If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Holbein the Younger, the Ambassadors

Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533, oil on oak, 207 x 209.5 cm (The National Gallery, London). View this work up close on the Google Art Project.. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

(light piano music) - [Beth] We're looking at Holbein's "The Ambassadors" from 1533 here in the National Gallery in London. - [Steven] This is a painting that's actually about the things we can't see. - [Beth] See on the left, Jean de Dinteville. He was an ambassador from France living in England. And on the right, Georges de Selve, his friend, a bishop and also an ambassador. - [Steven] Both of these men are in England, and Holbein, who was a Swiss painter, had moved to England because he could get work here. And in fact, within a short time after making this painting, he would actually become the painter to the King of England, Henry VIII. - [Beth] King Henry VIII is about to break away from the Catholic Church. And we know that the French ambassador was in England to keep an eye on Henry VIII during this tumultuous period. - [Steven] We see within the painting references to the turmoil that is taking place in England, but it's all within an even greater context. - [Beth] So let's start with the two men. We see Jean de Dinteville on the left, and he's the one who commissioned this painting, and he's the one whose house the painting hung in. And he's obviously represented as an enormously wealthy and successful man with this fur-lined cloak and velvet and satin clothing. He has a dagger on which is inscribed his age, which was 29. So he's a very young man. Holbein described his clothing with a sense of clarity and detail that we expect of that Northern tradition that Holbein in comes from. And then on the right, Georges de Selve is dressed more modestly in a fur cloak. The book that he's got his elbow on has inscribed on it his age, which was 25. - [Steven] And it is an interesting contrast. We have that dagger on the one side and the book on the other, references which were actually quite traditional to the active versus the contemplative life. - [Beth] We're meant to look at both of them, but even more than that, perhaps we're meant to look at what's in the middle of the painting, which is all these objects on these two levels of shelves. - [Steven] Holbein is just brilliant in his ability to render textures and the material reality of those objects. They also mean something. - [Beth] On the top shelf, we have objects that are related to the study of astronomy and to the measuring of time, and on the lower shelf, things that are more earthly. We have a terrestrial globe and a lute and a book about arithmetic and a book of hymns. - [Steven] The painting is functioning basically as a grid. On the left, you have the active life, on the right, you have the contemplative life, at the top, you've got the celestial sphere, at the bottom, the terrestrial sphere. Look at the beautifully foreshortened lute on the bottom shelf. Lutes were traditionally objects that were rendered in order to learn perspective. And here there's this masterful representation of the way in which that lute is much shorter than it should be because we're seeing it on end. But if you look very closely, you can see that one of the strings is actually snapped. - [Beth] Art historians understand this as referring to the discord in the Church in Europe at this time. - [Steven] That can also be seen in the hymnbook, which is just below that. It's open, and it's so precisely painted that it can actually be read. It's a translation of a hymn by Martin Luther, the head of the Protestant Reformation. All of this luxury, all of these objects, all the extraordinary fashion that they wear, all this stands on a mosaic floor with this beautifully detailed tiling. And it's seen in perfect linear perspective. And this is reference to an actual floor at Westminster Abbey. That floor in that church is actually a diagram, and it's meant to represent the macrocosm, that is, the cosmic order. - [Beth] Look at the very large form that occupies the foreground. - [Steven] I had a student once that said it looked like a piece of driftwood that had somehow been placed down oddly in the foreground. - [Beth] What we're really looking at is an anamorphic image, a kind of image that's been artificially stretched in perspective. But when you go to the right corner of the painting, crouched down a bit- - [Steven] Or look at it in a mirror at an angle. And it's a human skull. - [Beth] It's something that you can't see when you can see the other things in the painting, but it's something you can see when you don't see the other things in the painting. - [Steven] Front and center in this painting, really, in a sense, the star of the painting, is this skull, which is a traditional symbol of death. - [Beth] A memento mori. - [Steven] A reminder of death. And that's a very common element that we see in paintings. But here, we have a painting that seemed for a moment to be celebrating these earthly achievements, and now seems to be undercutting it. If you look even more carefully, in the extreme upper-left corner of the painting, peeking out from behind the curtain, you can just make out a little sculpture of a crucifixion. - [Beth] But then we have this question that goes back to Holbein, and that is about representation. So you have the lute that's perfectly foreshortened or that floor that's a perfect perspective illusion also. So this ability to render reality so perfectly. And then you have Holbein choosing to represent the skull in an unnaturalistic way. So choosing to represent the earthly things in a realistic way, but choosing to represent that which is supernatural, or that which is transcendent, in a way that is not according to that perfect illusionism. - [Steven] And I think Holbein really wants us to see that contrast. Look at the relationship between the lute and the skull. The skull is distorted so extremely that it really is hard to read. But when we think about stretching something, you generally think about stretching it horizontally or perhaps vertically. But to do so diagonally is very particular. The lute is resting on that shelf. It really is foreshortened at an angle that is very close to the angle of the distortion of the skull. But remember, a foreshortening is another kind of distortion. And so in a sense, they are both distortions, but one is a distortion that creates a reality of our world, as we see. But it's reminder that perhaps what we see is not really truth. - [Beth] It's not all there is. - [Steven] This painting was all about what these men had achieved in life. - [Beth] And what human beings had achieved historically for our investigation of the world. And so the two elements that are half hidden in this painting, the crucifix and the skull, point to the limits of earthly life, the limits of earthly vision, of man's knowledge, and the inevitability of death and the promise of Christ's sacrifice on the cross. (light piano music)