Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors (1533)

Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors (1533). Oil on oak, 207 x 209.5 cm. The National Gallery, London, UK.

This painting was commissioned by Jean de Dinteville (on the left) the French ambassador to England and his friend Georges de Selve, the bishop of Lavaur, who was, at different times, an ambassador to the Pope, the Republic of Venice and the Emperor. This work was meant to show the education and culture of two men, and to proclaim their status as part of the cultural and social elite. The objects shown behind them are various instruments such as globes, sundials, musical instruments and religious texts. The men's importance during the time period is attested to by the breadth of objects shown and their significance as a depiction of the varied interests and large range of knowledge they were portrayed to have.

"Holbein was one of the most accomplished portraitists of the 16th century. He spent two periods of his life in England (1526-8 and 1532-43), portraying the nobility of the Tudor court. Holbein's famous portrait of Henry VIII (London, National Portrait Gallery) dates from the second of these periods. 'The Ambassadors', also from this period, depicts two visitors to the court of Henry VIII. 'Christina of Denmark' is a portrait of a potential wife for the king. He was taught by his father, Hans Holbein the Elder. He traveled a great deal, and is recorded in Lucerne, northern Italy and France. In these years he produced woodcuts and fresco designs as well as panel paintings. With the spread of the Reformation in Northern Europe the demand for religious images declined and artists sought alternative work. Holbein first traveled to England in 1526 with a recommendation to Thomas More from the scholar Erasmus. In 1532 he settled in England, dying of the plague in London in 1543." - The National Gallery, London.

Holbein is, as mentioned above from an excerpt on the artist from the National Gallery's website, famous for depicting the royal wives of Henry VIII and other court luminaries, including the King himself in his most famous portrait. The complexity of this work makes it stand out from the other formal portraits he executed during his time in England. Though Holbein often included objects as symbols of his subjects, the objects represented here are so specific to the patron that their meanings would have been very evident and obvious to the contemporary viewer. The religious texts shown are allusions to the strife going on in Europe at the time, and the broken strong of the lute signifies the division that was occurring during the Reformation, on the continent and in England. The celestial and terrestrial globes represent the men's earthly and cosmic intelligence and education and allude to their understanding of things of both this world and the spiritual world.

However, by far the most interesting aspect of this work is the elongated skull in the foreground. This distorted image represents the mortality of human beings and the shortness of life. This type of allusion to death in painting, and the visual arts in general, is called 'vanitas'. Also, when the picture is viewed from a specific point to the right of the work, the distorition is corrected and the skull is clearly seen (as shown below).

1 comment:

  1. Not sure whether you're at all interested in psychoanalysis but the much-reviled French Freudian Jacques Lacan used "The Ambassadors" to illustrate his theory of the gaze. Seeing as how I'm no expert on Lacan, you might want to check this out: http://www.cla.purdue.edu/academic/engl/theory/psychoanalysis/lacangaze.html.

    In short: "The Ambassadors" looks back at its spectator. Yikes.