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The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger

At the end of 1533, a very large item of personal luggage was manhandled onto a ship from one of London’s docks, headed for France. It was a huge panel made of Baltic oak measuring more than two metres high and the same again in length, carefully padded, wrapped, tied, and marked up for the Chateau of Polisy in the Champagne region of France. This mysterious cargo was the property of Jean de Dinteville, a young French aristocrat in the service of Francis I who had spent close to a whole year in London as the King’s ambassador. Those handling this extremely large and heavy item could not have possibly known then what we know now, that Holbein’s Ambassadors – because that was indeed the cargo - would become one of the world’s most famous, mysterious, contested and beguiling paintings.

After centuries lying forgotten at Polisy, The Ambassadors has made its way back to London where it was originally painted in 1533, as the signature and date in Holbein’s own hand testifies. It is a painting as famous for its oddity as for its genius. The huge work features two young ambassadors standing together, yet apart, at either end of a buffet. An enormous green damask curtain hangs behind them. On the upper level of the buffet, on a ‘Holbein carpet’, lie a number of astronomical and astrological items. At the lower lever there is a lute, a globe and books. There is something awkward about the composition. It is as if the subjects have also been ‘arranged’ around these objects, their direct gaze challenging the onlooker to decipher what this strange collection of stuff might possibly mean? What is also peculiar is the fact that these two men are in the painting together in the first place. What kind of bond between them could justify commemoration in a painting of this scale and expense?

And then of course there is the weird thing that hovers between them. What looks like a huge baguette or some kind of fish bone (according to one curator of the painting) slants across the panel in a totally different plane of vision, floating in an imaginary space between the ambassadors and the onlooker. For years the purpose of this intervention in the painting had become lost, until its function was rediscovered. Here is a memento mori, a reminder of death and mortality, but one that is only understood when one views the painting from the extreme right hand side, at which point the ovoid brown sludge snaps into proper perspective and reveals itself as a human skull.

The ambassadors in question were both French. Of course de Dinteville was one, the other his friend and fellow diplomat Georges de Selve. Jean de Dinteville, Seigneur de Polisy was part of a successful family at the heart of Francis’s court. Jean, along with his father and brothers, had the rare privilege of being the guardians of the King’s children. As such there is a strong possibility that de Dinteville knew Anne Boleyn who had been part of the French court in her younger days.

Like so much of Holbein’s work, The Ambassadors operates on several levels. It was intended as a conceit from the off, one that demanded an unusual level of involvement from the viewer. This was more than a portrait per se, it was a discussion point, a debate or a game that de Dinteville could initiate when introducing people to the work.

There is one level at which the portrait can be fairly easily read. Holbein offers a constellation of references that identify and contextualize his subjects. If you like, his painting offers a map that, properly followed, tells you all you need to know about its subjects, their status and the political climate in which they were living when they were being commemorated. These co ordinates position his subjects not only in a specific moment in their own biographies, but also in the wider history of events.

On the left stands de Dinteville. He is magnificent in a slashed pink satin doublet and sleeves. Over this he wears a tunic of black velvet, and a coat is of silk, lined with highly sought after lynx fur. The neck of his white shirt is exquisitely depicted with finely detailed white on white ‘whitework’ embroidery. Around his neck is the gold medal of the Order of St Michael, a chivalric badge of loyalty awarded him by Francis in 1531. On his black cap he sports a fashionable hat badge, within it a Vanitas – that is a reminder of the futility of pleasure against a background of human mortality - the depiction of a skull. Contemporaries may well have recognized this outfit as that worn by him to Anne Boleyn’s coronation. But there are more clues to help nail this man and the moment when he was captured for posterity. In his right hand is an ornate Holbein type dagger, decorated in abundant Renaissance motif and ‘engraved’ with an age: AET SUAE 29. This indeed corresponds with de Dinteville’s age in 1533.

To locate de Dinteville further, Holbein makes sure to give his origin. He is from Polisy, and this is legibly marked on the globe that Holbein depicts on the lower shelf of the buffet, just to the right of de Dinteville. There is surely some word play in the spelling of the place name as ‘Policy’ – after all what do ambassadors do all day if not deal with just that. Certain other French cities are highlighted too: Paris and Lyons. The French court was still largely based at Lyons at this moment in time, while of course Paris also remained an important centre for court and state.

The globe has been customised by Holbein to emphasis certain characteristics of the world in which his subject was living. Despite the globe lying upside down in the painting – a symbolic orientation perhaps – the names of certain cities have been made legible: Jerusalem, Rome, Nuremberg, Paris, and Lyons. Meanwhile red lines cross the map, dividing the world into geographic segments. Holbein is describing a moment when maps, be they intellectual, geographic or religious, are being redrawn. This globe suggests not only the intellectual Renaissance that characterized the age into which de Dinteville had been born, but also an era of discovery, exploration, and religious reform.

Nuremberg is singled out, the intellectual heart of liberal Germany. Then Lyons, its French equivalent. The religious complexion of the world is also alluded to in these centres, since both had significant associations with Lutheransim. Meanwhile Rome marks the centre of Roman Catholicism and Jerusalem is a symbol of Islamic puissance.

Then there are those red lines, representing the redrawing of the world from a territorial point of view, in the era of discovery, reminding the viewer that the Americas were divided between Spain and Portugal.

So this is the complexion of a world that ambassadors, who deal in world affairs, must navigate as part of their daily political discussions. The rivalries and divisions they had to negotiate, be they the politics of religion, trade, or territorial claims, are perhaps suggested further in the book featured just below the globe. This is a book on arithmetic, written by Peter Apian and entitled ‘ A New and Well Grounded Instruction in All Merchant Arithmetic”. It is held open by a setsquare at a page dedicated to division.

In a world defined by division, the ambassador must try to achieve harmony. And his attempts and struggles in this endeavour is indicated by the lute which lies close to de Selve on the lower shelf, a symbol of accord. The fact that the instrument in the picture has a broken string is therefore a sign of discord. In fact, in popular literature of the time the lute with the broken string had become an established symbol of the difficulties associated with political alliances. One man who really popularised thiswas Alciati, a humanist based in France who had published an Emblematum, or an emblem book, in 1531. Alciati’s bestseller featured little woodcuts illustrating latin phrases. The tenth emblem was the lute, and the accompanying text outlines its relevance to diplomatic alliances where if just one party to a treaty breaks away, the whole pact is ruined.

The lute was also a well-understood symbol of heavenly harmony, as its diagonal relationship with the heavenly globe on the shelf above serves to reinforce. And here Holbein, is asking us to listen to the sound of the lute in this painting. Because, when spoken out loud the English word ‘lute’, or the French word ‘luth’, both sound like the German pronunciation of ‘Luther’. The French word for struggle – ‘lutte’ – shares the same pronunciation. Martin Luther was strongly associated with the instrument, a trained musician he was known to have played both the lute and the flute (a bag of flutes are also featured in the painting) and claimed that music was second only to theology for its ability to drive away the devil, melancholy and evil thoughts. The lute in this picture offers both a symbol of struggle, discord, and the balm to soothe it. It ireferences the discord Lutheranism has visited upon the state of Christianity, but suggests that accord might also be achieved.

As if to hammer this point home, next to the lute a hymnal lies open with two of Luther’s hymns clearly legible. Again, writing music was a passion of Luther’s and he published hymns widely as well as some of the music for them.

The lute also specifically references Holbein himself. It is an allusion to his own success in advancing the science of drawing. Albrecht Dürer had a series of woodcut illustrations showing tools useful in the process of making art. One shows an artist using a wooden frame, or window, to render a foreshortened lute in a very similar position to that depicted by Holbein. It can be no coincidence that below his perfect rendition of a lute that sits so convincingly in the imagined space of the Ambassadors, Holbein presents his own exercise in perspectival anamorphosis – that skull that emerges only when viewed from an oblique angle. Whereas Dürer offered a means of portraying an object within the imaginative space of the painting, Holbein’s skull projects beyond the painting in an entirely different plane of vision. In doing so Holbein goes beyond anything achieved before in the realm of perspectival art.

Doubtless still keen to recommend himself in France, Holbein would have been aware that Leonardo da Vinci had also illustrated anamorphic perspective to Francis I. Holbein was keen to be seen as the successor of both Durer and Leonardo, and the reference to Durer’s hometown Nuremburg and the spelling of Lyon as LEON might also have been Holbein’s way of suggesting that was very much a match for both these artists.

And yet there is still more. Because perspective is not merely a science, it is also a point of view, or a cognitive realisation. As Holbein forces the onlooker to participate in and interact with the painting to discover the skull concealed within it, the inevitable outcome is that as it emerges the figures of de Dinteville and de Selve diminishand become peripheral. Holbein is suggesting that worldy achievements should be put into perspective, against a wider universal scheme. Fine objects, grandeur and achievement, all fade when the reality of death emerges. In a major amplification of the vanitas de Dinteville wears on his hat, Holbein’s strange anamorphic skull is an intentionally shocking reminder that human life is peripheral to the greater certainties of the universe, of which death is one.

As to de Selve, he is shown standing on the right, clad in a floor length, fur lined coat made from expensive damask. His age is also indicated as being twenty five, inscribed on the closed pages of a book on which he leans. Of the two envoys de Selve is closest to the lute and its reference to Luther, and this seems apposite for a man known to have strong Lutheran sympathies, who sought to find a means of bringing the old and new Christian faiths towards reconciliation. In fact he had a track record in this area having written a particularly conciliatory speech for the Diet -or ecclesiastic conference - held at Speyer in 1529.

De Selve serves as a supplementary coordinate to locate de Dinteville in time and place. His inclusion in the painting offers the viewer a means of whittling down the moment the portrait depicts to apoint in the Spring of 1533 when both men were together in London. Given The Ambassadors ended up in De Dinteville’s chateau in Polisy, one must assume that the focus of painting would have always been more on Jean than his friend and colleague Georges. And it is true Georges feels secondary in the painting. He is set back a little more than Jean de Dinteville; he is slightly smaller, and his position to the right is that traditionally associated with a wife in portraits. Interestingly the page known as Death’s Coat of Arms in Holbein’s Dance of Death features a man on the left and a woman on the right, with a skull between them.

There are other devices to pinpoint time with yet more accuracy. On the top shelf of the sideboard are an array of astrological and astronomical instruments all of which serve to tell time. From right to left are a celestial globe, a shepherd’s cylindrical sundial, a quadrant, a polyhedrial dial and a torquetum. The cylindrical sundial is clearly set to a specific day, April 11th 1533. This was Good Friday, and this Easter date which commemorates the crucifixion of Christ is also alluded to in a crucifix hanging on the wall in the upper left hand corner of the painting, only partially visible from behind the green damask curtain. Taken together with the anomorphic skull there is a clear message here about the inevitability of death, but equally salvation through Christ’s sacrifice. So, working in an entirely different plane to the depiction of the ambassadors and their mundane concerns, is a spiritual or metaphysical message hinging on Christian faith.

April 11th 1533 was also tge day that Henry VIII revealed his marriage to Anne Boleyn to his court. Anne’s subsequent coronation at Whitsun is also indicated in the Lutheran hymn often sung at that time. The beautiful floor on which the ambassadors stand is widely considered to be based on the magnificent ‘Cosmati’ pavement in Westminster Abbey. It was on this medieval mosaic floor that Anne was crowned.

Might Anne Boleyn have commissioned the painting as a gesture of gratitude not only to De Dinteville and de Selve for their contributions to her coronation, but to France more generally for its apparent support of her marriage? It may well acknowledge her sympathetic ear to French matters. In 1532 the Imperial Ambassador in London, Eustace Chapuys had moaned that Anne represented the French King’s interests better than anyone else and the warmth of Anglo-French relations were largely down to her influence. The Easter message entwined with references to Anne therefore might suggest a moment of hope and rebirth for England from a French perspective, and from de Dinteville’s and de Selve’s personal perspectives a hope that Anne’s reformist principles might be useful in their quest to find resolution between Roman Catholic and Lutheran factions.

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As for the research suggestion regarding the skull in Holbein's Ambassadors, proposing it could be Anne Boleyn's after her beheading on May 19, 1536, Holbein and she shared very similar religious views, both advocating for a profound reform of the Catholic Church, as did Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve, the two painted characters. Could this skull anamorphosis have been added to the foreground after Anne Boleyn's beheading as a painful memory by those who supported her cause?

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