07 Apr 2020

Hans Holbein the Younger was not only one of the most important painters of the Renaissance, but he also created numerous drawings for stained glass paintings. This can be read in the catalogue of the exhibition "Lichtgestalten", which can be ordered in our Online Shop.

Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/98-1543) is the most important and influential artist who was active in the context of Swiss glass painting. Active in Basel and London, the painter is considered, alongside Albrecht Dürer, to be the main master of the Renaissance in the north. His extraordinary panel paintings and wall paintings received the highest recognition among his contemporaries and later generations. He also developed an extremely productive design activity and created drawings for letterpress, gold and silversmithing and glass painting.

A total of 400 drawings have survived by Holbein, around 25 of which are designs for stained glass windows. A further 40 to 50 drafts are attributed to his workshop, the surrounding area and successors. Holbein created the designs exclusively as pen-and-ink drawings with wash, thus avoiding hatching to a large extent and instead providing shadows and models with generous brush washings. In doing so, he masterfully succeeded in bringing out the plastic qualities of the drawn object through the contrasting alternation of light and dark, almost sculpturally enhancing its presence. It is not known for which glass painter Holbein created his designs, but there are many indications that he worked with Antoni Glaser (c. 1480/85-1551), the leading master in this field in Basel since 1510.

Holbein's earliest designs were created as early as 1517, i.e. before he joined the "Himmelzunft", when he was probably busy painting the Hertenstein House with his father in Lucerne. His design with the swineherd probably also dates from the Lucerne period. He shows the pig herder entering the scene with great strides, turning away from the picture to give the viewer an intense gaze. Meanwhile, his animals romp around an oak tree. The poor appearance with the torn trousers identifies him as part of the rural population.

A round arch frames the picture; at the bottom, the transition is designed like a step against which an empty shield leans. Holbein's conception of this framing architecture deserves special attention: it is positioned in front of the scene in such a way that the herder, pigs and tree are partially intersected. This creates the impression that only a small section of the room is visible through the frame, while the world behind it continues even further. Also unusual is the motif of the herder, who appears neither as a shield companion nor in the context of a larger narrative. Interpretations of the depiction as part of an episode about the Prodigal Son or the seasons would be possible, but cannot be supported by any other works for this period. The sheet shows no traces of actual use or later reworking – whether a corresponding stained glass painting was ever executed is uncertain.

Written by: Ariane Mensger, Curator Kupferstichkabinett and of the exhibition "Luminous Figures"