Erasmus and Holbein

Holbein-erasmusErasmus 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.


Nicholas Kratzer

NPG 5245; Nicholas Kratzer after Hans Holbein the Younger

after Hans Holbein the Younger, oil on panel, late 16th century (1528) – click on picture to open a new window in the NPG catalogue.

Nicholas Kratzer, born in Munich in 1487, was a friend of Hans Holbein. In fact, Kratzer’s was one of the first portraits that Holbein painted when he came first to England. But who was Kratzer?


He was a mathematician and astronomer  who invented the polyhedral sundial. He arrived in England in 1516 from Cologne to teach mathematics at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He was about thirty at the time. He went on to be employed by Henry VIII as Court Astronomer in 1520 to make clocks and sundials. The clock at Hampton Court is is work. Wolsey also gave commissions to Kratzer for similar items. Both men were demonstrating that they were renaissance men. It wasn’t enough to know languages (both ancient and modern) it was also essential to be seen as a man of science. Inevitably Henry’s courtiers also sought out Kratzer to demonstrate their own learning and to keep up with the Tudors and their cronies. One of Kratzer’s sundials was uncovered at Iron Acton Court near Bristol which is now in the hands of English Heritage but once belonged to Nicholas Poyntz – demonstrating that the trend for horology spread far beyond the court setting.


Kratzer moved in the England’s leading intellectual circles. He tutored Sir Thomas More’s children and this was where Holbein seems to have first met him. More writes of Kratzer in a letter to his family:


But I think you have no longer any need of Master Nicholas [Kratzer], since you have learned whatever he had to teach you about astronomy. I hear you are so far advanced in that science that you can not only point out the polar star or the dog star, or any of the ordinary stars, but are able also…to distinguish the sun from the moon! Onward then in that new and admirable science by which you ascend to the stars!


Holbein’s original portrait of Sir Thomas More’s family no longer survives but the original sketch which was presented to Erasmus as a gift by More is still in existence. Each member of the family is carefully annotated in a hand that is not Holbein’s – it is Kratzer who not only knew More, Erasmus and Holbein but also Durer who wrote that Kratzer has provided invaluable assistance in technical matters. Kratzer also knew Thomas Cromwell who was an astute man of business with many German links.


Kratzer provided Holbein with technical information. Experts believe that the mathematical instruments and dials depicted in Holbein’s The Ambassadors were provided by Kratzer. The men worked together for the décor of the Banqueting House at Greenwich in 1527. It was a temporary building designed to allow the king to show off his wealth, splendor and just how learned he was – iconography was incredibly important in the sixteenth century so Kratzer’s advice was essential.  They collaborated in the making of maps.

It is interesting to note that his death is written as circa 1550 and even his birth is based on guesswork derived from how old he looks in Holbein’s portrait which was painted in 1528. The painting in the National Portrait Gallery is not Holbein’s original, that hangs in The Louvre.