Hans Holbein the Younger (1497 - 1543): The Ambassadors2/17/2021, 3:41:58 PM
Hans Holbein the Younger (1497 - 1543): The Ambassadors, 1533, Oil on oak, 207 × 209.5 cm, National Gallery, London This double portrait by Holbein depicts Jean de Dinteville, French ambassador to England, on the left and his friend Georges de Selve on the right. Selve was bishop of Lavaur and acted as ambassador to the Emperor, the Venetian Republic. A range of objects fill the two shelves which separate the figures, including a celestial globe, a portable sundial and other instruments for measuring time or related to the study of heavenly bodies. These tell us something about the sitters, although some of the symbolic meanings have been lost over time. Overall the composition can be read as a portrait of the two diplomats, with allusions to the religious and political issues which preoccupied them, as well as the friendship between them. The most notable and famous of symbols in the work is the distorted skull which is placed in the bottom center of the composition. The skull, rendered in anamorphic perspective, another invention of the Early Renaissance, is meant to be a visual puzzle as the viewer must approach the painting from high on the right side, or low on the left side, to see the form as an accurate rendering of a human skull. While the skull is evidently intended as a vanitas or memento mori, it is unclear why Holbein gave it such prominence in this painting. A simple explanation is that this painting represents three levels: the heavens as portrayed by the astrolabe and other objects on the upper shelf, the living world as evidenced by books and a musical instrument on the lower shelf, and death signified by the skull. It has also been suggested that the skull and a tiny crucifix, partially hidden in the top right hand corner of the image, a symbol of resurrection, could operate as a reference to the immortalization of the sitters in paint, preserving a memory of them, even after death. If this was the intention, Holbein was more than successful and this is considered one of his most famous and enigmatic works, continuing to spark appreciation, discussion, and debate nearly 500 years later.