Characteristics of the Work The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein

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Characteristics of the work

The Ambassadors is a work of Renaissance style painted in oil on oak board, with dimensions of 209 cm. high by 207 cm. wide. It is one of the first standing portraits, complete, almost life-size. The work has the characteristics of all of Holbein’s portraits: realistic portraits with great detail, especially in clothing and ornamentation. The painter of German origin also knows how to capture the rank and dignity of the characters, giving a human dimension fully framed in the Renaissance.

The characters and the historical period

The painting depicts Ambassador Jean de Dinteville on the left and Georges de Selve on the right. The characters have their official dress and the characteristic attributes of their rank, and are surrounded by symbols indicating their belonging to the intellectual, religious and political world.

It should be borne in mind that a few years before the completion of this work there had been the divorce of Henry VIII with Catherine of Aragon, and his subsequent excommunication, which produced the schism of England. At first it was thought that the painting exalted the schism itself, but today it is known, thanks to some letters, that Georges de Selve trusted in a reconciliation, as did Jean de Dinteville, who tried to avoid the schism.

Jean de Dinteville: he was ambassador of the King of France, Francis I, before the Court of England. The painting depicts him richly dressed, with an ermine coat, a dagger sheathed in its case and a sword. On his neck he wears a golden chain with a medal decorated with an angel, proof of his belonging to the Order of Saint Michael. Her age (29 years) is inscribed on the dagger, symbol of secular power. There is a little noticeable detail in his hat or beret: a skull in a medallion that together with the anamorphosis (which we will talk about later) is part of Dinteville’s personal motto. Holbein worked with precision on a trimmed red beard and lively eyes that deviate slightly to look at the painter’s activity.

George de Selve: he was bishop of Lavaur, and occasionally he was ambassador to Emperor Charles V of Germany (I of Spain), the Republic of Venice and the Holy See. De Selve devoted himself in the essential part of his priesthood to working for reconciliation within the Church. In the work he is represented with a totally black episcopal cassock and a square bonnet placed in a symmetrical attitude. His age (24 years) appears in the song of a book, symbol of ecclesiastical power. In his right hand he holds gloves, a symbol of dignity, and his face has a well-groomed beard in which, like on his eyebrows and hair, the painter worked hair by hair.


The liberal arts and the humanist world are represented by the objects on the shelves, the same objects that appear in the portrait of astronomer Nickolus Kratzer. There is also a tribute to all the men who fell in disgrace in Tomas Moro’s circle.

Both men, who observe the spectator directly, are resting on a piece of furniture with two shelves on which there are several objects that pay homage to the discoveries of the modern world. These objects are related to the quadrivium, the four mathematical sciences between the seven liberal arts: arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy; and the trivium: logic, grammar and rhetoric.

Top shelf

A red Persian tapestry with geometric motifs. A celestial sphere showing constellations with traces of zodiac figures. The constellation of the swan is distinguished, annotated as GALACIA; perhaps as an allusion to the Latin name of France, Gallia. Instead of a swan there is a rooster attacking a vulture, a kind of allegory of France (the rooster) attacking its enemies and making them flee. The balloon is not regulated to represent the sky at the latitude of 51° 30′, which is that of London, where the two men meet, it is a value very close to the latitude of Rome (41° 52′), which alludes to political and religious disagreements between the English court and the Vatican. Several sundials, including a model also represented by Holbein five years earlier in the portrait of Nicholas Krazter. The precision of the painting allows us to see that one of the clocks is marking April 11, Good Friday in that year. A book on which supports the elbow George de Selve, whose song reads the mention: ÆTATIS SVÆ 25, which corresponds to the age of Georges de Selve. There is also a sextant, a polyhedral solar quadrant and a torquetum to determine the position of the stars.

Bottom shelf

A compass A globe that shows a certain number of ‘geopolitical’ notations, such as the line of division of the world between Spaniards and Portuguese established by Pope Alexander VI in the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494, the circumnavigation of Magellan or the New World, particularly the Brazilian coast. It is therefore a clear reference to the presence in the world of the great powers of the time. Holbein indicates on the map of France the location of Policy, (now Polisy), the stately domain of Dinteville, where the painting was to be installed.

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An open book with Lutheran songs by Johannes Walther, evoking the Reformed Church. Holbein chose to present the open book for two concrete pages that are not consecutive in the true work. The page on the left shows the translation of the first verse of Luther’s hymn Veni sancte Spiritus and the one on the right shows the introduction to the abridged version of Luther’s own Ten Commandments. It is likely that the choice of this book and the juxtaposition of these two pages are intentional; no doubt Luther’s favorite theme was the opposition between the Law, represented by the commandments, and Grace, symbolized by the hymn, a theme that seems to have been close to the positions of Georges de Selve.

An arithmetic book that is kept open by a square. It is the Arithmetic of the Seller of Apianus, the bedside book of the merchants of Hansa, good customers of Holbein, especially after the misfortune of Thomas More. With him, Holbein wants to emphasize the importance of the emergence of the bourgeoisie in this period. The book also recalls that Georges de Selve was descended from a family of merchants who amassed their fortune during the 15th century and who allowed one of their own to reach the position of bishop. The legible page begins with the word Dividirt, which has a double meaning, because it can refer to mathematical division but also to division or disharmony, both in the church and in the political arena. Georges de Selve’s writings echo his concerns about the division of the church, the Lutheran Reformation, but also about the creation of the Anglican church. De Selve writes, for example, a speech for the King of France and the Roman Emperor as a call for reconciliation.
A lute with a broken rope, possibly symbolizing the period of confusion that the church lives in this era, a lost harmony. The instrument, like a still life, is a pictorial exercise in perspective, with an exquisite work of textures, especially on the mast of the frets. A music case with several flutes.

The back plane is occupied by a green velvet curtain with a fold in the upper left corner that hardly allows to see a crucifix, which is often not seen in reproductions due to its position on the margin. The crucifix, half hidden, in an intermediate position between what is in front of the curtain (the world of men) and what is hidden to his gaze, the unknown behind the curtain, symbolizes the position of the Christ intermediary between here below and beyond. On the other hand, it can be interpreted as the cornering of religious beliefs in the struggle for political power.

The characters are in a room with a rich marble pavement of geometric mosaics, adjusted to the visual laws of perspective, which gives depth to the scene. We wanted to find some similarity with the pavements of Westminster Abbey, made in 1268 by the Roman Odoricus, and that of the Sistine Chapel. The choice of this type of flooring instead of the traditional tiles is not yet clear, pointing to a possible reference to the macrocosm in which the central circle may be symbolising God and the four surrounding the four elements: earth, water, fire and air. Through this element, the microcosm represented by the two characters would be related to the macrocosm of creation.

The Anamorphosis

The most curious part of the painting is the skull painted by Holbein, an oblong object that floats between the spectator and the painting, between the real space and the pictorial space. This game is called anamorphosis, the non-form or destruction of the image.

This effect is constructed by means of a glass tube and a mirror between the spectator and the painting, oriented perpendicularly to the oblique shape; the skull appears completely clear in the tube. To paint the deformed skull, one acts in reverse, copying what is seen in the tube from a clear skull. This type of deformed images was fashionable in Tudor’s England; the National Portrait Gallery in London has, for example, a portrait of Edward VI of England by William Scrots.
It is thought to be related to where it might be located. There is also a play on words with the name Holbein in German: Hohie Bein, which means hollow bone, this has motivated some scholars to consider this representation as a key signature of Holbein.

The skull is what the ambassadors are seeing. It is death that appears looking down from the right as a terrifying specter. It is a symbol of human vanity as opposed to the luxury of the characters depicted, a genre of painting in which the skulls allude morally to the fleeting nature of life, beauty and knowledge, as well as the equal treatment of death at all levels of existence.

In short, the painting is not only a portrait, but also a vanitas, a meditation on the fragility of wisdom and honours. What is important on earth is not important in the kingdom of heaven; what has been done in our life, death undoes. The broken lute rope symbolizes death and the inscription of the Crucifix above, behind the curtain: Think of your salvation reminds us that death reaches us all. For the spectator it is a mannerist game that tries to show that the only real thing in this life is death, represented by the skull.

For all these reasons, the painting of The Ambassadors is more than an impeccable portrait and a universe of symbols materialized in certain objects, because above these rich and sumptuous elements prevails the idea of the uselessness of man in the face of death and the transience of life, a cryptic declaration of principles of this versatile painter through a scene in which luxury and appearance prevail.

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