Hans Holbein d.Ä.: Darbringung im Tempel, 1501, Mischtechnik auf Holz, 167 x 151,2 cm, Inv. Nr. 327, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg
Hans Holbein d.Ä.: Der Marientod, 1501, Mischtechnik auf Holz, 165 x 152 cm, Inv. Nr. 301, Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel
Hans Holbein d.Ä.: Verkündigungsengel (Fragment), 1501, Mischtechnik auf Holz, 36,7 x 26,7 cm, Inv. Nr. G 1977.40, Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel
Hans Holbein d.Ä.: Kopf Mariens (Fragment), 1501, Mischtechnik auf Holz, 43,8 x 36,5 cm, Inv. Nr. 51341, Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo
Hans Holbein d.Ä.: Kopf Mariens (Fragment der Geburt Christi), 1501, Mischtechnik auf Holz, 41 x 32,5 cm, Inv. Nr. L-S14, Mettingen, Draiflessen Collection (Liberna)
The reputation of Holbein’s workshop extended far beyond Augsburg, as numerous orders from clients farther afield attest. These included the Frankfurt chapter of the Dominican Order, for whom the artist and his journeymen created the paintings for the wings and predella for the order’s high altar, completed in 1501. A sculptor and a specialised carpenter called a “shrine-maker”, both of whom remain anonymous, also contributed to the finished altarpiece, of which only the painted wing panels (with a few exceptions) survive.
With its Passion cycle and scenes from the Life of the Virgin, Holbein’s Dominican altarpiece not only presents a detailed illustration of the story of Christ the saviour, it also stands as striking testimony to the hateful visual propaganda of the Frankfurt Dominicans. In the depictions of Christ’s Passion, the monastery sought to attack the Jewish community that was consigned to live in the nearby ghetto. The Dominican spiritual “family tree”, on the other hand, was intended to promote the order’s status in relation to the rival Christian monastic orders in Frankfurt.
During days of the week, when the altarpiece was closed, the faithful could view Christ’s ancestry in the “Tree of Jesse”, juxtaposed with the “family tree” of the Dominican saints. On Sundays the outer pair of wings was opened, revealing the sequence of Passion scenes from the betrayal of Christ to his resurrection. Only on the highest feast days, when the inner pair of wings were opened, was the sculptural central shrine unveiled, flanked by painted scenes from the Life of the Virgin (now incomplete and divided between museums in Basel and Hamburg). The pictorial programme of the central shrine, which was destroyed in the 18th century, is no longer known. It may have depicted the Assumption of the Virgin and her coronation as Queen of Heaven. The predella with the prominently placed scene of the Last Supper was permanently visible below the central shrine, as was the sculptural Crucifixion scene that must have been included in the now-lost Gesprenge: the architectural superstructure that once crowned the central shrine.