the younger holbein

The Ambassadors (Holbein)

The Ambassadors (1533) is a painting by Hans Holbein the Younger in the National Gallery, London. As well as being a double portrait, the painting contains a still life of several meticulously rendered objects, the meaning of which is the cause of much debate. It is also a much-cited example of anamorphosis in painting.


Although a German-born artist who spent much time in England, Holbein displayed the influence of Early Netherlandish painters in this work. This influence can be noted most outwardly in the use of oil paint, the use of which for panel paintings had been developed a century before in Early Netherlandish painting. What is most "Flemish" of Holbein's use of oils is his use of the medium to render meticulous details that are mainly symbolic: as Van Eyck and the Master of Flemalle used extensive imagery to link their subjects to divinity, Holbein used symbols to link his figures to the age of exploration.

Among the clues to the figures' explorative associations are two globes (one terrestrial and one celestial), a quadrant, a torquetum, a polyhedral sundial and various textiles: the floor mosaic, based on a design from Westminster Abbey (the Cosmati pavement, before the High Altar), and the carpet on the upper shelf, which is most notably oriental. The choice for the inclusion of the two figures can furthermore be seen as symbolic. The figure on the left is in secular attire while the figure on the right is dressed in clerical clothes. They are flanking the table, which displays open books, symbols of religious knowledge and even a symbolic link to the Virgin, is therefore believed by some critics to be symbolic of a unification of capitalism and the Church.

The most notable and famous of Holbein's symbols in the work, however, is the skewed skull which is placed in the bottom centre of the composition. The skull, rendered in anamorphic perspective, another invention of the Early Renaissance, is meant to be nearly subliminal as the viewer must approach the painting nearly from the side to see the form morph into a completely 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. One possibility 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 hypothesized that the painting is meant to hang in a stairwell, so that a person walking up the stairs from the painting's right would be startled by the appearance of the skull. A further possibility is that Holbein simply wished to show off his ability with the technique in order to secure future commissions. According to the book Do Not Open, "The skull was a symbolic reminder that everyone eventually dies.


Until 1900 and the publication of Mary Hervey's Holbein's Ambassadors: The Picture and the Men, the identity of the sitters portrayed in the picture was a matter of intense speculation. Hervey identified the sitters as (on the left) Jean de Dinteville (1504-1555), French ambassador to England in 1533, and (on the right) Georges de Selve (1508/09-1541), Bishop of Lavaur, who visited Dinteville in London in Spring of the same year. Hervey's identification remained art-historical dogma for a century. This was challenged in 2003, with Jean's elder brother François de Dinteville, Bishop of Auxerre, being put forward as a replacement for de Selve (Hudson, 2003). François was the French ambassador to Rome from 1531 to 1533, as well as (unlike de Selve) a noted patron of the arts and sciences. The new identification is supported by the earliest manuscript to describe the painting, a 1589 inventory of the Chateau of Polisy, the Dinteville home. Unresolved is why the inscription on the side of the book upon which the figure on the right is leaning states "AETATIS SVAE 25" ("his age is 25), while the figure on the left's dagger has the inscription "AET. SVAE 29" (abbreviated Latin for "he is 29").

A detail of the painting, in the upper left corner, is a crucifix with Jesus on the cross behind the curtain. North interprets this detail as representing diplomatic efforts to achieve reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants, and claims that the settings of the instruments show a particular time - Good Friday, April 11th, 1533 - the most solemn day of the Christian calendar.

See also



  • Foister, Susan; Ashok Roy and Martin Wyld (1997). Making and Meaning: Holbein's Ambassadors. London: National Gallery Publications.
  • Hudson, Giles "The Vanity of the Sciences". Annals of Science 60 (2): pp. 201–205.
  • Hervey, Mary (1900). Holbein's Ambassadors: The Picture and the Men. London: George Bell and Sons.

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