Kaisheim Altarpiece (outside view).

Hans Holbein the Elder (Hans Holbein der Ältere) was a late 15th-century, early 16th-century painter. Some of his canvases are notable for their use of sequential illustrated narratives. His 'Graue Passion' ('Grey Passion', 1494-1500), 'Epitaph der Schwestern Vetter' (1499) and 'The Kaisheim Altarpiece' (1502) visualize the life of Jesus in panels. He did the same with St. Paul's life in the triptych 'Basilica San Paolo Fuori Le Mura' (1504). Together with Hans Burgkmair the Elder, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Jeremias Gath, Caspar Krebs, Georg Kress, Bartholomäus Käppeler, Hans Rogel the ElderHans Rogel the YoungerErhard SchönJohann SchubertHans Schultes the ElderLucas SchultesElias Wellhöfer and his own son, Hans Holbein the Younger, Holbein is one of the earliest German prototypical comic artists who left us with a signature.

Life and work
Hans Holbein was born around 1460 in Augsburg, nowadays located in Germany, but back then part of the Holy German Empire. His father was a painter. In 1493, Hans and his younger brother Sigismund started their own art studio. Despite their creative partnership, Hans signed all their paintings and engravings exclusively under his own name. Like most medieval painters, the majority of his works are portraits or depictions of Christian scenes. 

Holbein was a citizen of Augsburg until 1516, after which tax fraud forced him to move to Issenheim in Alsace, near the present-day French-German border. Although he was able to start a second successful career, his own brother also tried to sue him. Soon the disgraced painter had to flee again, this time to Basel in present-day Switzerland, where he passed away in 1524. His sons, Ambrosius Holbein and Hans Holbein the Younger, also became respected painters and printmakers in their own right.

Panels 10, 11 and 12 of Holbein's 'Graue Passion', depicting the Descent from the Cross, the Lamentation of Christ and his Resurrection.

Grey Passion
Between 1494 and 1500, Holbein made a series of paintings about the arrest and execution of Jesus Christ. The twelve consecutive paintings follow the events leading up to Jesus' death, the so-called "Passion". Since Holbein used the grisaille painting technique, the work is nicknamed his 'Graue Passion' ('Grey Passion'). We see how Jesus prays on the Mount of Olives, is betrayed by Judas, mocked, tortured and forced to carry his own cross. Holbein doesn't depict the crucifixion itself, but does visualize Jesus' descent from the cross, the lamentation over his corpse and eventual miraculous resurrection. The 'Grey Passion' was originally intended for an altar piece, with a sculpture by Gregor Erhart in the center, which are nowadays both lost. Exhibited in the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart in Germany, the paintings are therefore grouped behind each other, to form the chronological narrative. The resemblance with a modern-day comic strip is striking. Other painters who have made narrative paintings that have to be grouped together to follow "the story" have been the 17th-century Dutch painter Otto van Veen, 18th-century British artist William Hogarth and 19th-century Spanish painter Francisco De Goya.

'Epitaph der Schwestern Vetter' (1499).

Epitaph der Schwestern Vetter
Holbein used Jesus' arrest and execution again in a comic strip narrative for the 'Epitaph der Schwestern Vetter' (1499), which can be admired in the Katharinenkirche (St. Catharine's Church) of Augsburg. Each scene is divided in consecutive panels. In the center, to be read from right to left, Jesus is selected for execution through a public referendum, organized by Roman governor Pontius Pilate, who afterwards literally and figuratively washes his hands in innocence. The story continues to the left, when Jesus is given the crown of thorns in a mock coronation. His humiliation continues in the next panel, when he is flogged. In the row below, again starting at the right, Jesus is forced to carry his own cross. Moving to the left, he is crucified and, in the final panel, seen praying before his rise to Heaven. Yet not all panels in this piece are a direct part of the story. Around the scenes with Jesus, Holbein depicts people and objects of symbolic importance, such as God, angels, nuns and – in the lower right - St. Veronica with the veil used to wipe sweat from Jesus' tired face during the Carrying of the Cross. According to Christian lore, Jesus' face was then reproduced on the cloth.

The Kaisheim Altarpiece (inside).

Kaisheim Altarpiece
For the Cistercian monastery of Kaisheim, a town not far for Donauwörth, Holbein designed the wings of an altarpiece. The Kaisheim Altarpiece (1502) depicts 16 scenes from Jesus life, thematically divided in two different parts. Part one - the inner view - concentrates on his birth. Part two - the outer view - focuses on Jesus' arrest and execution. The familiar narrative is visualized chronologically in 16 consecutive paintings. Each painting functions like a modern-day comic strip panel, with Jesus as the protagonist.

Basilica San Paolo Fuori Le Mura
For the Basilicum of Augsburg, Holbein painted an altarpiece about St. Paul, the 'Basilica San Paolo Fuori Le Mura' (1504). Although Jesus is not the subject, he is depicted on top of the painting, wearing the crown of thorns. The altarpiece visualizes St. Paul's life and martyrdom. To help us identify him, Paul is given a light blue robe. The narrative starts in the left panel, where two chronological events are depicted within one and the same image. In the background Paul is struck down from his horse by God's lightning. Having literally "seen the light", he converts to Christianity, visualized in the foreground, where he is baptized. The center panel visualizes five different moments in Paul's life. We see him teach the gospel in the upper left, center and right of the image, before being decapitated in the foreground. Finally, the right panel depicts his funeral, where his head is put at his feet.

Legacy and influence
Hans Holbein the Elder is recognized as one of the most important German painters of all time. In Basel, a square has been named after him, while in Frankfurt both a street and a bridge carry his name. His art was an influence on comic artists Edgar P. Jacobs and Rick Tulka.

'Basilica San Paolo Fuori Le Mura' (1504).

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