HOLBEIN, Hans the Younger
(b. 1497, Augsburg, d. 1543, London)

Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve (`The Ambassadors')

Oil on oak, 207 x 209 cm
National Gallery, London

This huge panel is one of the earliest portraits combining two full-length figures on the scale of life. A paean to two scholar-diplomats and to the artist's virtuosity, it is on closer examination a reminder also of the brevity of life and of the vanity of human accomplishments. While life is short, Holbein seems to say, art is long-lasting - but eternity endures for ever.

On our left stands Jean de Dinteville, a French nobleman posted to London as ambassador. The globe on the bottom shelf shows Polisy, where he had his château; the ornate sheath of the dagger in his right hand gives his age as 29. To his left stands his friend and fellow-countryman, Georges de Selve, whose visit to London in 1533 is commemorated here. A brilliant classical scholar, he had some years earlier been created Bishop of Lavaur. He leans his elbow on a book inscribed with his age: 25. In their attire, their poses and their bearing the two friends exemplify, respectively, the active and the contemplative life, which, together, complement each other.

On the what-not between them Holbein has depicted the wide range of their interests - a compendium of the culture of the age. On the top shelf, the minutely rendered `Turkey' carpet bears a celestial globe and an array of astronomical and navigational instruments. The cylindrical dial gives the date as 11 April; the polyhedral dial on the right indicates two different times of day. In front of the terrestrial globe on the lower shelf lies a German text-book of Arithmetic for Merchants, propped open with a T-square. A lute and a case of recorders or flutes demonstrate both Holbein's mastery of foreshortening and the sitters' musical interests. But a string of the lute has snapped, a traditional emblem of fragility. Just visible in the top left corner, at the edge of the magnificently patterned green hanging, is a crucifix. The hymnal in front of the lute is open at Martin Luther's hymn,'Come Holy Ghost our souls inspire'. Christian faith offers hope of eternal life when dust returns to dust.

Across the mosaic floor - derived from the medieval pavement in Westminster Abbey - there spreads a curious shape between the two friends. It is a skull, skilfully distorted so that its true form can only be perceived from the correct viewpoint at the edges of the panel. The painting may have been intended to hang over a staircase so that viewers might see it when ascending or descending. Possibly referring to a personal device of Jean de Dinteville, whose cap medallion bears a skull, it is also the quintessential memento mori, reminder of mortality. In Holbein's meticulously real-seeming picture, the distortion also functions as a signal that reality, as perceived by the senses, must be viewed `correctly' to reveal its full meaning. A frontal nod of recognition at the worldly semblance of things is not enough.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.