“The Ambassadors” by Hans Holbein the Younger is a masterpiece of grand size but highly detailed and full of symbolism. Created in the Tudor Period in the same year Elizabeth I was born, this double portrait depicts two wealthy, educated and powerful men. On the left is Jean de Dinteville, French ambassador to England. On the right is Georges de Selve, bishop of Lavaur, who acted on various occasions as ambassador to the Emperor, the Venetian Republic and the Holy See.
In the foreground is the distorted image of a skull, which is a classic Renaissance image with a universal message; that of human mortality. When this image is viewed from a point at the extreme right of the picture, the distortion is corrected, and the skull looks normal. Dinteville, who commissioned the painting and whose personal motto was “remember thou shalt die” may have requested the hidden skull was a symbol of the inevitability of death.
The anamorphic skull restored by the viewing from the correct angle.
This painting follows the traditional style of the time, showing society’s elite with books and the new instruments of science. The objects on the top shelf include a celestial globe, a portable sundial and various other instruments used for understanding the heavens and measuring time. On the bottom shelf are a lute, a case of flutes, a hymn book, a book of arithmetic and a terrestrial globe.
During the same year, this painting was created, there was significant turbulent at the royal court. Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon is declared null and void. Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn. Cranmer declares Henry’s marriage to Anne valid. The Pope declares Henry and Cranmer excommunicated. Anne Boleyn is crowned Queen. Anne gives birth to Elizabeth, the future queen. To mirror this turbulence, there are many interesting details and symbols in this painting:
- The dagger held by Dinteville, on the left has his age 29, inscribed on the ornate scabbard.
- The book under Selve’s elbow has his age 25, written on its side.
- The book is a symbol of Selve’s character as that of a contemplative nature.
- The dagger symbolises Dinteville as a man of action.
- The mosaic floor is based on the medieval floor of Westminster Abbey.
- Under the lower table, is the left-hand prong of the 6-sided star of David.
- The two figures are divided almost perfectly by the plumb line at the centre of the top shelf.
- The location of Rome on the globe on the lower shelf is the approximate geometric centre of the almost square painting.
- The lute has one of its strings is snapped, creating a visual representation of discord, symbolising religious disharmony during the Reformation.
- A crucifix is half-hidden by a green curtain in the extreme top left corner of the painting, symbolising the division of the church.
- The open book of music next to the lute has been identified as a Lutheran hymnal.
- The book of mathematics is open on a page of divisions which opens with the word “Dividirt.”
- With the cylinder sundial on the upper shelf, it is possible to establish the specific date and time of day. It is 11th April 1533, which was a Good Friday at approximately 4 in the afternoon.
It has been argued by some art critics, that the top shelf with its celestial globe, tools of astronomy, and the hidden crucifix symbolises the heavens and redemption. The shelf below, with the terrestrial planet, a hymn book, the musical instruments and the book of mathematics represents the living world, with opportunity for joy and endeavour. The ground level, where the skull dominates, depicts looming death.
Holbein was a German and Swiss artist who travelled to England in 1526 and was welcomed into the humanist circle of Thomas More, where he quickly built a high reputation. Later he also worked under the patronage of Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell. By 1535, he was King’s Painter to King Henry VIII. His portraits of the royal family and nobles are a historical visual record of the court during the years when Henry was asserting his supremacy over the English church.
Holbein had deftly survived the downfall of his first two high patrons, Thomas More and Anne Boleyn, but Cromwell’s execution damaged his career. Although he managed to retain his position as King’s painter, his career never recovered. The site of Holbein’s grave is unknown and may never have been marked.
- Title: The Ambassadors
- Artist: Hans Holbein the Younger
- Created: 1533
- Medium: Oil on oak
- Dimensions: Length: 209.5 cm (82.5 in). Height: 207 cm (81.5 in).
- Museum: The National Gallery, London
- Name: Hans Holbein the Younger
- German: Hans Holbein der Jüngere
- Born: c. 1497 – Augsburg, Free imperial city, Holy Roman Empire
- Died: 1543 (aged 45) – London, England
- Nationality: German Swiss
- Movement: Northern Renaissance
- Notable work:
“Art is never finished, only abandoned.” Leonardo da Vinci
Photo Credit 1) Hans Holbein [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 2)By Thomas Shahan (Hans Holbein’s “The Ambassadors”) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons