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
); and in Basel, Switzerland, he was known for woodcut illustrations. Notable among Holbein’s woodcuts were illustrations for the Dutch scholar Erasmus’s satirical essay “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
. Somehow, his previous activities and affiliations didn’t arouse suspicion in the English court; Holbein retained the king’s favor until his death.
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.