The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein (1553)

From the opulence on display in ‘The Ambassadors’, one could easily take this work by Hans Holbein to be concerned with the arrogance of wealth. As the eye moves across the canvas it encounters numerous statements of power. From the richly dyed silks and the heavy fur of the mens clothing, to the complex geometric patterns of the floor, this is a scene of plentiful luxury. Yet, as the eye moves further across Holbein’s canvas, one encounters something strange and distorted, something that destabilizes the apparent power of these men. It is only by positioning ourselves at a diagonal angle that this menacing object, and Holbein’s painting, come to life.

As this macabre image comes into focus, the wealth and trinkets ostentatiously displayed in ‘The Ambassadors’ fade from focus – the presence of death washing away their importance. By painting a skull, adored with a smile and glistening glow, Holbein highlights that no amount of material wealth can prevent the inevitability of death, and the progression of nature.

Yet if things seem hopeless, Holbein reminds his audience that there is way out. Slightly obscured by the green curtains, Holbein has painted a crucifix in the top left corner. Using the cleverest trickery of his paint palette, it is only by moving away from the skull (distorting it once again), that Holbein’s audience is able to observe this. Holbein therefore invites us to move away from this fearful material world and refocus on the heavens. This work of art is therefore a voyage that first turns us away from the artificial luxury of our lives, and then pivots us towards God.

However, this classic masterpiece does not end there, it also serves as a wonderful metaphor to the chaos of the time.

One can deduce from close observation that the men are french, and by deduction hold an important position within the court of France (the pendent worn by the man on our left is from the Order of Saint-Michel). They are also intelligent, educated men, as exemplified by the objects on the top shelf, many of which relate to navigation and astronomy. Yet, these men clearly inhabit a world of great discord. Look at the bottom shelf of the wooden cabinet. The objects are deformed and broken – a  string on the lute is broken, the flute missing from its holster, the globe left toppled upside down, and more subtly, the arithmetic book left open on the chapter for division. 

What we see before us is a state consumed by fear of destruction. During the 1550s, France was continually plagued by internal division and external threats. Externally, France became increasingly isolated as its enemy, the Holy Roman Empire, strengthened alliances with the papacy in Rome. Meanwhile with a Habsburg king in Spain, Philip II, ties between the Holy Roman Empire and Spain were secure, leaving France surrounded by enemies. Now, notice the red tablecloth that the Ambassadors’ arms rest upon. Decorated with Arabic geometry, Holbein illustrates the Ottoman threat that would have undoubtedly afflicted the French ambassadors. Internally, France was under assault from a new religion – Protestantism. The Protestant threat had been growing throughout the early 16th century, and stood the challenge a traditionally Catholic France. Notice how on the bottom shelf of the table, a music book left open on the partition for Luther’s hymn, a clear symbol for the Protestant threat.

Ultimately, Holbein invites his audience to recognise that the best escape from our worldly fears is to turn upwards towards God.  Perhaps by resting their arms alongside the objects of astronomy and navigation, Holbein is suggesting that his Ambassadors have made this choice already, shunning the chaotic affairs of the state and refocusing on the heavens. With this in mind, perhaps the Ambassadors are not, in fact, being terrorized by the skull, but have, in fact, found a way to co-exist with it.

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