Hans Baldung gained his nickname “Grien” (green) during his years (1503–07) as an apprentice in the Nuremberg workshop of Albrecht Dürer. Considered among the greats of German Renaissance art, Baldung’s life as an artist is an interesting reflection of his own times. He was the first of a scholarly German family of lawyers and physicians to become an artist, a sign of the rising status of the profession that for centuries was considered a mere trade.
Reflecting the popularity of print culture, he was a prolific creator of engravings and woodcuts, as well as a painter. His subjects echo many of the preoccupations of the day: the supernatural (Strasbourg, where he was city painter and lived for much of his life, was involved in witch hunts), humanism, and later in life, the Reformation, of which he was an early supporter. In style, he shows the influence of Dürer’s precise naturalism, Matthias Grünewald’s mysticism and the Danube School’s poetic approach to landscape.
This painting of the Holy Family is typical of Baldung’s work: expressionistic, imaginative and filled with vivid colour. The focus is on a prettily blonde Mary embracing an affectionate baby Jesus beneath a fir tree. In the background, it is not quite clear if Joseph is asleep or looking down at a tiny angel drinking from a stream.
The painting was once thought to represent the Rest on the Flight into Egypt. However, key elements of the story are missing, such as the donkey. And what is Joseph doing? Reflecting the rising secularism of the sixteenth century, Baldung appears to have mixed elements of a Christian tale with contemporary life.
The characters wear contemporary dress and are set in an imagined, though clearly European-inspired (not Egyptian) countryside. The landscape has naturalistic detail but a mystical atmosphere, partially achieved by Baldung’s use of shimmering white highlights. The scene is filled with Christian symbolism: the apple recalls Original Sin; the snail who carries its home on its back may represent birth and rebirth; the strawberry is a food of the blessed; the white flower represents innocence, its three petals the Trinity; the birds in the tree represents Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection.
Baldung is today best known for his eroticised images of witches, Eve and other female figures, and he has perhaps added a hint of sensual energy here. The fair, slightly plump Mary is the physical ideal of the day while sleepy, grey-haired Joseph conforms to his comic role in medieval morality plays. The Elderly Joseph’s reaction to his young wife’s mysterious pregnancy was a popular theme and was generally played for laughs. In some versions, fearing he had been made a cuckold, Joseph considers escaping to the wilderness; could Baldung be making reference to this or a similar tale? While the exact meaning remains a mystery, the painting demonstrates the overlapping of the sacred and the profane in Baldung’s art.
1512 Raphael: Portrait of Pope Julius II, London, National Gallery
1512 Albrecht Dürer: Virgin and Child with a Pear, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum
1512 Titian: Portrait of a Man, London, National Gallery