The Madonna of the Burgomaster of Basel, Jakob Meyer zum Hasen (1482–1531)
Sarburgh, Bartholomäus (c. 1590-1650) | Painter
Holbein der Jüngere, Hans (c. 1590-1650)
Meyer zum Hasen, Jakob (c. 1590-1650) | Person(s) shown
This image of the Madonna with the family of the donor, Jakob Meyer zum Hasen, Mayor of Basel, is both a Catholic devotional image and a memorial painting. It combines religious art with exceptionally fine portrait painting and was long celebrated in the Dresden Gallery as a masterpiece by Holbein the Younger. In the so-called “Holbein Dispute” it emerged, at a conference in Dresden in 1871, that this is a copy made by Sarburgh as a deliberate forgery. Holbein’s 1526 original is now held in Schwäbisch Hall.
This painting was acquired for the Dresden collection in 1743. At that time, given the work’s sophisticated painting technique and amazing realism, there was no doubt this must have been painted by such a genius as Hans Holbein. In Dresden, the painting was acclaimed as ‘absolutely unique in Europe’. Not least, this praise was due to the painting so perfectly accompanying Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, acquired in 1754. They were an ideal match – on the one hand, the Italian Madonna; and on the other, with her blonde hair, the German Madonna.
Suddenly, though, in 1822, a second identical version of this already renowned Holbein painting was discovered. This second version was acquired by Prussia’s Crown Prince Wilhelm. Then in 1845, Berlin art historian Franz Kugler put forward an incredible theory – the Berlin painting, only rediscovered just over twenty years before, was the original, and the Dresden version was a copy. The art world in Dresden vehemently rejected this presumptuous claim by a Prussian scholar.
The ‘Holbein dispute’, as it was known, was fought intensely for years until a decision could be reached in 1871, when both versions were shown together in Dresden to an interested audience. Most of the general public and artists regarded the Dresden version as the original; but the art historians unequivocally agreed the Berlin version was the original.
Later, this view was validated by such methods as X-ray radiography and infrared imaging. The changes found on the Berlin version could only have been added during the painting process itself by Holbein’s own hand – clear proof the Berlin version was the original. In contrast, the Dresden version showed no trace of changes; it was simply a copy of the final state of the original painting.
In 1910, Swiss art historian Emil Major managed to identify artist Bartholomäus Sarburgh as the painter of the Dresden copy. Sarburgh had executed the copy in 1635 – most likely as a forgery commissioned by the Dutch art dealer Michel Le Blond.
When Jacob Meyer zum Hasen – on the left in his fur-lined cloak – commissioned this altarpiece from Hans Holbein in 1525, he had some hard years behind him. Meyer zum Hasen had been burgomaster of Basel – at least until 1521, four years before, when he was removed from office and imprisoned for accepting bribes. But now he had been released, and saw this painting as a way to improve his public image – a demonstration of his humility and, at the same time, announcing his return to life at the top.
A money changer by trade, Meyer zum Hasen was not born into high society, but introduced into those circles by his first wife Magdalena Baer. When this work was painted, Magdalena Baer was already dead. Nonetheless, she was included in the family portrait, set in strict profile behind her successor Dorothea Kannengießer – whose features, as we can see, are far more vivid. Incidentally, the figure of Magdalena Baer illustrates one of the changes so decisively helping to distinguish between the original and copy. Evidently, she was only added after most of the work had been completed – which explains why she seems a little cramped.
The young woman in white kneeling in front of Dorothea is Anna, a daughter of the marriage. She is holding a rosary in her hands. It’s rather more difficult to know who the two boys in front of Meyer zum Hasen are supposed to be. Since he never had any sons, the modern reading of the figures suggests they might be a further link between the worldly and divine spheres. The finely dressed young man could be Saint Jacob, Meyer zum Hasen’s patron saint. The naked young child in front is read as representing John the Baptist, often an accompanying figure in Renaissance paintings of the Madonna and Child.
- Material & Technique
- Oil on oak panel
- Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister
- c. 1635/37
- Inventory number
- Gal.-Nr. 1892