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 living and 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 skull lies on a mosaic floor based on the Cosmati Pavement in Westminster Abbey situated before the High Altar. Within the mosaic is a cryptic prophecy which according to medieval interpretation symbolises the world, or the universe, and its end. 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 even mentioned.
PS. There are just a handful of brass letters remaining of the original long inscription within the Cosmati mosaic, but fortunately it was transcribed centuries ago. It names the king, the chief craftsman as Odoricus, gives the date in a tortuous riddle, and then mysteriously suggests that the world will last for 19,683 more years.