Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014
Portrait of a Young Man with a Rosary
Probably born in Schwäbisch Gmünd, Swabia, Baldung’s early work shows the influence of Swabian artists. He had entered Dürer’s workshop in Nuremberg by 1503, and was possibly left in charge when Dürer travelled to Venice in 1505; he moved to Halle on Dürer’s return in 1507. His nickname Grien (‘Green’) was probably given to him in Dürer’s workshop, perhaps because he wore the colour or used the colour frequently in his work, as here. In 1509 Baldung settled in Strasbourg, where he remained for most of his life, becoming a master in Zunft zur Steltz (‘Guild to the Stilt’), the guild of goldsmiths, painters, printers and glaziers. Baldung painted both Protestants and Catholics even after Strasbourg became a major centre of Protestant reform. As Dürer’s most inventive assistant, he was prolific in a wide range of media, including designs for stained glass and book illustrations, woodcuts and engravings. Interested in the supernatural and erotic, as well as in religious subject matter, he is best known for his fascination with witches and superstition.
This is one of Baldung Grien’s first known portraits. There is no signature or monogram HGB, which he used subsequently. The word ‘ANNA’ is probably a mistake for ‘ANNO’ rather than to be read as AN.NA (the shortened form of ‘Anno Nativitatis’), which would be followed by the sitter’s date of birth. Baldung’s mastery of line, so evident in his woodcuts, controls and gives energy to large areas of simple form. He uses the paler ground layers to give a vivid liquidity to these areas of colour. The face has a concise intensity and a particular vulnerability, in part because of the openness of the near full frontal pose and the unfocused gaze. Characteristic of Baldung’s portraiture even at this early date is a pathos and psychological insight only surpassed by Grünewald. He painted confidently over free underdrawing which worked out the portrait in vigorous sweeping curves. In paint he shifted features and ignored the ring drawn on the finger.
Top centre is a device which shows an owl perched on the stalk of a flower, perhaps a
carnation, under attack by another bird. For this reason the artist was previously thought to be Herri met de Bles (c.1510-50), the Netherlandish artist known in Italy as Civetta, who often included an owl in his paintings as a type of signature. The bird of prey has been read as a heron, but is more likely to be an eagle or a crow. If an eagle, the struggle with the owl may symbolise the battle of day over night or good over evil; the latter has been related to the rosary held prominently by the sitter. The crow was regarded as the owl’s deadly enemy (‘for the Crow destoyes the Egs [sic] of the Owl by day, and the Owls the Crow by night’ (Sylvanus Morgan, arms painter and author)). A tradition in German prints exists that the owl was mocked as Christ was mocked. The owl, therefore, as a type of Christ, is associated with divine knowledge, as well as with Minerva, goddess of wisdom. In a Martin Schongauer print an owl on prominent foliage is mocked by a very similar bird and it is most likely that Baldung refers back to this tradition.
Membership of rosary confraternities was much in vogue in Germany and across Europe at this date. In 1475 Jakob Sprenger established a ‘Confraternity of the Psalter of the Glorious Virgin Mary’ at Cologne which grew to be the largest such confraternity; one close to Strasbourg was at Colmar. A few years before painting this portrait Baldung was one of four artists from Dürer’s circle to illustrate Ulrich Pinder’s book about rosaries, Der beschlossen Gart des Rosenkranz Marie (‘The Enclosed Garden of the Rosary’, published 1489-1505).
Text adapted from The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein, 2011