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Monday, February 4, 2019

Decoding Holbein's Ambassadors

The Ambassadors, 1533, Hans Holbein (the younger).
For centuries it has been the job of artists to enlighten, educate, and elucidate. Artists were called upon to make the complex seem simple. The Catholic church, faced with widespread illiteracy among believers as a result of what we call the "dark ages" relied heavily upon artists to illustrate scriptures....or at least their papal-authorized version of them. Painters, sculptors, manuscript-illustrating monks, even architects were enlisted in the effort to bring religion to the uneducated masses. That is, until the advent of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation around 1517,followed by the Counter Reformation around 1548.In the years and centuries from then on, painters especially found themselves in gradually decreasing demand as the printed Word in local translations spread to the growing population of literate parishioners. This caused artists to seek the financial support and to reflect the tastes of the burgeoning upper and middle classes. One important result was the advent of modern-day portraiture, not to mention the growing popularity of secular domestic art content--still-lifes, landscapes, animals, etc. Even today, illustrators continue to be utilized for much the same talents as those during the Renaissance--to make the complex seem simple.

Self-portrait, Hans Holbein
(the younger), 1542
However, freed from the con-fines of ancient Catholic dog-ma, artists' work began to be less "transparent" as to con-tent and meaning. Science began to rise toward its pre-mier position today largely re-placing religion as the ultimate savior of mankind. One of the earliest and best of these "unleashed" artists was the German painter, Hans Holbein (the younger). Several years ago I wrote about the elder Hans Holbein, but only mentioned the son, (and his brother, Sigismund) in pas-sing. The contrast between the orthodox art of the father and that of the son as seen in his The Ambassadors (top), paint-ed by the younger Holbein in 1533, is a near-perfect example contrasting the two eras I spoke of earlier.

Jean de Dinteville, (detail), The Ambassadors.
When Holbein's The Ambassadors was acquired by London's National Gallery in 1890, the identity of the two stately figures was a mystery. It wasn’t until ten years later, with the publication of Mary F. S. Hervey’s book, Holbein's "Ambassadors": The Picture and the Men, that they were identified as Jean de Dinteville (above) and Georges de Selve (below). De Dinteville was a French ambassador to the court of Henry VIII, and de Selve was Bishop of Lavaur. The two young men were close friends of distinction. There’s an air of fraternal pride in their expressions. De Dinteville’s letters from the period attest to his joy at the visit of his friend. Tiny details inscribed on the scabbard of de Dinteville’s dagger and on de Selve’s book tell us that both men are in their twenties.

Georges de Selve (detail) The Ambassadors.
Apart from all else, the most famous aspect of Holbein's portrait masterpiece is what appears to be a "smear" in the lower center foreground, as if the artist had unsuccessfully attempted to "erase" some detail of the painting before it fully dried. Actually, it's anything but that. It's Anamorphosis. If that word causes you to head for Google's dictionary, let me save you the bother. 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 (below).

Holbein's apparent "smudge."
When people first looked at this picture in the 19th century, they quickly noticed the whiteish blur. Some thought it might be a cuttlefish bone. It took a while to work out that Holbein had very cleverly hidden a skull image on the front of his painting. The skull is believed to be a reference to "memento mori," the medieval Latin theory which focuses on man's inescapable mortality as a means of urging practitioners to reject vanity and the short-lived joys of earthly goods. Thus the "hidden" skull (below) 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."

Memento mori, "...thou shalt die."
Now, with that relatively well-known element out of the way, we can begin to look at some of the other exquisitely rendered details as well as the painting itself. Following in the footsteps of his father, the Bavarian-born artist-son 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. 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. The work was commissioned to commemorate the visit to London of his friend de Selve. The two men were on a complex and ultimately unsuccessful diplomatic mission to heal the rift between Henry VIII and the Church of Rome. It may be, therefore, that the main theme of the painting comes down to the fact that no amount of material wealth, power or learning can prevent death--no man, including the pope, had any real power to halt what was inevitable. In this case, the 'inevitable' was Henry's decision to create his own Church. 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, such as books, globes, and musical instruments. However, the thoughtful painter also included symbols that pointed to the troubles these men faced.

A shepherd's dial
A polyhedral sundial.

The Ambassadors is also a still life painting featuring numerous meticulously rendered objects. Of course many sixteenth century portraits of learned men contain objects that reflect their occupations and interests, but Holbein's picture is particularly impressive owing to its extraordinary attention to detail, and the sheer amount of information it contains. It shows quite clearly that, as well as Gothic and Renaissance art, Holbein was also strongly influenced by the meticulous realism of early Flemish painting, exemplified by Jan van Eyck and Robert Campin.

Incredible details

Some experts also point to de Dinteville's secular roots and de Selve's clerical roots as symbolizing the dysfunctional nature of the alliance between France and the Vatican, as well as the general conflict between Church (the Pope) and State (King Henry VIII). The image of the lute, for instance, (upper image, above) with a broken string is a popular symbol of discord, either reinforcing the idea of a conflict between England and Rome, or alluding to the Continental schism between Protestants and Catholics. Laid out on the two shelves between the figures are numerous other objects with which they and their era are associated. They feature a mixture of navigational, astrological, and musical instruments, including two globes (one celestial, one terrestrial), a quadrant (below), a torque tum, a polyhedral shepherd's sundial (above, right), a T-square, a German math book, and a Lutheran hymn book.

The quadrant.
The setting for the portrait is an area of relatively shallow depth, curtained off by green-colored drapes decorated with complex, heraldic-style pattern work. The floor is covered with mosaic tiles, based on the design of the 'Cosmati pavement' (top image) in front of the High Altar in Westminster Abbey, suggesting the paramount nature of the English liturgy. Although The Ambassadors is a clear reminder of human mortality, a state which overrides all earthly matters, it is not a pessimistic picture. Tucked away in the top-left corner is a crucifix, a clear symbol that faith in Jesus Christ helps us to escape death and secure everlasting salvation.

Lutheran Psalms (detail) The Ambassadors.



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