Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve ('The Ambassadors') by Hans Holbein

Hans Holbein the Younger

Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve ('The Ambassadors'), 1533, Oil on panel, 207 x 209.5 cm, The National Gallery, London; Bought 1890, NG1314, © National Gallery, London / Art Resource, NY

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Beauty and Decay

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’.

 

References

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)


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