Hans Holbein the Younger’s painting depicts in delicious detail Jean de Dinteville (on the left), French ambassador to the court of King Henry VIII, and his friend George de Selve (on the right), the young Bishop of Lavaur. The men are clad in sumptuous robes, and stationed either side of two shelves laden with myriad curious instruments, musical and astronomical. In the foreground, a distorted (anamorphic) image of a skull can be identified if viewed from a point to the right of the picture (from which vantage point the distortion is corrected). A silver crucifix is just visible, emerging from the curtain in the top left corner.
Commissioned at great cost and exactingly made, the picture situates its two subjects within the slow march of time and decay—within a world where humans scramble for knowledge, peace, and order, while knowing death and salvation to be outside their own control.
The letter of James announces to men in the business of trade and travel, that ‘you do not know about tomorrow’ (James 5:14). Everything is subject to the will of the Lord; to boast in one’s plans is futile.
At first glance, the proliferation of instruments in the painting (a celestial globe, a portable sundial, and various other instruments used for understanding the heavens) might speak to the ambassadors’ confident pursuit of control, since these devices indicate practices of measuring and navigating the earth, and of calculating the time. Yet this impression is dislodged by the Lutheran hymnal on the bottom shelf, which evokes the unwieldy religious conflict preoccupying these Christian men in 1533, in the advent of Henry VIII’s break with Rome (Foister et al. 1997: 40). Their apparent confidence is also undermined by the distorted human skull in the foreground of the work, which—unlike the beautiful and richly detailed objects above and around it—is not so easily grasped and enjoyed by the human senses. By thus relativizing what is material and temporal while reminding us of death, this strange skull, slipping in and out of focus, provokes the question in the passage from James 4:14: ‘What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes’.
Berger, John et al. 1972. Ways of Seeing (London: BBC)
Foister, Susan, Ashok Roy, and Martin Wyld. 1997. Making and Meaning: Holbein's Ambassadors (London: National Gallery London)
13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and get gain”; 14whereas you do not know about tomorrow. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and we shall do this or that.” 16As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. 17Whoever knows what is right to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
5 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. 2Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. 3Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. 4Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. 5You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6You have condemned, you have killed the righteous man; he does not resist you.