The Ambassadors: The Mysteries of Holbein’s Masterpiece

There’s so much to look at in this painting, and so much to try to understand. Why all these objects were there, why these two people stand on either side of them. There are so many mysteries, they’re not always easy to resolve even today. This is one of the most popular paintings in the National Gallery, so it’s extraordinary to think that when it first came here in 1890 people understood so little about it. They didn’t know who the two men were, and they didn’t understand why these objects were included. It was painted in England by Hans Holbein the Younger. Holbein doesn’t always sign his paintings. He definitely wanted us to know he made this. When people looked at this picture in the 19th century, they saw a sort whiteish blur near the floor of the painting. Some people thought it might be a cuttlefish bone. It took some while to work out what it really was. Holbein has very cleverly hidden the image of a skull on the front of his painting. The skull was traditionally used as symbol of mortality, it often appears in portraits to remind us that life is short, and death comes to all. Or sometimes skulls would be on the backs of paintings. But Holbein has hidden his on the front. One of the ways that the skull would come back into the correct perspective is by using a small cylindrical piece of glass. If you hold that in front of the picture, then the image of the skull appears correctly in it. But another way is to stand to one side of the painting. At just the right angle and the right height then you experience the skull suddenly snapping into its correct perspective. Holbein, we know, made a whole series of woodcuts – The Dance of Death – which in each case shows how death can strike people at any stage in their lives. At the end of the book is a woodcut which shows two people standing on either side of a skull. I do wonder whether this composition may have inspired the compositions of The Ambassadors. Holbein was a very versatile artist. He could turn his hand to almost anything. He could make interestingly composed intricate paintings. He could design beautiful jewelry. He could also paint the most extraordinary portraits. He was a German who had spent a lot of time in Switzerland, in Basel, before he came to England for the first time. And he was very quickly taken up by the court of King Henry VIII and by King Henry VIII himself. The Ambassadors is very ambitious; it’s got two full length portraits in it, it’s large, they’re life-size. This was a type of composition that Holbein hadn’t really tried out before. He had included life size figures in religious works, but he’d never made a portrait quite like this. When this painting first came to the National Gallery in 1890 nobody knew who the two young men were. There were all kinds of theories, but it was another 10 years before an art historian worked out that they were two Frenchmen. The man on the left is Jean de Dinteville, he was the French Ambassador to England in 1533 and he was the man who commissioned this painting from Holbein. Jean arrived in England at an extremely turbulent time. Henry VIII was breaking with the church of Rome, he was setting up his own Church of England. We know Jean de Dinteville was quite miserable; he didn’t like the weather, he was often unwell. So, this painting perhaps was made to cheer himself up, but something else the cheered him up greatly was the visit of his friend Georges de Selve, a young bishop – too young yet to be consecrated which is why he’s not wearing a bishop’s robes and mitre. Clues to the identity of these two young men are hidden in the painting. Jean de Dinteville’s age is hidden on his dagger, it says in Latin that he’s in his 29th year and Georges de Selve’s age is on the pages of the book. There’s been a great deal of debate and discussion as to why all of these objects were included in the painting and whether they had specific meanings. There is a German arithmetic book, one used by merchants, and it’s open at a page that we know Holbein has very accurately represented. It says in Latin, ‘let there be division’. Now, is that just an illusion to doing maths? Quite near to it is a lute, very beautifully represented. But there’s something particular about this lute. One of the strings here is broken and Holbein shows it just curling off the top, highlighted against the green curtain. This is an instrument that can’t be played, it’s not in harmony, and it perhaps suggests the idea of a world that’s discordant, that’s out of tune with itself. Jean de Dinteville and his friend were both very concerned about the state of Europe in 1533. There was a crisis, that was why Jean de Dinteville was in England at this time. Henry VIII was breaking away from the Roman Catholic Church, he was defying the Pope by marrying Anne Boleyn and setting up his own church in England. And many people in Europe, including the King of France for whom Jean de Dinteville was working, wanted to stop Henry. This painting really shows off Holbein’s extraordinary ability to convey to us the space in which these two people stood. Under the shelves for example there’s the case for the lute that runs backwards on the floor. These small details give us the sense that they’re standing in three-dimensional space and it’s a space that’s our space as well. This is a painting that draws you in and you almost feel that you could step inside it. The whole thing seems extremely real. It’s a very extraordinary space which almost has another dimension to it. In the top left-hand corner, partially covered, is a silver crucifix placed at an angle to make it deliberately a bit difficult to recognise. The crucifix is included for Christians as a symbol of salvation in the life after. When we turn from the skull, which symbolises death for all of us, to the crucifix we are considering a whole new dimension; eternity. Looking at and trying to understand Holbein’s Ambassadors is a real voyage of discovery. Over the years many new facts have emerged about the painting and many new interpretations have come up, but we can’t really be sure exactly what Holbein and Jean de Dinteville intended and I think we’ll go on discovering more and more about this painting now and in the future.