Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam called Thomas More “omnium horarum homo,” Latin for “a man ready for whatever may come,” or translated more poetically to “a man for all seasons.” This resilience that Erasmus ascribed to More was magnified in visual terms by Hans Holbein in his 1527 “Portrait of Sir Thomas More.”
Currently on display at The Morgan Library & Museum as part of their exhibit “Holbein: Capturing Character,” this portrait of More is on loan from The Frick Collection, marking the first time the eastside institution has ever lent the piece. Purchased by Henry Clay Frick in 1912 as one of a series of acquisitional coups, Holbein’s “Portrait of Sir Thomas More” is the defining image of the English statesman, and the story of its creation reveals a network of interconnected lives that together offer a glimpse of the tumultuous times in which More lived and was eventually martyred.
Holbein first gained prominence in Basel, Switzerland, rendering portraits of Erasmus, the Dutch priest and itinerant scholar known for his book “Praise of Folly,” which he wrote in 1509 while visiting England and staying at the home of Thomas More. Erasmus dedicated Folly to More, who responded by writing “Utopia.” Both publications involve cultural commentary rooted in the authors’ shared Catholic humanism and their love of humor. Their correspondences over these works demonstrate the cultivation of a friendship that would come to benefit Holbein.
In 1526, Holbein traveled to England himself, carrying a letter of introduction from Erasmus to More, who gave the artist entrance into the upper echelons of Tudor society. These connections proved vital to Holbein’s success in England, and the quality of the portrait he created of More soon after his arrival initiated the artist’s meteoric rise among the Tudors.
Holbein captures More near the height of his subject’s own rise to power—More sat for the portrait just two years before being appointed Lord Chancellor of England. A bright green drape with fringe along the edge and neatly cinched with a decorative cord forms the backdrop and sets the scene amidst the refined adornments of the aristocracy. Long, red velvet sleeves extend prominently from beneath More’s fur-trimmed coat, overtop of which is a gold livery chain with s-shaped links that stand for “souvent me souvient,” which means “think of me often.” A medallion with an engraving of a Tudor rose, a heraldic emblem of England, hangs down from the center of the chain. And a black hat frames a serious looking face, which is rendered in such realistic terms that stubble can be seen where More’s beard is in need of a shave.
Holbein did not know that More was wearing a hair shirt beneath his regal robes when he sat for this portrait, a fact that demonstrates the artist’s perceptiveness because he intuitively reveals this sartorial contradiction in More’s countenance. The figure is posed in a canted position, and he gazes off to his left side with a look of resolve that seems to foreshadow his fate. His lips are pursed, denoting both physical and intellectual toughness, which could indicate anything from courage in the face of suffering to the quick-wittedness he was known for. His nasal bridge is furrowed to match the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes and add to the intensity of his gaze, and the red around his eyes makes him look overworked.
Holbein depicts More as a man honored by society and burdened by obligation, and yet his countenance implies far more concern with self-mastery than with temporal matters. These qualities combine to make More look alert and at the ready to respond appropriately to any situation in life, whether that situation calls for humor or gravity, mirth or sacrifice.
Holbein left England in 1528 and returned in 1532, at which point he resumed his rise among the Tudors, being appointed the King’s Painter in 1536, one year after More was executed for refusing to sanction Henry VIII’s defiance of the Church. In his four years away from England, Holbein witnessed iconoclasm taking hold in Basel and would have been saddened to see some of his own Catholic art destroyed. The turmoil caused Erasmus to leave his longtime publishing hub and relocate to Freiburg, Germany, from where he continued an ongoing exchange with Martin Luther, who he agreed with on certain issues but whose schism he denounced.
Thomas Cromwell succeeded More as Holbein’s great patron in England, at one point commissioning him to render a flattering portrait of German princess Anne of Cleves. Cromwell was trying to get the King to marry Anne of Cleves for the sake of a political alliance, and Holbein’s portrait was so flattering that Henry took Anne as his fourth wife. But the King ultimately felt deceived, resulting in the execution of Cromwell. Holbein survived the dustup, but his career never fully recovered.
At The Frick, Holbein’s “Portrait of Sir Thomas More” usually hangs beside his portrait of Cromwell, the two paintings separated only by the flue of a grand fireplace. The Cromwell piece is another one of Henry Clay Frick’s great acquisitions, but it also demonstrates the truthfulness of Holbein’s art, because his “Portrait of Thomas Cromwell” portrays a man whose character seems eternally diminished by the nearby image of Thomas More.
Holbein’s Cromwell did not travel across town with the More piece, but that does nothing to detract from The Morgan’s exhibit, which presents the “Portrait of Sir Thomas More” in the most optimal way—as the centerpiece of the artist’s work, with lighting and positioning to accentuate Holbein’s mastery of his subject matter.
There are many pieces within this exhibit worthy of a visit, which lasts until May 15 and features an April 29 screening of the film “A Man for All Seasons,” the contemporary masterpiece that brings More’s character into focus. The artist’s portrait of Erasmus is on loan from The Met, and a symposium of international experts will convene on May 6 to discuss Holbein’s contribution to 16th century art.
Displayed alongside Holbein’s portrait of More is an original copy of “Utopia” from The Morgan’s own holdings, as if to remind viewers of the capacity for mirth that was contained within the heart of St. Thomas More.
Erasmus once wrote of More, “He seems to have been born and molded for friendship and he was its most sincere cultivator and tenacious holder,” words that point to the tremendous sacrifice he made in renouncing the world for his faith.
Even More’s sense of readiness was shaken to the core while he awaited execution in the Tower of London. Staring into the abyss with fear and trembling, he penned his final work, “The Sadness of Christ,” which simultaneously reveals the source of his strength and sheds any worldly pretenses to power. “I mean that having made Himself weak for the sake of the weak,” More writes of Christ’s Passion, “He might take care of other weak men by means of his own weakness. He had their welfare so much at heart that this whole process of His agony seems designed for nothing more clearly than to lay down a fighting technique and a battle code for the fainthearted soldier who needs to be swept along, as it were, into martyrdom.”
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