HOLBEIN, Hans the Younger
(b. 1497, Augsburg, d. 1543, London)
The Ambassadors (detail)1533
Oil on oak
National Gallery, London
Hans Holbein's double portrait is an early example of the friendship portrait. It depicts the two French ambassadors to the English court, Jean de Dinteville (1504-1555) and Georges de Selve (1508/09-1541). Dinteville, who spent many years in London, probably commissioned the painting to record his friend's visit at Easter 1533. His own figure displays great worldly pomp, wearing an opulent, fur-lined coat and decorated with the Order of St. Michael, while de Selve's clothes, at least in colour, are more restrained. His full-length robe is the appropriate dress for a Bishop of Lavour, an office he had entered upon in 1526, when he was not much older than eighteen.
The two, almost life-sized figures of the ambassadors are shown leaning against a two-storey cupboard, the upper of whose two shelves is spread with a rug, before a green damask curtain. The floor design imitates a mosaic in the sanctuary at Westminster Cathedral, laid by Italian craftsmen at the beginning of the fourteenth century. This shows that Holbein's painting, though appearing to imitate reality with almost photographic attention to detail, is not merely a "reproduction" of reality, but an "invented" composition, calculated to portray persons and objects as ideal types.
As is often the case in Holbein's portraits (compare his portrait of Georg Gisze), the objects on the shelves refer to the intellectual interests and professional and practical activities of the sitters. The instruments and books displayed reflect the design of the cupboard itself in that those on the upper shelf would be used for the study of the heavens and heavenly bodies (celestial globe, compasses, sundial, cylindrical calendar, level and quadrant), while the objects on the lower shelf have more to do with everyday worldly matters. Thus, on the left - next to the worldly-minded Dinteville - is an open copy of Peter Apian's book of calculations for merchants (published in Ingolstadt, 1527), and on the right - near the bishop - a copy of Johann Walther's "Geystliches Gesangbüchlein" (Hymnal) (Wittenberg 1524), containing Luther's hymns. The globe itself, an exact copy of Johann Schöner's globe of 1523, documents their interest in geography, which, due to discoveries made at the turn of the century, had become an increasingly central aspect of humanist scholarship. The cumulative effect of the objects is to demonstrate the ambassadors' close association to the scientific and educational community of the Renaissance, a movement considered highly "progressive" at the time. Although religious motifs are present here, they are given secondary status. This testifies to the placatory, tolerant attitude of the Catholic bishop, who, during a period of bitter religious strife, sought to reconcile the confessions. His attitude is documented by two of Luther's hymns in Walther's hymnal. His desire for harmony is echoed in the symbolic presence of the lute. Enlightened humanism had come to see religion as an ethical guide in matters of conduct: it was essential to develop an empirical awareness of physical reality; equally, it was important to be aware of the brevity of life and, constantly, to reckon with death's intervention.
This explains the reason for the anamorphic skull Holbein has painted rising diagonally from the bottom left of the canvas. Its real presence in the ambassadors' world is underlined by the heavy shadow it casts on the floor. Earlier portraitists, Barthel Bruyn for example, had showed the skull, a symbol of the vanity of all worldly things, on the reverse of their paintings, anticipating of the future state of the sitter portrayed on the obverse. Here, however, the skull is less an occult symbol, than lived presence: the cause, no doubt, of the melancholic moods of which Dinteville is reputed to have so often complained. His friend's visit was particularly important to him during such a period of depression. At a time when the state had begun to determine the legal contours of social institutions such as marriage, the relative independence of friendship and the opportunity it afforded for the unsanctioned exchange of feelings and views became more and more important. The terms in which Michel de Montaigne later praised friendship in his "Essais" are therefore hardly surprising: "Each friend entrusts himself so completely to the other, that he has nought left to give to a third."