Allegory of the Old and New Testament
oil on panel, early 1530’s
Hans Holbein, the Younger, 1497/98-1543, German
National Gallery of Scotland loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY in 2022
Homo in the middle of this painting is Mankind facing a choice between sin and redemption, between death and eternal life.
This is the Christian story which this small tableau – 50.00 x 60.50 cm, or 20″ x 24″- represents in its essentials.
In this story, Christ has ushered in a new dispensation, a new choice for Mankind
which replaced the laws of the Old Testament (Lex) with a promise of salvation (Gratia), and resurrection after death.
In this painting, this choice is represented by pairings of images:
dark and sun-filled skies;
the prophet Isaiah on the right of Jesus and St John the Baptist on the left;
a snake, the instrument of temptation, on a pole on the left and Jesus on the cross on the right;
a skeleton and the risen Christ;
a tree withered on one side and leafy on the other.
This work, believed to have been created for a Protestant in England, was a small part of the never-ending battle between men for control of this institution.
It was represented not as a devotional image but as a didactic one
to escape the Protestant condemnation of paintings as instruments of Catholic devotion: a use considered idolatrous by Protestants.