Art Through Time: A Global View
Death Art: Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve (The Ambassadors)
On the left of Hans Holbein’s painting stands Jean de Dinteville, the ambassador to England from the French court of King François I.
His companion is Georges de Selve, a French bishop and diplomat. Between them is a two-tiered shelf holding an array of worldly goods—including books, musical instruments, and astronomical devices. Both de Dinteville and de Selve appear wealthy, highly sophisticated, and knowledgeable.
Jean de Dinteville stands confidently, dressed in rich ermine and silk. In his hand he holds an ornate dagger and around his neck wears a chain of gold with the Order of St. Michael. However, affixed to his hat is a much less ostentatious object—a medallion depicting a skull. Buried within Holbein’s scene filled with luxurious objects, this memento mori, or reminder of death, comes as a surprise to the attentive viewer. It is, in fact, just one of several elements in the painting not apparent at first glance. In the upper left-hand corner hangs a half-hidden crucifix, and, remarkably, an odd shape in the foreground of the painting morphs into a large skull when viewed at precisely the right angle. Together, these objects remind the audience, among whom the sitters would have been counted, that material possessions are ultimately ephemeral, that human achievement is transient, and that death is inevitable.
In the early 1530s, the Reformation was making its way to England. Although reform-minded, the two men pictured in Holbein’s work were devout Catholics concerned with threats to the unity of Christianity, and their diplomatic efforts at the court of Henry VIII would have focused on such matters. It has been suggested by some scholars that the painting contains not only symbols of life’s brevity, but also references to the crisis of religion that was sweeping across Europe at the time. For example, a lute with a broken string on the bottom shelf placed adjacent to a Lutheran hymnal has been interpreted as a sign of discord.
Religion was not the only cultural arena in which major shifts were taking place in the sixteenth century. New wealth, emergent nationhood, and artistic developments were also impacting the lives of Europeans. Holbein’s painting is in some ways traditional, drawing on familiar iconography to convey its message of mortality. At the same time, the opulence of the objects portrayed and the evident delight Holbein took in painting them suggest a changing perspective—one in which worldly existence is not to be eschewed entirely, but balanced carefully against the requirements of salvation.
Larry Silver, Professor of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania
“The Holbein Ambassadors is such a different kind of picture from anything anyone had painted before that it is a kind of epitaph for the painter. The amount of physical detail is astonishing and the picture really is life-size. So when you confront it in London, it’s an astonishing experience. So that alone probably would be a kind of memorial for a painter. He was a court painter to Henry VIII. On the one hand, it certainly has a message that may have been very comfortable to a pious patron, that yes, I think about death, but it’s at a strange corner of my mind. But it also is an indication that the artist was himself involved in this culture. People who paid to have epitaph pictures were, in effect, just asking for a continuity of what they had. The idea of memorial is a kind of hope that they’d be remembered, but also a hope that the good things of this life would be repeated or enhanced in the next life. They used their wealth, in a way, to assure their afterlife. And that’s very much present in the Holbein Ambassadors. You see worldly instruments, instruments that measure the heavens, instruments that are geographical, globes, you see works of creativity, you see lutes, songbooks, architect squares. So it’s very clear there is a joy, a delight in what you can accomplish in this life. And the two characters who are presented there are such accomplished men.
Death is the loss of all these wonderful opportunities. And only with some guidance are you told that this strange white object that seems to go diagonally across the picture is something you need to look at from a different point of view. But it comes right when you turn to that side edge of the picture and look down on it. And, in fact, you see it reconciled as a skull. But at the time that you can see that, you are so much at the edge of the picture that you can see almost nothing else in it. So the experience is one where you can choose to see the worldly goods and people or you can focus on the skull itself. So there is this surprise, but also a kind of willful choice about which of the two you are going to respond to. To have to look at a picture from two different angles in order to make its meaning come across is a brilliant manipulation by the artist of anybody who looks at the picture. You have to get a different point of view even to think about death in the midst of all those wonderful, worldly trappings.”
Bätschmann, Oskar, and Pascal Griener. Hans Holbein. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.
Foister, Susan. Holbein & England. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2006.
Foister, Susan, Ashok Roy, and Martin Wyld. Holbein’s “Ambassadors”: Making and Meaning. London: National Gallery, 1998.
The National Gallery, London Web site. www.nationalgallery.org.uk.