The Ambassadors, by Hans Holbein, 1533
This could have been a lead photo for an article about two suave young men in an upmarket style magazine. Surrounded by their material symbols of knowledge and power, they have the swagger of a couple of go–getters. Nearly five hundred years ago a German artist living in England painted two French Catholic aristocrats with allusions to commercial centres in Germany, Italy and Istanbul. So, what’s going on? Who are the men? What’s the meaning of this eclectic collection of artefacts? And what is the distorted skull doing in the front?
There is a veritable industry of interpretations of this painting. So let’s keep it simple. This work is a portrait of two French ambassadors who visited Henry VIII. They have been identified as Jean de Dinteville (left) and Bishop Georges de Selve (right). It was not called The Ambassadors until the early 19th century. The skull in the foreground takes this from a simple double portrait to a new level known as vanitas (from the Bible) - loosely translated it corresponds to the meaninglessness of earthly life and the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits.
The painting is crammed full of things.
Holbein has listed the age of each of his subjects, de Dinteville (29) on the sheath of his dagger and de Selve (25) on the pages of the book his elbow rests upon. These symbols tie into the idea of de Dinteville as a man of action and de Selve as one who is leading a contemplative life.
The shelves in the middle are filled with additional symbols that show both men were well educated in a variety of ways.
The upper shelf is filled with scientific instruments and has been referred to as the heavenly realm. Let's look more closely at these objects. Sitting on top of a luxurious oriental carpet we have a globe of the heavens, a quadrant and several instruments used to tell time including two types of sundials.
Are these objects alluding to the knowledge and worldliness of the two ambassadors? Is there a particular day and time that the instruments point to that adds to the message in the painting?
The lower shelf is filled with the objects of man, and thought to be the earthly realm. Here we have a globe of the earth, a book open to reveal mathematics, a lute, several flutes and a song book open to reveal specific hymns.
If you look closely at the lute, you will see that one of the strings has been broken. Therefore, an instrument which would be considered harmonious is now a symbol of discord. Was this a symbol of discord between England and the Catholic Church? Perhaps instead it was a symbol of the discord between Henry VIII and Catherine as the queen failed to produce a suitable heir to the throne.
Later in the 17th century the lute was frequently used in Northern European painting as a symbol of a woman's sexual organs, though we don't know if there is any connection to that in this painting.
Below the lute is an open page from a Lutheran hymn book. We shouldn’t forget that the outcome of the Reformation was still uncertain at the time this painting was completed. It could be the two Catholic Ambassador were keeping their options open!
Still lower in the painting are the unique type of flooring and the anamorphic skull, which is unrecognizable when viewing the painting head on. We must stand to the side and crouch down in order to see it, though it is thought that it originally hung over a flight of stairs and that the viewer would have an easier time seeing this skull, perhaps so as to be taken by surprise by it.
While there are other examples of anamorphic art (where an image can only be seen from a certain viewpoint) it wasn't common at the time. In fact Holbein was very skilled to have been able to properly execute this artistic trick.
Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve, the subjects of Holbein's The Ambassadors, were two French diplomats. The painting is filled with symbolism both known and unknown.
Holbein was originally from Germany and moved to England after the Protestant Reformation in Europe to work as a portrait artist. Holbein became a royal court portraitist for King Henry VIII and painted many members of the Tudor court.
As a consequence of the Protestant Reformation de Dinteville and de Selve were sent from France to England to visit the Tudor court. It isn't entirely clear why Holbein was asked to paint their portrait and requested so many symbols and details be added. This work has been the subject of scholarly research and debates for centuries.
Who paid for picture?
The Ambassadors was commissioned from Holbein by de Dinteville to hang in his family's chateau at Polisy in North Central France. One of the earliest of many Italianate chateaux erected in France during the reign of Francois I - a courtly building boom which eventually produced that long line of fantastical castles stretching along the Loire valley.
Fascinating Facts About Holbein
Holbein - Self Portrait, 1542
Holbein was born in 1497 or 1498 in Bavaria Germany to a family swamped in artists. His father was Hans Holbein the Elder, his uncle, Sigmund Holbein, both of whom were renowned for their work in late Gothic painting. Hans the Younger's brother Ambrosius was also a painter. Hans Holbein the Elder was the brothers' first influence, but their styles developed while studying in Basel, Switzerland.
Holbein the Younger is considered to be the only truly outstanding German artist of his generation. He had a tough act to follow though, coming into the art world after Durer and Lucas Cranach. He started life as a religious painter before moving onto portraiture.
In his early years he worked in Basle, Switzerland, before coming to England between 1526-28. He returned in 1531/2 and remained here until his death from plague in 1544.
Today, Holbein is remembered largely as the image maker of Henry VIII’s England. Our imagination of this period comes from his portraits of the leading protagonists of Tudor England. So powerful were they that BBC TV’s drama Wolf Hall owes a lot to his paintings for the physical characterisation of Henry, Cromwell and More.
Holbein was well connected. When he arrived in England he was introduced by Erasmus, a Dutch humanist to Thomas More, Chancellor to Henry VIII, in whose home he lived for a period. Holbein painted a famous portrait of More which is in the National Portrait Gallery.
When Holbein became court painter to Henry VIII he produced not only portraits and festive decorations but designs for jewellery, plate, other precious objects and even a royal fireplace. You had to be multi talented in those days!
Considering the time involved in painting a portrait and the complexity of detail that Holbein incorporated into them, the number of finished portraits that he managed to do is quite remarkable. Included in these paintings are portraits of the King, as well as two of his wives (Jane Seymour and Anne of Cleves) and countless pictures of foreign ambassadors or merchants from Europe.
Holbein's attention to detail in the entire painting, rather than to the portrayed individual's face alone, became much more pronounced during this phase of his life. Holbein concentrated on including an item or two as decoration that emphasized a particular attribute of the individual or which gave some specific meaning related to the individual (a skill that he had practised in Europe following in the style of many Renaissance artists).
Holbein survived the downfall of his first two great patrons, Thomas More and Anne Boleyn, but Thomas Cromwell's sudden arrest and execution on trumped-up charges of heresy and treason in 1540 undoubtedly damaged his career. Though Holbein retained his position as King's Painter, Cromwell's death left a gap no other patron could fill in brokering relations with the King.
He left behind not just a set of impressive paintings but a new style in portraiture that was copied for many years after his death.