Decoding the Symbolism in Hans Holbein’s “Ambassadors”
Today’s obsession with the glittering and deadly court of King Henry VIII would not exist without the artistic talents of one man. Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, King Henry, and many of his six wives).
The artist’s most iconic painting, however, eludes direct interpretation. Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve (1533), also known as The Ambassadors, has been heavily scrutinized by centuries of historians. The double portrait, proudly displayed at London’s National Gallery, remains a fascinating enigma within which every detail seems to suggest multiple meanings.
To begin the impossible task of decoding this nearly life-size work, one must first endeavor to understand the dangerously political world that Holbein inhabited, and his own complicated biography.
Holbein painted The Ambassadors in 1533. That same year, Henry VIII quarreled with the Pope over the Catholic Church’s refusal to grant him a divorce from his first wife. He went ahead and married Anne Boleyn anyway, and soon after, he celebrated the birth of their daughter (half-heartedly, as he’d hoped for a son): the future Queen Elizabeth I. Henry’s split from the Church was imminent; only a year later, the headstrong king would break from Rome and establish himself as the head of the Church of England. Many blamed Boleyn for bewitching Henry, and thus causing the schism.
Prior to his appointment in the king’s court, the artist had established a reputation in his native Germany for religious paintings (his father was the renowned Late Gothic painter The Praise of Folly” and the title page to Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible. Until he arrived in England, the artist had barely ever dabbled in secular portraiture, a new form of painting that emerged in the
Henry’s drastic actions in breaking away from the Church, largely motivated by his desperation to produce a male heir, threw a wrench into Europe’s already unstable political and religious order. Henry, King Francis I of France, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and the Pope all hovered at the brink of war. Followers of Martin Luther, who challenged the Church’s absolute authority, were gaining traction beyond their foundations in Northern Europe. Henry’s break from the Catholic Church opened the door for Reformation and humanist thought to enter England, the philosophies of which would eventually transform much of the continent.
In many ways, The Ambassadors reflects this conflict. In it, the French ambassador to England, Jean de Dinteville, is shown puffed up in silk, velvet, and lynx fur on the left; he’d commissioned the unusually large and elaborate portrait to hang in his chateau at Polisy. An undoubtedly thankless part of Dinteville’s job was to report back to Catholic France about the goings-on of the English court. “I am, and have been, very weary and wearisome,” he wrote to his family in a letter that year. “I am the most melancholy, weary and wearisome ambassador in the world.” The cost of the lavish outfit shown here may have contributed to his distress; it’s probably what he wore to Boleyn’s controversial coronation at Westminster Abbey.
His modestly dressed friend Georges de Selve, a cleric and occasional diplomat (soon to be consecrated Bishop of Levaur, France), stands on the right side of the painting. De Selve had spent much of his career trying in vain to stem the tide of Lutheran Reform and reunify the Catholic Church. He may have been in London on similar business.
As a result, these two ambassadors found themselves in a helpless position, witnessing events unfold that they were unable to influence. (It seems prophetic that Dinteville was present at the baptism of Elizabeth, who would become the powerful monarch of a Protestant nation.)
Yet this painting manages to redeem their plight, contextualizing the politics of the day within a philosophical and religious framework with one unifying theme: the Renaissance concept that established man in the central position of creation, uniquely engaged with both the earthly and heavenly realms. Under this purview, every element in the work reflects a cyclical narrative of humanity, death, and salvation.
This idea begins from the ground up, so to speak, artfully communicated through the scene’s polished marble floor. The pattern is based on the sanctuary in Westminster Abbey, originally inscribed with the phrase Spericus archetypum, globus hic monstrat macrocosmum (“This spherical ball shows the Macrocosmic archetype”). The “Macrocosmic archetype,” a popular Renaissance philosophy that permeated many disciplines including astrology, alchemy, and geometry, posits that the forces that govern the human body are the same as those that shape the entire universe. As such, an individual contains a miniature cosmos, or microcosm. Even if Dinteville and de Selve were not aware of this inscription, they probably would have understood that the floor pattern signified this idea.
The part of the painting that has long captured the imagination of most historians, however, is the astonishing range of cutting-edge scientific instruments, contemporary mathematical treatises, and musical scores from the period splayed out between the two figures. Believe it or not, there is a precise logic to this melange of fascinating clues, which show intellectual rather than monetary wealth.
The objects on the upper shelf—a celestial globe, a sundial, and various other instruments used in astronomy and for measuring time—relate to the heavenly realm. The terrestrial globe, compass, lute, case of flutes, and open hymn book on the bottom shelf indicate earthly pursuits. The upright men flank the two-tiered structure, linking them to both realms.
Within this order, Holbein creates conflict. Each of the instruments on the upper shelf are misaligned for use in a northern latitude. It’s an unlikely oversight; the artist was nothing if not meticulous, and had scientist friends he certainly would have called on for help. Instead, their misalignment is an emblem of chaos: the heavens out of whack.
On the bottom shelf, the terrestrial globe mirrors the celestial one above it, and the words “Baris” and “Pritannia” (Holbein’s own phonetic spellings of Paris and Brittany) can be made out. Peter Apian’s New and Reliable Instruction Book of Calculation for Merchants provides subtext beneath it. A ruler opens the textbook to a page of equations, starting with the word dividirt, meaning “let division be made,” a clear reference to the religious schism tearing Europe apart. In another literal move, the lute’s broken string symbolizes ecclesiastical discord. The book next to this one, a Lutheran hymnal, proffers Veni Sancte Spiritus, a hymn to the Holy Spirit, traditionally invoked as a force for church unification. The dream of reconciliation expressed in this small detail, of course, would never materialize.
Although the objects speak to the futility of the ambassadors’ diplomatic and religious goals, they do not appear downcast. As the picture shows, there are other, larger powers at work: death and God’s ultimate salvation.
While these objects demonstrate Holbein’s skill in depicting complex three-dimensional objects, their precise realism has metaphysical meaning, too. The tactile renderings of fur, silk, wood, and metal draw the viewer’s eye to the material presence of the painting, aligning it with reality, rather than religion or allegory.
Holbein also reminds viewers of the subjects’ humanity, even as the painting immortalizes them. In line with the work’s other dualities, the two figures’ personalities contrast—Dinteville appears as a man of action, clutching a dagger, while de Selve rests his arm on a book, suggesting his contemplative nature. Both the dagger and book are inscribed in Latin with their ages: 29 and 25, respectively. Though they appear vital and young, these inscriptions reinforce their mortality, as does a brooch featuring a skull on Dinteville’s cap.
Everyone who lived during the Renaissance in Europe was acutely aware of death, which was a much more visible phenomenon than it is today. Rampant epidemics of fatal diseases such as plagues were common (Holbein himself died of plague in London in 1543), and struck without warning, wiping out huge portions of the affected population. As a result, Christians felt an urgency to prepare their souls.
The Ambassadors’s most significant deathly sign is the unmissable anamorphic skull that stretches across the painting’s bottom center. While its skewed perspective renders the skull largely unreadable when viewed straight-on, Dinteville may have originally positioned this work beside a doorway in his chateau, so that a viewer walking past from the side would be confronted with the grinning face of death.
At its most basic level, the skull represents a memento mori (literally “remember thou shalt die”), a reminder of man’s inescapable mortality and a means to urge viewers to reject earthly temptations. But its distortion here suggests other symbolic readings. The skull metaphorically obscures the center of the world as it (literally) covers the middle circle on the floor pattern. Moreover, the perspectival experiment draws attention to the limitations of human vision, and compels viewers to question their place in the world.
But, as the painting counters, patrons and viewers alike should not fear death. There in the top left hand corner, partially hidden by the emerald green backdrop, a crucifix stands for resurrection—God’s promise of eternal life for the faithful. (Christ’s redemption is also alluded to in the cylindrical sundial, which is set to April 11th, the date of Good Friday in 1533.) As scholar Kate Bomford has argued, Holbein’s portrait, by serving as a “mirror of mortality,” secures a means of eternal fame for its sitters, as well as salvation, merited by their virtuous friendship.
Yet for all its attention to materiality and rational structure, symbols, and optical tricks, the true subject matter of The Ambassadors is the unrepresentable and unknowable—God.
Julia Wolkoff is Artsy’s Editor, Art History.