Hans Holbein the Elder (c. 1465-1524), Head of a Crossbowman, c. 1516
Of the many altarpieces created by the artist, only the Augsburg Triptych, featuring the martyrdom of St. Sebastian as the central motif, survives intact today.
The insides of the wings bear representations of St. Barbara and St. Elizabeth of Thuringia, and when the wings are closed, they show an annunciation scene with the angel to the left and the Virgin Mary to the right.
Small studies for the alterpiece
A number of small studies for the altarpiece survive today, both at the Kupferstichkabinett in Berlin and here at the National Gallery of Denmark. These studies take the form of brittle yellowish-brown drawings done with silverpoint on paper prepared with glue and bone meal to create a surface both white and hard and smooth.
When Holbein the Elder did his drawing, his silverpoint left only a few delicate traces, but exposure to the air gradually turned these traceries brown, creating visible lines.
Five studies for the St. Sebastian alterpiece
Among the Department of Prints and Drawings’ five studies for the St. Sebastian altarpiece we find this seemingly rapidly and effortlessly executed outline of the crossbowman which was used unaltered in the left-hand side of the middle panel: a man taking aim, one eye closed, his cartilaginous nose pushed slightly to the side by the hand holding the crossbow.