Hans Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors depicts a world of power and politics, great wealth and new horizons, ambition and discord. In short, it says just about everything there is to say about the Renaissance.
Painted in 1533, The Ambassadors depicts two men, the French ambassador to England Jean de Dinteville and his friend Georges de Selve, the Bishop of Lavaur. Sumptuously dressed in velvets and silk, these are clearly men to be reckoned with. The shelves between them display those things which made the world what it was in the sixteenth century – the globe showing an expanding horizon, the expensive Turkish rug, the printed books, the timepieces, the crucifix, the broken lute. The world of The Ambassadors was a world where people played for high stakes.
Although not all was well in the world of The Ambassadors. On the lower shelf we see a lute with a broken string, a symbol of discord, next to a hymn book, identifiable as the work of the religious reformer Martin Luther. Behind the curtain at the upper left side of the painting we see a crucifix. Our attention is drawn to the religious upheavals afflicting Europe at the time, when Luther’s ideas were a fierce challenge to the Roman Catholic Church.
The hymn book is printed, as is the book next to it, an instruction manual for merchants in how to calculate profit and loss. We are reminded that the Renaissance was as much about finance and trade as culture and art. Indeed, there wouldn’t be the culture and art without the trade and finance. Behind these objects is a globe, showing the expanding world revealed by Europe’s voyages of discovery.
The objects on the upper shelf hint at how these explorations came to be. There’s a celestial globe, a quadrant and a torquetum (instruments used at sea as navigational aids) and a sundial. Such equipment made longer voyages possible, and brought explorers into contact with civilisations with advanced navigational skills. Most of the instruments in the painting were invented by medieval Arab and Jewish astronomers before coming westward.
And then, of course, there is the strange shape at the bottom of the painting. The viewer has to stand at a sharp angle to the painting to see that it is, in fact, a perfectly drawn skull. It has been called a vanitas image, a reminder that, for all our wealth and learning, we all come to the same end. It has also been described as a virtuoso display of skill by Holbein. Other painters have depicted such images, but none so well as Holbein.
The political background to The Ambassadors
De Dinteville and de Selve are in England to act as intermediaries in the fruitless negotiations between King Henry VIII and the Pope following the king’s marriage to Anne Boleyn and the Pope’s refusal to grant Henry a divorce from his first wife Catherine of Aragon. They were also attempting to persuade Henry to join an alliance with the French king Francis I and the Turkish Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent against the rising power of Charles V of the Hapsburg Empire.
Henry’s breach with the Catholic Church, breaking away to form the Church of England, was one more aspect to the religious turmoil afflicting Europe. This was the period of the Reformation, the effects of which were well known to Holbein. Born in Augsburg in 1497, Hans Holbein is probably the greatest German painter of his generation. He was working in Switzerland when the turmoil inspired by the ideas of Martin Luther spread across northern Europe and, like many painters, he found his sources of work drying up as a result.
Religious art was thought to be impious by the reformers, so many artists turned to portraiture to survive. Holbein’s quest for work brought him to England (fairly ironically, since religious upheaval seemed to follow him there), where he became renowned as a portraitist, and appointed Court Painter by Henry VIII.
If any painting could be said to shed light on an era, The Ambassadors is it.