Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Allegory of the Old and New Law 

Hans Holbein, Follower of c.1497 - 1543

Allegory of the Old and New Law, Hans Holbein, Follower of
Oil on Panel
17th Century
16 x 26 2/3 inches (41 x 67.8cm)
English Private Collection
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This painting is an unusual example of an exclusively religious English picture. Painted at the outset of the seventeenth century, its production coincided with the increased religious tolerance at the end of Elizabeth I’s reign and the beginning of James I’s, particularly with regards to religious imagery. It is one of few early reproductions of Holbein’s Allegory of the Old and New Law, which was painted c.1533-5, shortly after Holbein arrived in England. The original painting is now in the National Gallery of Scotland.

The subject matter would have been instantly recognisable to contemporary viewers as reformist. In the centre of the picture, underneath a half dying, half living tree, sits man, ‘Homo’. He is being asked to choose by the two figures either side of him, Isaiah and John the Baptist, between the laws of the Old Testament, on the left, or the New Testament, on the right. The ‘Old’ law (‘Lex’) is full of vengeance, death, storms and sin. We see the major events of the Old Testament, such as the original sin of Adam and Eve, and Moses receiving the Ten Commandments. The ‘New’, by contrast, is a land of grace (‘Gratia’) bestowed by Christ the Son of God, in pleasant green pastures and blue skies. Christ is variously depicted leading his disciples, dying on the Cross to save his flock, and vanquishing death by offering eternal salvation (while also holding the flag of St George).

Similar imagery would have been seen by Holbein on the continent before he came to England, most notably in German woodcuts. Early reformers, such as Erasmus and Melanchthon (both of whom Holbein knew and painted), placed great emphasis on the Pauline doctrine of redemptive faith in the gospel, as opposed to the inevitability of sin in the world of law and rules set out in the Old Testament. This painting, therefore, is indicative of the declining influence of the Old Testament, and the rise of the Lutheran belief that it was possible to achieve ‘justification by faith alone’.
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