Arts & Culture

The Ambassadors

Hans Holbein the Younger1533

The National Gallery, London
The National Gallery, London

This painting memorialises two wealthy, educated and powerful young men. On the left is Jean de Dinteville, aged 29, French ambassador to England in 1533. To the right stands his friend, Georges de Selve, aged 25, bishop of Lavaur, who acted on several occasions as ambassador to the Emperor, the Venetian Republic and the Holy See. The picture records a secret visit paid by De Selve to de Dinteville. It was painted by the German artist Hans Holbein who spent the last ten years of his life at the court of King Henry VIII.

One of the National Gallery's most popular paintings, 'The Ambassadors' is unusual and intriguing. The two men are shown full-length, a format usually reserved by Holbein for royal portraits. Carefully selected objects are displayed on the shelves. The distorted image of a skull slashes across the foreground, both linking and dividing the friends. When seen from a point to the right of the picture, the distortion of the skull is corrected.

The painting is in a tradition showing learned men with books and instruments. The objects on the upper shelf include a celestial globe, a portable sundial and various other instruments used for understanding the heavens and measuring time. Among the objects on the lower shelf are a lute, a case of flutes, a hymn book, a book of arithmetic and a terrestrial globe.

The variety and detail of the objects suggest they probably have a symbolic meaning, and some seem to allude to a world of chaos and division. Both men were closely involved in the political and religious turmoil sparked by the Reformation and the painting may reflect their concern about the uncertainties of the time.

The stylish Jean de Dinteville, wearing the French Order of Saint Michael, was in his 29th year, according to the decoration on his dagger, when the painting was executed. Georges de Selve, resplendent in his sombre but luxurious robe of damask trimmed with fur, is in his 25th year, according to the inscription on the book under his arm. We do not know the reason for De Selve's secret visit to de Dinteville. He may have brought instructions from the French king regarding Henry VIII's break with the Roman Church and plans to marry Anne Boleyn.

De Dinteville spent most of 1533 in England, waiting for the coronation of Anne Boleyn. He was miserable in England, missed his family and the cold and damp made him ill. He wrote to his brother: 'I am the most melancholy, weary and wearisome ambassador that ever was seen.' Perhaps as an antidote to melancholy and the English weather, one of the first things he did on his arrival was to import 'thirty tuns of Gascon wine'. When he returned to France, he took 'The Ambassadors' with him to his château south of Paris.

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  • Title: The Ambassadors
  • Creator: Hans Holbein the Younger
  • Date Created: 1533
  • School: German
  • Physical Dimensions: w2095 x h2070 cm
  • More Info: More Artist Information
  • Inventory number: NG1314
  • Full Title: Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve ('The Ambassadors')
  • Artist Biography: Holbein was one of the most accomplished portraitists of the 16th century. He spent two periods of his life in England (1526–8 and 1532–43), portraying the nobility of the Tudor court. Holbein's famous portrait of Henry VIII (London, National Portrait Gallery) dates from the second of these periods. 'The Ambassadors', also from this period, depicts two visitors to the court of Henry VIII. 'Christina of Denmark' is a portrait of a potential wife for the king. Holbein was born in Augsburg in southern Germany in the winter of 1497–8. He was taught by his father, Hans Holbein the Elder. He became a member of the Basel artists' guild in 1519. He travelled a great deal, and is recorded in Lucerne, northern Italy and France. In these years he produced woodcuts and fresco designs as well as panel paintings. With the spread of the Reformation in Northern Europe the demand for religious images declined and artists sought alternative work. Holbein first travelled to England in 1526 with a recommendation to Thomas More from the scholar Erasmus. In 1532 he settled in England, dying of the plague in London in 1543. Holbein was a highly versatile and technically accomplished artist who worked in different media. He also designed jewellery and metalwork.
  • Additional Artwork Information: The strange object in the middle of the floor is a skull painted in distorted perspective known as an anamorphosis. It can best be seen standing at the right of the painting. Many 16th-century European portraits include skulls as reminders of death. Sometimes skulls were hidden on the back of pictures; Holbein cleverly concealed his skull on the front. It was a dramatic warning against faith in worldly achievement and wealth instead of in the world to come. Anamorphosis was fashionable in the 16th century. Other artists, including Leonardo da Vinci, experimented with it and there were artists' handbooks on how to create them. One method was to transfer an image section by section to an elongated grid. Another may have been to shine a light through the drawing at an angle on to a wall; the new, distorted outlines could be traced and used for the painting. The two Frenchmen flank a central display of luxury objects. On the top shelf are items for the study of astronomy and for telling the time. A celestial globe, used to identify the constellations, is supported on a brass base with rams' heads. The stars are shown with the mythological beings after which they were named, such as Pegasus, the winged horse. On the lower shelf, a lute and a case of flutes are depicted. Musical instruments were often included in paintings as symbols of harmony, but this lute has a broken string and a flute may be missing from the set in the case. This may be intended to reflect the discordant world of the ambassadors, where religious divisions were causing political strife. De Selve spent much of his career working for reconciliation within the Church. The book between the instruments may present a plea for religious harmony. The hymns 'Veni Sancte Spiritus' (Come Holy Spirit) and the 'Ten Commandments' (translated from Latin into German by Martin Luther, leader of the Protestant Reformation in Germany), were used by both the Catholic and Protestant Churches. An arithmetic book written in German can be seen on the left of the lower shelf. It is carefully propped open so that we can clearly see a page that begins 'dividirt' (divide). Towards the back of the shelf a pair of dividers seems to echo the same idea. These items may have been included to alert the viewer to the two men's concerns over other kinds of division, religious and political, in Europe at the time. Inlaid pieces of coloured stones make up the floor in the painting. This is known as 'Cosmati work', after the Italian family who made it their speciality. Jean de Dinteville saw a Cosmati floor in Westminster Abbey when he attended the coronation of Anne Boleyn in 1533. The circular patterns represent heaven and earth. Holbein's similar design may be intended to echo the division of the objects on the shelves into heavenly and earthly realms. A small silver crucifix is half-hidden behind the curtain at the top-left corner of the painting. It is the Christian symbol of salvation and life after death. This tiny, clear glimmer of hope contrasts with the distorted skull which cannot be missed in the centre front of the painting.
  • Acquisition Credit: Bought, 1890
  • Type: Painting
  • External Link: The National Gallery, London
  • Medium: Oil on oak

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