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The Ambassadors (Holbein)

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Subject: Hans Holbein the Younger, Ambassador, National Gallery, Insomniac (Green Day album), CinemaScope, Renaissance art, Élysée Palace, Iconography, Torquetum, Ambassador (disambiguation)
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The Ambassadors (Holbein)

The Ambassadors
Artist Hans Holbein the Younger
Year 1533
Type Oil on oak
Dimensions 207 cm × 209.5 cm (81 in × 82.5 in)
Location National Gallery, London

The Ambassadors (1533) is a painting by Hans Holbein the Younger in the National Gallery, London. As well as being a double portrait, the painting contains a still life of several meticulously rendered objects, the meaning of which is the cause of much debate. It is also a much-cited example of anamorphosis in painting.


Although a German-born artist who spent most of his time in England, Holbein displayed the influence of Early Netherlandish painters in this work. This influence can be noted most outwardly in the use of oil paint, the use of which for panel paintings had been developed a century before in Early Netherlandish painting. What is most "Flemish" of Holbein's use of oils is his use of the medium to render meticulous details that are mainly symbolic: as Jan van Eyck and the Master of Flemalle used extensive imagery to link their subjects to divinity, Holbein used symbols to link his figures to show the same things on the table.

Holbein carpet with large medallions, of a type similar to that of the painting, 16th century, Central Anatolia

Among the clues to the figures' explorative associations are a selection of scientific instruments including two globes (one terrestrial and one celestial), a quadrant, a torquetum, and a polyhedral sundial,[1] as well as various textiles including the floor mosaic, based on a design from Westminster Abbey (the Cosmati pavement, before the High Altar), and the carpet on the upper shelf, which is most notably oriental, an example of Oriental carpets in Renaissance painting. The choice for the inclusion of the two figures can furthermore be seen as symbolic. The figure on the left is in secular attire while the figure on the right is dressed in clerical clothes. Their flanking of the table, which displays open books, symbols of religious knowledge and even a symbolic link to the Virgin, is therefore believed by some critics to be symbolic of a unification of capitalism and the Church.

The Ambassador's globe (detail)
The anamorphic skull

In contrast, other scholars have suggested the painting contains overtones of religious strife. The conflicts between secular and religious authorities are here represented by Jean de Dinteville, a landowner, and Georges de Selve, the Bishop of Lavaur. The commonly accepted symbol of discord, a lute with a broken string, is included next to a hymnbook in Martin Luther's translation, suggesting strife between scholars and the clergy.[2]

The terrestrial globe on the lower shelf repeats a portion of a cartographically imaginative map created in possibly 1530 and of unknown origin. The map is referred to as the Ambassadors' Globe due to its popularly-known appearance in the painting.[3][4]

Anamorphic skull

The most notable and famous of Holbein's symbols in the work, however, is the distorted skull which is placed in the bottom center of the composition. The skull, rendered in anamorphic perspective, another invention of the Early Renaissance, is meant to be a visual puzzle as the viewer must approach the painting nearly from the side to see the form morph into an accurate rendering of a human skull. While the skull is evidently intended as a vanitas or memento mori, it is unclear why Holbein gave it such prominence in this painting. One possibility is that this painting represents three levels: the heavens (as portrayed by the astrolabe and other objects on the upper shelf), the living world (as evidenced by books and a musical instrument on the lower shelf), and death (signified by the skull). It has also been hypothesized that the painting is meant to hang in a stairwell, so that persons walking up the stairs and passing the painting on their left would be startled by the appearance of the skull. A further possibility is that Holbein simply wished to show off his ability with the technique in order to secure future commissions.[5] Artists often incorporated skulls as a reminder of mortality, or at the very least, death. Holbein may have intended the skulls (one as a gray slash and the other as a medallion on Jean de Dinteville's hat) and the crucifixion in the corner to encourage contemplation of one's impending death and the resurrection.[2]


Before the publication of Mary F. S. Hervey's Holbein's Ambassadors: The Picture and the Men in 1900, the identity of the two figures in the picture had long been a subject of intense debate. In 1890, Sidney Colvin was the first to propose the figure on the left as Jean de Dinteville, Seigneur of Polisy (1504–1555), French ambassador to the court of Henry VIII for most of 1533. Shortly afterwards, the cleaning of the picture revealed that his seat of Polisy is one of only four places marked on the globe.[6] Hervey identified the man on the right as Georges de Selve (1508/09–1541), Bishop of Lavaur, after tracing the painting's history back to a seventeenth-century manuscript. According to art historian John Rowlands, de Selve is not wearing episcopal robes because he was not consecrated until 1534.[7] De Selve is known from two of de Dinteville's letters to his brother François de Dinteville, Bishop of Auxerre, to have visited London in the spring of 1533. On 23 May, Jean de Dinteville wrote: "Monsieur de Lavaur did me the honour of coming to see me, which was no small pleasure to me. There is no need for the grand maître to hear anything of it". The grand maître in question was Anne de Montmorency, the Marshal of France, a reference that has led some analysts to conclude that de Selve's mission was a secret one; but there is no other evidence to corroborate the theory.[8] On June 4, the ambassador wrote to his brother again, saying: "Monsieur de Lavaur came to see me, but has gone away again".[9]

Lutheran Psalmbook in The Ambassadors

Hervey's identification of the sitters has remained the standard one, affirmed in extended studies of the painting by Foister, Roy, and Wyld (1997), Zwingenberger (1999), and North (2004), who concludes that "the general coherence of the evidence assembled by Hervey is very satisfying"; however, North also notes that, despite Hervey's research, "[R]ival speculation did not stop at once and is still not entirely dead".[10] Giles Hudson, for example, has argued that the man on the right is not de Selve, but Jean's brother François, Bishop of Auxerre, a noted patron of the arts with a known interest in mathematical instruments.[11] The identification finds support in the earliest manuscript in which the painting is mentioned, a 1589 inventory of the Chateau of Polisy, discovered by Riccardo Famiglietti. However, scholars have argued that this identification of 1589 was incorrect. John North, for example, remarks that "[T]his was a natural enough supposition to be made by a person with limited local knowledge, since the two brothers lived on the family estates together at the end of their lives, but it is almost certainly mistaken".[12] He points to a letter François de Dinteville wrote to Jean on 28 March 1533, in which he talks of an imminent meeting with the pope and makes no mention of visiting London. Unlike the man on the right of the picture, François was older than Jean de Dinteville. The inscription on the man on the right's book is "AETAT/IS SV Æ 25" (his age is 25); that on de Dinteville's dagger is "AET. SV Æ/ 29" (he is 29).[13]

North's book analyzes the painting and shows it to be representing Good Friday through various clues on the instruments.
Scientific and mathematical elements [1]

Peter Apian's arithmetic book

References in popular culture

In the fifth episode of Hunted, the painting is said to have been commissioned by British merchants who felt restricted by government. Their companies evolved into five multinationals concentrating their power and wealth as they undermine the public sector.

The same image of the anamorphic skull is used in the album artwork for the Green Day album, Insomniac.

In the 2014 film Calvary, Dylan Moran's character urinates on the painting.

See also

External video


  1. ^ a b Dekker & Lippincott 1999
  2. ^ a b Mamiya, 675
  3. ^ Pigafetta, Antonio (1994). Magellan‘s Voyage: a narrative of the first circumnavigation. Dover Publications Inc. p. 30. ISBN . 
  4. ^ Hayes, Derek (2003). Historical Atlas of the Arctic. Douglas & McIntyre Ltd. pp. 8–9. ISBN . 
  5. ^ "Anamorphosis". World Wide Words. 2011-11-26. Retrieved 2012-08-21. 
  6. ^ Rowlands, 139–41.
  7. ^ Rowlands, 140.
  8. ^ Foister, Roy, & Wyld, 16.
  9. ^ Foister, 14.
  10. ^ North, 7–8.
  11. ^ See Hudson, 201–205.
  12. ^ North, 7; see also, Foister, Roy, & Wyld, 102, n1.
  13. ^ Rowlands, 139.
  14. ^ "Holbein's The Ambassadors". Smarthistory at Khan Academy. Retrieved March 10, 2013. 
  15. ^ "HOLBEIN - The Ambassadors". ArtSleuth. Canaleducatif. Retrieved March 10, 2013. 
  16. ^ "Holbein's skull Part I". National Gallery (UK). Retrieved March 10, 2013.  Part II
  17. ^ "'"Symbolism in Holbein's 'Ambassadors. National Gallery (UK). Retrieved March 10, 2013. 
  18. ^ "'"Mathematical Technique in Holbein's 'Ambassadors. Idols of the Cave. Retrieved April 21, 2013. 


  • Dekker, Elly; Lippincott, Kristen (1999). "The Scientific Instruments in Holbein's Ambassadors: A Re-Examination". Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes (The Warburg Institute) 62: 93–125. ISSN 0075-4390. JSTOR 751384. doi:10.2307/751384. 
  • Foister, Susan; Ashok Roy and Martin Wyld (1997). Making and Meaning: Holbein's Ambassadors. London: National Gallery Publications. ISBN . 
  • Hervey, Mary (1900). Holbein's Ambassadors: The Picture and the Men. London: George Bell and Sons. 
  • Hudson, Giles (April 2003). "The Vanity of the Sciences". Annals of Science 60 (2): 201–205. doi:10.1080/0003379021000047112. 
  • Mamiya, Christin J. (2005). Gardner's Art Through the Ages 12th ed. California: Wadsworth/ Thomson Learning, Inc. ISBN . 
  • Mauro Zanchi, Holbein, Art e Dossier, Giunti, Firenze 2013. ISBN 9788809782501
  • North, John (2004). The Ambassadors' Secret: Holbein and the World of the Renaissance. London: Phoenix. ISBN . 
  • Rowlands, John (1985). Holbein: The Paintings of Hans Holbein the Younger. Boston: David R. Godine. ISBN . 
  • Zwingenberger, Jeanette (1999). The Shadow of Death in the Work of Hans Holbein the Younger. London: Parkstone Press. ISBN . 

External links

  • HQ scan of the paintingArt ProjectGoogle
  • The Ambassadors, Zoomable and Annotated, with many details
  • Video proposing an explanation as to how the anamorphic projection was made
  • The National Gallery article on the painting
  • Essay on the meaning of the painting
  • ArtSleuth : The Ambassadors, Rendezvous with Death
  • Quaerentia (2009-07-21). "Holbein's The Ambassadors: unlocking hidden mysteries". Retrieved 2012-02-17. 
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