Erasmus, More, and the Humanist Portrait

Desiderius Erasmus (1466?–1536), also known as Erasmus of Rotterdam, was Europe’s first celebrity scholar, famous for his theological and philosophical writings. His ideas were widely and rapidly disseminated through the relatively new technology of the printing press. His books, such as the satirical Praise of Folly (Moriae encomium), were best sellers, read avidly across the social spectrum.

Although Erasmus believed that the written word was superior to the visual image, he used his portraits strategically to extend and deepen his influence. Erasmus’s personal emblem was Terminus, the Roman god of boundaries, known for resisting Jupiter, king of the gods. Artists, notably Holbein and Quentin Metsys, represented Terminus and Erasmus as a pair, so that the god’s portrayal as a stern-faced herm (stone pedestal with a head) came to embody the scholar’s formidable character. Erasmus was Holbein’s most important early supporter, and he introduced the painter to prominent individuals in England, including Sir Thomas More, a scholar and an advisor to King Henry VIII.