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A closer look at Hans Holbein’s “The Ambassadors”
September 13, 2013 by artstor
Hans Holbein the Younger | Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve (‘The Ambassadors’) | 1533 | The National Gallery, London | Photograph ©The National Gallery, London
Hans Holbein the Younger’s “The Ambassadors” of 1533 is well known for its anamorphic image of a skull in the foreground, but upon close perusal, the objects on the table between the two subjects prove just as fascinating.
To start with, the painting memorializes Jean de Dinteville, French ambassador to England, and his friend, Georges de Selve, who acted on several occasions as French ambassador to the Republic of Venice, to the Pope in Rome, and to England, Germany, and Spain.
The upper shelf, which is concerned with the the heavens, includes a celestial globe, a portable sundial, and various other instruments used for understanding the heavens and measuring time, while the lower shelf, which reflects the affairs of the world, holds musical instruments, a hymn book, a book of arithmetic, and a terrestrial globe.
Hans Holbein the Younger | Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve (‘The Ambassadors’); Detail | 1533 | The National Gallery, London | Photograph ©The National Gallery, London
Hans Holbein the Younger | Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve (‘The Ambassadors’); Detail | 1533 | The National Gallery, London | Photograph ©The National Gallery, London
Hans Holbein the Younger | Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve (‘The Ambassadors’); Detail | 1533 | The National Gallery, London | Photograph ©The National Gallery, London
Hans Holbein the Younger | Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve (‘The Ambassadors’); Detail | 1533 | The National Gallery, London | Photograph ©The National Gallery, London
Hans Holbein the Younger | Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve (‘The Ambassadors’); Detail | 1533 | The National Gallery, London | Photograph ©The National Gallery, London
Hans Holbein the Younger | Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve (‘The Ambassadors’); Detail | 1533 | The National Gallery, London | Photograph ©The National Gallery, London
Hans Holbein the Younger | Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve (‘The Ambassadors’); Detail | 1533 | The National Gallery, London | Photograph ©The National Gallery, London
Hans Holbein the Younger | Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve (‘The Ambassadors’); Detail | 1533 | The National Gallery, London | Photograph ©The National Gallery, London

Holbein painted “The Ambassadors” during a particularly tense period marked by rivalries between the Kings of England and France, the Roman Emperor, and the Pope. Furthermore, the French church was split over the question of the Reformation. The religious and political strife was reflected symbolically in the details of the painting. Among them:
There are also non-political details throughout the work, such as the ages of the sitters being written in Latin on the dagger’s sheath (Dinteville) and on the book on the top shelf (de Selve).
And we won’t even go into the complicated issues with the many scientific instruments, including apparently intentional contradictions and inconsistencies. If you are interested, we highly recommend “The Scientific Instruments in Holbein’s Ambassadors: A Re-Examination” by Elly Dekker and Kristen Lippincott in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes , Vol. 62, (1999), available via JSTOR.
View “The Ambassadors” in the Digital Library and remember to zoom in to see the details, and visit The National Gallery, London page in Artstor to learn about the other 2,370 stunning works in the collection.
Giovanni Garcia
You may also be interested in: The many questions surrounding Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait
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Posted in Baroque Art & Architecture in Europe, Paintings, Renaissance | Tagged hans holbein, symbolism, the ambassadors | 10 Comments
10 Responses
Heather Mertin
Can you help to me about history…Thank Cheers Heather
1.) Find the star map with the watch hand. Which number is closest to where the hand is pointing to? (A)
2.) One of the ambassadors holds a dagger. Which number is on the dagger’s sheath? (B)
3.) How many tuning pegs are on the head of the lute? (C)
4.) How many creatures are displayed on the amulet of the left ambassador? (D)
5.) Which page number can you read on the top left page of the song book? (E)
6.) Which number do you meet first when you extend the lower tip of the plumb bob horizontally to the right?(F)
7.) Look if you can find Ireland in the painting! How many characters did Ireland’s name consist of at the time the picture was painted? (G)

Hi Heather, we can’t help you with your work, but you can easily answer all those questions if you look at the painting in ARTstor and zoom into the details!

Katherine Christensen
Two more discussions of this piece:
Jerry Brotton, The Renaissance, a very short introduction (Oxford 2006)
pp 1-8.
Lisa Jardine, Worldly Goods, a new history of the Renaissance (Norton 1996) pp 425-35 (epilogue).

Sienna
What is the purpose of this painting

Giovanni Garcia-Fenech
You may consider reading the blog post to get an idea!

Michael Davidson
Ever noticed the 2nd Lute, turned over and lying under the table in the shadows to the right? I noticed it for the first time when I was doing a report on Hans Holbein recently.
It is a known fact that Hans Holbein the Younger had a brother who was apparently his partner in business. This brother died young and never became an established artist. Consider too the fact that these two brothers were raised by their father who was also a painter and very likely trained his sons to view their trade as an act of service to the church.
The protestant church had little need for art as religious expression, and it became clear that Holbein’s fortunes lay elsewhere. His career in England, particularly in King Henry VIII’s court often involved work that served dubious propaganda purposes, for none less than a rather manipulative player in the protestant revolution. If there were a layer of self representation in this work, the could the Lute with the broken string represent Hans, alive and prosperous but unsatisfied with to purpose his work has served? The 2nd Lute, the unknown entity hidden under the table could represent his late brother. Does this lute have all its strings in tact? Does it even have any strings at all?
Could the 2nd loot represent a life cut short, which never had to face the discord of the world that is portrayed in this enigmatic painting?

Very interesting info! Thanks!

That’s actually the lute case, in renaissance art it represents concealed feeling. I studied this painting for my Masters, some of my research is here https://markcalderwood.wordpress.com/2014/06/13/the-ambassadors-secret/

Luís Henriques
Beautiful painting! The work shown in the open music book was reconstructed… but I don’t quite remember the musicologist who worked on it. It’s a 3-voice chanson and I think it was well-known.
all best,

orientartiv
While watching the TV Series “The Hunted”, Season 1, Episode 5 a Renaissance painting, titled The Ambassadors was shown and discussed, so I had to find out it was Real or just an ‘insert’ in the show. That painting is REAL and certainly a noteworthy piece depicting the 16th century. Politics, Popery, Signs, Astrology, and Geography abound.


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