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

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.