The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger

The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger



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15 Facts About Hans Holbein's 'The Ambassadors'

Long before wearing 3D glasses or looking for Easter eggs became popular, Renaissance painters figured out to get their audiences to look at pieces from new angles by playing with perspective. One of the most famous examples of the technique is Hans Holbein the Younger's double portrait The Ambassadors, which possesses a history as rich as the many details hidden in its brushstrokes.

1. THE AMBASSADORS BROKE FROM HOLBEIN'S ESTABLISHED STYLE.

Following in the footsteps of his father Hans Holbein the Elder, the Bavarian-born artist made his name by dedicating his talents to religious subjects like The Body of the Dead Christ In The Tomb. As he neared his 30s, Holbein was making a successful living in this oeuvre, but he still decided to take a chance on new subject matter. He traveled to England, then Switzerland, and back to London, expanding into more secular portraits.

2. ERASMUS INADVERTENTLY SPURRED HOLBEIN'S MOVE TO PRESTIGE PORTRAITS.

The Dutch intellectual introduced Holbein to his humanist circles, winning the artist commissions from members of the English court like council to the king, Thomas More, and Anne Boleyn.

3. THE AMBASSADORS PICTURED FRENCH DIPLOMATS AND FRIENDS.

The figure on the left side of The Ambassadors is Jean de Dinteville, the French ambassador to England. He was nearing his 30 th birthday at the time of this double portrait. His friend and fellow diplomat Georges de Selve, pictured on the right, was only 25 at the time and had already served as the French ambassador to the Republic of Venice on several occasions.

4. THEIR AGES ARE INSCRIBED ON THE PAINTING.

Look closely at the dagger held by Dinteville, and you'll spot a 29 on its ornate scabbard. Similarly, the book under Selve's elbow has "25" written upon its side. These props were also employed as symbols of their character. The book signifies Selve's contemplative nature, while the dagger declares Dinteville a man of action.

5. THE POSH FLOOR COMES FROM WESTMINSTER ABBEY.

In addition to marveling at Holbein's eye for detail, art historians praise the work's ability to make it seem like the viewer could step right into the canvas. But there's an added layer of meaning, as this famous floor is meant to represent the macrocosm. By extension, it places these men in the grander scheme of the universe as a whole.

It’s possible that de Dinteville saw this pattern on the floor of Westminster Abbey during the coronation of Anne Boleyn. But some art historians think that it’s intended to represent similar floors in Rome, indicating the Catholic nature of the two subjects.

6. IT'S AS GRAND IN SIZE AS IT IS IN DETAIL.

Even on a computer screen The Ambassadors can impress, with Holbein's attention to realistically capturing texture and minute details. But in person it has an even bigger impact, measuring in at 81.5 × 82.5 inches.

7. ON ONE LEVEL, THE AMBASSADORS WAS A STATUS SYMBOL.

Dinteville commissioned the piece to immortalize himself and his friend. Following the tradition of such portraits, Holbein presented them in finery and furs and surrounded the duo with symbols of knowledge, like books, globes, and musical instruments. However, the thoughtful painter also included symbols that pointed to the troubles these men faced.

8. THE AMBASSADORS WAS PAINTED DURING A TIME OF POLITICAL TURMOIL AND RELIGIOUS TENSION.

Part of Dinteville's job was to report back to France about the goings on of the English court. And with Henry VIII in the process of separating from Catherine of Aragon so he might marry Anne Boleyn, there was plenty going on. Those events also included the English King's rejection of the Catholic Church and its pope, as well as the creation of the Church of England. The Ambassadors was completed in 1533, the same year Boleyn gave birth to Henry VIII's daughter, Elizabeth I.

9. A CLEVER WORDPLAY HINTS AT ENGLAND'S DISCORD.

In the middle of The Ambassadors, Holbein depicts a lute. But a keen eye will note that one of its strings is snapped, creating a visual representation of "discord."

10. HOLBEIN WENT ON TO WORK FOR HENRY VIII.

The German painter traveled to London in 1532 in hopes of securing some wealthy patrons—and it worked. Despite the secret Catholic symbolism present in The Ambassadors, the King hired Holbein to be his personal painter circa 1535. Two years later, Holbein completed Portrait of Henry VIII, and although the original was destroyed in a fire in 1698, copies remain the most defining portraits of the controversial monarch.

11. IT'S ONE OF THE MOST FAMOUS EXAMPLES OF ANAMORPHIC ART.

Anamorphosis is the depiction of an object in a way that purposely distorts its perspective, requiring a specific viewing point to see it properly. Examples of anamorphic art date back to the 15th century, and include a Leonardo da Vinci sketch known today as Leonardo's Eye. If you look at The Ambassadors at an acute angle, the white and black smudge that cuts across the bottom of the painting becomes a fully realized human skull.

12. THE SKULL IS BELIEVED TO BE A NOD TO 'MEMENTO MORI.'

The medieval Latin theory focuses on man's inescapable mortality as a means of urging practitioners to reject vanity and the short-lived joys of earthly goods. And the hidden skull was a symbol of the inevitability of death. A skull might seem like an ominous sign to place between two young gentlemen, who were draped in luxury, but Dinteville, who commissioned the painting, was a memento mori admirer. His personal motto was "remember thou shalt die."

13. HOLBEIN HID A CRUCIFIX WITHIN THE PIECE.

In the upper left corner, behind the lush green curtain, you'll find Jesus in an iconic pose. Some art historians believe this divine cameo is tied to the memento mori skull and that it alludes to a place past mortality. It's a symbol meant to suggest that there is more than death, meaning an afterlife through Christ. Others believe the hidden icon represents the division of the church that Henry VIII was inflicting on his countrymen.

14. THE LAYOUT ALSO HAS RELIGIOUS TIES.

According to some art critics, the bottom level—where the anamorphic skull lies on a macrocosm floor—depicts death, looming and large. The middle layer of the shelf—which is populated by a terrestrial globe, a hymn of Martin Luther's, and musical instruments—presents the living world, full of joy and endeavor. Lastly, the top shelf with its celestial globe, astronomy tools, and hidden crucifix symbolizes the heavens and redemption through Christ.

15. THE AMBASSADORS NOW LIVES IN LONDON.

The oil on oak portrait was made to hang in the halls of Dinteville's home. However, The National Gallery has displayed Holbein's mind-bending painting since 1890. For more than 125 years, it has been one of the London museum's most prized exhibits.


A closer look at Hans Holbein’s “The Ambassadors”

Hans Holbein the Younger’s “The Ambassadors” of 1533 is well known for its anamorphic image of a skull in the foreground, but upon close perusal, the objects on the table between the two subjects prove just as fascinating.

To start with, the painting memorializes Jean de Dinteville, French ambassador to England, and his friend, Georges de Selve, who acted on several occasions as French ambassador to the Republic of Venice, to the Pope in Rome, and to England, Germany, and Spain.

The upper shelf, which is concerned with the the heavens, includes a celestial globe, a portable sundial, and various other instruments used for understanding the heavens and measuring time, while the lower shelf, which reflects the affairs of the world, holds musical instruments, a hymn book, a book of arithmetic, and a terrestrial globe.

Holbein painted “The Ambassadors” during a particularly tense period marked by rivalries between the Kings of England and France, the Roman Emperor, and the Pope. Furthermore, the French church was split over the question of the Reformation. The religious and political strife was reflected symbolically in the details of the painting. Among them:

  • A crucifix is half-obscured by a green curtain in the top left corner of the painting, symbolizing the division of the church.
  • The broken string on the lute evokes ecclesiastical disharmony during the Reformation.
  • The open book of music next to the lute has been identified as a Lutheran hymnal, and the book of mathematics is open on a page of divisions which opens with the word “Dividirt.”

There are also non-political details throughout the work, such as the ages of the sitters being written in Latin on the dagger’s sheath (Dinteville) and on the book on the top shelf (de Selve).

And we won’t even go into the complicated issues with the many scientific instruments, including apparently intentional contradictions and inconsistencies. If you are interested, we highly recommend “The Scientific Instruments in Holbein’s Ambassadors: A Re-Examination” by Elly Dekker and Kristen Lippincott in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes , Vol. 62, (1999), available via JSTOR.

View “The National Gallery, London page in Artstor to learn about the other 2,370 stunning works in the collection.


Decoding the Symbolism in Holbein's 'The Ambassadors'

When the painting was acquired by the National Gallery in 1890, the identity of the two strident figures remained a mystery. It wasn&rsquot until ten years later, with the publication of Mary F. S. Hervey&rsquos book, Holbein's "Ambassadors": The Picture and the Men (1900), that they were identified as Jean de Dinteville (left) and Georges de Selve (right). De Dinteville was a French ambassador to the court of Henry VIII, and de Selve was Bishop of Lavaur (though not fully consecrated until after the painting of this portrait, hence the absence of episcopal dress).

The two men were close friends and young men of distinction. There&rsquos an air of fraternal pride in their expressions. De Dinteville&rsquos letters from the period attest to his joy at the visit of his friend. Tiny details inscribed on the scabbard of de Dinteville&rsquos dagger and on de Selve&rsquos book tell us that both men are in their twenties.

Detail showing Georges de Selve and the 'torquetum' instrument.

The purpose of de Selve&rsquos visit almost certainly had important significance to the schisms of the church at the time, with Lutheran reform sweeping Europe and Henry VIII&rsquos desire to break away from the Pope. Holbein&rsquos exacting attention to detail, though, means that the gravity of the occasion is shot through with a subtle, touching commentary on the affection shared by the two young men.

De Dintevile appears the more brash and confident, his foot stepping boldly into the very center of the circle design on the carpet. De Selve, more modestly dressed and physically reserved, shows the poise of a Bishop, though he is the younger of the two.

Et in Arcadia

The smeared-looking form in the bottom center foreground is perhaps the most well-known example of anamorphosis in art history. Holbein used a grid system to graphically project the image of a skull so that it appears entirely distorted from a frontal perspective, but becomes perfectly proportional when viewed at an oblique angle from the right. It&rsquos an ingenious riff on the memento mori trope, reminding viewers of death amidst life. It rhymes with the more subtle badge in the shape of a skull which is pinned to de Dinteville&rsquos hat.

Detail showing the anamorphic skull as seen from the extreme right, decoding the illusion.

Moving further up to the very top-left corner of the frame, we see one more image of death. Peeking from behind the luscious green curtain is a view of Christ on the cross. The painting largely celebrates the importance of the two men and their political affairs, whilst also subtly celebrating their close friendship. The two memento mori and the crucifixion, however, serve as a reminder of the transience of human life.

Detail showing Jean de Dinteville, the memento mori on his cap, and the partially obscured crucifixion scene.

During his time in Basel, Switzerland, Holbein moved in the circle of Desiderius Erasmus, a famous late-Renaissance scholar and humanist. Erasmus moved from Rotterdam to Basel in 1521, and Holbein painted his portrait many times. One example, in fact, hangs adjacent to The Ambassadors at the National Gallery. Though humanism at the time did not necessarily have the non-religious connotations it does today, it still rejected doctrinal approaches to religion, distancing itself from both Lutheran reforms and the power of the Papacy.

Holbein&rsquos Christ, partially obscured by the decorous curtain, could be a gently satirical comment upon the dogmatic back-and-forth in Europe at the turn of the 15th-century. De Selve was in England to talk to Henry VIII about divisions in the Church. Holbein the humanist could be suggesting that the courtly pomp of such affairs in fact obscures true faith.

The Objects

The painting is full of significant objects, each picked out in incredible detail. The import of each one is the subject of debate. Hervey&rsquos book was long considered the authority, despite her own admissions that she didn&rsquot have the expertise to definitively comment on the instruments. A more recent paper, published in 1999 by Elly Dekker and Kristen Lippincott, develops Hervey&rsquos identifications in great depth.

Detail showing the polyhedral sundial.

Two globes are visible, one terrestrial and one celestial. The terrestrial globe (a standard globe of the Earth) sits upside-down beneath the table, turned so that a topsy-turvy Europe is presented to the viewer. This could, again, symbolize the tumult of the Lutheran Reformation which shook the continent during the early 1500s. Standing proudly upon the table is the celestial globe, showing the movements of the stars. Its position emphasizes the strength and constancy of the heavenly spheres in comparison to earthly affairs.

Detail showing the terrestrial globe and the lute.

Looking closely at the globe of the earth, we can see that the town of Polisy, France is marked on the map. Inventories show that the painting hung in a chateau in Polisy at some point in its history, and it&rsquos possible that de Dinteville took it back to France with him in 1533.

Other scientific instruments such as the quadrant, Shepherd&rsquos dial, and the polyhedral sundial represent man&rsquos various attempts to make sense of his universe. The lute seemingly suggests that art and music are as valuable as science in this respect.

Detail showing the 'torquetum', an instrument for taking simultaneous horizon, equitorial, and elliptic co-ordinates.

It&rsquos been suggested that the dates and times which can be read from these instruments are significant, though Dekker and Lippincott note various technical reasons why this might not be the case.

The gnomon of Holbein&rsquos Shepherd&rsquos dial suggests a date of either April 10th or August 15th, and the shadow on the sundial is painted to give a time of either 9.00am or 3.00pm. The celestial globe displays 2.40pm on July 12th, and the reading on the &lsquotorquetum&rsquo might refer to the time during which Halley&rsquos Comet appeared in 1531.

It&rsquos impossible to know if these readings are either accurate or significant, but such details add to the tension between measurement and mystery that makes the painting so compelling. Holbein&rsquos Ambassadors is such a richly symbolic painting that whole books are scarcely enough to cover it. It warrants repeated viewing, and there are probably details yet to be discovered. Hopefully, this brief decoding has you ready to go back and view Holbein&rsquos enigmatic masterpiece again and again!

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7 Replies to &ldquoThe Ambassadors (Hans Holbein the Younger)&rdquo

I’ve always been a little surprised that he didn’t seek out a way to more organically integrate the skull shape into the composition as seen head-on, which makes me wonder if he added it at a later date. What’s striking is that when viewed at the point where the skull resolves to it’s proper shape, it appears to have roughly the same scale as the heads of the ambassadors – print out the image and try it!

I saw a TV show a couple of years ago where this painting featured. The show was about how a lot of old painters (Caravaggio for instance) used lenses to project the scene they were painting on the canvas. They claimed that the skull in “The Ambassadors” must have been projected on a slanting canvas.
It was an interesting show.

The painting of the Ambassadors was originally displayed at the top of a stairway and the skull would have appeared “norma” to viewers coming up the stairs. When in front of the painting it takes it slanted shape while the rest of the painting appears normal.

this is not the right way to submit an artical about the painting. YoU MENTION THE ART WORKS BUT YET DO NOT SUGGEST THE SYMBOLISM

There’s a very interesting fictional re-creation of Holbein’s process of creating this painting in the historical novel “Portrait of an Unknown Woman” by Vanora Bennett, about Thomas More’s family, particularly his adopted daughter Meg Giggs, and their relationship with Holbein.

I too have greatly enjoyed the book “Portrait of an Unknown Woman”, have enjoyed constantly referring back to the paintings on this website.

I have now listened to Vanora Bennett’s book on CD (came as a set of 12 disks) twice. That lead me to do a little more research into Holbein. I found it fascinating and credit her work with jump-starting the interest I once had in Art History and History. To see the pictures of Holbeins work certainly brings it all to a better focus.


Hans Holbein the Younger

Holbein was a German and Swiss artist who traveled to England in 1526 and was welcomed into the humanist circle of Thomas More, where he quickly built a high reputation.

Later, he also worked under the patronage of Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell. By 1535, he was King’s Painter to King Henry VIII.

His portraits of the royal family and nobles were a historical visual record of the court when Henry asserted his supremacy over the English church.

Holbein had deftly survived the downfall of his first two high patrons, Thomas More and Anne Boleyn, but Cromwell’s execution damaged his career.

Although he managed to keep his place as King’s painter, his career never recovered. The site of Holbein’s grave is unknown and may never have been marked.


The Artstor Blog

Hans Holbein the Younger’s “The Ambassadors” of 1533 is well known for its anamorphic image of a skull in the foreground, but upon close perusal, the objects on the table between the two subjects prove just as fascinating.

To start with, the painting memorializes Jean de Dinteville, French ambassador to England, and his friend, Georges de Selve, who acted on several occasions as French ambassador to the Republic of Venice, to the Pope in Rome, and to England, Germany, and Spain.

The upper shelf, which is concerned with the the heavens, includes a celestial globe, a portable sundial, and various other instruments used for understanding the heavens and measuring time, while the lower shelf, which reflects the affairs of the world, holds musical instruments, a hymn book, a book of arithmetic, and a terrestrial globe.

  • A crucifix is half-obscured by a green curtain in the top left corner of the painting, symbolizing the division of the church.
  • The broken string on the lute evokes ecclesiastical disharmony during the Reformation.
  • The open book of music next to the lute has been identified as a Lutheran hymnal, and the book of mathematics is open on a page of divisions which opens with the word “Dividirt.”

There are also non-political details throughout the work, such as the ages of the sitters being written in Latin on the dagger’s sheath (Dinteville) and on the book on the top shelf (de Selve).

And we won’t even go into the complicated issues with the many scientific instruments, including apparently intentional contradictions and inconsistencies. If you are interested, we highly recommend “The Scientific Instruments in Holbein’s Ambassadors: A Re-Examination” by Elly Dekker and Kristen Lippincott in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes , Vol. 62, (1999), available via JSTOR.

View “The National Gallery, London page in Artstor to learn about the other 2,370 stunning works in the collection.

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12 Responses

Can you help to me about history…Thank Cheers Heather

1.) Find the star map with the watch hand. Which number is closest to where the hand is pointing to? (A)
2.) One of the ambassadors holds a dagger. Which number is on the dagger’s sheath? (B)
3.) How many tuning pegs are on the head of the lute? (C)
4.) How many creatures are displayed on the amulet of the left ambassador? (D)
5.) Which page number can you read on the top left page of the song book? (E)
6.) Which number do you meet first when you extend the lower tip of the plumb bob horizontally to the right?(F)
7.) Look if you can find Ireland in the painting! How many characters did Ireland’s name consist of at the time the picture was painted? (G)

Hi Heather, we can’t help you with your work, but you can easily answer all those questions if you look at the painting in ARTstor and zoom into the details!

Two more discussions of this piece:
Jerry Brotton, The Renaissance, a very short introduction (Oxford 2006)
pp 1-8.
Lisa Jardine, Worldly Goods, a new history of the Renaissance (Norton 1996) pp 425-35 (epilogue).

What is the purpose of this painting

You may consider reading the blog post to get an idea!

Ever noticed the 2nd Lute, turned over and lying under the table in the shadows to the right? I noticed it for the first time when I was doing a report on Hans Holbein recently.

It is a known fact that Hans Holbein the Younger had a brother who was apparently his partner in business. This brother died young and never became an established artist. Consider too the fact that these two brothers were raised by their father who was also a painter and very likely trained his sons to view their trade as an act of service to the church.

The protestant church had little need for art as religious expression, and it became clear that Holbein’s fortunes lay elsewhere. His career in England, particularly in King Henry VIII’s court often involved work that served dubious propaganda purposes, for none less than a rather manipulative player in the protestant revolution. If there were a layer of self representation in this work, the could the Lute with the broken string represent Hans, alive and prosperous but unsatisfied with to purpose his work has served? The 2nd Lute, the unknown entity hidden under the table could represent his late brother. Does this lute have all its strings in tact? Does it even have any strings at all?

Could the 2nd loot represent a life cut short, which never had to face the discord of the world that is portrayed in this enigmatic painting?

Very interesting info! Thanks!

That’s actually the lute case, in renaissance art it represents concealed feeling. I studied this painting for my Masters, some of my research is here https://markcalderwood.wordpress.com/2014/06/13/the-ambassadors-secret/

Beautiful painting! The work shown in the open music book was reconstructed… but I don’t quite remember the musicologist who worked on it. It’s a 3-voice chanson and I think it was well-known.
all best,

The music is the tenor part to Johann Walther’s setting of the tune “Komm Heiliger Geist.” In this painting, the music appears as though it would just be sung as a monophonic hymn, but it was typical during the Renaissance to present all parts in separate “part books,” rather than as a “score” with all parts juxtaposed. Since the tenor voice typically was given the tune or “cantus firmus” around which the freely composed music was written, this tenor part book appears as a hymn book. One can tell upon close inspection however that the hymn tune has been rhythmically altered and elaborated upon, indicating that this was not meant for an untrained singer to sing and was specially “composed.” Johann Walther was perhaps the most prominent protestant composer of the early 16th century, and thus was a reasonable and recognizable composer to reference here.

While watching the TV Series “The Hunted”, Season 1, Episode 5 a Renaissance painting, titled The Ambassadors was shown and discussed, so I had to find out it was Real or just an ‘insert’ in the show. That painting is REAL and certainly a noteworthy piece depicting the 16th century. Politics, Popery, Signs, Astrology, and Geography abound.


Articulate

Better known as The Ambassadors, Hans Holbein’s Double Portrait of Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve is perhaps the most misinterpreted image of the renaissance. The interpretation of the painting as an allegory of the political and religious tumult of Henry VIII’s schismatic England, that the hapless ambassadors find themselves caught up in, has been universally accepted for over one hundred years.

Yet the idea that this is what the painting is “about”- and therefore that it can be only about that- is a modern assumption, and one that fails to take into account the work’s historical projection into our own very different era. Renaissance people quite simply did not think this way, and did not construct their art, or their interpretations of art, in such a simplistic manner.

Once we bravely cast aside these ingrained preconceptions, we can begin to approach the painting with fresh eyes, from within the social and semiotic context of the early sixteenth century…and doing so, we can appreciate the startling impact of The Ambassadors– intellectual, social, visual and visceral- on its intended audience. With its full interpretive potential restored, the double portrait reveals an unexpectedly intimate dimension to the relationship between the sitters, a revelation that offers a more comprehensive interpretation of this enigmatic work than commonly ascribed public interpretations.

Reading Pictures

The sweeping tide of humanist learning had carved the social landscape of the early sixteenth century into an energetically intellectual and artistically literate culture. The vogue for visual intellectualism saturated courtly society- emblem books such as Alciati’s Emblemata (1531), offering extensive collections of allegorical images on humanist and religious themes drawn from (and in return influencing) the literary and artistic vocabulary, were immensely popular. Everyone “understood” various genres of art the way modern audiences discern cinematic and television and genres, and games with portraits, devising and interpreting elaborate allegories, were a popular pastime among the nobility. “Consumers” of sixteenth-century art were thus well accustomed to discerning and reading multiple layers of meaning in the iconography that surrounded them.

Portraiture and patronage in the sixteenth century were not bounded by modern distinctions between public and private, secular and spiritual, individual and corporate: in renaissance society, these purposes were not absolute but inseparable. Portraits were luxurious and costly commodities serving as visual self-fashioning, announcing the wealth, refined intellectual tastes and social-political prestige of the owner, as well as conspicuous consumption to enhance social position. At the same time, the sitter’s character and interests, personal ties and self-perceptions were reflected in their depiction, pose, and surrounding symbolic or allegorical attributes. Familiar with this articulation of the private individual in relation to the public realm, contemporary audiences gave equal recognition to the multiple facets of portraiture, looking to clues of patronage and context to support interpretations.

Portraits especially were an intimately personal genre, often treated as direct simulacra and substitutes for the person portrayed in their absence: they were often spoken to, dined with, kissed or even kicked in anger. More than any other, The Ambassadors endows its sitters with a powerfully tactile presence, with the artist taking great pains to capture textures with such realism that the instinctive urge to stroke the fur and velvet of the sitter’s robes, finger the carpet weave and carved instruments, must be consciously fought. That they are painted life-sized, again, anomalous for a portrait of the time, indicates that the men themselves, not merely their world, are the primary focus of the painting.

The Diplomat

Jean de Dinteville was the unhappy French ambassador to the English court amidst the political and religious turmoil of Henry VIII’s schism and remarriage. He was joined early in 1533 by his close friend, bishop-elect and scholarly diplomat Georges de Selve. The reasons for this visit are unknown, but seem to have been personal rather than political. In a letter to his brother, the oft-melancholy de Dinteville describes de Selve’s visit as “no small pleasure to me”, and suggests “there is no need for the Grand Maitre to hear anything of it.” Although this has often been dramatised as implying secret missions and intrigue, this more probably refers to the unofficial nature of de Selve’s visit, and hints at the Grand Maitre Anne de Montmorency’s disapproval of the ambassadors’ relationship.

De Dinteville is traditionally accepted as the patron of The Ambassadors, an assumption entrenched even before the sitter’s identities were discovered. De Dinteville was identified as “the principal figure” by Alfred Woltmann in 1872- solely on the basis of his eye-catching depiction, and after some debate positively identified by Mary Hervey in 1895.

The main premise for de Dinteville’s patronage is his ownership, established after an inventory label dated 1653, and Hervey’s subsequent reading of the painting as referring primarily to de Dinteville and his diplomatic sphere hinges on that same supposition. But in the case of The Ambassadors, no surviving record confirms its patronage.

Nor does ownership necessarily equate to patronage, as portraits were frequently commissioned by family members or other associates, and an expensive portrait of this nature may well have been beyond de Dinteville’s immediate means in England. While details of his financial position abroad are unknown, renaissance diplomatic practice granted ambassadors only a modest stipend, and de Dinteville was forced to petition his uncle the Grand Maitre of France for funds to meet his expenses for Anne Boleyn’s coronation procession. This extraordinary expenditure would have jeopardised de Dinteville’s liquidity, reducing the likelihood of his placing such a prohibitively expensive commission in 1533. That de Dinteville would commission a painting commemorating an embassy he so loathed and bemoaned, is also unconvincing.

Assuming de Dinteville as the patron does not fit well with either renaissance habits of patronage, nor the discrete layers of meaning encoded into the painting as revealed by John North’s (2002), and Kate Bomford’s (2004) interpretive hypotheses.

The Churchman

A more satisfactory explanation is that Georges de Selve, Bishop of Lavaur, was the patron. Although legally noble and certainly influential in the early sixteenth century, the de Selve family were parlementaire noblesse- new money. The bourgeois judicial and mercantile origins of this socially mobile class prevented their complete acceptance by the French aristocracy accordingly, social promotion through allegiance and patronage were important considerations for members of such families. The Ambassadors presents de Selve and de Dinteville alike as ideal sixteenth-century statesman, self-confident and self-conscious, demonstrating the cultivated display of social distinction and wealth, humanist erudition and nonchalance expected of the renaissance courtier… as well as the mannered impenetrability and concealment necessary to a diplomat.

More so, the key sight/construction lines of The Ambassadors converge on de Selve’s figure, indicating his importance to the painting itself. These lines are grounded in the religious schema of the painting uncovered by Professor John North (2002), further consistent with clerical patronage. (And, as incumbent of a wealthy bishopric, de Selve certainly possessed the means to commission the work.) In this schema, the doubly-coded iconography refers as much to churchman as to statesman: the self-fashioning functions of The Ambassadors more readily pertain to de Selve than de Dinteville. The latter’s ownership of the painting suggests it was intended by de Selve as a generous gift, which would garner social prestige and create the obligation of favourable future regard from a distinguished family, in addition to being a demonstration of uncommon personal affection. Taking de Selve as the patron better reflects the nature of renaissance patronage, and underscores the personal aspects of the painting.

Displayed in the grand salon of the de Dinteville chateau at Polisy, The Ambassadors was obviously intended for a private audience specifically, de Dinteville’s family and social circle. Such an audience would easily understand The Ambassadors’ simultaneous modalities as a prestigious aesthetic decoration, a lavish gift, an extravagant statement of friendship, contemporary sociopolitical commentary, concealed allegorical narratives, etc and in that domestic setting would logically privilege readings based around the sitters and their relationship. Execution, patronage and setting all bring the grand display to an individual level, making the viewer acutely aware of the persons behind the courtly facade…at the same time they are kept at a distance by the ambassadors’ unrevealing gaze, forcing them to look for meaning in the surrounding iconography.

The Instruments

The Ambassadors’ iconography derives from the symbolist tradition of the northern renaissance. Flemish and German artists refined and expanded the medieval practice of investing everyday objects with multiple secular and spiritual meanings, creating a visual language that was at once utterly realistic and utterly symbolic. Holbein delighted in this kind of play even more than humanist allegory, his characteristic hyper-realism reflected the conviction that the essential “truth deep down things” lay in the immediate appearance of objects and people rather than convention or theory- an attitude that goes to the very heart of Reformation thinking. The personalised iconography in The Ambassadors are ambiguous and subtly subversive of the contemporary visual language, a “writerly” semiotic text which allows multiple interpretations and simultaneous layers of meaning.

Conventional symbolism serves as an easy entry point into the painting’s complex iconography, flagged by inscriptions of the sitters’ ages. De Dinteville’s dagger and the book beneath de Selve’s elbow were commonplace and easily read symbols of temporal and ecclesiastical authority of the time. The men’s clothing enhances their ambassadorial presentation: de Dinteville’s ensemble in fashionable pink and black is a bit of cultural snobbery, reflecting French elegance it also signals his melancholy and fidelity. De Selve’s equally costly damask robe similarly reveals his social self-promotion. While its mulberry-purple colour and pattern of friar’s knots (symbolic of the Franciscan virtues of the clergy) are appropriate to a religious ambassador of his rank, the motif’s canting reference to François I indicates de Selve’s political obligations to the French crown rather than to Rome as a political appointee. The knots also imply the cordelière (friar’s girdle) design of the collar of the Order of St Michael the gown’s pattern subtly equates to de Dinteville’s pendant of St Michael, setting de Selve on the same social level as his companion.

Considerable scholarly attention has been given to the scientific and musical instruments arrayed between the two men- indeed, far more than to the sitters themselves. Despite its modern treatment as such, this arrangement is not a still life, even an allegorical one the concept simply did not exist in 1533. Rather, it is a parergon: a subordinate embellishment to the narrative that is simultaneously in tension with it. The narrative potential of the objects exists alongside as well as within the iconographic program, in a complex relationship which both complements and competes with the painting’s primary figures.

Usually held to represent the quadrivium of a humanist education (astronomy, arithmetic, geometry and music), the assembled objects reflect the broader intellectual changes reshaping Europe. The state-of-the-art astronomical instruments indicate a new scientific mode of thought, based in first-hand observation and calculation rather than received doctrine: the Lutheran hymnal indicates the impact of similar approaches to religious thought. Suggesting mathematical and navigational sciences, the terrestrial globe and arithmetic manual indicate the literally expanding horizons afforded by learning. The intellectual acquisitiveness and spatial arrangement of the objects recalls the renaissance cabinet of curiosities, signifying the intellectual reconceptualisation of the sixteenth-century world.

Yet this intellectual flowering took place against a backdrop of political division and sectarian violence that fragmented Europe. The objects contain many allusions to these topical divisions, and it is here that established interpretation has been invested: the lute with its broken string corresponds to Alciati’s emblem of broken treaties and disharmony, the text of Peter Apian’s arithmetic manual Ein Newe unnd wohlgregrundte wunderweysung aller Kauffmans Rechnung (1527) open to the page demonstrating division, the dividers indicate the demarcation line of the Treaty of Tordesillas, commercial politics that literally divides the world, and so forth. The patterned floor in The Ambassadors, resembling the inlaid pavement of Westminster Abbey, is often taken as a specific reference to England’s political-religious situation, and the famed anamorphic skull slashing across the painting’s base prompts readings as an allegory on the vanity of these worldly endeavours, or else as an elaborate memento mori.

Given the primacy of symbolic parerga in Holbein’s other works, such as his portrait of George Gisze, the temptation to assign them the same level of importance in The Ambassadors is powerful- yet reading this way is still teleological and unsatisfactory. Although the “terrestrial” objects would have been understood on one level as sociopolitical commentary, they occupy a subordinate position in the iconography and thus could not have determined or confined its overall interpretation.

Peter North’s recent re-examination demonstrates The Ambassadors’ iconographic is multiply coded, revealing a second strata of interpretation. For example, the celestial globe displays constellations associated with France, but is set to reflect the sky over Rome rather than Paris or London. All the heavenly instruments, whether directly like the cylindrical and polyhedral dials or indirectly through astronomical movements, indicate the specific date of 11 th April- Good Friday, 1533. The solar angle of 27 degrees on this date is found throughout the construction and sighting lines of the painting: the principle line of sight passes from the crucifix in the painting’s corner, through several significant points before reaching the viewing point which corrects the anamorphosis of the distorted skull. North’s analysis reveals that The Ambassadors’ composition is saturated with Christian geometry, numerology and cosmography.

The earthly icons further support this second layer of meaning: while Polisy is clearly marked on the terrestrial globe, its centre is Rome. Apian’s examples of mathematical division yield results which are multiples of 27, itself thrice times the Trinity. The dividers recall the medieval image of God as architect of the world their point on the painting’s central line is interpreted as seeking virtuous equity. The damask curtain behind the men, drawn partly back to reveal the crucified Christ, is likely a traverse, used to screen the ‘holyday closets’ commonly used in sixteenth-century noble worship. The design incorporates carnations, symbolic of the Passion, and the Marian icon of pomegranates, a reference to the unity of the Church. Incorrectly numbered to denote the 19-year Easter cycle, the hymnal displaying Luther’s translations of common Catholic hymns has been interpreted as a call for Christian reconciliation- or Protestant capitulation to Catholic supremacy.

Despite these potent narratives, The Ambassadors remains a portrait that contains allegories, not an allegorical painting as such, the painting’s primary subject indicates a third layer of meaning. In light of its context and motivation, The Ambassadors is best understood asa representation of the intimate friendship between de Dinteville and de Selve.

Friendship in the sixteenth century was a different and more complex concept than is understood by the term today. Courtly life in France was an exclusively male domain structured around complex webs of patronage and mutually beneficial obligation, in which masculine self-presentation and displays of affection secured social and political advantage. Although the common signs of male affection such as intimate conversation and letters, kissing, or sharing a bed would today be perceived as indicative of homosexuality, in the renaissance these “gifts of the body” functioned as public signs of countenance and favour. Early modern masculinity was evaluated according to its dialogue with an accepted and valorised homoeroticism, whilst paradoxically avoiding the stigma of effeminacy and sodomy. The conventions of courtly love that were popular at Henry VIII’s court, had in much of Europe been eclipsed by the humanist ideal of dyadic male partnerships. The phrase “just friends” would be meaningless in sixteenth-century parlance: there was no relationship more emotional, more intense, or more intimate than friendship.

This depth of feeling is evidenced in the very existence of The Ambassadors. In the sixteenth century, personal tokens were exchanged between friends gifts that carried intellectual currency such as paintings or literary works indicated inordinate personal esteem. The scholar Erasmus’ dedication of a book to his friend Pieter Gilles is an example of this regard: “friends of the common sort…if they have to face a long separation, they favour frequent exchanges of rings, knives, caps and other tokens of this kind….(but this is) no common gift, for you are no common friend.” The Ambassadors likewise reflects the de Dintevile’s description of de Selve as his “intime amy”. De Selve’s gown of a smart but informal style favoured by the secular clergy is echoed by Dinteville’s pendant of St Michael, worn informally on a simple chain rather than the ceremonial collar, suggesting the “off-duty” relationship of the sitters and corresponding degree of intimacy between them.

The Ambassadors’ composition resonates with the humanist and classical discourse of friendship. The sitters were undoubtedly familiar with this canon, de Selve having translated into French Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. The sitters’ counterpose alludes to the exemplary friendships of antiquity: Hercules and Hylas, Achilles and Patroclus, the biblical David and Jonathan Cicero and Atticus, the author and addressee respectively of the most influential text on friendship of the renaissance, De Amicitia and Scipio and Laelius, whose perfect friendship this work venerates.

The vertical symmetry of de Dinteville’s and de Selve’s depiction suggests the classical concept of the friend as the second self, given new popularity in the sixteenth century. An illustration of this maximfound in Francois Demoulins’ moral compendium (c1512) parallels The Ambassadors. Two similar male figures stand apart but inclined toward each other, as are Dinteville and de Selve. They are united by the heart they hold, just as Holbein’s sitters are united by the shelves of instruments between them the friend as the reflection of the self is compounded by the Antique notion that friends hold everything in common.

Friendship and gender in the sixteenth century was, at best, an ambiguous social rubric. Masculinity in the sixteenth-century courtier depended on the expectation to display the quality of sprezzatura, a nonchalant yet authoritative ease regarding his self-fashioning and social status, and his embodying the graces and prowess of the learned scholar-soldier replacing the medieval knightly class. Effeminacy on the other hand derived not from a man’s predilection for self-display or even engagement in same-sexual acts, but from his transgressing social decorums in displaying “womanish” traits such as irrationality, affectation and sexual submissiveness. Sodomy was associated not with specific sexual acts but with debauchery, sedition, heresy and the generally apocalyptic inversion of the social order…unfortunately, the signs of accepted male intimacy were often indistinguishable from the signs of effeminacy, or worse, sodomy. Even more, male sexuality was couched in terms of hierarchy rather than mutuality, bound up with disparities in social standing and gendered roles, and sexual and romantic relationships between master and servant, or youths and older men were commonly, if tacitly, accepted.

The modern coupling of effeminacy and sodomy with homosexuality ignores the likelihood that “masculine” men engaged in sexual relations within virtuous homosocial friendships. In the sixteenth century, the boundary between proper or improper, platonic or erotic sexuality and relationships was vague and imprecise. Homoplatonic relationships were energised by the same sexual frisson that energises all friendships it is crucial to understand that in the renaissance concept of friendship this same-sex attraction was differentially acknowledged in fostering masculinity. Although often downplayed in Christian translation, the aforementioned canonical friendships of antiquity all contain an undeniable dimension of same-sex erotic engagement. Their valorisation indicates the vast conceptual distance in the renaissance between a sodomotical discourse, and identification with the rhetoric of classical friendship and its attendant possession of virtue. In fact, the presence of desire between iconic friends serves to amplify their virtue.

The Ambassadors embodies both this virtue and ambiguity. De Dinteville’s and de Selve’s nonchalant stance and self-presentation clearly mark them as social equals, men of rank, learning, and above all masculinity, rather than the comely youths found in the paederastic iconography of contemporary Italian art. The Ambassadors’ unusual depiction of two unrelated sitters in this manner was unprecedented in northern Europe: like still life, friendship paintings were not a concept. Instead, the painting sits firmly within the German tradition of betrothal/marriage portraiture.

In keeping with conventions, de Dinteville and de Selve are characterised as “male” and “female”. De Dinteville’s pose is expansive and active, whereas de Selve’s is circumspect and contemplative their respectively rosy and more swarthy skin tones also reflect a conventional physiognomy of gender. De Dinteville’s visual connection with the solar calibration of the celestial orb and de Selve’s with the lunar torquetum imparts astrological gender associations.


The use of marital symbolism has been ascribed to the lack of a pictorial language for representing the ties of friendship, although the very few examples of double “friendship” portraits from southern Europe do not display this type of nuptial iconography. This provocative portrayal of the sitters as married partners would be startling to a sixteenth-century audience, but on its own could be justified as metaphorical.

The marriage symbolism does not stop there, however, making it impossible to disregard. The damask pattern of the traverse includes marriage symbols in addition to the crucifixion, carnations denote marriage in Holbein’s iconography. While not worn by either man, diamond rings are visible in the textile pattern between de Dinteville and de Selve above the celestial globe and the polyhedral sundial, universal symbols of fidelity and matrimony. The skull, commonly found on the reverse of marriage portraits, is here “hidden” on the front. “Veni Sancte Spiritus” displayed in the hymnal evokes the ordination liturgy by reflecting the sacred marriage to the body of the church, it possibly alludes to another sacred marriage with the body of the friend.

The lute in the sixteenth century was a metaphor for amorous and sexual dalliance, associated in particular with feminine sexuality. In contemporary literature, the lute was able to communicate those feelings that might otherwise lie beyond the ability of the player to disclose. Poets such as Thomas Wyatt and Louise Labé characterise the lute as an outlet for pent emotion, genuinely expressing inexpressible sensibilities. In Labé’s poetry, as in the stricken medieval chansons that preceded it, the lute significantly assumes its voice in the absence of the lover. Just as Apian’s arithmetic manual is The Ambassadors’ mathematical primer for unlocking its religious schema, so the lute is the visual primer for its personal schema. In its multiple associations- from venal sexuality through learning and politics to the divine ordering of the universe, the lute is the linking iconic element between the painting’s levels of meaning.

Corresponding to the lute is its case, puzzlingly ignored by a century of scholarship. In sixteenth-century literature, the lute case represented conflict between the inner person and the outer image. Hidden in the shadows beneath the table, the case becomes simultaneously a single and a double negative, indicating the honesty of personal feeling conveyed in the painting.

Further iconographic nuances may be recaptured by a “queer semiotic” such as proposed by di Addario (1994) and Saslow (1999). A queer reading hinges on the same “politics of knowledge” as all The Ambassadors’ iconography, dependent on symbolism which can be multiply interpreted. The cognoscenti’s subjective viewpoint would discern or invest significance in certain signs, which would seem innocuous to those not in the know. Rather than a revealing clue to the sitter’s personality, as was contemporary convention, the clasped, untitled book under de Selve’s elbow implies a protected secret. De Dinteville’s green-tipped cincture is comparable to the Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Man’s green sash, associated with the Florentine homosexual subculture. De Dinteville’s casual grip on his dagger departs from Holbein’s conventionally forceful grip, to be read as a suggestive stroking. De Selve’s mirroring gesture drawing his robe close in seeming concealment actually reveals the visually rhyming lute more fully that both men’s hands are level with de Dinteville’s codpiece enhances the phallic mutuality of the gestures. The upturned lute case suggests an inversion of social conventions and possibly the nascent concept of “inverted” sexuality rather than a literal indication of specific sexual behaviours its surrounding shadows further the motif of concealment. The deliberately connected viewing positions of the skull and crucifix points to a relationship delicately balanced between social valorisation and social condemnation.

The prevalence of such signs in a painting representing an already sexually charged friendship strongly suggests a relationship between lovers as well as friends, almost irrespective of its physical expression. The Ambassadors does not hint at a sodomitical discourse: de Dinteville’s and de Selve’s relationship is firmly couched in terms of Classical and Christian virtue. Classical authors conflated the desires of the lover with dyadic friendship, referred to by Plutarch as “erotic friendship”. Plutarch further describes a lover as “a friend inspired by God”- a statement with obvious ramifications to Christian homosocial friendship, and almost certainly known to de Selve if not to both educated men.

Indeed as a churchman and modestly distinguished scholar, de Selve was probably also aware of the Antique and ecclesiastical traditions of marriage-like unions between two men. Although disappearing from the mainstream Latin Christian liturgy, such ceremonies were still technically legitimate in the Catholic tradition in the Middle Ages and underwent a revival in the renaissance. The possibility that The Ambassadors may represent such a tradition of divinely sanctified union is borne out in the marital and Christian significance in the painting’s construction and iconography. That de Dinteville died unmarried in 1555, most unusually for a man with the obligations of his class and position, lends tantalising support to the possibility of an enduring, consecrated bond with de Selve.

In this light, the the tactile appeal of the superbly worked textures of the painting, together with the visual impact of their life-sized depiction and implied auditory expression in the lute, imbues The Ambassadors’ sitters with a sensory physicality and a presence whose immediacy was unprecedented. The “gift of the body” from the friend becomes the body itself, seeking sympathetic cognition at the same time it lays claim to immortality in the heart.

The final piece of the puzzle is that upon his return to France in 1533, de Selve was appointed as ambassador to Venice, where he stayed for seven years given the organisation of the French court and diplomatic service, de Selve undoubtedly knew of this appointment well in advance, even before visiting London. The Ambassadors is thus revealed as an unusually intimate parting gift commemorating the sitter’s friendship, and keepsake for de Dinteville of his friend. The icons of political and spiritual discord and division- the arithmetic manual, dividers and terrestrial globe, the missing flute and broken heart-string of the lute – thus poignantly assume meanings of personal division: the very concerns which unite the two men in friendship are also the cause of their separation. Yet by keeping the facsimile of the lover close, the abiding, sanctified fidelity central to renaissance friendship endures in the face of absence or even death. The Ambassadors offers bodily solace in lieu of the presence of the beloved friend de Selve is tangibly preserved in the memory of his intime ami.


Hans Holbein, The Ambassadors

Firstly, I will give a short introduction about the painter. Then, I will examine the characteristics of the people and the objects in the painting. Lastly, I will attempt to identify the meaning of the painting. ?About Han Holbein Hans Holbein the younger was a German artist born in Augsburg, Bavaria. He was an outstanding portrait and religious painter and his works ranges from woodcuts, glass paintings, illustrating books, portraits and altarpieces. Hans Holbein was also the appointed court painter to Henry VIII of England in 1536. It is estimated that during the last 10 years of his life, Holbein painted approximately 150 portraits of royalty and nobility and he also designed costumes, silverware and jewelry for the court.

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JOHN NORTH ON HANS HOLBEIN THE YOUNGER

From John North, The Ambassadors’ Secret: Holbein and the World of the Renaissance (London: Phoenix Books, 2004)

This excerpt is an abbreviated version of Chapter 17, ‘Apelles and Clio’.

Duke: One face, one voice, one habit and two persons a natural perspective, that is and is not.

Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, Act V, Scene 1

To suggest that there was more than one person behind the planning of The Ambassadors is not to detract in any way from Holbein’s final responsibility for it, or for the genius that lies behind its execution. He was a product of his age, conforming to the often strange rules of his time, but there is an honesty and a vitality in the painting that comes from him alone, and to most of those who marvel at his work those qualities have an infinitely stronger appeal than his concealed designs are ever likely to have. His paintings, however, were the product of hand and eye and mind. To call The Ambassadors a ‘painting’ tends to suppress that idea, as though the paint was what mattered most. It is rather as though one were to describe all works of literature as ‘inkings’. The double portrait offers proof, if any were needed, that unequalled though he was as a painter of what he saw, Holbein was not above collaborating with others in affairs of the mind. It is proof that he was never more successful than when he did so.

Hans Holbein the Younger, Self Portrait, 1542-43

Hans Holbein the Younger, Adam and Eve, c. 1517

History is now wary of the notion of the Renaissance mind, since it seems to carry with it the notion of a dominant intellectual and creative pattern that is in truth very hard to find in sixteenth-century life as a whole, whether in London or in Florence. There is certainly something odd about applying a nineteenth-century French label to an earlier Italian cultural movement, and then adapting it to an entire European historical period, during which a small minority—some of the best of them from northern Europe—happened to have fallen in love with classical antiquity. No matter how it is defined, most ‘Renaissance thought’ has medieval streams flowing into it and through it. And no matter how we look at paganising European artists and writers of the period running from the fourteenth century to the sixteenth, we shall find it impossible to conjure away entirely the bedrock of Christianity, which was in no sense new, Protestantism notwithstanding. The Ambassadors tells us as much.

Despite such qualifications, there was much that was new and exciting afoot when Holbein was at work, and of which he was certainly conscious. Religious art was suffering a decline, given the spiritual uncertainties associated with the Reformation. It was a diagnosis offered by several critics in the nineteenth century that art as a whole suffered in Holbein’s time, with the decline of religious inspiration. Holbein, however, was not one to allow the grass to grow under his feet. He did not need to be either a religious reformer or one of a select group of scholarly initiates to feel that he lived in an age that owed much of its vigour to the opportunities it offered to individuals of merit. It was an age that positively encouraged self-definition. He must have felt it on his own behalf and on behalf of those he served. His portraiture served the new cult of the ‘dignity and excellence of man’, to use a phrase common among the humanists.

Hans Holbein, Sir Thomas Lestrange, c.1536

Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of Nikolaus Kratzer, c.1528

Young and inexperienced as they are, the bailly of Troyes and the bishop of Lavaur are shown to us as men of rank and moral stature, men who lived in a three-dimensional world, with feet on the ground but with thoughts in tune with the divine. Or that, at least, was the theory. In practice, as Holbein through his art shows us equally plainly, they were men of their time, taking delight in some of the great intellectual diversions of the time, which could carry their thoughts away from the uncertainties of the moment. New worlds were meeting with old, new forms of scientific and human understanding were being mingled with old—gematria with theology, alchemy with astrology, perspective with the techniques of astronomical instrument making, anamorphosis with ‘true’ perspective, and so forth. Intriguing and even awe-inspiring new ways of encoding familiar truths were being canvassed. It does no harm to label them as facets of ‘Renaissance thought’ but, whether or not we do so, Holbein’s portrait of the two French ambassadors seems to give credence to a number of them. These things had the power to startle and excite. No matter that Kratzer was needed, as an expert scriptwriter. Most of us today would be hard pressed to create the things we value most as symbols.

The use of symbols in a painting could make it profoundly fascinating. Patterns show a deeper truth than atoms of paint, however sensitively applied. ‘And though painting bee a diverse matter from carving, yet doe they both arise of one selfe fountaine of a good patterne.’ The opinion was that put forward by one of the leading characters in Castiglione’s Libro del cortegiano (Book of the Courtier) of 1528. It was an opinion voiced as almost a truism, for the simple reason that it had been actively discussed by so many others at the time, and in this instance was very probably derived fairly directly from Leonardo. We should not allow ourselves to be misled by the seemingly endless Renaissance discussion of the importance of ‘pattern’ and ‘design’ into confusing two sorts of pattern. One is calculated to make a painting aesthetically pleasing, the other is a pattern concealed in the placement of the elements, which might have no consequences whatsoever for its beauty. The first was a favourite idea, much discussed, since it had been sanctioned by Plato and Aristotle, not to mention many other classical writers. Stimulated by some of Socrates’ ideas, Plato in his Philebus had proposed a distinctly intellectualist theory of beauty that gave pride of place to formal and structural properties. This linked aesthetics with geometry, often alluded to as the geometry of divine proportion, since the harmonies could be likened to those in God’s first creative act. It is a moot point whether hidden mysteries of form have anything to do with beauty as such. They may stir the emotions in a rather similar way when they are revealed.

Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of Simon George of Quocote, c.1536

Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533 (detail)

There was no shortage of artists in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, especially in Italy, whose imaginations were fired by the mystery cults then being uncovered by students of classical learning, especially of Neoplatonism, cults that persuaded artists to create opaque allegories out of pagan deities and myths. The Ambassadors does not fall easily into any of the standard Renaissance categories, because it contains hard calculation. It does, however, have certain elements in common with other products of the time. A scholarly love of classical antiquity took different people in different ways. We need only mention the names of Ficino, Pico, Lefevre d’Etaples, Reuchlin, de Bouelles and Agrippa to see how different they could be. The tensions to which a Christian upbringing subjected them all could have strange effects. There are in The Ambassadors no classical characters, historical or mythological, acting out their parts, for above all else this is a Christian allegory. Holbein did not introduce obviously pagan characters, but still he gives us a taste of a pagan world, for instance in the Christianised Greek cosmology in the pavement, and in the related hexagrams. Humanist scholars with their noses in Neoplatonic texts were able to taste these illicit delights, using the excellent excuse that they were furthering classical learning. In theological debate the problem was acute enough. Ficino and Erasmus were not above elevating Socrates to sainthood. The title of Ficino’s Theologia platonica announces his wish to integrate Platonism with the Christian faith. Some scholars agonised over the fundamental disagreement between pagan Greek and Christian belief, in the end grudgingly recognising that each might supplement the other.

The humanists gave less of their time to natural than to moral philosophy, with its emphasis on personal and social values. This was not the best tool for unveiling cosmic truth, but the natural and exact sciences had too weak a foundation in letters for them to be high on the humanist agenda, and astrology was in a strange category: it did not require to be rediscovered, for it had never lost its academic status or its fascination. Like Hermeticism it was perceived to antedate Christianity and to hail from the East, which gave it a cachet of mystery. It had only weak literary credentials from Greece and Rome, and yet it was established in both cultures. It had fallen foul of some of the great theologians, and yet it had a secure place in artistic life. Writers and artists had learned to weave their materials out of planetary characters, according to rigorously controlled but mainly arbitrary pseudo-astronomical rules. The rules were often respected, it seems, for no better reason than that they were difficult to apply. If, as claimed here, they were applied in the planning of Holbein’s painting, the act would not have earned unqualified approval.


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