'The portrait of More is like a high-definition photograph, showing that nothing has changed in human physiology for five centuries.'

Sir Thomas More, 1527, by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8–1543). 29in by 23in, painted in 1527 in oil on oak. Part of the Frick Collection, New York, USA (Photographed by Michael Bodycomb)

Sir Thomas More, 1527, by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8–1543). 29in by 23in, painted in oil on oak. Part of the Frick Collection, New York, USA

Tim Rice says:

‘This astounding 1527 portrait of Sir Thomas More hangs in the Frick Collection, New York, alongside another Holbein masterpiece of the time, a portrait of Thomas Cromwell. The portrait of More is like a high-definition photograph, showing that nothing has changed in human physiology for five centuries. The character of the subject is laid bare – in all its brooding charisma, sinister calculation and, not least, delight of sartorial decoration. One feels one knows him, but would rather know the artist.’

Sir Tim Rice is a lyricist

John McEwen says:

Hans Holbein the Younger, the greatest German artist of his time, was born in Augsburg and learned his trade from his father before moving to Swiss Basel, where he prospered. Book illustration introduced him to Humanist circles.

Renaissance Humanism bore no relation to today’s term. It meant the study of Classical Greek and Latin literature and aspiration to humanitas, human virtue, which embraced social criticism and ‘Utopian’ (More’s coinage) ideals; action as much as reflection.

Holbein’s dramatically realistic portraits were a consequence. In 1523, he painted the Humanist scholar Erasmus and, when Basel was beset by anti-artistic Protestant fanatics, he left for London, armed with a letter of introduction from Erasmus to Thomas More.

He entered More’s household – described by Erasmus, who had stayed there three times and written Praise of Folly there, as a Christian version of Plato’s Academy – and painted the family, including this half-length portrait of More himself. A leading Humanist, More was shortly to assume the supreme office of Lord Chancellor. Henry VIII’s Queen Catherine described him as the king’s only councillor ‘worthy of the position and the name’.

Peter Ackroyd’s biography singles out the eyes as the portrait’s most striking aspect and reminds us that More always wore a penitential hair-shirt to chafe his skin. Stubble on his chin bears witness to Erasmus’s description that his friend was ‘neglentissimus’ in dress and appearance. The linked S-S of his gold chain of royal service stood for Souvent me Souvient (Remember me Often).

From 1533, Holbein painted for Henry VIII. When Henry forsook Catholicism, More’s fidelity to the old faith had him beheaded for high treason in 1535. He was declared a saint in 1935.