Posted January 19, 2012on:
by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497~1543)
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 most of his 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 Jan van Eyck and the Master of Flemalle used extensive imagery to link their subjects to divinity, Holbein used symbols to link his figures to show the same things on the table.
Among the clues to the figures’ explorative associations are a selection of scientific instruments including two globes (one terrestrial and one celestial), a quadrant, a torquetum, and a polyhedral sundial, as well as various textiles including 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, an example of Oriental carpets in Renaissance painting. 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. Their flanking of 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.
In contrast, other scholars have suggested the painting contains overtones of religious strife. The conflicts between secular and religious authorities are here represented by Jean de Dinteville, a landowner, and Georges de Selve, a bishop. The commonly accepted symbol of discord, a lute with a broken string, is included next to a hymnbook in Martin Luther’s translation, suggesting strife between scholars and the clergy.
The terrestrial globe on the lower shelf repeats a portion of a cartographically-imaginitive map created in possibly 1530 and of unknown origin. The map is referred to as the Ambassadors’ Globe due to its popularly-known appearance in the painting. 
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 a visual puzzle as the viewer must approach the painting nearly from the side to see the form morph into 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. 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 left (viewer’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. Artists often incorporated skulls as a reminder of mortality, or at the very least, death. Holbein may have intended the skulls (one as a gray slash and the other as a medallion on Jean de Dinteville’s hat) and the crucifixion in the corner to encourage contemplation of one’s impending death and the resurrection.
Before the publication of Mary F. S. Hervey’s Holbein’s Ambassadors: The Picture and the Men in 1900, the identity of the two figures in the picture had long been a subject of intense debate. In 1890, Sidney Colvin was the first to propose the figure on the left as Jean de Dinteville, Seigneur of Polisy (1504–1555), French ambassador to the court of Henry VIII for most of 1533. Shortly afterwards, the cleaning of the picture revealed that his seat of Polisy is one of only four places marked on the globe. Hervey identified the man on the right as Georges de Selve (1508/09–1541), Bishop of Lavaur, after tracing the painting’s history back to a seventeenth-century manuscript. According to art historian John Rowlands, de Selve is not wearing episcopal robes because he was not consecrated until 1534. De Selve is known from two of de Dinteville’s letters to his brother François de Dinteville, Bishop of Auxerre, to have visited London in the spring of 1533. On 23 May, Jean de Dinteville wrote: “Monsieur de Lavaur did me the honour of coming to see me, which was no small pleasure to me. There is no need for the grand maître to hear anything of it”. The grand maître in question was Anne de Montmorency, the Marshal of France, a reference that has led some analysts to conclude that de Selve’s mission was a secret one; but there is no other evidence to corroborate the theory. On June 4, the ambassador wrote to his brother again, saying: “Monsieur de Lavaur came to see me, but has gone away again”.
Hervey’s identification of the sitters has remained the standard one, affirmed in extended studies of the painting by Foister, Roy, and Wyld (1997), Zwingenberger (1999), and North (2004), who concludes that “the general coherence of the evidence assembled by Hervey is very satisfying”; however, North also notes that, despite Hervey’s research, “[R]ival speculation did not stop at once and is still not entirely dead”. Giles Hudson, for example, has argued that the man on the right is not de Selve, but Jean’s brother François, Bishop of Auxerre, a noted patron of the arts with a known interest in mathematical instruments. The identification finds support in the earliest manuscript in which the painting is mentioned, a 1589 inventory of the Chateau of Polisy, discovered by Riccardo Famiglietti. However, scholars have argued that this identification of 1589 was incorrect. John North, for example, remarks that “[T]his was a natural enough supposition to be made by a person with limited local knowledge, since the two brothers lived on the family estates together at the end of their lives, but it is almost certainly mistaken”. He points to a letter François de Dinteville wrote to Jean on 28 March 1533, in which he talks of an imminent meeting with the pope and makes no mention of visiting London. Unlike the man on the right of the picture, François was older than Jean de Dinteville. The inscription on the man on the right’s book is “AETAT/IS SV Æ 25” (his age is 25); that on de Dinteville’s dagger is “AET. SV Æ/ 29” (he is 29).
North’s book analyzes the painting and shows it to be representing Good Friday through various clues on the instruments.
- ^ Dekker & Lippincott 1999
- ^ a b Mamiya, 675
- ^ Pigafetta, Antonio (1994). Magellan‘s Voyage: a narrative of the first circumnavigation. Dover Publications Inc. pp. 30. ISBN 0-486-28099-3. http://books.google.com/?id=RB4usvtAZrEC&pg=PA29&lpg=PA29&dq=ambassadors’+globe&q=ambassadors’%20globe.
- ^ Hayes, Derek (2003). Historical Atlas of the Arctic. Douglas & McIntyre Ltd.. pp. 8–9. ISBN 1-55365-004-2.
- ^ WorldWideWorlds.org
- ^ Rowlands, 139–41.
- ^ Rowlands, 140.
- ^ Foister, Roy, &sex Wyld, 16.
- ^ Foister, 14.
- ^ North, 7–8.
- ^ See Hudson, 201–205.
- ^ North, 7; see also, Foister, Roy, & Wyld, 102, n1.
- ^ Rowlands, 139.
- Dekker, Elly; Lippincott, Kristen (1999). “The Scientific Instruments in Holbein’s Ambassadors: A Re-Examination”. Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes (The Warburg Institute) 62: 93–125. doi:10.2307/751384. ISSN 0075-4390. JSTOR 751384.
- Foister, Susan; Ashok Roy and Martin Wyld (1997). Making and Meaning: Holbein’s Ambassadors. London: National Gallery Publications. ISBN 1857091736.
- Hervey, Mary (1900). Holbein’s Ambassadors: The Picture and the Men. London: George Bell and Sons.
- Hudson, Giles (April, 2003). “The Vanity of the Sciences”. Annals of Science 60 (2): 201–205. doi:10.1080/0003379021000047112.
- Mamiya, Christin J. (2005). Gardner’s Art Through the Ages 12th ed. California: Wadsworth/ Thomson Learning, Inc. ISBN 0155050907.
- North, John (2004). The Ambassadors’ Secret: Holbein and the World of the Renaissance. London: Phoenix. ISBN 184212661X.
- Rowlands, John (1985). Holbein: The Paintings of Hans Holbein the Younger. Boston: David R. Godine. ISBN 0879235780.
- Zwingenberger, Jeanette (1999). The Shadow of Death in the Work of Hans Holbein the Younger. London: Parkstone Press. ISBN 1859954928.
Hans Holbein the Younger
Hans Holbein the Younger (c. 1497  – between 7 October and 29 November 1543) was a German artist and printmaker who worked in a Northern Renaissance style. He is best known as one of the greatest portraitists of the 16th century. He also produced religious art, satire and Reformation propaganda, and made a significant contribution to the history of book design. He is called “the Younger” to distinguish him from his father, Hans Holbein the Elder, an accomplished painter of the Late Gothic school.
Born in Augsburg, Holbein worked mainly in Basel as a young artist. At first he painted murals and religious works and designed for stained glass windows and printed books. He also painted the occasional portrait, making his international mark with portraits of the humanist Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam. When the Reformation reached Basel, Holbein worked for reformist clients while continuing to serve traditional religious patrons. His Late Gothic style was enriched by artistic trends in Italy, France, and the Netherlands, as well as by Renaissance Humanism. The result was a combined aesthetic uniquely his own.
Holbein travelled to England in 1526 in search of work, with a recommendation from Erasmus. He was welcomed into the humanist circle of Thomas More, where he quickly built a high reputation. After returning to Basel for four years, he resumed his career in England in 1532. This time he worked for the twin founts of patronage, Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell. By 1535, he was King’s Painter to King Henry VIII. In this role, he produced not only portraits and festive decorations but designs for jewellery, plate, and other precious objects. His portraits of the royal family and nobles are a vivid record of a brilliant court in the momentous years when Henry was asserting his supremacy over the English church.
Holbein’s art was prized from early in his career. The French poet and reformer Nicholas Bourbon dubbed him “the Apelles of our time,” a typical contemporary accolade. Holbein has also been described as a great “one-off” of art history, since he founded no school. After his death, some of his work was lost, but much was collected, and by the 19th century, Holbein was recognised among the great portrait masters. Recent exhibitions have also highlighted his versatility. He turned his fluid line to designs ranging from intricate jewellery to monumental frescoes. Holbein’s art has sometimes been called realist, since he drew and painted with a rare precision. His portraits were renowned in their time for their likeness; and it is through Holbein’s eyes that many famous figures of his day, such as Erasmus and More, are now “seen”. Holbein was never content, however, with outward appearance. He embedded layers of symbolism, allusion, and paradox in his art, to the lasting fascination of scholars. In the view of art historian Ellis Waterhouse, his portraiture “remains unsurpassed for sureness and economy of statement, penetration into character, and a combined richness and purity of style”.
“Holbein also portrayed various courtiers, landowners, and visitors during this time. His most famous, and perhaps greatest, painting of the period was The Ambassadors. This life-sized panel portrays Jean de Dinteville, an ambassador of Francis I of France in 1533, and Georges de Selve, Bishop of Lavaur, who visited London the same year. The work incorporates symbols and paradoxes, including an anamorphic (distorted) skull. According to scholars, these encode enigmatic references to learning, religion, mortality, and illusion in the tradition of the Northern Renaissance. Art historians Oskar Bätschmann and Pascal Griener suggest that in The Ambassadors “Sciences and arts, objects of luxury and glory, are measured against the grandeur of Death”.“