Last evening, looking for distraction from the election, I found myself watching a British art history documentary about Hans Holbein. The “guide” was Waldemar Januszczak, not my favorite art historian (he’s ugly, I’m superficial) and I ended up having one of those strange experiences of seeing a painting on television that I saw in real life in a city I visited but barely remember. The show is “Holbein; the Eye of the Tudors” and this is the painting:
I was on a search that day for anything medieval and related to St. Gall. One of the doorways of the Basel cathedral is called the “Gallus Portal” because it is medieval and the carvings all around it tell the life of St. Gall, Switzerland’s patron saint who also happens to have been an Irishman.
I was barely tuned into the fact that Nietzsche had lived in that city for quite a while and a person I had studied at some point in my education, Erasmus of Rotterdam, had also lived there. I didn’t know then that I would come to admire Erasmus very much; I didn’t know then his connection to Thomas More who is, allegedly, someone in the dim recesses of my family tree.
So there I was last night watching this strange chubby loud Waldemar Januszczak make (to me) gratuitous pop culture allusions to tie his viewers to the not-so-arcane history of the Reformation. As the show unfolded, I discovered that Waldemar Januszczak and I had some biases in common. Waldemar hated the Reformers for one of the same reasons I do; they sacked the churches, destroyed the art, and left them barren. What Waldemar had failed to research is that it was not Luther who reformed Basel; it became part of the Swiss Reformed Church — a reform movement begun in Zürich by Huldrych Zwingli and instituted in Basel by Zwingli’s friend, Johannes Oecolampadius These guys were not sympathetic with Martin Luther at all… They were distinct reformations with distinct doctrinal differences. Luther and Zwingli passionately disliked each other.
I wondered if it were so hard to do that research and get that right? The most common reader review of The Brothers Path is that the readers know nothing about this part of the Reformation. Some are interested by it; most are bORed. Many reviewers admit to skipping over the “God” bits. This would be most of the book since it’s about a religious revolution and one of the main characters is a priest turned reformed pastor, another is a religious fanatic and another a simple man of faith. For that matter, we have the Zürich reformation to thank for John Calvin, from whose religious philosophy many of the Protestant religions were born — Presbyterians, for one. I pretty much hate that stuff, but I’ve written about it, sympathetically, I hope. It seemed — seems — important to know where it came from, what world and why. ANY-hoo…
Waldemar made some important points, such as for a guy like Hans Holbein whose bread-and-butter was religious art, the Reformation wasn’t the best historical moment.
And swirling all around the beginning of “Hans Holbein; the Eye of the Tudors” was Basel. The cathedral. The day I visited it in 1997 it was January, a snowy day, and we entered the front doors and a silent man with sparkly eyes swept the snow from our clothing and handed us felt slippers to put over our shoes. We walked around the dim, red stone church. I felt its ancient solemnity; I did not notice (and wish I had) the defaced sculptures on the walls. Thanks to Waldemar Januszczak, I saw them last night. That wintry day I also noticed the tomb of Erasmus. A tiny bell far in the distance of my mind rang softly and when I got home, I checked out In Praise of Folly and read it, this time really, not just for a test in some obscure class. The book was in Latin and English.
Hans Holbein loved In Praise of Folly and drew whimsical illustrations in the margin. I got a bit annoyed with Waldemar when he didn’t seem to realize that was pretty conventional behavior; perhaps Waldemar had never seen a medieval illustrated manuscript? That was — to my eyes — what Holbein had done, simply finished the book. After all, printing was new in the early 16th century.
So what’s the point?
At the end of the show, Waldemar spent time on one important and amazing painting, The Ambassadors.
Holbein died of the plague when he was in his mid-forties bringing home, again, the point that “art is long, life is fleeting.” The things which concern us today, frighten us today, will soon be forgotten completely and someday, a few hundred years from now, someone will comment on the events that have concerned Americans so much this past year. It will be a passing footnote in a longer story.
And he will get the facts wrong and most people will not even notice.