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.
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.
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.
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