The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger

Welcome to “Art, Culture & Books” with me Anthony King. Today I’ll be taking you on a video and photographic tour of a very unique painting called The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger. It was painted in the same year that Queen Elizabeth I was born, 1533, and is at the National Gallery in London. This painting does include a very famous example of Anamorphosis which is where a distorted projection requires the viewer to occupy a specific vantage point to view it. So make sure to look very carefully!

Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) stands out as a prominent German Renaissance painter renowned for his portraits. This notable double portrait conveys an air of mystery. This particular painting captures the zeitgeist of religious turmoil in Europe during its creation. The table is covered with a variety of objects, gently references discord. Notably, an arithmetic book lies open to the page on mathematical division.

In this portrait, Holbein goes beyond showcasing the wealth and status of the subjects. The artwork coincides with a period of religious upheaval in Europe, notably marked by King Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic Church. The table’s objects offer a nuanced nod to the intricacies of the political climate, showcasing Holbein’s mastery in image composition and oil paint manipulation to depict diverse textures.

The table serves as a platform to exhibit an array of objects, a common feature in Renaissance portraits. Musical instruments, coins, books, and flowers were often included, providing insights into the sitter’s hobbies, intellect, culture, marital status, or religious beliefs. The top shelf hosts instruments for measuring time, altitude, and celestial positions. A celestial globe on the far left maps stars and planets, while a polyhedral dial, a sundial, sits with dials on each face. These technical instruments underscore the men’s proficiency in mathematics and science.

From a specific viewpoint, the elongated shape between the men’s feet morphs into a skull. You’ll often see a lot of people standing at a weird angle trying to get a look, when you see this painting in real life! However, be sure not to miss the other, even more hidden top left side crucifix which subtly suggests the hope of redemption through the resurrected Christ. This multifaceted portrayal reflects Holbein’s adeptness in conveying layers of meaning within his art.

By Anthony King (c)