This assured drawing, tinted with watercolor and touches of gold to guide the application of enamel by a goldsmith, is one of Holbein’s most finished designs for a hat badge or medallion. It focuses on the tale of Tantalus, who, according to Greek mythology, was eternally punished by Zeus for abusing the hospitality of the gods. Trapped in a pool beneath an apple tree, Tantalus (the source of the word “tantalize”) strains upward yet cannot reach the fruit to satisfy his hunger. Although he is in undulating water, Tantalus also is not allowed to quench his thirst. Despite its minute scale, the complex composition fully conveys the drama of the story.

Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/98–1543)
Tantalus, 1535–40
Pen and black ink and watercolor, heightened in gold
Inscribed on the scroll, at top: Tantalus
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, gift of Ladislaus and Beatrix von Hoffmann and Patrons’ Permanent Fund, 1998; 1998.18.1


According to surviving inventories, Henry VIII and his courtiers owned large amounts of precious metalwork. These included medallions, hat badges, rings and other jewels made of silver, gold and enamel. As you move through this final room, you will notice that such intricate, elegant objects feature prominently in Holbein’s English portraits, adorning the woman from the Cromwell family in the picture from the Toledo Museum of Art and the unknown English Lady in the panel from Vienna.

This drawing is one of Holbein’s most finished compositions for a hat badge or medallion. Like many of the artist’s jewel designs, it features a story from classical mythology. Tantalus, who abused the hospitality of the gods, is punished by Zeus for his greed and doomed to be forever hungry and thirsty. Such an object might have been commissioned and worn by a wealthy individual as an expression of his or her taste and erudition, or a visual satire: a lavish jewel warning against excess.

Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington