Hans Holbein’s Allegory of Christianity in one painting

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.






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