The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger
One of my favourite paintings in the National Gallery, I actually came about writing a blog post on this piece whilst matching it with wine. Sounds interesting right? This particular piece was paired with a glass of 1995 Chateâu Beychevell, and if you're interested in how I came up with that idea, click here to read my blog post on it.
We have a full length double portrait of two wealthy, educated and powerful young frenchmen, set against a brightly coloured green fabric backdrop. On the left we have Jean de Dinteville, who was an ambassador from France, living in England, on the right George de Selve, his friend, a Bishop, and also an ambassador. Jean on the left commissioned this piece and it would have hung in his house; he's shown absolutely enormousness, wealthy and extremely successful, with his clothes of expensive velvet, satin lined in fur. On the right George, dressed more modestly in his fur cloak, but no doubt would have been just as expensive. He rests his elbow on a book, which notes his age at just 25 years old, and Jean holds a dagger in his hand, with the inscription just below his finger I am 29 years old”.
They both stand either side of some shelves, inviting us in for a closer look, displaying a range of personal objects and belongings.
On the top shelf there's objects related to the heavens, the study of astronomy and the measuring of time arranged on a lavish and no doubt expensive Turkish carpet; a heavenly sphere, a sun dial and a range of other instruments.
On the shelf underneath we have earthy objects; a terrestrial sphere, a hymnbook, a maths book, a lute; all references to earth, arts and humanities.
And if you look below, you'll see an early example of an anamorphic skull, it may appear distorted to us stood here, but if you position yourself on the right of the painting it appears it's normal, I'll give you some time to do that in just a second. This is a great way for Holbein to showcase his skill as an artist as this would have been extremely difficult to achieve with such precision. Possibly done with the use of a mirror, and a grid system. It also acts as an memento mori “remember thou shalt die” a reminder for us, and also to show us that the two in the painting are aware that too.
This was painted at a time when King Henry VIII had broken away from the Catholic Church and the Pope of Rome, and had instated him as the Head of the Church of England. We know that the French ambassador was here in England to keep an eye on henry and events, when all this turmoil was unfolding, but we are unsure why George had made a trip here, and it has been suggested that it was some sort of secret mission. When this painting was produced, Henry VIII had divorced Catherine of Aragon, and Jean had to stay here for the wedding, the coronation of the new Queen Anne Boleyn, and his stay was prolonged with the announcement of the birth of Anne Boleyn's first child.
This was a period of religious turmoil between the Protestants and Catholics, and you could specifically link the views of these two men on the fact that England was breaking from the Roman Catholic Church. These men probably wouldn't want this to happen, as were strong Roman Catholics, and Holbein has included many other references to this throughout the painting. The beautiful depicted and perfectly foreshortened lute on the lower shelf and it's broken lute string, showing religious discourse, underneath the hymnbook open at a translation of a hymn by Martin Luther; the head of the Reformation which may be a plea for Christian harmony, and on the left the maths book, bookmarked by a ruler on a page about division.
And then on the floor underneath notice the a lute case, which looks pretty similar to a coffin, and if you look at the top left corner right at the top, almost hidden by the curtain is the torso of christ on the cross; is this in fact saying that the only way to salvation is to be Roman Catholic?
But these deathly reminders are also showing that the two men here are aware that they will eventually go to heaven, and all these things that surround them are materials, and temporary, and by leading a a good moral life, which they believe they are doing , they will achieve salvation and go to heaven.
Hans Holbein the Younger was born in Germany, son of a successful artist Hans Holbein the Elder. He was initially invited over to England by Thomas More, and quickly built up a high reputation. He left, returning a few laters to when he produced this, and shortly after became the painter to Henry VIII during the time he was asserting his supremacy over the Church of England, so he gives us an incredibly interesting insight to what court life was like under Henry VIII.