The Triumph of the City


The High Renaissance




(Renaissance  Art Map)



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Hans Baldung



Hans Baldung

born c. 1484, Schwabisch Gmünd, Württemberg [Germany]
died 1545, Imperial Free City of Strasbourg [now Strasbourg, Fr.]

painter and graphic artist, one of the most outstanding figures in northern Renaissance art. He served as an assistant to Albrecht Durer, whose influence is apparent in his early works, although the demonic energy of his later style is closer to that of Matthias Grunewald.

His work is extensive and varied. It ranges from religious paintings and secular portraits to designs for tapestries and stained glass. He is noted for representations of the Virgin Mary, in which he combined landscapes, figures, light, and colour with an almost magical serenity. His portrayals of age, on the other hand, have a sinister character and a mannered virtuosity. His best known work in painting is the High Altar of the cathedral at Freiburg im Breisgau, Ger., for which he also designed the stained-glass choir windows.

Baldung-Grien's paintings are equalled in importance by his extensive body of drawings, engravings, and woodcuts ofan intense vitality. The Totentanz (“dance of death”) and the “death and the maiden” theme occur frequently in his graphic works. An early supporter of the Reformation, he executed a woodcut in which Martin Luther is protected by the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove.

Baldung-Grien was a member of the Strasbourg town council, as well as official painter to the episcopate. His works also appear in the church at Elzach and the museums of Basel, Karlsruhe, Cologne, Freiburg, and Nurnberg.



The Totentanz

(dance of death)




The Knight, the Young Girl, and Death
Oil on wood, 355 x 296 cm
Musee du Louvre, Paris

Death and the Maiden

Oil on panel, 31 x 19 cm
Offentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel

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Hans Baldung



Hans Baldung Grien:

The Three Stages of Life, with Death

c. 1510

Strange quartet

Rose-Marie, Rainer Hagen



Three Ages of the Woman and the Death
Oil on limewood,48 x 32,5 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Three Ages of Man
Museo del Prado, Madrid

In 1510 the artist Hans Baldung, alias Grien, completed a painting enigmatic enough to ensure that its theme has remained the object of speculation ever since. Who is the young woman, so engrossed in her own reflection: a goddess, the allegory of Vanity, a whore? The other figures are equally obscure. All that can be said for sure of this Renaissance work is that it retains no trace of that Christian notion of salvation "which so dominated the art of the Middle Ages. The painting (48 x 33 cm) is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
Of the four naked figures in the gloomy landscape, it is the young woman who draws our attention. A pale, attractive figure, she stands out starkly against the browns and darker hues of the other figures. To her right, a torn creature holds an hourglass over the young woman's head; a hag enters from the left, a child kneels at the comely blonde's feet.
The work belongs to the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, in whose catalogue of 1896 the old woman is described as Vice, the young woman as Vanity and the child as Amor. In the catalogue of 1938 the painting is entitled Allegory of Transience, and 20 years later: Death and The Three Ages of Woman, Allegory of the Vanity of all Worldly Things. The laconic title in a catalogue of works exhibited at the Baldung exhibition of 1959 reads: Beauty and Death.
Dispute has not been confined to the subject of the painting; the authorship, too, remained obscure for many years. Initially ascribed to Lucas Cranach and Albrecht Altdorfer, the painting was eventually attributed to the hand of Hans Baldung Grien. Little is known of the artist's life: he was born c. 1485, probably in Schwabisch Gmund. From 1503 to 1507 he was apprenticed to Albrecht Durer's Nuremberg workshop. He painted the high altar at Freiburg Cathedral, but lived mainly in Strasbourg, where he died in 1545.
Despite the puzzle presented by the theme, it is nonetheless possible to reconstruct contemporary ideas associated with the four figures, while throwing light on the historical background of the ideas themselves. Numbers, for example, held a peculiar significance at the time. They not only served the practical purpose of ordering diverse phenomena, but were considered things in themselves, pillars of the world order. Numbers possessed a mythical aura that can be retraced to antiquity and, in particular, to the work of Pythagoras. Though number symbolism had never quite sunk into oblivion during the Middle Ages, it nonetheless experienced a revival with the rediscovery of antiquity.
Three and four are the numbers most strongly felt in Baldung's picture: the three stages of life, and, as a fourth stage, Death. Both numbers were highly significant. Four were the points of the compass, four the elements and the humours; there were four periods of the day and four seasons. The times of day and seasons, too, were frequently associated with periods in life: spring and morning were childhood, night and winter the final years of a person's life, or death.


Eve, the Serpent, and Death
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

As a universal number, three was even more significant than four. The Holy Trinity, after all, was at the heart of Christian theology. In antiquity, the number three — the beginning, middle and end — stood for the totality. Aristotle had used the number three in his ethics: a bad action derives from an "excess" or a "deficiency", whereas the "just action" lies in the "mean". The Greek philosopher also applied the number three to the stages of a person's life: youth had too much strength, courage, anger and desire; old age had too little of these. Only persons in their prime possessed these qualities in due proportion.
Much thought during Classical antiquity was devoted to the division of life into three, or four (or even seven, or ten), stages, but these ideas did not find their way into the visual arts. The portrayal of the different stages of a human life in medieval art, in paintings commissioned by the church, is exceptional, for such distinctions were considered irrelevant in the face of that still greater division between life before and life after death. It was not until approximately 1500, when worldly patrons began to influence artistic themes, that the ages of Man were more frequently painted. Hans Baldung made them the theme of his own work on several occasions.


First steps


Three Ages of the Woman and the Death (detail)


Death and the Maiden


It is difficult to judge whether the child at the young woman's feet is a boy or a girl; contours barely visible behind the veil suggest a boy. The hobby-horse, probably considered a boy's toy at the time, tends to confirm the suspicion. Conversely, however, if the painting is intended to portray "the three stages", why give childhood a different sex from that of maturity and old age?
Perhaps the gender of a child was of little importance to contemporary spectators. The difference was, in any case, rarely emphasized. During the first years of their lives boys and girls wore the same clothes: long frocks or smocks, and snug caps in winter.
At the same time, less interest was shown in children altogether than is the case in today's nuclear family: bonding between parents and children did not occur with quite the same intensity. Too many children were born, and too many died. Only a fraction of those born actually survived; it was better, therefore, safer, not to get too close. Perhaps such emotional reserve partly also explains why artists paid relatively little attention to children. They perceived the adult body more accurately than that of a child. This is certainly true of Hans Baldung Grien. Children who are not old enough to find their balance do not kneel with one leg stretched out in the manner shown in the painting. At least, the position would be extremely unusual.
The image of the child was determined not only by feelings and social relations, but by a whole superstructure of theological theory. This included the tenet, prevelant since antiquity, that children were intrinsically innocent. However, everyday relations with children made very little of the belief in a child's innocence. Children were treated as imperfect adults. Their special status existed only in theory, characteristically illustrated by a motif in the Bible story of the Garden of Eden: the bite taken from the forbidden apple, and Man's consequent loss of innocence. Baldung cites the theme in the shape of the round object on the ground: this could simply be a child's ball, but it could equally be an apple lying within the child's reach. The child is likely to pick it up before long.
To an educated spectator, the hobbyhorse, too, was more than a toy that happened - by accident, as it were - to be lying on the ground. Cognoscenti would have linked it, through one of Aesop's fables, to the theme of the different stages of life. For the Greek writer attributes an animal to each of the three stages: the dog, the ox and the horse. The dog, a morose creature, friendly only to those who look after it, stands for old age; the ox, a reliable worker, who provides nourishment for old and young alike, represents life's prime; the horse personifies childhood, since, in this fable at least, horses are unruly creatures, lacking in self-discipline.


Beauty keeps her secret



Three Ages of the Woman and the Death (detail)


The star of the painting is the damsel. The other figures seem present solely to make her stand out more starkly. Baldung achieves this effect by arrangement and colour: the young woman is furthest to the fore, the only figure whose body is not, at least partially, obscured by one of the others. At the same time, her skin is significantly brighter, indeed nearly white.
In his use of colour, Baldung follows a convention here. His teacher Albrecht Diirer, as well as his contemporaries Albrecht Altdorfer and Lucas Cranach, usually painted the bodies of women somewhat paler than those of men, and young bodies lighter than older ones. But in so doing, they showed moderation, were less given to extremes. Since, even in those days, male skin "was probably no darker than that of women, and young skin no paler than old, artists must have been influenced by something other than Nature. Perhaps pallor was intended to indicate a
certain delicacy. It is more likely, however, that they were painting an ideal aspired to by women themselves. Pale skin was the fashion, at least in circles that could afford it: at court, or among the wealthy urban middle class.
The special status granted to the young woman may mean that she is intended to represent a special person: the goddess Venus, for example. The child, in that case, would be Amor. However, contemporary spectators of the painting, exposed to pictures of Venus and Amor more often than we, would have noticed immediately that something was wrong. Amor, for one thing, has no bow and arrow, his traditional attributes; secondly, since Venus is immortal, the hourglass held over her head is entirely superfluous.
If not a goddess, perhaps the young woman was intended as the allegory of Vanity. There is much in the painting to suggest this. The young woman, apparently absorbed in her own reflection, brushes back her lovely, long hair with her left hand, while, in her right, she holds a mirror, the symbol of Vanity. The mirror is convex; flat mirrors were difficult to fabricate, and therefore inordinately expensive. If the young woman is Vanity, then the older woman is a procuress: supporting the mirror with one hand, she probably beckoned with the other, making sure the young woman did not lack admirers for very long. Death, too, has its place in this picture: anyone setting out to paint the vanity of beauty would probably also have its ephemerality in mind. This was doctrinaire Christian morality, for which the flesh, an obstacle to the spirit's journey to God, was evil. Outside the church, too, people were constantly forced to confront death and the ephemerality of life. The average life expectancy was thirty, almost half our own. Many died in their prime, especially women in childbirth. Hans Baldung Grien painted at least three women who had come under the shadow of Death.
In contrast to the three paintings mentioned, however, Death in the present picture seems merely to be imparting a polite reminder to the young lady that life eventually comes to a close. The hourglass has not yet run out: Beauty has time enough to regard herself in a mirror. But is she really the allegory of Vanity? The child would certainly be out of place in such an allegory. Baldung's composition does not comply with any of the many iconographical patterns of his time. Something is always left unexplained.




The body becomes a burden



Three Ages of the Woman and the Death (detail)


Death and the Maiden

Greek and Roman authors, writing of the different periods of life and death, had men in mind. They talked of young men and old, not of girls and old women. Men, during antiquity, were considered the true representatives of mankind, a notion which has survived the centuries and, even today, continues to find its way into people's minds.
Painting has often differed in this respect, not least that of Baldung himself. Three of his paintings show Death and a maiden. A panel in Leipzig shows the Seven Stages of Life, another, in the French town of Rennes, the Three Stages of Death: in both Baldung paints nude women. Only once does Baldung show Death and a man: the man is fully clothed, his dress that of a mercenary. Baldung's preference for women may derive from a more general preference for painting the female nude. But there may also be reasons less personal: women's bodies alter more visibly than men's, making it easier for the artist to illustrate the different stages of her life. Furthermore, beauty is considered more significant in woman than in man - more attention is therefore accorded to the passing of her charms.
Baldung's work belongs to a period in the history of art called the Renaissance, an era in which the human body is said to have been discovered anew. But that is only half the story. The body that "was discovered, celebrated and painted over and over again was restricted to a single stage of human development: young adulthood, which, like the pale-skinned woman in the painting, was full of youthful energy. The other periods, age and childhood, were neglected. There are very few individual portraits of children, or paintings of nudes who are visibly past their prime.
If painted at all, then it was not for their intrinsic qualities, but for purposes of vicarious illustration. Children, for example, were a part of the traditonal inventory of allegories: as putti, angels or Amor. The bodies of old women, on the other hand, were generally linked to something revolting or contemptible: witches, for example, or the Fates. One such work is Durer's famous illustration of parsimony, showing a bare-breasted old hag with narrow eyes in her wrinkled face, with more gaps between her teeth than teeth in her mouth, and a sack of gold in her lap.
The old woman in Baldung's painting may be intended as a bawd. In contrast to the younger woman, she is portrayed to her disadvantage, for her bodily proportions are incorrect. The arm with which she wards off Death is too long. Baldung frequently distorted proportions in this way.
The lack of respect and devotion granted older women at the time, with the exception, perhaps, of portraits like Durer's charcoal drawing of his mother, together with a pronounced tendency to portray the older female nude as ugly, probably derive from a peculiarly male perspective. The young woman, the object of male desire, was given a certain appeal; sexual inclination determined aesthetics. Conversely, an older woman's body was seen as worn out, its erotic properties dissolved. The male reaction to this was one of disillusionment, perhaps even disappointment. This decided how he painted.



Dancing to death

Three Ages of the Woman and the Death (detal) 1510

The artist has crowded three figures into the left of the painting, leaving the right to Death. The proportional harmony and figural balance sought by Durer is lacking here. Instead, the chief effect is one of movement: created, for example, by the old woman striding forcefully towards Death, or by the veil. The latter begins with the child, flows over the young woman's upper arm, is picked up by Death, finally drifting out of the painting on the right.
It has been suggested that the pale nude's veil is the badge of a whore, for in cities like Strasbourg at that time, prostitutes were obliged to wear veils. But then the Virgin was also frequently painted wearing a veil, as were Eve and Venus. It is therefore unlikely that Baldung's contemporaries would have linked the delicate fabric of the veil with the idea of fornication.
The veil is nonetheless an important feature. Firstly, it fulfils a practical and traditional function in covering the pubic region; secondly, it creates a link between the child, the young woman and Death. The older woman, warding off Death with one hand and supporting the mirror with her other, completes the group.
All four are inter-connected. The cycle of figures thus suggests the motion of a dance: a roundel. Dancers often joined by holding a piece of cloth rather than each others' hands.
Bearing this in mind, it is possible that the contemporary spectator of this painting would not have thought only of Venus and Amor, Vanity and the bawd, the ages of Woman, beauty and ephemerality, but also of the widespread image of the danse macabre, the dance of death. It was an image often seen carved on the walls of graveyards and churches: a skeleton, usually playing an instrument, leads representatives of each of the social strata, from the peasant to the emperor to the pope, into the Hereafter. The message these pictures conveyed was that Death cancelled worldly distinctions; only God's judgement counted.
This religious and moral exhortation was evidently compounded by the widely held belief in ghosts. Death was not the only figure to haunt the living; there were also the "undead". People in those days spoke of revived corpses, dead persons taken before their time, the victims of murder, suicide, accident or war, who, deprived of last rites, roved the surface of the earth like a "tormented army".
One of Baldung's contemporaries, the doctor and philosopher Paracelsus, referred to these revived corpses as "mummies". The term aptly describes Hans Bal-dung Gricn's figure of Death: no naked skeleton, but a dried-out corpse, whose finger and toe-nails continue to grow, whose parched skin hangs down in tatters like the dry bark of the nearby tree. But even a superstitious belief in zombies cannot fully account for the four figures in the painting. There is, at any rate, one thing that all these explanations have in common: the painting contains no reference to the Christian notion of salvation, not a trace of that doctrine of Divine Supremacy that was acknowledged and celebrated so frequently in medieval painting.

See collection:

Hans Baldung



The Seven Ages of Woman

See collection:

Hans Baldung


"When Shall We Three Meet Again"

Europe swept by witch-burnings



Two Witches


Now I come to speak of the greatest of all heresies: of the mischief wrought by witches and fiends. By night they fly through the air on broomsticks, stove forks, cats, goats or other such things. Witchcraft is the most accursed of all errors - and it must be mercilessly punished by fire.

Mathiasvon Kemnat, Chronicle of Frederick the Victorious of the Palatinate, c.1480;
heading: William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 1


Hell's weather cauldrom, 1489

They concocted devilish ointments of toads' eyes, choke cherries, peppercorns and spiders. They poisoned the air with powders ground from intestines. They caused cataclysmic deluges to fall from the heavens. Thev set off avalanches and turned themselves into red-eyed goats. Their favourite food was pickled children. Imagination knew no bounds when it came to describing the monstrous things done by witches and their evil powers. Some early tales are inadvertently funny. Witches blew up storms by vigorously fanning them with their slippers or slid down into valleys on the backs of avalanches, the tails of their scarves flapping in the wind. In early Modern times, however, witches were no laughing matter. Enlightened bishops — who castigated belief in ghosts, witches and black magic and regarded it as utter nonsense that represented a revival of pagan practices — were not heeded. Most theologians not only promoted dark superstition; they were convinced that sorcery was a reality and the result of pacts with the devil. Witchcraft was heresy, which made it doubly important to prosecute it and to persecute practitioners. In 1487 a compendium of horror stories was published in Strasbourg, the Hexenhammer (Witches' Hammer), which continued to be read in Europe until the seventeenth century. Both Protestant and Catholic judges consulted it as a penal code for dealing with witchcraft. One can imagine King James, famously obsessed with witchcraft, having been sent a copy by his daughter from the Palatinate. At any rate, the book may be said to have sparked off much of the witch-burning madness of the early Modern age. Its authors approved of torture, maintaining that women in particular were inclined to the sin of witchcraft. Of course women who gave themselves up to "lust and carnal desire or even sodomy" were prime targets for persecution. The German painter Hans Baldung Grien, who from 1509 lived in Strasbourg — where Hexenhammer had been published not long before — most likely wanted to get in on the act with his Two Witches. Despite the continued call for moderation and reason, witch-burnings — which had ceased in England by 1685 — were still common practice on mainland Europe as late as 1749. Trials however continued until 1717 in England, whereas the last recorded trial of a witch took place in 1793 in Germany.


Burning witches at the stake, 1555


Hans Baldung



Witches Sabbath



Departing for the Sabbath



Three Witches









Departing for the Sabbath






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Hans Baldung



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