Observations of Holbein’s Analogy of the Old and New Testament

October 25th, 2012 Post by

The students of Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary, St. Catharines, ON started a student journal last year, which is called Propter Christum. This year, they are continuing the journal as well as keeping a blog: propterchristum.blogspot.com.  This post is from Tuesday, October 23rd.  


In volume I, issue 2 of Propter Christum (link at the top-right side of our blog), the cover-graphic was Hans Holbein the Younger’s Allegory of the Old and New Testament. Not enough is known about Hans Holbein the Younger. Based on a painting his dad painted of him and his older brother, he was probably born around the year 1598. Born into a family of artists, and growing up in Augsburg, Holbein later went to Basle, where many artists and scholars, including Erasmus, were attracted in the early/mid 16th century. There has always been dispute over where Holbein fell theologically, but his Allegory of the Old and New Testament certainly implies a grasp of Lutheran theology. The following is a commentary on that painting, written by last year’s student editor, Andrew Preus. The editor does not assume to know Holbein’s entire theological intentions. These comments are simply observations. If you would like some copies of past or upcoming issues of Propter Christum, please contact the editor at [email protected]

Hans Holbein the Younger summarizes the two basic teachings of Scripture in this one painting, that is, the law and the gospel.  On the left is the Old Testament, with the fall into sin with Adam and Eve (PECCATUM), the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai (LEX), the consequence of sin underneath Adam and Eve, as you can see the skeleton signifying death (MORS), and the bronze serpent as only a shadow of the mystery of justification (MYSTERIUM IUSTIFICATIONIS).  In the center is naked sin-sick man (HOMO) declaring the words from Romans 7:24: “Wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this guilty (obnoxio) body of death!”  He sits under a tree which is dead on the left side (the Old Testament) but alive on the right side (New Testament).

All of this might indicate that the Old Testament is all law while the New Testament is all gospel; however, look where the prophet Isaiah (on the left) is pointing.  This Old Testament prophet is pointing the sinner to the gospel just as John the Baptizer does.  As Isaiah points to the Virgin Mary who shall conceive and bear a Son (GRATIA; Isaiah 7; Notice that he is not pointing to something else first, but rather straight to the Virgin [Almah]!), John the Baptizer points to the Lamb of God (Agnes Dei) who takes away the sin of the world (John 1).  Whereas the bronze serpent is only a shadow or mystery, the Son of Man lifted up on the cross (John 3:14,15) is our justification (IUSTIFICATIO NOSTRA).  Although the wages of sin is death, the Lamb of God takes away that sin, and the gift of God is eternal life and victory over the grave.  Our victory is the resurrection (VICTORIA NOSTRA).
This is truly a wonderful painting that we can use for Catechetical purposes.  Holbein showing that our righteousness is the Suffering Servant and our victory is the Risen Lord gives us such comfort.  This painting demonstrates what the main focus for all Evangelical Lutheran preaching should be, namely that Jesus was delivered up for our sins and raised again for our justification.  This painting is available in the back pages of the Concordia reader’s edition of the Book of Concord.

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  1. October 25th, 2012 at 10:54 | #1

    I noticed this article and was very impressed by it. It is a VERY intriguing painting. On a side note, it is nearly impossible to find any reproductions of it. That particular painting was a real hassle to get rights to use in our Concordia edition of the BOC.

    It is owned by and displayed in the National Gallery of Scotland, but nobody there has even the slightest idea how it wound up in Edinburgh, Scotland.

    My favorite painting of the Reformation era remains the great Weimar Altar Painting by Lucas Cranach the Younger, but this one, by Holbein, is definitely in second place.

    I wish Holbein would have been able to paint portraits of the great Lutheran reformers: Luther, Melanchthon, etc. etc. His skills were unsurpassed.

    Hans Holbein the Younger only lived to the age off 45, by the way.

    As for the question of whether or not Holbein was a supporter of the Reformation, he gives us clues in his paintings, perhaps most notably in his painting “The Ambassadors” in which among the various things seen in the painting is Luther’s hymnal!

    Here is the painting and you can download a HUGE version of the painting in high resolution and take a look for yourself:


  2. October 25th, 2012 at 13:21 | #2

    We first saw this painting in “To All Eternity” published by CPH some years ago. Prints of this painting can be obtained directly from the National Gallery of Scotland for a relatively nominal cost. When I purchased one for my wife, they would accept only British Pounds, and I don’t believe they had a secure website. I simply bought a gift card of enough value to cover the cost of the print plus shipping. As I recall, it was about a three-week turnaround. Apparently, they do not stock prints, but have them custom-made upon request. They are very accommodating and helpful. Our framed print graces our living room, and we never tire of studying this treasure.

  3. October 25th, 2012 at 13:51 | #3

    Thanks, Rev. McCain! That is very interesting. I read somewhere that it was recorded (I can’t remember the document) that Holbein was hesitant at first in subscribing to the Augsburg Confession, since he still was undecided on the issue of the Lord’s Supper. But your observation in his painting “The Ambassadors” certainly is another clue that he leaned toward Lutheran theology.

  4. Sven Wagschal
    October 26th, 2012 at 01:20 | #4

    This is a very common motif in the time of the reformers: the barren wood (on the left side of the picture) and the tree of life (on the right side). We find it also in a very prominent position: as title for the last print of Luther’s bible while he still lived (1545), as you can see here:


  5. October 27th, 2012 at 09:19 | #5

    Sven comes through again, thanks!

  6. October 31st, 2012 at 08:48 | #6

    Lucas Cranach the Elder painted an almost exact copy (or the other way around?),Law and Grace. He also did woodcuts of the same. (for an excellent educational use of Cranach’s Law and Grace, see: http://wolfmueller.wordpress.com/2010/12/17/a-picture-of-law-and-gospel-literally/)

    The difference between Cranach’s and Holbein’s: the man (maybe Adam, maybe us, actually both) in Holbein’s depiction is front and center and in Cranach’s, he is in the right panel of Grace: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/ad/Cranach_Gesetz_und_Gnade_Gotha.jpg
    In Cranach’s painting the man is “transferred” (Colossians 1: 13). In Holbein’s painting the man immediately draws the viewer’s eye . If I were viewing this as a neo-evangelical, it would look like the man is in the throes of decision angst and Isaiah and John are, encouraging, or hectoring (?) him to make his decision for Jesus. The Scripture passage cited below is Paul asking the question, Who will deliver me from this body of death? But in the text Paul, by God’s grace, answered: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” The confident answer of faith is missing in Holbein’s work, again, as the man seems to be in throes of decision. True faith is depicted in Cranach’s work: the man is delivered and he has not delivered himself into grace. He can not. Further, in Cranach’s work, we are not viewing a man making a decision, the viewer is in the painting, both panels, sinner and saint. And looking at the true depiction on the left, there is not much of decision! “Wherefore we flee for refuge to Thine infinite mercy, seeking and imploring Thy grace for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ” Blessed Reformation Day!

  7. Isabel Bastos
    December 7th, 2013 at 07:10 | #7

    Allow me to start by saying that, as a Lutheran from Portugal and having an Art History MA in religious iconography, I was absolutely delighted to read such a interesting topic. Thank you.

    Considering the dates, it’s perhaps important to point out that it was Cranach that influenced Holbein. Cranach had several versions of “Law and Gospel”,one of which includes a man in the center of the composition, is dated 1529, while Hans Holbein’s painture is dated to the early 1530’s.


    Calling Holbein’s piece “An Allegory of the Old and New Testaments” (label by the museum) seems to me a clear understatement. “Law and Gospel” points out both the similarities and differences between both Testaments without dismissing the importance of any, and focusing on the importance of saviour (and victory over death and sin) by Christ and faith alone. I could rant about it all day, but briefly, just to express my belief: it’s Lutheran, from the core.

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