Darmstadt Madonna

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Darmstädter Madonna (also: Madonna of Mayor Meyer) (Hans Holbein the Younger)
Darmstädter Madonna
(also: Madonna of Mayor Meyer)
Hans Holbein the Younger , 1526/1528
Oil on softwood (?)
146.5 cm × 102 cm
Würth Collection, Johanniterkirche (Schwäbisch Hall)

Template: Infobox painting / maintenance / museum

The Darmstadt Madonna (also Madonna of Mayor Meyer ) is a painting by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497–1543), created in Basel in 1526 .

It shows the client, the Basel Mayor Jakob Meyer zum Hasen , with his deceased wife, his wife at the time and his daughter, all of whom are grouped around Mary enthroned in the middle with the baby Jesus. The meaning of the other male figures on the left, as well as the entire iconography of the picture, has not yet been finally clarified. The picture is considered to be the creed of the Catholic, anti-reformist mayor.

The painting combines influences of the Italian religious Renaissance painting with elements of the old Dutch portrait painting. For art history it is not only relevant as a significant painting of the 16th century, but also as the subject of an art historical debate in the 19th century, in which the authenticity of the painting was discussed and proven with scientifically objectifiable arguments.

From 1852 to 2003 in the Residenzschloss Darmstadt , from which its popular name is derived, the picture has been on temporary loan from the Städelsche Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt am Main since 2004 . The painting has been in the permanent exhibition of Old Masters in the Würth Collection in the Johanniterkirche in Schwäbisch Hall since January 2012 .

The painting is registered as a cultural asset in the Baden-Württemberg register of nationally valuable cultural assets and may therefore only be exported from Germany as a loan, but not permanently.


Order from Jakob Meyer for the rabbit

Jakob Meyer zum Hasen , portrait study, black and colored chalk on gray-white paper, 38.3 × 27.5 cm, Kunstmuseum Basel , Kupferstichkabinett, Inv. No. 1823.140

What gave the former Basel mayor Jakob Meyer zum Hasen an opportunity to commission the large-format Madonna painting (146.5 × 102 cm) is unknown. The assignment was probably related to Meyer's Catholic faith. At the time the picture was taken, the Reformation prevailed in Basel; Meyer was probably keen to emphasize his faith again in this situation. Another possible reason is that Meyer was accused of corruption and evasion of public funds by the now Calvinist- dominated city council. There was no conviction and a possible death sentence only due to a lack of evidence. In this crisis that threatened him, Meyer might have demonstratively wanted to submit to Mary's protection or to express his gratitude. The exact year of creation is also unknown - however, based on certain details of the depiction and the documented life of Anna Meyers, shown in the foreground on the right, it was concluded that it was made in 1526.

The unusual frame shape of the painting suggests that the painting was fitted into an architecture, for example the house chapel of the donor in his pond in Gundeldingen at the gates of Basel, but there is no evidence that the painting was actually located there. Stephan Kemperdick assumes that the painting was conceived as an epitaph for the Jakob Meyers family and intended for installation in a Basel church, possibly Martinskirche , which also contained the Solothurn Madonna , Holbein's second large Madonna portrait. This is supported by the fact that the first wife Jakob Meyers and later also the daughter Anna and her husband were buried in the Martinskirche. It is therefore reasonable to assume that Meyer planned a family burial site there, especially since the church was popular as a burial place for Basel citizens. Presumably, both paintings were given to their owners before the iconoclasm , as is proven for the Solothurn Madonna, which was removed on Good Friday 1528 and brought to safety by its client, the town clerk Johannes Gerster. It is conceivable that both paintings, which are not only similar in shape but also almost the same size, were installed in the burial niches of the side aisle of St.

Infrared and x-ray images of the painting, which was probably made on softwood and which were made in the Darmstadt Palace Museum in 1999, could show that only the depiction of the Madonna and Child was carried out according to the preliminary drawing. Corrections of posture and line of sight were repeatedly made on all other figures during the creation of the picture. These investigations also showed that the portrait drawings were not made before starting work on the painting, as previously assumed, but only in the course of the creation of the picture. They show traces of a mechanical transfer of the contours to the canvas or an intermediate cardboard.

Later revision

Detail, in the face of Dorothea Kannengießer (right) you can see the contour of the overpainted chin strap
Portrait study Dorothea Kannengießer, black and colored chalks on white primed paper, 39.5 × 28.1 cm, Kunstmuseum Basel , Kupferstichkabinett, Inv. No. 1823.141

With the naked eye you can see that the painting was subsequently changed: originally Anna Meyer's long hair fell open over her shoulders, like on Holbein's chalk drawing, and her mother Dorothea Kannengießer, like the late Magdalena Bär, wore a wide white chin strap and a voluminous hood that covered most of the face. With this new assignment from Meyers, Holbein, who had returned to Basel from England in the fall of 1528, adapted Anna's appearance to her changed social status. Instead of the loose hair, she is now shown as a marriageable young woman with the “ Jungfernschapel ”. Dorothea Kannengießer, on the other hand, presents herself in a more modern costume. This revision after only a few years shows that it was important for the client's family to be depicted in a contemporary and timely manner. The image statement is updated and renewed as it were by updating the representation.

The recently held view that Magdalena Bär was also only added in 1528 and that the painting was thus transformed into a memorial picture, could be refuted in 1999 by the infrared and x-ray images.

Image description


A grid placed over the painting, the lines of which divide the picture space in the ratio of the golden section , shows the careful design of the composition.
Composition scheme with diagonals and circular shape

In the center of the picture stands Maria, whose figure protrudes beyond the actual picture frame. A semicircle is placed on the wide rectangular image format, the diameter of which corresponds to about half the width of the rectangle below. The mantle of the Madonna forms the outer contours of an imaginary pyramid. The image is visually divided lengthways by Mary's red belt. The three women on the right have a little more than a third and the three male figures on the left almost two thirds of the picture space. Arranged according to size, the kneeling male figures are offset towards the center front. The viewer sees the figures from the front, the faces of Meyer and the boy in three-quarter profile , that of the toddler from the front. On the men's side, the figures almost follow the picture diagonals. On the other hand, on the narrower woman's side, the turning towards the center is only hinted at by moving the figure in the middle a little to the right. The three women are shown facing away from the viewer one behind the other in profile. Only Dorothea Kannengießer turns her gaze a little towards the viewer. Due to Anna Meyer's white dress and the white bonnets of Meyer's two wives, this right side appears overall lighter. On both sides, however, the foremost figure appears brightest, which increases the depth of the picture. In addition to the red belt, the boy's red stocking, Anna Meyer's red rosary and the red ribbon that holds the Madonna's cloak together in front of her breast are striking . These scarlet objects describe a triangle that connects both sides of the picture with the figure of the Madonna.

The head and arms of the Madonna, who are holding the Child Jesus, occupy their own, almost separate, pictorial space above the kneeling. If you mentally complete the semicircle of the shell niche that hugs Mary's head into a circle, a circular medallion with Mary and the child is created. The center of this circle is a single pearl that holds the delicate, translucent undergarment together just above the golden brooch in the Madonna's neckline. (This can hardly be seen in reproductions because the delicate fabric allows the skin to shine through and the pearl also reflects the skin tone, so that both merge with the skin tone in images.) This imaginary circle line crosses the knot of the red belt, which thus defines the image space Mary, in which the donor family does not appear, separates from the rest of the picture. The left arm of the baby Jesus, stretched out towards the viewer, plumbs this space into a sphere, as it were, which is already indicated by the shell shape in the background.

The copyist Sarburgh "corrected" the compressed perspective of Holbein's composition and lengthened the shell niche upwards. As a result, the circular shape was lost in the composition, the pearl in the section of the Madonna moved out of the center and thus also shifted the content of the picture.

Depicted people and objects

The detailed painted picture shows Maria in front of a stone niche, which ends behind and above her head with a brown-marbled shell, which rests on two ornate projecting consoles. On both sides of the consoles, a view of a small piece of sky and branches of fig trees is released above a half-height wall .

The golden blonde hair of Mary falls wavy over her shoulders under the golden beaded crown. She wears a dark blue, creased robe with wide two-part sleeves, gathered under her breast. The scarlet fabric belt knotted in front of the belly falls loosely. A narrow, scarlet ribbon, fastened to large round gold buttons, holds the wide, dark gray cloak around Mary's shoulders and around the people kneeling next to and in front of her, together in front of her chest. On her forearms, she wears nested, open lower sleeves made of a shiny golden fabric. The sleeve hems of the undergarment are visible on the wrists. In the neckline, the delicate undergarment is held together by a single pearl. The tip of Mary's right foot, clad in a black shoe, peeks out from beneath the wide robe.

The naked baby Jesus is sitting on Mary's left arm. It rests its right arm and head on her shoulder and points forward with its outstretched left arm. The face, framed by blond curls, has a serious, downright suffering expression. Maria's head tilts towards the child, her introspective gaze is directed downwards under half-lowered lids. Your hands are loosely on top of each other.

To the right hand of the Madonna, Jakob Meyer kneels behind with folded hands , in front of it a boy of about twelve who seems to be about to get up. Meyer wears a black fur-lined coat over a white, finely pleated shirt. His gaze is directed to the outstretched hand of the baby Jesus. The boy wears an elaborate brown robe with dark velvet trimmings on the neckline and hems. The cross-slit sleeves are also decorated with gold buttons. On the outstretched leg he wears a red stocking and a black shoe. A green bag adorned with tassels hangs on his belt . His gaze is directed to a point below the edge of the picture. The boy grasps a naked male toddler from behind with his hands, who has his back to the scene. The blond, curly-haired child is holding onto the boy with his right hand and pointing with his left hand to a fold in the carpet in the lower center of the picture. His gaze seems to follow the gesture.

Of the female figures arranged opposite, the two rear, Meyer's deceased wife Magdalena Bär and his second wife Dorothea Kannengießer, correspond with Jakob Meyer. Magdalena Bär seems to be looking directly at him. She wears a white folded hood and an under hood covering her chin, as well as a wide, pleated black cloak from which only the fingertips of her left hand protrude. Little of her face is visible, and her cloak seems to merge with the Madonna's cloak and robe. Dorothea Kannengießer, on the other hand, is shown like her husband in three-quarter profile. She also wears a white hood , which, however, leaves her face exposed. She wears a fur-lined dress made of black damask with a velvet trim on the sleeve hems and collar that only reveals her fingertips, which are holding a brown rosary. Both women wear the representative church attire clothing of their respective lifetime. First of all, Dorothea Kannengießer's daughter Anna Meyer, shown in profile, kneels in a detailed white dress with dark embroidery and golden borders . The braided hair is attached to the head with wide ribbons, the so-called Jungfernschapel, and decorated with rosemary branches , carnation flowers and red fringes. The red rosary she is holding hangs down in front of her body.

It is noticeable that the eight figures shown do not maintain eye contact, and in some cases even seem to look out of the pictorial space. Only Jakob Meyer himself seems to have a conscious relationship with Maria and the child, all the characters seem strange and lonely.

A precious, geometrically patterned carpet is spread over the pedestal on which the figures stand. At the feet of the Madonna, the carpet makes a conspicuous fold, which arises to the left towards the lower edge of the picture and underlines the realistic style of painting.


The interpretation of the individual components of Holbein's composition has not yet been clearly clarified. However, there is broad consensus that the painting is to be understood as Meyer's Catholic creed in the face of the Reformation, which in particular emphasizes the role of Mary in salvation, which was attacked by the Reformers. Holbein presumably not only carried out a request of his client, but also represented his own convictions, because even after the iconoclasm in Basel in February 1529, he continued to adhere to the old faith and refused to follow the Reformation service regulations issued by the city council of Basel afford to.

The painting combines features of different interpenetrating picture types: family portrait, donor picture , devotional picture of the type of the protective mantle Madonna and Sacra Conversazione , a scene widespread in Italy with Mary and saints in front of an architecture. However, the composition with the carpet fold contains an element of movement, a manifestation of an event that these traditional, rather static forms lack. In addition to the veneration of Mary in Marian iconography, with which the picture is, as it were, charged, the main message of the painting is likely to be the participation of the characters in a current religiously motivated event.

The Madonna

Detail, head of the Madonna and baby Jesus
Venus and Cupid by Hans Holbein the Elder J., around 1524/25

The face of the Madonna corresponds to a type of beauty that Holbein first used around 1524 and that can also be found in his depiction of Venus and Cupid (1524/25) and the almost identical painting of Lais Corinthiaca from 1526. With its idealized facial features, the Madonna differs significantly from the portraits of the donor family.

Iconographically , the representation of the Madonna is based on Italian models. The first thing that catches the eye is the type of Madonna in a protective cloak. However, the cloak that falls from Mary's shoulders to protect the family of the founders is only vaguely indicated here. In contrast to the traditional type of picture, the people seeking protection are hardly shown in a reduced size. Also, the coat only wraps itself lightly around the shoulders of Meyer and his first wife, instead of being spread out like a tent over the heads of the donors. Another iconographic type of Italian painting that Holbein takes up here is the Madonna standing before the throne or Sacra Conversazione . Although no throne can be seen in the Darmstadt Madonna , the arrangement of the figure in front of the shell niche is very similar to earlier depictions of the Madonna in front of the throne. The middle panel of the main altar of the Chiesa del Collegio Papio in Ascona from 1519 combines this type with a shell niche and a protective cover in a surprisingly similar way to Holbein. However, it is unclear whether Holbein could have known this work. The position of Mary in front of the niche, which has often been described as cramped or compressed, could then be explained by the fact that the Mother of God as crowned Queen of Heaven has just risen from a throne placed in the niche. The carpet fold and the toe of the Madonna's shoe protruding under the robe could also point to this action, which has just passed in the moment shown.

The shell

The fact that a shell forms the upper end of a wall niche ( aedicule ) that frames a standing figure is often found in Italian Renaissance painting, usually as an antique quote. Holbein has also used this motif several times before (in Die Heilige Kippe , around 1519/20 and Maria with child and knight in a niche around 1523/24). However, the shell is much more conspicuous as a pictorial object in the Darmstadt Madonna . Symbolically, the shell refers on the one hand to the motif of Venus born in foam , on the other hand to an originally pagan, later Christian reinterpreted shell-pearl myth. According to this, Mary is “the shell, in whose earthly body the noble pearl of the Savior Jesus became flesh by the Holy Spirit ... penetrating her and triggering the wonderful growth of the gem.” The shell thus points both to that embodied in the pearl Perfection of Christ as well as towards the virgin birth , because the pearl grows in the shell and leaves it without changing the shell itself.

Outside the walls of the heavenly Jerusalem

Maria im Rosenhag , Stefan Lochner , around 1484

A wall can be seen in the background to the right and left, behind which a garden with fig trees is indicated, which can be regarded as a hortus conclusus as a metaphor for the garden of Eden , paradise. In contrast to the depictions of Maria im Rosenhag or Maria in the strawberries , the Madonna stands here outside the paradise garden. Christl Auge interprets the combination of wall, console construction and shell niche in such a way that Mary is symbolic of the porta coeli , the gateway to paradise. In terms of content, this statement is supplemented by the crown composed of twelve plates, which takes up the biblical description of the heavenly Jerusalem .

The fig tree

The fig tree, the branches of which are visible behind the wall, commemorates the fall of man and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise. The fig tree basically stands for temptation and thus forms a contrast to the vine as the tree of redemption. However, the fig tree shown here seems to have thin tendrils that are reminiscent of vines. It is unclear whether this is a deliberately hybrid plant or whether Holbein was not aware of the exact appearance of fig trees. As an attribute of Mary, the fig tree symbolizes the new Eve, who will open paradise for people again, an interpretation that is underlined by the ambiguous representation as a fig / vine. Holbein later also used fig branches in portraits made in England, for example that of Lady Guildford .

The crown

Holbein's depiction of the Madonna dispenses with a halo and instead puts a heavy crown on her. The depiction with a crown symbolically elevates Mary to Ecclesia , the personification of the Church. The combination of plate and bow crown is not found on any other depiction of the Madonna. The art historian Nikolaus Meier pointed out that the crown of the Holbein Madonna reproduces important features of the imperial crown . At the end of the 15th century, so-called Heiltumsbüchlein with images of the imperial regalia were circulating in southern Germany , which varied the exact number of plates and the decoration of the imperial crown, but with the features of the plate crown and bow, the imperial crown was identifiable. In addition to a red gemstone, the crown of Mary is adorned exclusively with pearls. The pearl jewelry takes up the shell symbolism of Mary as the bearer of God, which is a constitutive element of the image message. The twelve plates show twelve kings, a reference to the twelve tribes of Israel and to the walls and gates of the heavenly Jerusalem . This combination of references to the imperial crown as an insignia of secular power, which at the same time had an immaterial, transcendent dimension attached to it, with the religious iconography of the Ecclesia can be understood as a summary of the political position of the client, Jakob Meyer zum Hasen .

The baby Jesus

The baby Jesus almost turns his back on the viewer and stretches his left arm towards him, almost defensively. The palm facing downward reinforces this impression. Possibly the reluctance of the baby Jesus against a separation from Mary should be represented, as they propagated the reformers, who saw Mary only as the biological mother of Jesus, but no longer as part of the salvation event. A similar defensive stance can be found in Holbein's 1528 painting for the organ wing of the Basel Minster , which differs in this from the draft drawing from 1523, in which Mary and the child still appear intimately turned towards them.

The red belt

In contrast to other depictions of the Madonna by Holbein, the belt, painted in strong red, has no real function; it does not gather the wide garment, but hangs loosely from it. Obviously the representation refers to the legend of Mary's belt donation . After that, the apostle Thomas had doubted the Assumption of Mary. The Mother of God appeared to him and presented him with her belt as proof of her physical ascension. The emphasis on the belt would be an affirmation of the assumptio Mariae , the assumption of Mary into heaven.

The unusual and conspicuous color, on the other hand, points to the blood and passion of Christ as well as to death, and in the context of the Reformation possibly also to bloody disputes about faith. In the Bible girdling is equated several times with the bestowal of divine power. In addition, the abstract form of the belt can also be read as a forked cross . The baby Jesus points directly to the fork with one foot, indicating his future passion. The belt knot forms the visual center of the composition. Passion and Ascension thus become the central message of the picture.

A reference to the Y symbol is also conceivable , as a symbol for Hercules at the crossroads , a topic that was of particular importance for the humanists and was used several times in contexts critical of the Reformation.

The boy and the toddler

Detail, boy and toddler
Madonna of the Rock by Leonardo da Vinci 1495–1508, National Gallery , London

The older boy appears "physiognomically like a younger brother of the Mother of God", whose attitude he seems to imitate. Jochen Sander interprets the boy as the motif of the angel figure from the rock cave Madonna Leonardo da Vinci , a painting that Holbein probably knew and which he used as a basis for depicting the heads of Mary and the baby Jesus. The fashionably dressed boy wears a striking green belt pouch, a common attribute of the holy pilgrim James . It therefore seems at least conceivable that it is an allusion to the patron saint of the founder. The costume historian Jutta Zander-Seidel considers this interpretation of the boy as a saint or angel to be convincing, also because of his elaborate and fashionable clothing. The boy also stands out from the founding family through the ornamentation on the clothing, which in this form was reserved for the nobility at the time. It is also noticeable that he neither kneels nor keeps his hands clasped in prayer. The fact that both boys belong to the same category (i.e. both ordinary people or both are saints) is supported by the fact that a founder should not embrace and support a saint - this would mean a reversal of their roles.

Traditionally, the boy in the brown robe and the naked toddler were interpreted as Meyer's sons who died early. In the more recent specialist literature, however, the naked toddler is interpreted as the Johannesknabe, i.e. a representation of John the Baptist as a child. If one assumes that the painting was conceived as an altarpiece, then the pointing gesture of the boy John would point to the gifts of the Eucharist on the altar table . Like the Madonna and the baby Jesus, the child is represented in an idealized manner. Here, too, a reference by Holbein to Leonardo da Vinci's Madonna in the Rocks is plausible, where Jesus and John are also depicted as boys. This would make Holbein's painting the first painted representation of the motif of the Madonna with Jesus and John north of the Alps, which was already common in Italy earlier.

Another new approach assumes that the two boys, who are depicted in the foreground like counterparts to Anna Meyer, are Meyer's sons, and thus takes up the traditional interpretation again. From documents of the merchants' guild " Zum Schlüssel ", into which Meyer bought his way, it is clear that he tried to have his son, who was born in 1504, also admitted. Since only Dorothea Kannengießer and Anna Meyer are named as heirs at Meyer's death, this son, like his mother Magdalena Baer, ​​died before Meyer and possibly even before the painting was made. This could explain the very stylized and less realistic depiction of the older boy. The naked toddler could be another, baptized son who died shortly after birth, an "innocent child" according to the understanding of the time, which would explain the nudity of the depiction. This interpretation fits in with the assumption that the painting was a grave monument: with his hand gesture, the child refers to the grave below.

The carpet fold

The ambassadors , detail, Hans Holbein the Elder J., 1533

The precious oriental carpet primarily serves to ennoble the Madonna. The fact that it stretches across the full width of the picture is something that the donor family includes in the intimate space of the Madonna scene. The extremely realistic painting style of the carpet in itself draws the viewer's gaze. Holbein's “trick” of letting the carpet make a long crease running obliquely to the left underneath the Madonna's feet leads the viewer's gaze even further, towards the center of the picture and the central belt of the Madonna. In addition, the fold of the carpet brings a moment of movement into the picture, as if the people kneeling on the left had just sat down there and threw up the carpet, or as if the Madonna had just got up from her throne and had pushed the carpet forward with the tip of the toe visible under the robe .

Christl Auge, on the other hand, interprets the conspicuous carpet fold as an abstract snake representation, i.e. as the embodiment of evil, to which the naked toddler, who she interprets as the embodiment of the soul, points to. She interprets the carpet itself as a sign of the Turkish threat . A carpet fold also appears as a motif in Holbein's later, also symbolically charged painting The Ambassadors (1533).

Oriental carpets were valued in Europe as early as the Middle Ages; they have been shown on Italian paintings since the 14th century and also on Dutch paintings since the 15th century . The carpets shown mostly come from Anatolian knotters. The carpet pattern was redrawn by Julius Lessing in 1877 and compared with preserved originals. Although he could not find an original carpet with an identical pattern, due to stylistic differences in the depiction, he was able to prove that the Dresden version of the painting was the younger, while the Darmstadt version with its strictly geometric carpet pattern was the older and therefore original. Based on Lessing's comparisons, the term Holbein carpet established itself for such medieval oriental carpets.

The rosary

Modern Catholic rosary made from wooden beads
Detail, Anna Meyer with rosary

The rosary is closely linked to the creed with which every rosary prayer begins. The red color of the rosary that Anna Meyer holds in her hand corresponds to the color of the belt and thus establishes the connection between prayer and passion that makes up the so-called "painful rosary" that is shown in the picture. Underneath Anna Meyer's hands are the three individual pearls that connect the actual wreath with the cross on which the wreath prayer begins. Anna Meyer is holding the cross in her hand, her creed is captured in the picture. Legend has it that Mary herself taught St. Dominic to pray the rosary. Luther attacked the rosaries sharply: "They and their fruit are most condemned by those who treat them with lots of rosaries". The red rosary may be made of red corals , they were considered a protection against evil spirits and diseases.

Anna's mother Dorothea Kannengießer also holds a rosary, albeit a more reservedly colored one. It is not possible to tell whether Magdalena Bär is also holding a rosary, but the position of the hands suggests it. As a medium of faith, the rosaries combine the personal creed, especially the veneration of Mary by the women depicted, with the symbolic content of the painting.


The Darmstadt Madonna cannot be clearly assigned to any genre. In contrast to what was still customary for portraits of donors around 1500 , the donors are not depicted in tiny small sizes; the contrast to the Madonna results only from the kneeling position of the donors next to the upright Madonna. A comparably unusual inclusion of a donor in the depiction of divine events is shown, for example, by Joos van Cleve's triptych with the Lamentation of Christ from 1524. At the same time, the painting also functions as a family portrait and thus points to the portraits that Holbein will later make in England, which are symbolically charged with accessories , out. The prominent and life-size depicted donor figures also speak against the classification as an altarpiece .

The main function of the painting is likely to be that of a devotional image or epitaph , whereby the traditional image types of the protective mantle Madonna and the Italian Sacra Conversazione , which were still widespread in the 15th century, are only hinted at: the protective mantle only touches the donor loosely, and here, too, the traditional size difference between protective ones is missing Madonna and tiny refugees. In contrast to the traditional Sacra conversazione, the Madonna is not at the center of a conversation with saints, but relates directly to the donors themselves.

For an epitaph, there are comparable designs of German and Dutch epitaphs and memorial paintings that combine donor figures in prominent positions with figures or scenes from salvation history. In its function as an epitaph, the painting would have been intended for the church in which the donors were or were to be buried, presumably supplemented with another plaque with the names and dates of the deaths of the persons depicted.

Its function as a votive image , presumed in the 19th century , has now been disproved.

Classification in the work of Holbein

Hans Holbein the Elder J., Solothurn Madonna , 1522, limewood, 143.5 × 104.9 cm, Solothurn Art Museum
Hans Holbein the Elder J., The body of Christ in the grave, 1521/22, 30.5 × 200 cm, Kunstmuseum Basel

When Holbein arrived in Basel in 1515, there was still a market for Catholic religious images there. With the advent of the Reformation in the city around 1520, the demand for such pictorial subjects is likely to have decreased significantly, but most of the large-format panel paintings that Holbein made in Basel before his first visit to England in the autumn of 1526 are dedicated to religious subjects . Holbein accepted orders from both denominational camps. Most of them were (Catholic) altarpieces, many of which fell victim to the iconoclasm in 1529. The particularly well-known religious works by Holbein from this period, the Solothurn Madonna , the Darmstadt Madonna and The Body of Christ in the Grave are unclear in their function.

As with the Darmstadt Madonna, the client of the Solothurn Madonna from 1522 is known, but not the place of installation. Both paintings are very similar in their dimensions and the special shape that extends upwards from a rectangle and have long been thought of as altarpieces, while the function of epitaphs , i.e. memorial images, or a dual function seems plausible in the meantime . In contrast to the later painting for Jakob Meyer, the Solothurn painting shows Mary and the child seated on a throne, while Saints Martin and Ursus stand to the right and left of it. The donors are only present in the form of their coats of arms on a carpet, which is also in this painting at the feet of the Madonna. The painting thus corresponds to the picture type of the Sacra Conversazione . The Darmstadt Madonna, on the other hand, is much more complex with its diverse iconographic references. The depiction of Christ, created almost at the same time as the Solothurn Madonna, is unique within Holbein's oeuvre in terms of its format and the way it is depicted. These two unusual paintings - Christ in the Grave and the Darmstadt Madonna - suggest that Holbein himself made thematic and iconographic suggestions to his clients.

When he finally moved to England in 1532, the focus shifted from Holbein's work to portraiture, with religious themes taking a back seat.

History of the painting

The Madonna in the art market

Anna Meyer, portrait study, black and colored chalk on white, greenish tinted paper, 39.1 × 27.5 cm, Basel, Kunstmuseum Basel , Kupferstichkabinett, inv. No. 1823.142

After Jakob Meyer's death, his daughter Anna inherited the painting. The picture remained in the family's possession until 1606, when Anna Meyer's descendants sold the painting to the Basel diplomat Johann Lukas Iselin for 100 gold crowns. After his death in 1626, the Amsterdam art dealer Michel Le Blon, who already owned several works by Holbein, bought the painting for 1000 Imperiales. Presumably in order to make more profit on the art market, Le Blon had the painting copied by Bartholomäus Sarburgh . Remigius Faesch II, a descendant of Anna Meyer, also asked Sarburgh for copies of the illustrations of Anna Meyer and the boy. Faesch owned Holbein's double portrait of Meyer and his second wife and might have wanted to complete his ancestral gallery with the copies. Le Blon sold the original for 3000 guilders to the banker Johannes Lössert in Amsterdam. The copy also went to an Amsterdam banker, who transferred the painting to a Venetian creditor around 1690. This in turn bequeathed the picture to the Cavaliere Zuane Dolphin (also: Dolfino), where it was gladly viewed by graduates of the Grand Tour . In 1743 King August III. from Saxony and Poland the now famous copy of Dolphin. This forgery ended up in the Dresden picture gallery under the name Holbein'sche Madonna .

The original went from Lössert to Jakob Cromhout and was auctioned together with his estate in 1709. It then came into the possession of the Dukes of Lorraine and from there to the art dealer Alexis Delahante. In 1822 Delahante exhibited the painting in the salon of his brother-in-law, the composer Gaspare Spontini , in Berlin. Prince Wilhelm of Prussia , brother of the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm III. , bought the painting as a birthday present for his wife, Princess Marianne von Hessen-Homburg . The painting was then initially in the Berlin City Palace , in the Green Salon of which it hung until it was transferred to Darmstadt in 1852 after Princess Elisabeth of Prussia , who had married Prince Karl of Hesse-Darmstadt , inherited the work of art that was thus in the family property of the Grand Dukes of Hesse and the Rhine passed.

An attempt to acquire the painting for the Kunstmuseum Basel in 1919 was unsuccessful despite the offered purchase price of 1 million Swiss francs. The House of Hesse also refused a loan for the exhibition on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of Holbein's work in Basel in 1923.

During the Second World War in 1943, the painting was relocated from Darmstadt to Schloss Fischbach in Silesia and thus saved from being destroyed in the fire at Darmstadt Palace in 1944. In February 1945 the work of art, after narrowly escaping another relocation to Dresden immediately before the air raids on Dresden , was brought to Coburg together with other works of art relocated to the east, from where it was returned to Schloss by its Hessian owners under adventurous circumstances in December 1945 Wolfsgarten near Darmstadt could be brought.

In 1967, a reproduction of the Dresden copy of the painting adorned the private rooms of the villain Blofeld in the film James Bond 007 - You Only Live Twice .

Original and fake: the Dresden Holbein dispute

Dresden copy of Bartholomäus Sarburgh

In the 19th century there was a dispute as to which of the two versions, the one shown in the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden or the one kept in Darmstadt Castle, was the original work. The Dresden painting, which later turned out to be a copy, was often viewed by contemporaries and also by artists of the time as the more beautiful, more perfect. When the copyist copied Holbein's painting in the 17th century, he had made some changes that still seemed more in line with 19th century tastes than Holbein's original. There was a great dispute among artists, art historians and the art-interested public. A specially organized Holbein exhibition in Dresden in 1871 was intended to give the public the opportunity to form their opinion and to write it down in the albums provided. Although participation was low, this is considered to be the first empirical study in the field of psychological aesthetics . In the end, the art historians prevailed against the opinion of the public and artists with their view that the Darmstadt painting was the original. The X-ray and infrared investigations later confirmed the finding, which was also visible to the naked eye, that the Darmstadt painting had been changed several times and corresponded with the chalk studies that had been preserved, while the Dresden picture only reproduces the last version of the Darmstadt picture. As a result, Emil Major attributed the Dresden painting to the painter Bartholomäus Sarburgh in 1910 and dated the creation to between 1635 and 1637.

Raffael and Holbein: Significance in the 19th Century

The contemplation of the Madonna in Dresden, at that time the much more famous specimen, was under the sign of the comparison with Raphael's Sistine Madonna , which, also exhibited in the Dresden Gemäldegalerie, almost invited to discuss the differences and respective advantages. In 1855, the director of the Dresden gallery, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld , had propagated the equality of the German and Italian painting schools and established this using the example of the Holbein and the Sistine Madonnas. Holbein now ousted Albrecht Dürer from the position of the most famous German artist as "Raffael des Nordens" . In the Dresden Holbein dispute, therefore, the defense of the authenticity of the Dresden version, which had been assessed as Raphael's equal, also became a nationally motivated task. But even after the Dresden Madonna was recognized as a copy, it still had to be used for these comparisons. Sigmund Freud drew the conclusion in December 1883 after a visit to the Dresden picture gallery:

“In a small side room I discovered what, according to the way it was set up, must have been a pearl. ... it was Holbein's Madonna. Do you know the picture? In front of the Madonna, several ugly women and a graceful little lady kneel on the right, on the left a man with a monk's face ... The Madonna ... looks down holy at those who pray. I was annoyed by the usual ugly human faces, and later learned that it was portraits of the family of the mayor of X who ordered the picture for himself. Even the sick, failing child who is holding the Madonna in her arms is not supposed to be the Christ child, but the poor mayor's son, who should be cured from this image. The Madonna itself is not exactly beautiful, the eyes are bulging, the nose long and thin ... Now I knew that there was also a Raphaelian Madonna and finally found her ... The image creates a magic charm that one cannot escape ... The Holbeinsche is neither woman nor girl, the sublimity and holy humility leave no question of her exact destiny. But Raphaelsche is a girl, one would like to give her sixteen years, looks so fresh and innocent into the world, half against his will it forced me to believe that she was a charming, sympathetic nanny, not from the heavenly world, but from the ours. "


According to an interpretation that was common in the 19th century, but has since been rejected, the depiction was based on a legend of child swapping: a couple of parents prayed for their sick child, Mary appeared with her son in her arms, put the baby Jesus down and instead the sick one Child taken in her arms, from where it waved goodbye to the parents. This interpretation was mainly based on the contrast between the suffering facial expression of the baby Jesus and the happier toddler in the foreground. In some cases it was even assumed that the sick child was a child of the mayor and that the painting was a votive picture .

Darmstadt and Frankfurt: The Hessian Museum Dispute

Apart from the evacuation during the Second World War, the painting had been in Darmstadt since the middle of the 19th century and was thus given the designation "Darmstadt Madonna" - probably also in contrast to Holbein's second large portrait of the Virgin, the Solothurn Madonna . From 1965 it was shown there in Darmstadt's Castle Museum . In 1997 the property of the heirs of the Hessian Grand Dukes became the property of the Hessian House Foundation . In 2003 the rumor arose that the foundation wanted to sell the precious painting in order to pay inheritance tax. Finally, in July 2003 , Heinrich Donatus, Prince of Hesse , announced that the painting would be on permanent loan to the Städelsche Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt because it was developing more and more into the “Hessian State Gallery”. This led to a dispute between the political and cultural institutions in Darmstadt and Frankfurt am Main , each of which wanted to keep the painting in their city for a long time. In September 2003 the dispute was settled. The Hessische Hausstiftung declared that “the Madonna will return to the city of Darmstadt after the exhibition in the Städel, Frankfurt. […] The Holbein Madonna will find its permanent exhibition there after the renovation of the State Museum. ”In spring 2004, the Städel held an exhibition entitled“ The Mayor, His Painter and His Family ”, which focused on the depiction of the Madonna. For the first time, the Dresden copy was to be shown next to the original in the exhibition, which, however, was not loaned for conservation reasons.

Acquisition by the Würth Collection, relocation to Schwäbisch Hall

The Hessische Hausstiftung terminated the loan agreement from 2003 at the end of 2010. The painting initially stayed in the Städel, but a purchase by the state failed despite a bid of 40 million euros. The Hessian House Foundation then sold the painting to the entrepreneur and art collector Reinhold Würth in July 2011 at an undisclosed price, which is said to be around 50 million euros . It would be one of the most expensive paintings ever to sell .

The painting has been on display in the choir of the Johanniterkirche in Schwäbisch Hall since January 2012 . From January to July 2016 it was shown as part of a Holbein exhibition in the Bode Museum in Berlin . From August to November 2016 it was on loan to the opening exhibition Europe in the Renaissance in the new extension of the National Museum Zurich .

"Madonna Children"

After the Second World War, the last descendants of the Hesse-Darmstadt Princely House , Prince Ludwig (1908–1968) and his wife, Princess Margaret (1913–1997), made the “Darmstadt Madonna” available for a social cause: They loaned the painting to the Kunstmuseum Basel and in return were given the opportunity to send 20 children from Darmstadt in need of relaxation to Davos for four weeks each year . For the children who were able to take part in these holiday campaigns, the term “Madonna children” became common. The holidays were organized by the Darmstadt DRK , to which Princess Margaret was closely connected. So that the children knew who they owed their trip to, they received a postcard with the picture of the "Darmstadt Madonna" autographed by Princess Margaret on their departure, and a stopover in Basel to view the Holbein painting was mandatory every time they arrived.

Reinhold Würth and Darmstadt's Lord Mayor Jochen Partsch made it possible for the Madonna children to see the “Darmstadt Madonna” again in October 2012 in Schwäbisch Hall; Michael Kibler took up the story of the Madonna children in 2005 for a novel.


  • Stephan Kemperdick, Michael Roth: Holbein in Berlin: The Madonna of the Würth Collection with masterpieces from the National Museums in Berlin. Exhibition catalog Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Berlin, 2016, ISBN 978-3-7319-0327-7 .
  • Bernhard Maaz: Hans Holbein the Younger The Madonnas of Mayor Jacob Meyer zum Hasen in Dresden and Darmstadt: Perception, finding and obscuring the truth. Swiridoff-Verlag, Künzelsau 2014, ISBN 978-3-89929-289-3 .
  • C. Sylvia Weber (ed.): The Madonna of Mayor Jacob Meyer zum Hasen by Hans Holbein the Elder. J. Swiridoff-Verlag, Künzelsau 2012, ISBN 978-3-89929-237-4 .
  • Hans Holbein's Madonna in the Städel. The mayor, his painter and his family. Exhibition catalog, Petersberg 2004, ISBN 3-937251-24-3 . (In addition to original articles, this exhibition catalog also contains five articles previously published in magazines. Numerous large-format images).
  • Oskar Bätschmann, Pascal Griener: Hans Holbein the Elder J. The Darmstadt Madonna. Original against forgery. Fischer, Frankfurt am Main 1998. (Brief introduction to the history and interpretation of the painting).
  • Christl Auge: On the interpretation of the Darmstadt Madonna. Lang, Frankfurt am Main 1993. (= dissertation, detailed analysis of the painting).
  • Günther Grundmann : The Darmstadt Madonna. Eduard Roether, Darmstadt 1959. 2nd expanded edition: The Darmstadt Madonna. The path of fate of the famous painting by Hans Holbein dJ Eduard Roether, Darmstadt 1972.
  • Theodor Gaedertz : Hans Holbein the Younger and his Madonna of Mayor Meyer. With the images of the Darmstadt and Dresden Madonna. Bolhoevener, Lübeck 1872.
  • Gustav Theodor Fechner : About the authenticity question of Holbein's Madonna: Discussion and acts. Breitkopf & Härtel, Leipzig 1871 (contemporary documentation of the Dresden Holbein dispute digitized )
  • Georg Haupt: The Darmstadt Museum Dispute. A letter of defense. Jena, Diederichs 1904.
  • Michael Kibler : Madonnenkinder , Societätsverlag, Frankfurt am Main, 2011, ISBN 978-3-7973-1004-0

Web links

Commons : Darmstädter Madonna  - Album with pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. a b c d e f Stephan Kemperdick: A masterpiece, a riddle. Conjectures about Hans Holbein's Madonna table by Jakob Meyer zum Hasen. In: Stephan Kemperdick / Michael Roth (eds.): Hans Holbein in Berlin. Exhibition catalog. Micheal Imhof Verlag, Petersberg 2016, ISBN 978-3-7319-0327-7 , p. 27-41 .
  2. ^ A b Claudia Ihlefeld, lsw: Holbein-Madonna presented in Schwäbisch Hall . vote.de. Retrieved January 22, 2012.
  3. kulturgutschutz-deutschland.de ( Memento from February 19, 2013 in the Internet Archive )
  4. a b c C.Sylvia Weber: Maria spreads her coat…. In: The Madonna of Mayor Jacob Meyer zum Hasen by Hans Holbein the Elder. J. Swiridoff-Verlag, 2012, p. 12.
  5. Eye, p. 19; Sander: On the genesis of Holbein's picture of the Madonna…. In: Hans Holbein's Madonna in the Städel. Exhibition catalog, 2004, p. 34 f.
  6. Sander: On the genesis of Holbein's picture of the Madonna… . In: Hans Holbein's Madonna in the Städel . Exhibition catalog, 2004, p. 35.
  7. Fir wood according to Imdahl: devotional picture and event picture. In: Hans Holbein's Madonna in the Städel . Exhibition catalog, 2004, p. 12 - the name of the painting in the Städel, on the other hand, is oil on linden wood , the catalog of the exhibition is Hans Holbein. The years in Basel (2006, p. 110) describes the material with softwood (?) .
  8. Sander: On the genesis of Holbein's picture of the Madonna… . In: Hans Holbein's Madonna in the Städel . Exhibition catalog, 2004, p. 39 ff.
  9. ^ Zander-Seidel: The mayor's new clothes . In: Hans Holbein's Madonna in the Städel . Exhibition catalog, 2004, p. 55 ff.
  10. z. B. von Imdahl: devotional picture and event picture. In: Hans Holbein's Madonna in the Städel . Exhibition catalog, 2004, p. 12, although this text is an article that was published elsewhere in 1986.
  11. Sander: On the genesis of Holbein's picture of the Madonna… . In: Hans Holbein's Madonna in the Städel . Exhibition catalog, 2004, pp. 39, 40, especially fn. 13.
  12. a b c Imdahl: devotional picture and event picture. In: Hans Holbein's Madonna in the Städel. Exhibition catalog, 2004, pp. 11–31.
  13. Eye, p. 89 ff.
  14. Bätschmann / Griener, p. 66 ff.
  15. Bätschmann / Griener, pp. 25–33
    Imdahl: devotional picture and event picture. In: Hans Holbein's Madonna in the Städel. Exhibition catalog, 2004, pp. 11–31.
  16. Eye, p. 31.
  17. Eye, pp. 25–52
    Meier: Die Krone der Maria. In: Hans Holbein's Madonna in the Städel. Exhibition catalog, 2004, pp. 63–77.
  18. Eye, pp. 52-55.
  19. Bätschmann / Griener, pp. 42–45; NN: Note on the fig branch. In: Hans Holbein's Madonna in the Städel. Exhibition catalog, 2004, p. 92.
  20. Meier: The Crown of Maria. In: Hans Holbein's Madonna in the Städel. Exhibition catalog, 2004, pp. 63–77.
  21. Eye, pp. 64-69.
  22. a b c Auge, pp. 69-77.
  23. Sander: On the genesis of Holbein's picture of the Madonna… . In: Hans Holbein's Madonna in the Städel . Exhibition catalog, 2004, p. 42.
  24. Sander: On the genesis of Holbein's picture of the Madonna…. In: Hans Holbein's Madonna in the Städel. Exhibition catalog, 2004, p. 42 ff
    Zander-Seidel: The mayor's new clothes . Ibid, pp. 60-61.
  25. Sander: On the genesis of Holbein's picture of the Madonna… . In: Hans Holbein's Madonna in the Städel . Exhibition catalog, 2004, p. 41 ff.
  26. Bätschmann / Griener, pp. 19–23.
  27. Bodo Brinkmann: Holbein, Bode and the carpets . In: Hans Holbein's Madonna in the Städel . Petersberg 2004, ISBN 978-3-937251-24-0 , pp. 79-91 .
  28. ^ Max Imdahl: devotional picture and event picture . In: Hans Holbein's Madonna in the Städel . Petersberg 2004, ISBN 978-3-937251-24-0 , pp. 11-31 .
  29. Eye, pp. 77-89.
  30. Donald King, David Sylvester (Ed.): The Eastern Carpet in the Western World, From the 15th to the 17th century . Arts Council of Great Britain, London 1983, ISBN 0-7287-0362-9 .
  31. ^ Onno Ydema: Carpets and their datings in Netherlandish Paintings, 1540-1700 . Antique Collectors' Club, Woodbridge, ISBN 1-85149-151-1 .
  32. Brinkmann: Holbein, Bode and the carpets . In: Hans Holbein's Madonna in the Städel. Exhibition catalog, 2004, pp. 79–91.
  33. Beissel, 1909, p. 103, quoted in Auge, p. 113.
  34. Bätschmann / Griener, p. 45.
  35. Bodo Brinkmann: A tour of the Städel. In: Hans Holbein's Madonna in the Städel. Exhibition catalog, 2004, p. 185 f.
  36. a b Stephan Kemperdinck: Retable, epitaphs, organ wings - paintings for religious use. In: Hans Holbein. The years in Basel. Exhibition catalog, Basel 2006, pp. 35–45.
  37. Bätschmann / Griener, pp. 58–69.
  38. Bernd Wolfgang Lindemann: In the Green Salon, in the Altes Museum and elsewhere - Holbein in Berlin . In: Stephan Kemperdick, Michael Roth (Ed.): Holbein in Berlin. The Madonna of the Würth Collection with masterpieces from the Berlin State Museums. Michael Imhof Verlag, Petersberg 2016, ISBN 978-3-7319-0327-7 , p. 8-13 .
  39. zephir.ch: # 21 The Darmstadt Madonna. Retrieved April 6, 2020 .
  40. Bätschmann / Griener, pp. 11–18; Helmut Leser: On the Psychology of the Reception of Modern Art. In: Graf / Müller: Perspectives. To change the perception of objects in museums . Berlin, 2005, p. 79 ff.
  41. ^ Bätschmann: The Holbein dispute. In: Hans Holbein's Madonna in the Städel. Exhibition catalog, 2004, p. 97.
  42. quoted from Tögel: Berggasse - Pompeii and back. Sigmund Freud's travels into the past. Tübingen, 1989, p. 130 ff.
  43. George Smith: Sir Joshua and Holbein. In: The Cornhill Magazine. 1860 p. 328; Friedrich Müller: The artists of all times and peoples or the lives and works of the most famous builders. 1860, p. 395.
  44. M. Hierholzer: heirs terminate loan agreement through Holbein-Bild. In: FAZ of April 28, 2010. alternatively
  45. RM Gropp: Holbein-Madonna - Germany's most expensive work of art. In: FAZ of July 14, 2011.
  46. ^ City of Schwäbisch Hall
  47. Johanniterkirche on kunst.wuerth.de
  48. The Holbein Madonna goes on a journey , Kunsthalle Würth
  49. Darmstadt: A blessing for them . In: FAZ.NET . ISSN  0174-4909 ( faz.net [accessed November 17, 2018]).
  50. Holbein painting opened paradise to children. In: Darmstädter Echo. February 29, 2004, accessed November 17, 2018 .
  51. zephir.ch: # 21 The Darmstadt Madonna. Retrieved April 6, 2020 .
  52. Journey to the Holbein Madonna