Many artists of note have “stand-out” works – paintings, drawings or other works that rise to the top of their oeuvre and serve as the work associated with their name. Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassadors not only fits that distinction, but stands out as one of the most enigmatic and unusual paintings in the history of art.
As I pointed out in my recent post on Holbein, The Ambassadors, the full title of which is actually Allegorical Portrait of Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve, is a painting worthy of discussion all on its own.
It is joint portrait, in itself unusual, most portraits are either a single individual or a group. Is presents two highborn French men, Jean de Dinteville (left), ambassador to England and Georges de Selve, Bishop of Lavur and ambassador to the Venetian Empire and the Holy See. The two were friends and are shown with a complex still life of objects in some ways related to their pursuits, a globe, an astrolabe, a sextant, a lute (with a broken string) and a math book, among others. All of them undoubtedly have their allegorical meaning within the context of Holbein’s intention for the image, but exactly what that intention is remains a matter of debate.
The most interesting object in the painting, however, is an elongated, indistinct object that seems to float in the foreground, just above the floor and in front of the subjects of the double portrait. When seen from a certain angle it becomes clear that this is an anamorphic image of a human skull.
An anamorphosis is an image that is distorted in such a way that it only assumes the proportions of a recognizable image when viewed from a certain angle, or by reflection in a curved surface.
The image of the skull in The Ambassadors is only visible as a skull when viewed from below and to one side of the painting. It has been suggested that it was meant to be displayed above a staircase, so that those climbing the stairs would be startled by the apparition of the skull as they glanced upward at the painting. You can see a photographic restoration of the skull image as seen from that angle here.
The painting has been the subject of much speculation, both for the anamorphic skull and the meaning of the various objects arrayed behind and in the hands of the subjects. There are interesting essays here, here and here. There is a list of links on the site of the Department of Mathematics of the National University of Singapore and a short essay on the skull, and other features of the painting on the site of The National Gallery in London, which is where the painting resides.
There are even books devoted entirely to the painting, like Holbein’s “Ambassadors”: Making and Meaning (National Gallery London Publications) by Susan Foister, Ashok Roy, Martin Wyld (additional info here), and Holbein’s “Ambassadors,”: The picture and the men by Mary F. S Hervey.
There in no mention of the painting in Holbein’s extensive records of his major works, yet it is his largest work and the only painting he signed and dated (1533). It was apparently lost from view for for most of the years since it was created until it was “re-dscovererd” by an art historian in the late 19th century.
Symbolic, enigmatic, and masterfully painted, Holbein’s The Ambassadors is certainly a “stand-out” work.