Hans Holbein’s The French Ambassadors: A Masterful Legacy of the Renaissance Period
I chose this painting, first and foremost, because of its subject matter. I think it offers a tangible window into the past, it gives insight into a period I very much find fascinating. Having seen the painting in person, I was impressed by its larger-than-life scope. The somewhat mysterious atmosphere created by the dark, rich colours drew me in. This feeling of mystery is continued by the carefully constructed mise-en-scène, which unlocks in an immersing way a different way of understanding the painting. And so, beyond the first contact with the picture, after taking a closer look at it, the various details made me appreciate the artistry of the composition and the mastery of the artist. Moreover, all the hidden symbols made me feel like I just put together a puzzle, as though the artist made sure the painting will only fully reveal itself to the viewer who lingers in front of it.
The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger is a large scale double portrait which presently hangs in the National Gallery in London. The painting is a rough square, measuring 207 cm x 209.5 cm, composed by Holbein in 1533 using oil on wood. It is also notably signed, dated and inscribed.
The eye is first drawn to the figure on the left of the painting which is the more imposing of the two, having much more elaborate clothing and a proud, contrapposto stance, standing at full height and being rather broad and thus occupies more space.
He is a very wealthy and fashionable man as evidenced by his attire. The most poignant sign of his status may be considered to be the black over-gown lined with lynx fur which was very expensive at the time. Holbein is a master at manipulating his chosen medium to create rich and meticulous patterns. As such, the painter manages to portray the deep texture of the fur by employing his masterful technique in rendering each long hair around the edges. Underneath this overcoat, the pink tunic particularly stands out. Holbein uses chiaroscuro to create the effect of a luminescent satin material, as exemplified best in the rendition of the sleeve with its numerous, more or less naturalistic creases. What’s more, in the portrayal of fabrics, the shading convinces the viewer that there is three-dimensional shape to the figures which aids the portrayal of volume. The sleeve’s end reveals the distinctive wrist ruff. His look is completed by a black doublet and black hose. The small details fail to elude the painter’s grasp, hence the meticulous tiny golden tags that hold the slashing of the overcoat’s sleeve together and the gold decoration and the skull badge on the hat. Furthermore, the man is holding a scabbarded golden dagger which has an inscription that reads ‘AET.SVAE 29’. With the same hand, he is also holding a huge blue and gold tassel. One last reminder of his extensive wealth and importance is the sword hilt at his left side and the impressive gold necklace.
The viewer’s gaze then slides to the second figure, on the right of the painting, which is standing parallel to the first man. As with the former, there is also an inscription in Latin (‘AETATIS SVE 25’) near him in the painting, namely on the book on which he rests his arm. Being a clergyman, his outfit is less extravagant as compared to his friend’s. As such he is wearing a brown, fur-lined silk damask robe with the large pattern on it denoting its expensiveness. Moreover, his undershirt and his hat are simple, made out of black cloth. His pose, although mirroring that of the other figure, is somewhat less commanding, more formal, stiff even, implying the rigour that comes as part of being a member of the church.
The facial expressions affirm Holbein’s naturalistic approach in this painting. Both men have fine brown hair fashionably cut with a beard and moustache. Their dark eyes are notably looking directly at the viewer. Furthermore, the symmetrical features of their faces suggest an ideal beauty that additionally marks them apart as gentlefolk. The care for detail in the hair, veins and slight flush on the first man’s cheekbones proves the artist’s desire to capture the lifelike likeness of his subjects. One last detail that lingers in the viewer’s mind is the fact that both men are resting their arms against the shelves between them. This alludes to the fact that they are erudite men who had a proper education.
In this way the artist draws the attention to the wooden stand between the two men. The top shelf is a much more crowded space and stands out because of the red carpet upon which the objects are placed. The fabric is minutely rendered, with each knot individually depicted with precise brushstrokes. Additionally, the contrast between the two primarily used colours, red and black, makes the gaze linger for a second longer. At the same time, the red provides an interesting contrast with the green background too.
The most notable object on this shelf is the astronomical globe that depicts different constellations. Next to it are various instruments used for telling the time. Among a cylindrical dial, a polyhedral artefact with a small compass on the top, the elaborate device to the right stands out. One can say that its size and complexity allude to the fact that it is of the newest technology. The idea of measuring something beyond our realm, -that is, time-, something that even though we cannot physically grasp we can measure, something that belongs to the heavenly sphere is relevant to this first shelf.
This idea of ‘measurement’ finds its continuation in the connotations of the objects on the lower shelf. In this instance though, it transitions to ‘earthly’ measurements as evidenced by the terrestrial globe, the divider and the arithmetic book, and even the music book. The earthly sphere next to Jean depicts Europe upside-down, considered at the time the hub of human civilisation and knowledge. To the right, the space is dominated by a lute with its case in the shadows beneath the shelf. One important detail, easily missed out is the snapped string, which hints to a lack of harmony, an idea continued with the missing flute in the set next to the lute.
What the viewer won’t fail to notice is the fact that the scene carefully laid out by the artist occurs in a convincingly depicted spatial setting. The background is an intricate green curtain, whereas the floor is painted in perspective to cement the sense of a real space. The shadows of the figures, the lute depicted in foreshortening, the partly obscured by the shadow of the cloth above globe come to reinforce the achievement of spatial depth.
There are two more hidden objects in the picture that will hold the viewer’s interest. The first one is placed on the lower part of the picture between the two men and it seems to be an elongated, slanting, oval slab. If regarded from a certain point, the shape is revealed to be a distorted rendition of a skull which marks the painter’s mastery over perspective technique. The second object, a crucifix, is partly hidden behind the left top corner of the curtain.
A closer consideration of the painting’s disposition reveals an underlying geometry that confers a sense of perfect proportionality. As such, it can be stated that the painting is comprised of three concerting squares. The first one is, naturally, the canvas itself. A second square is made up by the two men who are roughly of the same height and stand apart at a distance that seems proportioned to that said height. Lastly, the shelves between the figures, although partly obscured by them, can be seen as a square as well. Furthermore, shapes such as spheres, squares and cylinders dominate the painting alongside the natural forms of the two men.
The picture’s subjects are, as the title announces, two French ambassadors, namely Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve. Holbein’s ‘The Ambassadors’ was commissioned by the Frenchman Jean while on a diplomatic mission in England in 1533. His good friend happened to be on a brief diplomatic stay in London at the same time, which compelled de Dinteville to include him in the picture as a way to commemorate their friendship. The finished product most probably hung in Jean’s chateau in France, Polisy (marked on the map on the Earth globe).
With additional knowledge of the period’s culture, troubles and circumstances, some objects in the picture can be looked at in a different light. For example, the array of objects on the first shelf allude to the sitters’ deep understanding of mathematical and astronomical matters and overall knowledge. The music book next to the lute is a Lutheran hymnbook and the songs inscribed on its open pages, intentionally put one next to the other even though in the original book the order was a different one, advocate peace and Christian unity. Moreover, the anamorphic skull, as well as the skull badge are memento mori, meant to announce that despite the ambassadors’ status and wealth brought by their nobility, they are still mortal, subject to every man’s fate. It can also be considered a token of their humility and acceptance of this predicament. Furthermore, the partly hidden crucifix can be considered a reminder of hope, that despite their inevitable mortality in flesh, religion will save their souls and give them immortality in spirit.
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