Have been captivated by John North’s extraordinary book on Hans Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors. If you’ve never seen the painting in the flesh, it’s in the National Gallery in London – well worth a peek, not least because it’s free. It is monumental and captivating – and one of (if not THE) Holbein’s masterpieces.

But I’d never even begun to scratch the surface of appreciating it before reading this book. North’s learning is kaleidoscopic – embracing everything:

  • from medieval and Reformation theology (including a reasonable if brief introduction of Luther’s theology of the cross, as well as the debates between Rome, Erasmus and the Reformers), renaissance art theory, medieval and renaissance astronomy and astrology (I’d not realised that Luther was partial to a bit of astrology, and that Melanchthon was quite a devotee) and even theories of the occult
  • to the complexities of early 16th century European politics (esp Anglo-French relations), the importance of Geoffrey Chaucer in the court of Henry VIII, Henry’s relations with Rome and the role of Cranmer etc etc.

Is there nothing that this man doesn’t know? I have to say that much (most?) of the mathematical and astronomical stuff completely passed me by – but that didn’t dull my interest. I merely read in awed incomprehension and simply thought how marvellous it is that some people understand this stuff – just as long as I’ll never have to really get my head round it. I hope my life never depends on it.

So here’s the picture, painted in 1533. The guy on the left is Jean de Dinteville, French Ambassador to the court of Henry VIII. On the right is his childhood friend who came to stay with him while on some sort of official business in London, Georges de Selve, Bishop of Lavaur. The display on the two tables is designed to impress with their learning, wealth and influence – not bad going for 2 chaps only in their 20s. But the important thing to realise is that Holbein isn’t simply showing off his still-life skills. There are a number of hooks to lure us into the picture. For a start, it is not a perfect square – it is 207 cm x 209.5 cm. Accident? I think not.

Holbein-ambassadors BASIC

A few things to pick out:

  • THE FLOOR – is an intricate mosaic floor, based on the remarkable medieval floor of Westminster Abbey. Under the lower table, one can just make out the left-hand prong of the 6-sided star of David.
  • Amb PlumblineTHE PLUMBLINE – legends grew up about the ancient Greek artist Apelles and his contest with rival Protogenes over who could paint the thinnest line. Apelles won. Well, The Ambassadors is divided almost perfectly by the plumbline at the centre of the upper table (why it’s only almost, we’ll come to). Erasmus had called Holbein an exceptional artist, but called Dürer the “Apelles of our time”. Holbein seems to be staking his own claim with this incredibly fine line… (see below)Amb celestial
  • THE GLOBE – on the lower table – the exact geometrical centre of the image is Rome. So is Holbein making a specific point? After all, Holbein painted this in turbulent days: it was 1533. Just look at some of the things that happened in the royal court that year – issues that would have profoundly affected the French Ambassador’s job:
    • 25 Jan 1533: Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn
    • 23 May 1533:  Cranmer declares Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon null and void
    • 28 May 1533: Cranmer declares Henry’s marriage to Anne good and valid – Pope later declares Henry & Cranmer excommunicated
    • 1 June 1533: Anne Boleyn crowned Queen
    • 7 Sept 1533: Anne gives birth to Elizabeth (the future queen)
  • Amb LutherTHE MUSIC – on the lower table, you can see an 11-stringed lute and an open book of music. But notice the broken string: this is commonly regarded as evoking ecclesiastical disharmony during the Reformation. Would things be improved simply if the reformers returned to the fold? Is this more Catholic propaganda? Well, the fascinating thing is that the book is, in fact, a Lutheran hymnal and the hymns have actually been identified as Luther’s own compositions! (see below)
  • Amb timeTHE DATE – this is where it gets really fascinating. Because of the cylinder sundial on the upper table (see below) it is possible to establish the specific date, and even the time of day: 11th April 1533 (notice where that comes in the chronology above) – this is interesting because we know that Bishop De Selve was definitely in London at the time. What is more, in 1533, 11th April was GOOD FRIDAY! And it was roughly 4 in the afternoon.
  • Amb skullTHE SKULL – one of the most famous aspects of the painting is the extraordinary distorted skull at the bottom. This is clearly not part of the still-life – and seems to be making a profound symbolic point. The technique of painting such distortion is called anamorphosis, which is used by advertisers on rugby and cricket pitches all the time. You can see my attempt to rectify the image on the lines of what you see when you look from at a certain angle on the picture’s right. To see for yourself, print the picture out, and place your eye to the picture’s right, on the bishop’s side (just below his left hand) and then look at the skull. Of course, the skull is a classic Renaissance image with a common message – human mortality. It is provocative at the very least in a picture of 2 justly proud, educated and accomplished men as these.

But the curiosities do not stop there (and in fact, there are many more than I can include in this post, and many more that I don’t fully understand).

  • Amb polyhedralTHE POLYHEDRAL DIAL – next to the bishop’s right elbow is this strange scientific-looking instrument (surrounded by strange instruments) which has a number of different faces, and sticky-out things (called gnomons) like the cylindrical sundial above. Quite apart from what it all means (and I was slightly lost here), notice the angle of the gnomon facing us. If you draw a line tracing its angle back and forth, you come across something remarkable. It will intersect off-canvas to the right with the line where your eye should go in order to see the skull correctly. And if your eye is there, looking up this trajectory, your eye will ‘pass through’ a number of key objects. It will intersect perfectly with the horizon line on the astronomical globe on the upper shelf. (see below) That is no accident. But as your eye travels further, you intersect with the Ambassador’s left eye, and then, lo and behold… The crucifix – at Christ’s left eye, to be precise.
  • Amb crossTHE CRUCIFIX – this is entirely appropriate for a Catholic painting of 2 Men on Good Friday. Notice it is partially hidden by the curtain. Allusions to the Temple curtain, perhaps…? As my friend Gavin McGrath rightly mentioned, this part of the picture is often cut off by over-zealous photo-editors. But there is also another reason – it doesn’t quite fit into the square. As noted above, the whole image is not a perfect square. If you were to draw one, flush against the right side, it would include everything in the painting, except the crucifix. North suggests in his book that this is because there are also astrological designs informing the structure: renaissance horoscopes were apparently often drawn in a perfect square, dissected by various lines and segments. He speculates that Holbein felt it inappropriate to include the crucifix in a horoscope square…


So what do we make of it all – well – there is much more to be said that can be said. But how about this? It is ambiguous about what was going on in the Reformation at least – yes Rome is central on the globe (as you would expect in a portrait of 2 important Catholic diplomats), but what is Luther’s music doing there? Things are not quite what they seem.

But the most startling thing about the picture is not the accumulation and arrangement of various scholarly, scientific and musical objects. It is the whacking great skull in the middle. That is designed to make us think, at the very least.So what happens if we trace the 2 sightlines mentioned above.Both are clearly intended by Holbein.

Well, it seems that there is a profound theological point being made – on Good Friday of all days… Holbein seems to be suggesting (amidst loads of other things), that there are 2 alternative ways of going about your life. [This is my speculation, not North’s, so I could be completely up the spout here.] Or dare I say it, 2 ways to live…

  • Looking downwards: The Skull – the reality of our mortality – dust we are and to dust we shall return. “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio” etc (as the Bard would famously put it 70 years later).
  • Looking upwards: The Cross – the offer of God’s redemption – the heart of the Christian message is what happens on Good Friday.

Here is my attempt (after playing around in Photoshop for a bit) to illustrate the various sightlines (acknowledging credit and indebtedness to North’s fascinating book).

amb lines

So there you have it.

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This Post Has 21 Comments

  1. Jeremy

    fascinating. I’d always seen the skull and stopped looking for any further meanings beyond mortality. I have a new respect for Holbein.

  2. Rod

    Is your rendering of the anamorphosis taken from the upper right? It looks like it should be taken from the lower left — that way the left socket (from the skull’s point of view) would not appear smaller than the right. I have heard that it was meant to be hung on a landing with a staircase leading up from the left, so you could see the anamorphosis from this direction.

    1. quaesitor

      you’re probably right – i was just fiddling around too quickly in photoshop so wasn’t really being very systematic. thanks for the spot.

    2. bra24243

      Rod, it was meant to go with the staircase but it was still meant to be viewed from the right. it was the idea of looking down to the earth and seeing our mortality but looking up would lead our view to Christ and eternal life.

  3. Bill

    Thank you so much for your work on this. The Ambassadors has always been a favourite but my understanding of it was, at best, superficial to say the least! I have been ploughing through John North’s book for several weeks now – it is indeed heavy going in places but well worth the effort.
    Your thoughts, particularly the hotspots, are very helpful as I cannot get to the National Gallery very easily.
    One question – were your reproductions taken before the recent restoration? I ask because I have not yet been able to find Holbein’s signature.

    1. quaesitor

      hi Bill
      thanks for your comment and encouragement. As far as I can tell the repro is an old one… can’t for the life of me remember where I dug it up now (which is pretty bad i know – sorry).

  4. id

    Hello, it’s been a long long time since you wrote this article about The Ambassadors I know. Thank you very much for it any way for it has been helpful: hints on how to look differently at the painting. I was told there are two more skulls: one painted on Jean de Dinteville’s hat and the other one, more controversial as everyone I know speaks about it but really now one is capable of seeing it really… (It is supposed to be in one of the two ‘eyes’ of the anamorphosis. Did you ever get to see it? Sorry if my English is not totally correct, I’m still learning it!

    1. quaesitor

      thanks for your comment (and your English is fine!!) – i’ve not been able to see the other two skulls myself – but perhaps it is like one of those Magic Eye pictures – you can either see it or you can’t!

    1. quaesitor

      Hi gigi
      thanks so much for the link – EXCELLENT. What a brilliant site that will prove to be.
      Glad to have seen the hat skull as well for the first time now!!!

  5. Jason

    FYI, the other skull is in the red book. It’s the first “character” if you will. (i.e. the left-most marking on the page, next to “Diadem”.)

  6. Rosemary Hart

    I really enjoyed your description, and will definitely go to see the painting in the future. I was looking because of another art mystery I’ve found and the case of the skull being only visible in recognisable form is the only thing I could think of.

    I went to the recent Leonardo da Vinci exhibition and noticed something regarding La Belle Ferroniere (sp) and the Lady with an Ermine. Thse two ladies were wife and mistress of the same man. They hung at right angles to each other, placed deliberately, I am sure. La Belle Ferroniere (the wife) looks quite content from the front, but if you moved to the right and looked back, she was really glaring at the mistress! I am wondering how you can paint an expression that changes as you move to one side?

    1. quaesitor

      thanks for this – have been meaning to get to the Leonardo – will check it out!

  7. Paul Miller

    does anyone know the significance ot the medallion on Jean’s chest it is important to me. it will be expensive to call the national gallery. any ideas would be appreciated.

  8. Edward Ockenden.

    I only popped in to the National to keep my son and wife happy. Now I have a project for what remains of life.

  9. Cathi Reitmeyer

    Absolutely composed subject material , Really enjoyed reading through .

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