Baking sourdough, binge-watching Normal People or Mrs America, learning origami. People have dealt with lockdown in many ways. Personally, I went looking for the bones of Hans Holbein, the German artist who died almost 500 years ago and was dumped in an unmarked grave in the City of London. Or so it has always been believed.
Emptied out by coronavirus during lockdown, the City was the perfect place for socially distanced, government-mandated walks. And beneath its streets are the bodies of innumerable plague victims. One in particular haunts me. Holbein died in London, almost certainly of plague, in 1543. The long shadow of bubonic plague permeates his art, in its danse macabre of corpses and skeletons. It seemed appropriate to seek out this master of pestilence in a time of pandemic.
Holbein was a Renaissance star. Born in Augsburg, southern Germany, he made a name for himself in the Swiss city of Basel before blazing his way into Britain as a guest of Thomas More, author of Utopia and chancellor to Henry VIII. Later he switched patron to Thomas Cromwell, now enjoying a place in the sun thanks to The Mirror and the Light, the last of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy. Holbein made a small fortune painting portraits, ending up as a court artist. Henry sent him to paint Anne of Cleves, to help the monarch decide whether to make her his fourth wife. Then, at the age of 46, Holbein died in London and was buried, it seems, in an unmarked grave.
Few painters have matched his eye for living people, but look harder at his work and you see startling warnings that death is ever at your shoulder. In The Ambassadors, in London’s National Gallery, two wealthy men stand in the prime of their lives, dressed in opulent furs and surrounded by symbols of science and culture, from a globe to a lute. It is all rendered in perfect, glowing detail against a sumptuous green curtain.
But something cuts across the lower half of the painting and right through their covetable world: a black-and-white smear that interrupts the scene as strikingly as a pandemic. When looked at from the correct angle, the long, thin blur reveals itself to be a human skull – the inescapable presence of death.
To ram the point home, Holbein created a series of woodcuts called The Dance of Death, in which the skeletal reaper interrupts people while they are in the middle of ruling, loving or ploughing. To bang in the final nail, he also painted Christ as a rotting corpse. And The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb does not even hint at resurrection – it is simply a deceased man whose face is turning grey and feet are tinged with green. When Dostoevsky saw it in Basel, he was transfixed. “Why, a man’s faith might be ruined by looking at that picture!” he has a character say in The Idiot.
Having portrayed death so many times, Holbein found himself in a London struck by plague. A few weeks before he died from plague, according to his 17th-century biographer Karel van Mander, he made a will to provide for his two illegitimate children in England. The exact location of his bones is unknown, so midway through lockdown I decided to go looking back over what clues still remain.
My search began at Aldgate underground station, quiet as a grave without its commuters. And it may indeed mark a mass grave: when Victorian workers were tunnelling here, it’s said they hit a wall of human bones. This was reputedly the site of the biggest burial pit during the great plague of 1665. In A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe describes how carts dumped bodies into its “common grave of mankind”.
Aldgate was where Holbein lived. He may even have drunk from the Aldgate pump, which has been a source of fresh water since the middle ages. In the early 19th century, the pump’s water started killing people. This was traced to the fact that its supply flowed under cemeteries crammed with bacteria-ridden corpses. It is another macabre detail in an area dense with reminders of urban mortality. The gate of one nearby churchyard I found, at St Olave’s, has grisly skulls carved over it. Charles Dickens nicknamed it St Ghastly Grim. There are so many skulls on churches hereabouts, actually, they started to feel like clues.
Disease was rife in Holbein’s time. Average life expectancy was about 35, so he did all right to reach his 40s. To live well was to prepare for death. Jean de Dinteville, seen in The Ambassadors, wears a skull badge on his cap. Holbein showed similar acceptance as he had made his will at his Aldgate house: he wasn’t going to be surprised, like the King in The Dance of Death – interrupted as he feasts by a skeleton waiter. In this horrifying woodcut, 34 souls from all walks of life meet a grisly end.
St Katharine Cree, one of the Aldgate churches with a claim on the artist, is an ancient gothic survivor, now overshadowed by the tubes and funnels of the Lloyd’s building. It made it through the great fire and the blitz and seemed a good candidate for Holbein’s resting place. But when the art-loving Earl of Arundel wanted to put up a monument to Holbein here in the 17th century, no trace of a grave could be found. The artist, it was concluded, must be in a plague pit somewhere.
So people in the 17th century deduced from the very absence of a gravestone or monument that Holbein must have been one of plague’s anonymous victims. Can there be any other explanation?
Perhaps he fell foul of a monster king. By 1543, Henry VIII, serial killer of wives, was not best pleased with his court artist. Sent to portray a potential fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, before Henry ever saw her, Holbein came back with such a lovely painting that Henry had musicians play to celebrate. When Anne arrived in person, he claimed to find her too ugly to sleep with. There’s no record of Holbein being punished, though. He was probably saved by the low status of artists in Tudor Britain. In Italy, they might be gods but here they were just manual workers. Holbein was underneath Henry’s radar. Doing away with him would be like having a cook killed for making a substandard pie.
I found another possibility, though, under the massive girders that support Cannon Street Bridge. A piece of Britain’s past has gone missing here. In the Renaissance, this was the Steelyard, a community of German Hanseatic League merchants. Holbein made much of his money portraying them. While we treasure his pictures of the English court, his great painting of the Danzig merchant Georg Gisze, produced right here, is a highlight of Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie.
So here is another reason I wanted to find Holbein’s grave. The UK has left the EU and pretend we have always been a cultural island, set in a silver sea. Holbein proves otherwise. The greatest “British” Renaissance artist was part of a lost London-German community. This may be why his grave is unknown. In Tudor Britain, foreigners were called “strangers”. Holbein’s friend More spoke out to end a murderous riot against them known as Evil May Day. Was Holbein thrown into a pit not only because he was a plague victim, but also for being a “stranger”?
Holbein surely deserves a Denkmal – a place to think things over, as the German word for monument (from denken, to think) beautifully suggests. But where can you think about someone who was thrown in a mass grave? And so my family and I came to St Andrew Undershaft, Holbein’s parish church. It too survives, no longer skulking under the maypole shaft it was named after but beneath the Gherkin.
Behind the church are the remnants of its old burial ground. It would be poetic if this little space in the heart of the City harboured Holbein’s grave – because it does make a pleasant spot to think. In the afternoon sunlight, something white stood out against dark soil of the small yard. It was a piece of a jaw, with holes where the teeth once were. It looked uncomfortably human. But I quickly realised, almost with relief, that it was too small. There were other bones scattered around, too. Perhaps they were part of a badly ground fertiliser pack, or relics dug up by scavenging animals.
I had not found the remains of Holbein, but it did feel like a message from him. I had gone looking for one of the most assiduous painters of bones ever – and here we were, pondering bones in the plague-stopped city. Did they mark Holbein’s grave? Surely not. But they pointed me back to his art, and to what felt like a solution to this mystery.
The skull, the skeletons, the dead Christ – maybe Holbein let himself be thrown in a common grave as his final artistic gesture. After all, in his will he could have left money for a funeral and tomb, as Leonardo da Vinci did in France. By not doing that, he knew he risked the common pit. If this truly was his fate, then he was boldly embracing the insight of his art. From the king to the priest, from the lawyer to the peasant, from the abbess to the artist, we all end up the same in the end: snatched out of existence like the 34 lost souls in that magnificent, haunting masterpiece, The Dance of Death.