or The Passion of Christ.
A "national" appropriation of the work did not only occur in Switzerland, however. A delegation from Basel, which travelled to Darmstadt in 1919 on the basis of a rumour to find out whether the painting could be acquired for Basel, had to find out how strongly the painting was linked to cultural-political ambitions in Germany too. Although at that time it was still under the unprotected private decree of the Grand Duke of Hessen, it was entered by decree in the "Register of nationally valuable works of art" as early as December 1919 and subject to a ban on being sold abroad – it is still on this register today.
Admittedly, the sum of at least one million francs promised by Basel at the time could not be matched by the offer of a John D. Rockefeller, who a few years earlier had been prepared to pay any price. After 1919, the Madonna was repeatedly the subject of disputes between the People's State of Hessen and the Grand Duke, who insisted that the picture remain in his private rooms and not be open to the public in the Landesmuseum Darmstadt. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that a request from Basel for a loan of the painting for the Holbein exhibition planned for 1923 to mark the 400th anniversary of Holbein's work in Basel was turned down by the Grand Duke. Nevertheless, the painting came to Basel in 1947. How was this possible?
The "Children of the Madonna"
The Prince and Princess of Hessen und bei Rhein recommended the painting to the Kunstmuseum Basel for protection in 1947. Encouraged by Margaret, Princess of Hessen und bei Rhein (1913-1997), the canton of Basel-Stadt then made it possible for 20 Darmstadt children to spend four weeks a year in Davos between 1953 and 1958. The new credits to be granted in each case formed a "fee" for the loan of the Darmstadt Madonna to the Kunstmuseum Basel. On their journey from Darmstadt to Davos, the so-called "Madonna Children" regularly made a stopover at the Kunstmuseum Basel to view the painting.
The returned Darmstadt Madonna attracted the masses in Basel. In the first few weeks after the painting arrived in August 1947, the crowd of visitors was so great that the painting had to be temporarily repositioned because the "Holbein Cabinet" could not contain the crowds. The two chalk sketches for the Madonna from the holdings of the Kupferstichkabinett Basel were exhibited there.
In January 1948 Georg Schmidt, the director of the Kunstmuseum Basel, wrote to Prince Ludwig of Hessen: "... You should have come to the museum on a Sunday in the first few months to see how the people of Basel went on a pilgrimage to your painting! Basel literally celebrated the arrival of this work like a homecoming. A wave of gratitude flowed towards the museum for having succeeded in transferring this painting for a time at least to its home town.
An exhibition in the graphic cabinets of the Kunstmuseum Basel focuses on this historical moment.
Written by: Rainer Baum, Head of the Library and Archive