Allan Barton presents images from Thomas More’s Utopia

In 1515, Sir Thomas More left England as part of an embassy to the court of the future Emperor Charles V. For over twenty years the tax imposed on English exports to the Spanish Netherlands had increased annually, and the embassy was sent to negotiate a new arrangement. More’s friend Erasmus of Rotterdam, the Humanist scholar, saw it as an opportunity for More to mix pleasure with business. He provided him with letters of introduction to two fellow Humanists in the Low Countries, Peter Gilles and Hieronymus van Busleyden. Influenced by his encounter with these men, More began work on Utopia. Beginning as a series of letters to his new friends, Utopia was a radical work. It was an account of a perfect, but fictional island state – a state unlike the ones in which he and his friends lived. Utopia was a place where all goods were held in common, where the state was free from trade issues, and free from the ambition of princes.

Erasmus was delighted with More’s work, and arranged for it to be printed in Leuven in 1516. He also sent a copy of Utopia to his friend the Swiss printer Johann Froben. He commended the text to Froben and asked him to print it, if, in his unbiased opinion, he felt the text was worthy of the press. In December 1518, More’s Utopia was printed by Froben on his press in Basel. The book Froben produced was perhaps one of the most beautiful books to come out of any press in sixteenth-century Europe.

The frontispiece in Froben’s edition of Utopia is executed with great skill. The title is presented as a scroll set against a delicate classical frame, the frame inhabited with putti and decorated with garlands of fruit and leaves. As is indicated by the inscription ‘Hans Holb,’ the frontispiece was designed by an artist who would become one of the greatest painters of the Northern Renaissance: the twenty-one-year-old Hans Holbein the Younger. In 1515 Hans and his elder brother Ambrosius, both then teenagers, moved to Basel from Augsburg to find work. During their time in Basel they undertook a wide range of different work, but the printer Froben was one of their main employers.

Most of the other engravings in Froben’s Utopia are by Ambrosius rather than Hans, and his tour de force is the map of the mythical island state. In Holbein’s visualisation of Utopia the island state is shown set in the midst of the ocean, with sailing ships plying their way through the waters. In the centre of the country lies the capital, Amaurotum (‘Mist-town’),which sits on on the river Anydrus (‘Waterless’). The river’s source, ‘Fons Anydri,’ and mouth, ‘Ostium Anydri,’ are labelled. In the bottom left-hand corner, Hythlodaeus, the fictional sailor who discovered the island, points out the geography of the state to another figure – perhaps More himself.

As well as being a representation of More’s creation, the map also has a deeper representational meaning. Look carefully and you will notice that the various elements of the map together form the image of a skull. This map is a memento mori; if we look on this map, not only do we take in the geography of Utopia; but we are forced to consider our mortality as well, and our part in the kingdom of Christ. Dig a bit deeper, and there is yet another layer of meaning to this image. It is said that More once had a debtor who said that after death more would have little use for the money. He said to More ‘memento morieris’: ‘remember we will die’; to which More replied ‘memento mori aeris’: ‘remember More’s money.’ Word play and clever puns appealed to More and his circle of friends. This image of the skull appearing out of his Utopia reminds us of death; but it also recalls More’s name.

Ambrosius Holbein died shortly after he produced his map of Utopia, but his brother Hans would travel to England in 1526 and become the court painter to Henry VIII – his introduction to England was made by Erasmus and Thomas More. This book not only recalls the literary and philosophical genius of Thomas More and his circle, and the artistic skill of the Froben and the Holbein brothers; but reminds us what a well connected world it was in which they all lived.

The Revd Dr Allan Barton is Chaplain to the University of Wales Trinity Saint David at Lampeter, and Curator of the University Art Collections. St Thomas More is commemorated with St John Fisher on 22 June (RC) and 6 July (CofE).