What great paintings say: The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533
Painted by the artist of the cream of Tudor society – including the royals themselves – this painting appears at first glance to be a typical portrait of a French diplomat and his friend. But hidden within the display of wealth and grandeur are signs of discord and disruption
It is 1533 and England is in turmoil: Pope Clement has refused to annul Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon and the English king is furious. Ignoring papal threats of excommunication, Henry marries the already pregnant Anne Boleyn and breaks with the Catholic Church in Rome.
The English Reformation had begun in earnest. It is against this backdrop of religious upheaval and uncertainty that Hans Holbein the Younger, a German artist employed at the English court, created one of his most impressive works.
Painted during his second trip to England, it depicts Jean de Dinteville (seen on the far left), courtier and ambassador to the French king Francis I, and his close friend, Georges de Selve, bishop of Lavaur.
Between them are a range of objects that at first glance, might seem to have been strategically placed to reflect the interests, religiosity or intellect of the sitters, as was common in Renaissance portraiture.
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“The Ambassadors is a painting whose vibrancy and imposing life-size figures immediately piques the viewer’s interest,” says Emma Capron, associate curator of Renaissance painting at the National Gallery, London. “But it is also a work that merits closer examination, to unpack the messages that Holbein and his sitters are trying to convey.”
Between the two men, scattered across an expensive Anatolian carpet, are an array of technical instruments associated with the measurement of time, altitude and the position of the stars and other celestial bodies; on the shelf beneath them sit objects relating to music and mathematics.
“What is particularly interesting about these objects is their imperfections,” comments Capron. “The timekeeping devices are all slightly miscalibrated, perhaps a reflection of the turbulent times in which they are living. The lute’s broken string and a missing pipe in the case of flutes could be symbolic of wider disharmony and discord; even the arithmetic book, propped open with a set square, has been opened to a page illustrating division.
“The piece is littered with discreet signs that something is amiss with the world. England’s break with Rome was a moment of huge instability. Today, we know that England never returned to the Catholic fold, but at the time, there was real uncertainty as to whether the country would reconcile with Rome,” says Capron.
“As well as a display of material wealth and abundance, this work may well have served as a prompt for the big conversations of the day; a reflection of the uncertainty and instability rippling across Europe.”
The Ambassadors: 3 hidden secrets
Partially obscured by the sumptuous green curtain is a small crucifix – perhaps a hint at the need for Christian unity and salvation through Christ.
Jean de Dinteville’s elaborate dagger sheath, with its impressive gold tassle, is inscribed with the number 29, indicating that he is in his 29th year.
The huge elongated skull, which can only be seen properly if viewed from the bottom right corner of the painting – a popular Renaissance optical illusion known as anamorphosis – was designed as a memento mori, a reminder of the frailty of life and the ever-present spectre of death.
The Ambassadors hangs in Room 12 at the National Gallery, London. Visit the website for more information on the painting and how to visit, or explore of more of secrets messages within famous paintings in our What Great Paintings Say series:
- The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, 1434
- Marriage à-la-mode: 2. The Tête à Tête by William Hogarth, c1743–45
- American Gothic By Grant Wood, 1930
- Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray by David Martin, c1779
This article was first published in the February 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed
Charlotte Hodgman is the editor of BBC History Revealed and HistoryExtra's royal newsletter. She was previously deputy editor of BBC History Magazine and makes the occasional appearance on the HistoryExtra podcast
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