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Imaging the Bible in Wales.
The Bible and the Visual Imagination.
Imaging the Bible in Wales. The Bible and Art. Art in the Abrahamic Faiths.




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Holbein in England | Icons from Romania | Jesus Laughing

Holbein in England
Exhibition at Tate Britain
28th September 2006 – 7th January 2007

Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8-1543), spent two periods of his life in England, between 1526 and 1528, and then from 1532 until his death. Born in Augsburg, the son and namesake of a painter, he spent the greater part of his working life before his first visit to England in Switzerland, at Basel, to which city he returned between 1528 and 1532. The Tate exhibition, in nine rooms, concentrates upon his work as artist and designer, particularly in the London of Henry VIII.

Holbein is renowned as a portraitist, but he had trained in his father’s workshop in Augsburg, in pre-Reformation Catholic Europe, and some at least of his early work at Basel included traditional Christian themes and iconography, for example his 1517 “Adam and Eve” now at the Kundstmuseum in Basel. However, it is in works such as the Oberried Altarpiece, painted for Freiburg Cathedral in 1521-2, his Solothurn Madonna of 1522, and, supremely in his The Passion of 1524-5, that he shows the flowering of his potential.

In Basel Holbein had come to the attention of Erasmus, who seems to have provided him with introductions into England. It is here that he really began his career as a portrait artist, his Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling, painted during this first stay, being a fine example of his maturing ability to capture the individuality of his sitters. (Back in Basel, the figures in his Darmstadt Madonna, finished about 1528, show how far he had advanced in a few short years.)

On his return to England, the demands for portraiture were to be ever more insistent. Because of this, and because the ferments of the Reformation both in Switzerland and in the England of the 1530s saw traditional religious imagery fall increasingly out of favour, the last years of Holbein’s life saw the virtual disappearance of overt religious themes from his output. In this his career somewhat presages that of Velazquez more than a century later, whose preoccupations at the Spanish Court of Philip IV meant that in the last twenty years or so of his life he painted no religious work comparable with his earlier output at Seville.

Holbein gives few indications of his own religious convictions. His youth had been spent in pre-Reformation Germany and Switzerland, and that fact, combined with the evidence of his early religious paintings, would indicate a conventional Catholic upbringing. His association at Basel with Erasmus, and in London with the household of Sir Thomas More (the subject of a famous lost work) might equally indicate the influence of Catholic Humanism. His links with the north German merchants, resident in London at the Steelyard, in the early 1530s – he designed their City pageant for the coronation of Anne Boleyn in 1533 as well as painting their portraits – taken together with the patronage of Archbishop Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell – almost certainly indicate a growing sympathy and identity with the unfolding Reformation in the country which was now his home. But he was, first and foremost, in public a working artist. About 1539 he painted the staunchly Catholic Duke of Norfolk, but in 1535 he had painted a ‘Portrait of a Man’ (the sitter is unknown) shown holding a book – which could have been a representation of an English Bible. (He had the same year designed the title-page of the English translation executed by Miles Coverdale.)

The Tate Exhibition provides an excellent introduction to Holbein’s work, to its range and to his techniques. As the introductory leaflet points out, England “offered a truly fertile ground for the full range of his artistic skill and invention”. However, when one looks at The Passion (now in the Kunstmuseum in Basel) and the magnificent Madonna (in the Schlossmuseum at Darmstadt) one has to have at least a twinge of regret that circumstances prevented him from becoming what these works promised; one of the great interpreters of the Biblical narratives of his age.

John Morgan-Guy
December 2006

Exhibition Website

Christ carrying the cross, detail of a painting by Holbein.
Detail from The Passion, 1524-25,
Kunstmuseum, Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basle

Icons from Romania
Exhibition at The Sacred Space Gallery
St John’s Church, Notting Hill London W11
30 November–15 December 2006

This small exhibition, comprising thirteen icons, follows on from ‘Sacred Iconography: A Living Tradition’, a rather larger one held at The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts in Charlotte Road, London EC2, between 18 April and 12 May of this year.

The Sacred Space exhibition focuses on work by Fr Ilie Dantes, the Icon Master of a monastery near Bucharest, and some of his pupils. The Romanian Patriarchate is part of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the icons painted today faithfully follow the Byzantine artistic canons. The exhibition has been curated by Dr Stephane Rene, himself an icon painter in the Coptic tradition. (One of his own works, a triptych of icons, serves as an altarpiece in St John’s Church.)

Although small, the exhibition comprises a prayerful exploration of many of the principal themes of the Biblical narrative, with a pronounced Christological emphasis, allied to the understanding of the Blessed Virgin Mary as Theotokos. There is, for example, a large icon of the Nativity, conflating the narratives from the gospels of Luke and Matthew, and a moving Anastasis.

It is interesting to see how close in many respects the medieval western tradition of Biblical representation was to the continuing Byzantine tradition. The iconography, for example, of the crucifixion, and of Jesus as The Man of Sorrows (both subjects represented here) have many resonances for anyone familiar with medieval western religious art, and remind one of how late in time was the divergence. The new emphases of the renaissance and the upheavals of the Reformations in western Europe were largely responsible. Is this when sacred iconography became religious art, and the person of prayer less a participant and more an observer?

John Morgan-Guy
December 2006

Exhibition Website

Virgin and Child icon.
Fr Ilie Dantes, Virgin and Child

Jesus Laughing
Exhibition at The Trinity College Carmarthen
Originally exhibited as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe
October–November 2006

This exhibition offers glimpses of a Jesus not often depicted in biblical art over the centuries. With children and disciples, among African tribes and Mongolian Mountains, the humanity of Christ is emphasised, as one who walked on the earth and engaged with the everyday lives of people.

In retrospect it is perhaps surprising that the idea of a laughing Jesus has not been embraced more by the church, presenting a positive and warm image of the Saviour. Instead we are more used to authoritative and sacramental images of Jesus, or sentimental images of a benign Jesus; but even these more personal images rarely show a Jesus who might share a joke with us.

So this aspect reflected by the exhibition must be welcomed, as should the fact that these are images made by artists from all over the world, crossing ethnic, economic and cultural divides. In many of the images we see a Jesus we do not recognise, his age, the colour of his skin, even, in one instance, his gender, do not conform to the stereotypes found in Children's Bibles or the images we find in many churches.

And yet it is amazing how pervasive the Western Jesus has become. Even among the paintings of an African tribal artist, a blonde, vaguely sunburnt robed Jesus comes to gather his people.

Martin Crampin
November 2006

Exhibition at Trinity College Carmarthen.
Jesus Laughing, Exhibition at Trinity College Carmarthen, 2006. Photo Martin Crampin

Exhibition at Trinity College Carmarthen.