IS THAT A SKULL?!: Hans Holbein & The Ambassadors

Hans Holbein the Younger, Self Portrait at the Uffizi, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

If you’re ever curious about 16th century portraitists, look no further than our German friend, Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8-1543)! He’s one of the most accomplished painters out there with his versatility and technical ability. Like our good friend, Jan van Eyck, Holbein used oil painting to achieve realistic textures in his works. Many 16th century celebrities – from King Henry VIII, Erasmus, to Anne of Cleves – vied for Holbein to capture their looks.  

But wait! When discussing Holbein, we have to mention his double portrait (it’s practically full-length and life-sized), The Ambassadors (1533). At first glance, this eye-catcher commemorates two friends, showing off their wealth and status. But, if you look closer, you’ll notice references to the English Reformation and Holbein’s own message about life and mortality. Since it’s Halloween season (BOO! 👻), it seems fitting to take a closer look at such spooky themes! 

The Good Life

Hans Holbein, The Ambassadors (1533), © The National Gallery

Okay, let’s start by looking at those two interesting fellas in The Ambassadors. On the left side, we have our French nobleman, Jean de Dinteville. Dinteville served as a French ambassador to London. On the right, we have Dinteville’s friend, George de Selve, whose 1533 visit with Dinteville is portrayed here. Selve was a classical scholar, ambassador, and the Bishop of Lavaur. We know that both friends were in their twenties since Holbein inscribed their ages: Dinteville is 29 (Latin inscribed on his dagger) and Selve is 25 (inscribed on the book of which he is leaning on).  

Their lavish clothing (nice fur trim, Dinteville!) shows off their wealth and high status. Similarly, the mish-mash of objects between them indicate their hobbies – a collection of the time’s culture too! The mathematical book and astronomical and navigational instruments allude to their combined intellect. Their artistry is indicated through musical instruments. Religion also plays a role (see the open hymn book?).  In all, these men represent an active, intellectual, and religious culture.  

Amongst Disruption

Arithmetic Book from The Ambassadors, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Now, Hans Holbein wasn’t going to just paint two friends, he decided to sneak in some objects to feature the time’s tumultuous religious and political climate. This brings us to the English Reformation which involves King Henry VIII’s break from the Catholic Church in order to file for divorce. You can read more about Henry VIII and his many wives here! It’s no wonder that Dinteville was sent as an ambassador to England (the rest of Catholic Europe was worried)!  

To represent this religious strain, Holbein employed symbolism throughout various objects. If you look really close at the lute on the lower shelf, you’ll see that one string is broken. The arithmetic book on the left is wedged open on a page devoted to mathematical division. Also, there is a flute missing from the pack underneath the lute (suggesting a lack of harmony). See the pattern that alludes to a fractured community spurred by the Reformation? I hope so!  

Side note, the ever-devout Georges might have wanted to include the hymn book near the lute that opens to “The Ten Commandments” and “Come Holy Ghost” in order to promote Christian unity during this chaotic time.

The Bare-Boned Truth

You might be wondering what that curious shape is between the two friends. Spoiler Alert! It’s a SKULL! Using his mad skills, Hans Holbein distorted the shape so that it’s real form can only be viewed from a correct vantage point (the panel edge!).  

The Ambassadors skull viewed at an angle, Photo Credit: Thomas Shahan, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Why do this? Well, Holbein probably wants to remind his viewers that reality, as we perceive it, must be seen ‘correctly’ in order for us to understand its full, true meaning. In other words, don’t let reality be distorted through rose-colored glasses. Rather, look at reality through all angles. By choosing a skull, Holbein reminds us of our impending mortality despite all of our cultural accomplishments. This is his memento mori 

It’s not completely depressing though! Holbein offers a few Christian allusions about eternal life after death to give us a little hope. Slightly hidden at the paintings top left corner, near the green curtain, you’ll see a crucifix! In the Christian faith, this represents Jesus dying on the cross for our sins. This symbolizes salvation even in the face of death. Likewise, the hymn “Come Holy Ghost” is a reminder of the Christian God and the hope he inspired (despite all the discord or death).  So, hey, don’t despair! At the very least, you’ll have some interesting art-related skull facts to tell your friends for Halloween! 👻💀🎃

I hope you learned a lot about Holbein and The Ambassadors! What was your favorite discovery? Let me know in the comments! You can check out this painting at the National Gallery and maybe even do a treasure hunt while you’re at it!  

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