Friday, 25 May 2012

The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein 1533 - Signs, Symbols and Meanings in Art (No.5)

The Ambassadors' - National Gallery, London
In many of Holbein's portraits there is much more to them than initially meets the eye. This painting was commissioned by Jean de Dinteville, who we see standing on the left. He was sent to England by King Francis I of France as an ambassador to protect the interests of his country. The man on the right is also French; he is Bishop Georges de Selve, who was in England on a secret mission in the spring of 1533, a time when the English were on the brink of formally leaving the Catholic Church. Holbein, meanwhile, had left Basel, and was working in London.
This strange smear is actually a disembodied skull that has been highly distorted by extreme foreshortening (anamorphosis). Only if viewed from a sharp angle does its true appearance become apparent.
The skull is the ultimate memento mori. All things on earth are transient, including the people and objects in this painting. When we position ourselves so that we can see the skull as a skull, the other, supposedly realistic objects are in turn distorted. The moral is that death is everywhere, but we do not recognise it. When we do finally make out its shape, life in turn becomes twisted and blurred.
The piece of furniture behind the men is known in England as a "whatnot", on which scientific instruments are laid out. These mark the pair out as being men of learning, of the kind who were at that time shaking the foundations of old beliefs. This was  the age of Copernicus, the first astronomer who developed a theory which placed the sun in the centre of the universe, instead of the earth. Amongst the objects displayed are a celestial globe, a Polyhedral sundial, a cylinder sundial, a Quadrant, and a Torquetum (a medieval astronomical instrument) along with Peter Apian's arithmetic book.
The lute is a symbol of harmony, but on this instrument a string has broken. This may refer to the increasing discord between Catholics and Protestants at that time. The hymnbook is open to texts that do not upset either party and may represent Holbein's plea for a unified Church.
The globe shows Europe in the most prominent position, and Africa below it. Even the place in France where Dinteville's castle stood can be made out. 
Hidden away, where it is difficult to spot is the presence of the crucified Christ. It is behind the curtains in the upper left hand corner. This raises the portrait to a higher level, as does the skull: despite their status and intellectual activities these men remain sinful and mortal human beings, and answerable to God.
There are many other messages in the painting - the floor mosaic on which the skull lies, is based on a design in Westminster Abbey, the Cosmati pavement, which is situated before the High Altar, and the carpet on the upper shelf is notably oriental. Such carpets were often integrated into Christian imagery as symbols of luxury and status.
The painting has caused much controversy over the years. One Science Historian, Professor John North, analysed the scientific and mathematical elements shown in the painting. He calculated the time given in the portrait as 4 pm on Good Friday, 11th April 1533, 1500 years exactly after the Crucifixion, with the key to the painting to be found in the small crucifix.
If you are in the National Gallery, London, do visit the Ambassadors painting. Find the broken string, look for the hidden crucifix, and then go to the side of the painting, twist your head on one side so that you can make out the skull, and look for all of the other signs and symbols that I have not mentioned.
images courtesy wikipedia
P.S When answering Olympia's question about what does Cosmati mean? I may have stumbled on another clue as to why the pavement is featured in the painting. Apparently there is a criptic message within the pavement regarding the end of the world, which seems to fit comfortably with the skull being smeared across it.

31 comments:

  1. Hello Rosemary:
    It is, of course, one thing to look, another to see and quite another to understand. What you have done in this highly informative and beautifully illustrated post is to bring to life and give meaning to this particularly interesting work by Holbein.

    We are seldom in London these days but what you have also done here as well is to give impetus to the necessity of a visit if for no other reason than to look more closely at this remarkable painting.

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    1. Hello Jane and Lance - thank you so much for your really generous comments which I appreciate enormously. You have made my day.
      Some posts, such as this, require longer to put together, and to know that you will now probably make a visit to see the painting and understand its hidden depths is very gratifying. Again thank you very much.

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  2. Dear Rosemary
    When I look at your page I feel that I need to refresh my knowledge.! For this table: Oil on wood, dimensions 207x 209, 5. 1533, Hans Holbein the Younger ,Ausburg-Germany (beautiful town) was born in 1497/98, died in London 1543. For the king and other nobles painted the most important works. I have not read the Internet. From summer 2011 , I read about all the museums and galleries on the world . They are is 24 books. Thank you so much for this post .
    Have a nice day
    Olympia

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    1. Dear Olympia - thank you for your lovely comment. I am impressed. You are obviously very knowledgeable about Holbein from all your researches described. Glad that you liked the post.

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  3. Hello Rosemary, This has always been a favourite to show to children either on school trips to London, when I was a teacher in the midlands, or when taking our own offspring to London, where Mark and I came from originally. However, I have never got much past showing them the skull, so it has been delightful to learn so much more about it. Thankyou. J.

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    1. Dear Janice - yes, little children love craning their necks to try and bring the skull into view. There are such a lot of messages and signs in this painting, and I am pleased that I have been able to introduce you to some of the ones you may have missed.
      Thank you for your visit.

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  4. Dear Rosmary,
    I forgot the most important question .. What does means the Cosmati pavement. I ask because the name of the village home of my parents in-laws is COSMATI. Do you know from where is this expression?
    Olympia

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    1. Dear Olympia - the expression Cosmati Pavement refers to the intricate mosaic of semi-precious stone and coloured glass tesserae. The pavement in Westminster Abbey was laid in 1268 and has recently been restored. The mosaics are known as Cosmati work, after the four generations of a Roman family of marble workers who perfected the technique. The Westminster one, regarded as the finest north of the Alps, uniquely has an inscription boasting of its makers - and a cryptic message about the end of the world. I have just realised that this last bit of information is probably why it was included in Holbein's painting.

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  5. Dear Rosemary,
    I do not know this painting, and confess I have only seen some of Hobein's work in books. I never knew Holbein was Swiss.
    You have described a time in British history that was very precarious, with religious differences .
    The "Whatnot" stand ..now I know where the saying comes from. How interesting.. Instruments of navigation and of learned men. The maths book..the skull is fascinating. It makes one think about life and death.
    I love art.. but i would never have known about these details .. the lute with the broken strings of disharmony. Hidden secrets.
    Even today, when we see photos and read of the Vatican and all the expensive antiques and carpets gold gilt and artifacts..all still signs of wealth. Obtained from greed and power.
    How John North came to the conclusion that the painting was painted on Good Friday 11th april 1533..this is amazing.
    I cannot relate the painting to "da Vinci"! ..but the story behind the last supper also has its secrets, of this i am sure you know.
    It makes me want to visit London.. visit the national gallery and the museums and take in a little culture.
    I have read your post over and over Rosemary. I do so enjoy reading how you explain and write about history and art.
    Thank you for this most interesting of posts. Wait for the next one.

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    1. Dear Val - he was actually born in Augsburg, Germany but spent his young painting years in Basel as an artist. He travelled to London to work when he was 29 years old.
      I love the way you have taken so much interest in the painting and found so many comparisons - that is what good paintings make us do.
      Prof John North was a very distinguished Oxford scholar. When he died he was described as belonging to a class of scholars of which he seemed to be the only member. He wrote about the development of notions of time, amongst which was The Ambassadors painting, Chaucer, and Stonehenge.
      So pleased that you enjoyed reading the post and learning about the secrets within the painting.
      The skull is the one thing that most people obviously remember, and sometimes they are so busy trying to see it, that they miss out on the other signs scattered throughout the painting.

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  6. Dear Rosemary -

    Thank you for a most illuminating post! Though this is one of my favorite paintings and I have looked at it countless times, I never noticed the crucifix or the broken lute string!!!! Thanks for presenting such a thorough interpretation. Wouldn't it be fun to teach a world history class through paintings such as this?

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    1. Dear Mark - I am pleased that this painting is one of your favourite ones too. The crucifix and the lute strings are very difficult to see, although perfect in their detail. Other things I did not have time to mention are the Dinteville dagger which points to Jerusalem on the globe.There is also the Dinteville's Order of St. Michael round his neck, which is supposed to symbolise the triumph of good over evil. De Selve is holding a pair of black gloves, the liturgical colour for Good Friday. The list of things goes on and on.
      Yes, I think that it would certainly make world history much more fun.

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  7. I think your posts would be very welcome in an artmagazine. So much information you give. When I ever go to England I would love to see this.
    Have a great weekend Rosemary

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    1. Dear Marijke - that is a very kind comment, thank you. It is just that I have a great love of art, and a desire to know about the paintings and the painter.
      If you ever get the chance to see the Ambassadors in London, then I know that you will look and find the hidden signs.
      Enjoy this lovely weather♥

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  8. nice gepresented story Rosemary. I wish you a nice weekend, Dietmut

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    1. I am pleased that you enjoyed the post Dith and hope your weekend is good too.

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  9. A gorgeously illustrated and informative post, Rosemary, Jane and Lance said it all really and like them you have whetted my appetite to see this masterpiece for myself. Some time ago I saw a programme on BBC4 which explained its symbolism, but my ailing memory immediately erased most of the information. Sigh... It's lovely to have been reminded of its significance.

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    1. Dear Perpetua - I am glad that this post reminded you of the programme you saw. As you will nodoubt have gathered I have a real passion for all kinds of art, and also I am very drawn to the different signs and symbols that were present in the paintings during the Renaissance period. They are like trying to solve a complicated puzzle which I enjoy. Thanks for your lovely comment.

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  10. Your like a fountain for knowledge Rosemary! Thank you for your lovely comment on my makes for market post! Love Katie xx

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    1. Dear Katie - thanks for visiting - art is just something that really interests me, and the garden of course.

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  11. Hello, Rosemary.

     Your heartwarming works fascinates my heart.

     Thank you for your kindness.
     And i pray for you and yours peace.

    Have a good new-week. From Japan, ruma ❃

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    1. Thank you Ruma and wishing the same greetings for you too.

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  12. A fascinating read! I have beheld this great painting twice at the National Gallery and it has always stuck in my mind. Revelatory to learn of these hidden meanings!

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    1. Glad that you found it interesting to find out more on the painting. Next time you visit you must look for the hidden signs and symbols - some are not readily spotted.

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  13. Dear Rosemary, thanks for your lesson, very interesting. Next time in London, I will head off for the National Gallery, for Holbeins art. I am now reading Hilary Mantel's Bring up the Bodies. The book is from the same time, and Holbein were there, saw those so important at the time, and could bring the struggles to us, in so many levels.

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    1. Dear Lise - glad that you enjoyed the post. Hilary Mantel's books are a great read.

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  14. I loved 'reading' this painting with you, Rosemary. I'm currently debating whether I want to buy an art history course offered inexpensively in one of my catalogues which specializes in courses of this sort. There's a History of the Western World that I have my eye on as well.

    It is amazing how these paintings keep secrets in plain sight. Thank you for deciphering. :)

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    1. Dear Yvette - if you have an interest in learning more about paintings, I should go for it if I was you. I belong to a Fine Art Society and we have expert lecturers in their field every month - I love it.

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  15. Hi Rosemary,
    I love the small guitar. I love painting.
    From: Bea Cupcake

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  16. dear rosemary, what does the rug represent, the one where both men have touching with their elbows.

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    1. I believe that the rug indicates that Jean de Dinteville and Bishop Georges de Selve were both well educated, travelled people, who could afford to buy Oriental rugs. Oriental carpets were status symbols during the time of Henry VIII - the ultimate symbol of wealth and status. This rug has been recognised as being Ottoman from the Anatolian region of Turkey, which curiously, is where I was visiting last week.

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