Arts & Culture

Loading

The Ambassadors

Hans Holbein the Younger1533

The National Gallery, London
The National Gallery, London

This picture 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 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 is a lute, a case of flutes, a hymn book, a book of arithmetic and a terrestrial globe.

Certain details could be interpreted as references to contemporary religious divisions. The broken lute string, for example, may signify religious discord, while the Lutheran hymn book may be a plea for Christian harmony.

In the foreground is the distorted image of a skull, a symbol of mortality. When seen from a point to the right of the picture the distortion is corrected.

Read more

Details

  • Title: The Ambassadors
  • Creator: Hans Holbein the Younger
  • Date Created: 1533
  • Physical Dimensions: 207 x 209.5 cm
  • Type: Painting
  • Medium: Oil on oak
  • School: German
  • Inventory number: NG1314
  • Full Title: Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve ('The Ambassadors')
  • Artist Dates: 1497/8 - 1543
  • 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.
  • Acquisition Credit: Bought, 1890

Discover more