"The French Ambassadors" by Hans Holbein the Younger

Zhou Yixiu from Taiwan

PureInsight | July 4, 2005

[PureInsight.org] At an early age, Hans Holbein the Younger (1487-1543 A.D.) began to study painting with his father, Hans Holbein the Elder, a recognized artist in the Flemish tradition who was a skilled portraitist. He left home for Switzerland at the age of eighteen and settled in Basel where he quickly became established as a book illustrator, a splendid decorator, and an expert portrait artist. His likeness of Erasmus of Rotterdam painted soon after the famous author settled in Basel, gives us a truly memorable image of Renaissance man. Protestantism was introduced into Basel around 1522 and grew considerably in strength and importance during the next several years. By 1526 severe iconoclastic riots and strict censorship of the press swept over the city resulting in a freezing of the arts. Erasmus suggested that Holbein leave the country to seek new commissions and gave him a letter of introduction to Sir Thomas More, chancellor of England under Henry VIII. In 1526 Holbein, carrying a letter of introduction from Erasmus to the English statesman and author Sir Thomas More, set out for London. Leaving Basel late in 1526, Holbein traveled to England and achieved immediate success. His most impressive works of this time were executed for More and included a magnificent portrait of the humanist. Holbein returned to Basel in 1528 and used his English earnings to buy a house for his family. But Basel, becoming fanatically Protestant, was now gripped by religious upheaval. In spite of generous offers and pleas from the city council of Basel, Holbein left his wife and children for a second time in 1532, to spend the last 11 years of his life primarily in England. By 1533 Holbein was already painting court personalities, and four years after that he officially entered the service of King Henry VIII of England. It is estimated that during the last 10 years of his life Holbein executed approximately 150 portraits, life-size and miniature, of royalty and nobility alike. These portraits ranged from a magnificent series depicting German merchants who were working in London to a double portrait of the French ambassadors to portraits of the king and his wives.

"The French Ambassadors" is the most famous work by Holbein. It is more than just a portrait of Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve. It reflects the political relationship between England and France, the religious revolution at the time, as well as his personal philosophy of life.

Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve ("The French Ambassadors")
Oil on oak, 207 x 209 cm
National Gallery, London
Note the half-hidden silver crucifix behind a green curtain on the top left

This picture memorializes two wealthy, educated and powerful young men. At the left is Jean de Dinteville, aged 29, French ambassador to England in 1533. To the right stands his friend, Georges de Selve, aged 25, Bishop of Lavaur, who acted on several occasions as ambassador to the Emperor, the Venetian Republic and the Holy See.

The two men stand at either side of a table covered with a collection of objects that can be related to the Quadrivium, the four mathematical sciences of the Seven Liberal Arts: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. But this is not the traditional Quadrivium of the Medieval university, but the Quadrivium of the new learning based on direct experience and with practical applications.

The instruments and books displayed reflect the design of the cupboard itself in that those on the upper shelf would be used for the study of the heavens and heavenly bodies (celestial globe, compasses, sundial, cylindrical calendar, level and quadrant), while the objects on the lower shelf have more to do with everyday worldly matters. Thus, on the left - next to the worldly-minded Dinteville - is an open copy of Peter Apian's book of calculations for merchants (published in Ingolstadt, 1527), and on the right - near the bishop - a copy of Johann Walther's "Geystliches Gesangbüchlein" (Hymnal) (Wittenberg 1524), containing Luther's hymns. It is open at Martin Luther's hymn, "Come Holy Ghost Our Souls Inspire." Among the objects on the lower shelf are a lute, a case of flutes, a hymnbook, a book of arithmetic and a terrestrial globe. Holbein has made some modifications in the terrestrial globe on the lower shelf including spelling variations like "Pritannia" for "Britannia." The most significant modification is the inclusion of "Policy", Dinteville's seigneurial estate.

Certain details could be interpreted as references to contemporary religious divisions. The broken lute string, for example, may signify religious discord, while the Lutheran hymnbook may be a plea for Christian harmony. Holbein's attitude is documented by two of Luther's hymns in Walther's hymnal.

The stable, balanced, serene composition is interrupted only by a long gray shape that rises diagonally from the floor. When viewed from the proper angle, this shape is recognized as a "death's-head" or skull --reflecting Holbein's interest in symbolism and radical perspectives.

What could be the meaning of the skull in this painting?

The skull has been a symbol of mortality in the western world. No one can escape death. It is a symbol of merciless final judgment, as well as the eternity of time.

The two young scholars and ambassadors had attained social status, wealth, knowledge and fame, but they did not look proud or pleased. On the contrary, they looked slightly sad and melancholy. Perhaps they had already realized that life is short and transient and that all the fame and wealth will soon turn into nothing. Even the friendship between them will only be remembered in this portrait. Art may outlive a man's life, but only the truth shall live forever.

The painting asks us to see invisibly the invisible truth, or death, which is hidden behind the surface of appearances. It might be a hint that one must look beyond the surface and look at things from a different perspective in order to find the truth. When an audience views the portrait from the front angle, he is likely to be touched by the beautiful details and regard the skull as nothing but a shadow. But when an observer views the portrait from the right angle, he will see the hidden skull, or the truth, but the two men and the luxury room will become distorted and meaningless. Which is the truth? Which is the illusion? The artist seems to be saying that everyday people tend to fall prey to the illusionary things on the surface. They tend to take the illusion as the truth and the truth as illusions.

The skull was constructed in such a way as to produce an optimum viewing point to the right of the picture, which easily coincided with a position which an adult could take up standing at right-angles to the wall on which the picture was hung, provided this was at a relatively low height.

Translated from: http://www.zhengjian.org/zj/articles/2004/6/28/27881.html

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