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DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: This is a painting that's actually about the things we can't see. DR. BETH HARRIS: We're looking at Holbein's "The Ambassadors" from 1533 here in the National Gallery in London. 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. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: 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. DR. BETH HARRIS: King Henry VIII is about to break away from the pope in Rome, 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. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And we see, within the painting, references to the turmoil that is taking place in England. But it's all within an even greater context. DR. BETH HARRIS: 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 his fur-lined cloak and velvet and satin clothing. And-- DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: He holds a dagger. DR. BETH HARRIS:--He holds a dagger, on which is inscribed his age, which was 29. So he is a very young man. And Holbein really described his clothing with a sense of clarity and detail that we expect of that northern tradition that Holbein comes from. And then on the right, Georges de Selve is dressed more modestly in a fur cloak. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER:And he's got his elbow on a book. And it really is an interesting kind of contrast. We have that dagger on the one side and the book on the other. References which are actually quite traditional to the active versus the contemplative life. DR. BETH HARRIS: And Georges de Selves, the book that he's got his elbow on has inscribed on it his age, which is 25. Of course, we're meant to look at both of them. But even more than that, perhaps we are meant to look at what's in the middle of the painting, which is all these objects on these two levels of shelves. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Holbein is just brilliant in his ability to render textures and the material reality of those objects. And of course, they also mean something. DR. BETH HARRIS: On the top shelf we have objects that are related to the heavens. 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. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: 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 is just 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, and it's possible because of Holbein's high pitched clarity, you can see that one of the strings is actually snapped. It's broken. DR. BETH HARRIS:Art historians understand this as referring to the discord in Europe at this time. The discord in the church. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER:That can also be seen in the hymn book, 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-- of course, the head of the Protestant Reformation. So all of this luxury, we haven't even mentioned, for instance, the Oriental carpet. All of these objects, all the extraordinary fashion that they wear. All of this stands on a mosaic floor with this beautifully detailed tiling. And it's seen in perfect linear perspective. And this is a reference to an actual floor at Westminster Abbey. And what's important to know, is that that floor, in that church, is actually a kind of diagram, and it's meant to represent the macrocosm, that is, the cosmic order. DR. BETH HARRIS: If we look at the very large form that occupies the foreground-- DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: You know, I had a student once that when she looked at this said, it looked like a piece of driftwood that had somehow been placed down oddly in the foreground. DR. BETH HARRIS: It does. But when you go to the right corner of the painting, and kind of crouch down a bit-- DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Or look at it in a mirror at an angle. DR. BETH HARRIS:--What we're really looking at is an anamorphic image. A kind of image that's been artificially stretched in perspective. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And it's a skull, a human skull. DR. BETH HARRIS: 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. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER:So you have a choice. You can either stand in such a way as to see the skull, but then everything else is distorted. Or vice versa. 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. DR. BETH HARRIS: A memento mori. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: That's right. 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 under cutting it. DR. BETH HARRIS:Exactly. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And then, 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. DR. BETH HARRIS: But then you have this question that goes back to Holbein. And that is about representation. So you have the lute that you referred to that's perfectly foreshortened. Or that floor that's a perfect perspectival allusion 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. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: 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 you 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. And I had mentioned before, that it was heavily foreshortened. It really is foreshortened at an angle that is very close to the angle of the distortion of the skull. But remember, 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 a reminder that perhaps what we see is not really truth. DR. BETH HARRIS: That's right. It's not all there is. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So hold on, because this painting was all about what these men had achieved in life. DR. BETH HARRIS: And what human beings had achieved historically, as far as 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.