The cataclysmic event that was the Catholic Reformation is reflected in many works of art from that time. One of these illustrations of such works is Hans Holbein’s (German, 1497-1543) The Ambassadors.
This painting showcases the tension of the Reformation, while simultaneously, as only art can do, places conflicting ideas in harmony into a beautifully composed painting. Through analysis of the formal elements visible in the work, coupled with background research and historical context, this paper will explore several important historical events and issues. On the left is Jean de Diventelle, a French ambassador living in England, and on the right, Georges de Selve, his friend and also an ambassador. This painting was produced in 1533 when King Henry VIII is about to break away from the pope in Rome, from the Catholic Church. And, the French ambassador was in England to watch over on Henry VIII during this tumultuous period. Within the painting, there are countless references to the turmoil that is occuring in England during this time. Jean de Diventelle is exhibited as a wealthy and successful man, with his clothing illustrated in great detail, a fur-lined cloak and velvet and satin attire. He holds a dagger, where his age is inscribed, which was 25, and it’s easy to see that Holbein described his clothing with a sense of clarity and detail.
Georges de Selve is dressed more modestly in a fur cloak, who has his elbow resting on a book. A difference is exhibited between the two men, where a dagger is on one side of the painting and a book on the other, which are associated with an active way of life compared to a contemplative way of life. His age also appears on the book that he’s got his elbow on, which at the time was 29.
In the middle of the painting are all these objects on two levels of shelves, and Holbein’s ability to render textures and the material made the objects very realistic. On the top shelf are objects related to the heavens, the study of astronomy, and the measuring of time. But, on the lower shelf the items are more earthly, like the terrestrial globe, lute, and book of hymns. And, all of these objects are supported by the floor, which is a mosaic that references an actual floor in Westminster Abbey, a catholic church. In other words, the base of the new innovations and human development is the Church. Holbein did not include any random objects anywhere in the painting, so everything that meets the eye has a specific purpose as to why it is there.
For example, lutes were traditionally objects that were rendered in order to learn perspective, and the foreshortened one on the bottom shelf is a masterful representation of this because of the way in which that lute is much shorter than it should be, because the observer is seeing it on end. However, if you look very closely, one of the strings is broken, and this is visibility is made possible by Holbein’s high pitched clarity. Art historians understand this as referring to the discord in Europe at this time. Similarly, through the hymn book discord in the church can also be alluded.
Because of the precise painting, the book can be read. It’s a translation of a hymn by Martin Luther, the head of the Protestant Reformation. What most people believe to be the most eye-catching thing about this painting is the large form that occupies the foreground. It is nearly impossible to know what the figure is when your observing from the front, however when you go to the right corner of the painting, and crouches down slightly, they see that they are looking at an anamorphic image of a human skull. This is a rather new invention that came about in the Early Renaissance, and in this painting it’s something that you can’t see when you can see the other things in the painting. But it’s something you can see when you don’t see the other things in the painting. This technique gives the spectator a choice: You can either stand in such a way as to see the skull, but then everything else is distorted; or vice versa. The skull, a traditional sign of death, is a memento mori, or a warning of death.
This latin term is a very common element that is seen in paintings, however in this painting it seems as though the artist is celebrating earthly accomplishments but then undercutting them by adding the skull. Additionally, if you were to look in the extreme upper left corner, there is a small sculpture of a crucifixion, which makes many people question Holbein’ representation choices. There is the lute that is perfectly foreshortened, and then the skull, that is shown in an unnaturalistic way. From this, we see that Holbein is choosing to represent the earthly things in a realistic way, but choosing to represent the things that are transcendent, in a way that is not associated with perfect illusionism.
And it seems as though Holbein wants the observer to be aware of the contrast, the skull is distorted and very hard to read, and the lute is resting on the shelf and it is is foreshortened at an angle that is very close to the angle of the skull. In a sense, they are both distortions, because foreshortening is a form of distortion. However, one is a distortion that creates a reality of our world as we see, but also it serves a reminder that what we see may not always be true. Ultimately, because the painting is about everything that men had achieved in life, the two elements that are slightly hidden in the painting, the crucifix and skull, acknowledge the limits of life on earth and the inevitability of death, where death always outweighs the earthly achievements.