Erasmus and humanism go hand in hand. And it was through Erasmus that Holbein was able to make his way to England with a letter of introduction. He travelled from Basel to the Low Countries and from there to London and the household of Sir Thomas More. Later Erasmus would write that Holbein coerced the letter; outstayed his welcome in Holland; played fast and loose with the truth to gain admittance to More’s household.
Young Desiderius, a Dutchman, was born in1466 or 1467, the illegitimate son of a priest. In 1492 after both his parents died of plague and he and his brother were sent to a school that Erasmus remembered for its discipline rather than its nurturing of learning. Both Erasmus and his brother took monastic orders and then Erasmus was himself ordained as a priest before going to Paris to study.
As his reputation as a scholar became known he began to correspond with the likes of Sir Thomas More whom he’d met on his first visit to England in 1505 and Dean Colet. Letters travelled across Europe as ideas were shared. He challenged ecclesiastical abuses, drew on the classics to expand his humanist philosophies, wrote against Luther and he sent pictures to his friends – except in an age without the polaroid a competent painter was required if you wanted to send your likeness as a gift – not a new idea if you were a monarch but very new for an ‘ordinary’ person like Erasmus. Holbein was just the man, not least because Erasmus travelled to Basel and had been impressed by Holbein’s illustrations of the Dance of Death.
As a consequence of his illustration work Holbein received his commission to paint Erasmus. His studies of Erasmus’s head and hands remain as does the portrait and many copies ‘in the style of.’ The most learned groups in Europe saw the picture and the drawings that Holbein executed. Holbein’s reputation became international and entry to the English court must have become much easier – after all Henry VIII was a Renaissance king…who needed a Renaissance artist.
Personally I love the fact that Erasmus is depicted with ink stained hands. Holbein has also place some Greek in the picture as well as Latin. Erasmus translated the New Testament into Greek. There’s a reference to the classics and Erasmus’s use of the classics – which the monastery of his youth disapproved of- through the pillar in the background.