Analysis of Hans Holbein’s The French Ambassadors

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The French Ambassadors is a Renaissance era oil painting by Hans Holbein the Younger. Painted in 1533, it is a portrait of Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve, french ambassadors to the court of english King Henry VIII. Holbein, a Lutheran, came from a long line of German artists, and was known for his realistic portraits, especially those done in the time he worked in the court of Henry VIII.

In the middle of the painting there is a shelf with various objects, which two men lean on. The man on the left stands with a very assertive posture and takes up quite a bit of the picture plane compared to the other man. He is dressed quite luxuriously: he wears a black coat with puffed shoulders that are lined with white fur. Beneath that he wears a pink undershirt that appears to be made of silk and around his neck he wears a gold medallion. On his head he wears a black hat at an angle and in his hand he holds a gilded dagger with a tassel attached. He appears to be young, with smooth, youthful skin and a collar length light brown beard. The man on the right is dressed much more austerely; his outfit is limited to neutral colors (black, brown, and white). Underneath his brown, fur lined coat, he wears a black shirt and a white clerical collar.

On his head he wears a black hat and in his right hand he grips a dark brown pair of gloves. Between them on the top tier of the shelf are various navigational instruments: a globe showing the positions of various constellations, a quadrant, and a sundial, among other things. Acting as a tablecloth underneath these items is an ornate middle eastern rug. On the lower tier of the shelf there is another globe (this one mapping out the continents), a compass, a lute with a broken string, a case of flutes, and what appears to be an open-faced book of hymns. Behind them are green drapes that are a rich green with very complex embroidery. The floor also has very intricate mosaic tiles. In the bottom center there is an anamorphic skull that can only be seen from a certain angle.

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The man on the left is Jean de Dinteville, a wealthy landowner and French diplomat, and the man on the right is Georges de Selve, Bishop of Lavaur and French ambassador to the Vatican. They were both sent to Henry VIII’s court to represent France, and by extension, the Roman Catholic Church. Beginning in 1517 with Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, the Protestant Reformation began sweeping across Europe. It began in England with Henry VIII’S request to the Church have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, who had failed to produce a male heir, annulled. The Pope refused, thus causing the creation of the Church of England, in which the king had supreme authority. King Francis I sent de Dinteville and de Selve to England to attempt to fix the breach between Henry VII and the Pope and to reunify the Catholic Church, a mission which proved to be unsuccessful. There is symbolism in the painting that alludes to the splintering of the Catholic church: the broken lute string paired with the Lutheran hymn book represents the tensions of the Reformation. In the top left corner of the painting, a crucifix is visible, but half is covered by the green drapes, which symbolizes the division of the church.

The tile of the floor is based on the Cosmati pavement in front of the high altar at Westminster Abbey, where Henry married his second wife, Anne Boleyn. This represents the failure of the ambassadors to prevent the English Reformation. Holbein also uses iconography to identify who the subjects of the painting are, especially with Georges de Selve. The clerical collar, the black shirt, and the scholar hat all indicate to the viewer that de Selve is a priest and a scholar. Jean de Dinteville’s wealth is shown through his attire as well: the decorative fur on his coat, his pink silk (an expensive fabric) shirt, his gilded dagger, and gold medallion are all indicators of opulence. The objects on the shelves, such as the middle eastern rug and globe, show that the men are well traveled and cultured. The display of various renaissance era navigational tools, such as the quadrant, also show that they are well versed in the scientific developments of the age.

Lastly, the anamorphic skull at the bottom center serves as a memento-mori, a reminder of mortality. This was the family motto of Jean de Dinteville, who commissioned the piece.

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