Royal Jewelry Designer to Henry VIII: Hans Holbein the Younger
Hans Holbein the Younger, German-Swiss artist of the Northern Renaissance, is most well-known for his incredible and meticulous masterpiece, The Ambassadors, painted in 1533. To this day, viewers are still impressed by the symphonic jewel tones, the lushly rendered fur and silk costumes, and the fastidious depiction of the musical and scientific instruments on the table. Holbein’s skills as the portraitist to the wealthy elite of Europe, brought him great fame during his time, so much so that the notorious King Henry VIII recruited Holbein as his official court painter.
Once the artist had ingratiated himself into the circle of Henry VIII, Holbein began painting incredibly detailed portraits of the monarch and his many wives. As is characteristic of his work, and undoubtedly the reason Henry VIII continually commissioned paintings, was the way Holbein tactically depicted the sitter’s material possessions: the rich fur stoles, the ornate embroidery of the costumes, the sparkle of the diamonds and rubies worn by the King and his plethora of wives.
What is less known about Holbein is that he was not only the token court painter, but he also designed the jewelry that he so painstakingly depicted in his portraits. Regrettably, none of Holbein’s creations have weathered the storm of time, but a collection of his drawings and designs, known as the mysterious “Jewellery Book,” has survived and is carefully preserved in the collection of the British Museum. The exquisitely executed designs were listed among Henry VIII’s possessions upon his death, leaving scholars to conclude that these drawings were specifically created for the rebellious and extravagant King.
The designs are opulent, complex and unique with intricate abstract designs, reminiscent of Celtic knots, yet replete with emeralds, rubies and pearls. Another feature of Holbein’s jewelry designs are the distinctive interweaving of letters and names. The “Jewellery Book” book contains designs for Anne Boleyn as well as the King’s third wife Jane Seymour, identifiable by the playful and intricate patterning of each wife’s initials with Henry’s insignia. Many of the pendants are anthropomorphic configurations of elegant foliage and delicate interlocking lover’s knots. In addition, Holbein designed other precious objects and many of these small, cherished trinkets were meant to be private gifts. Scandalously, many of the designs contain unknown initials that still beguile scholars and allude to the romantic trysts of Henry VIII’s court.
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