The Ambassadors (Holbein)

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The Ambassadors
Hans Holbein the Younger - The Ambassadors - Google Art Project.jpg
ArtistHans Holbein the Younger
MediumOil on oak
Dimensions207 cm × 209.5 cm (81 in × 82.5 in)
LocationNational Gallery, London

The Ambassadors (1533) is a painting by Hans Holbein the Younger. Also known as Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve,[1] it was created in the Tudor period, in the same year Elizabeth I was born. As well as being a double portrait, the painting contains a still life of several meticulously rendered objects, the meaning of which is the cause of much debate. It also incorporates a much-cited example of anamorphosis in painting. It is part of the collection at the National Gallery in London.


Although a German-born artist who spent most of his time in England, Holbein displayed the influence of Early Dutch painters in this work. This influence can be noted most outwardly in the use of oil paint, the use of which for panel paintings had been developed a century before in Early Netherlandish painting. What is most "Flemish" of Holbein's use of oils is his use of the medium to render meticulous details that are mainly symbolic: as Jan van Eyck and the Master of Flémalle used extensive imagery to link their subjects to divinity, Holbein used symbols to link his figures to show the same things on the table.

Holbein carpet with large medallions, of a type similar to that of the painting, 16th century, Central Anatolia

Among the clues to the figures' associations are a selection of scientific instruments including two globes (one terrestrial and one celestial), a shepherd's dial, a quadrant, a torquetum, and a polyhedral sundial,[2] as well as various textiles including the floor mosaic, based on a design from Westminster Abbey (the Cosmati pavement, before the High Altar), and the carpet on the upper shelf, which is most notably oriental, an example of Oriental carpets in Renaissance painting. The choice for the inclusion of the two figures can be seen as symbolic. The figure on the left is in secular attire while the figure on the right is dressed in clerical clothes. They flank the table, which displays open books and symbols of religious knowledge, including a symbolic link to the Virgin.

The Ambassadors' globe (detail)

In contrast, other scholars have suggested the painting contains overtones of religious strife. The conflicts between secular and religious authorities are here represented by Jean de Dinteville, a landowner, and Georges de Selve, the Bishop of Lavaur. The commonly accepted symbol of discord, a lute with a broken string, is included next to a hymnbook in Martin Luther's translation, suggesting strife between scholars and the clergy.[3] For others, if the lute's broken string suggests the interruption of religious harmony, the Lutheran hymnal, open on facing pages reproducing a song on the Commandments (Law) and one on the Holy Spirit (Grace) may suggest their being in "harmony" with each other.[4]

The terrestrial globe on the lower shelf repeats a portion of a cartographically imaginative map created in possibly 1530 and of unknown origin. The map is referred to as the Ambassadors' Globe due to its popularly known appearance in the painting.[5][6]

The work has been described as "one of the most staggeringly impressive portraits in Renaissance art."[7]

Anamorphic skull[edit]

The anamorphic skull as restored in 1998

The most notable and famous of Holbein's symbols in the work is the distorted skull which is placed in the bottom center of the composition. The skull, rendered in anamorphic perspective, another invention of the Early Renaissance, is meant to be a visual puzzle as the viewer must approach the painting from high on the right side, or low on the left side, to see the form as an accurate rendering of a human skull. While the skull is evidently intended as a vanitas or memento mori, it is unclear why Holbein gave it such prominence in this painting. One possibility is that this painting represents three levels: the heavens (as portrayed by the astrolabe and other objects on the upper shelf), the living world (as evidenced by books and a musical instrument on the lower shelf), and death (signified by the skull). It has also been hypothesized that the painting is meant to hang in a stairwell, so that persons walking up the stairs and passing the painting on their left would be startled by the appearance of the skull. A further possibility is that Holbein simply wished to show off his ability with the technique in order to secure future commissions.[8] Artists often incorporated skulls as a reminder of mortality. Holbein may have intended the skulls (one as a gray slash and the other as a medallion on Jean de Dinteville's hat) and the crucifix in the upper left corner to encourage contemplation of one's impending death and the resurrection.[3]


Before the publication of Mary F. S. Hervey's Holbein's Ambassadors: The Picture and the Men in 1900, the identity of the two figures in the picture had long been a subject of intense debate. In 1890, Sidney Colvin was the first to propose the figure on the left as Jean de Dinteville, Seigneur of Polisy (1504–1555), French ambassador to the court of Henry VIII for most of 1533. Shortly afterwards, the cleaning of the picture revealed that his seat of Polisy is one of only four French places marked on the globe.[9] Hervey identified the man on the right as Georges de Selve (1508/09–1541), Bishop of Lavaur, after tracing the painting's history back to a seventeenth-century manuscript. According to art historian John Rowlands, de Selve is not wearing episcopal robes because he was not consecrated until 1534.[10] De Selve is known from two of de Dinteville's letters to his brother François de Dinteville, Bishop of Auxerre, to have visited London in the spring of 1533. On 23 May, Jean de Dinteville wrote: "Monsieur de Lavaur did me the honour of coming to see me, which was no small pleasure to me. There is no need for the grand maître to hear anything of it". The grand maître in question was Anne de Montmorency, the Marshal of France, a reference that has led some analysts to conclude that de Selve's mission was a secret one; but there is no other evidence to corroborate the theory.[11] On June 4, the ambassador wrote to his brother again, saying: "Monsieur de Lavaur came to see me, but has gone away again".[12]

Lutheran Psalmbook in The Ambassadors

Hervey's identification of the sitters has remained the standard one, affirmed in extended studies of the painting by Foister, Roy, and Wyld (1997), Zwingenberger (1999), and North (2004), who concludes that "the general coherence of the evidence assembled by Hervey is very satisfying"; however, North also notes that, despite Hervey's research, "[R]ival speculation did not stop at once and is still not entirely dead".[13] Giles Hudson, for example, has argued that the man on the right is not de Selve, but Jean's brother François, Bishop of Auxerre, a noted patron of the arts with a known interest in mathematical instruments.[14] The identification finds support in the earliest manuscript in which the painting is mentioned, a 1589 inventory of the Chateau of Polisy, discovered by Riccardo Famiglietti. However, scholars have argued that this identification of 1589 was incorrect. John North, for example, remarks that "[T]his was a natural enough supposition to be made by a person with limited local knowledge, since the two brothers lived on the family estates together at the end of their lives, but it is almost certainly mistaken".[15] He points to a letter François de Dinteville wrote to Jean on 28 March 1533, in which he talks of an imminent meeting with the Pope and makes no mention of visiting London. Unlike the man on the right of the picture, François was older than Jean de Dinteville. The inscription on the man on the right's book is "AETAT/IS SV Æ 25" (his age is 25); that on de Dinteville's dagger is "AET. SV Æ/ 29" (he is 29).[16]

North's book analyzes the painting and shows it to be representing Good Friday through various clues on the instruments.[2]

See also[edit]

External video
Holbein instruments de musique.JPG
Holbein's The Ambassadors, Smarthistory[17]
HOLBEIN – The Ambassadors, Canaleducatif[18]
Holbein's skull Part I, Part II National Gallery (UK)[19]
Symbolism in Holbein's Ambassadors, National Gallery (UK)[20]
Mathematical Technique in Holbein's Ambassadors, Idols of the Cave[21]
Video demonstration of anamorphic skull illusion with actual painting, WorldScott[22]



  1. ^ "Hans Holbein the Younger The Ambassadors NG1314 National Gallery, London". Archived from the original on 2018-10-24. Retrieved 2018-10-24.
  2. ^ a b Dekker & Lippincott 1999
  3. ^ a b Mamiya, 675
  4. ^ Bertoglio, 569
  5. ^ Pigafetta, Antonio (1994). Magellan‘s Voyage: a narrative of the first circumnavigation. Dover Publications Inc. p. 30. ISBN 0-486-28099-3.
  6. ^ Hayes, Derek (2003). Historical Atlas of the Arctic. Douglas & McIntyre Ltd. pp. 8–9. ISBN 1-55365-004-2.
  7. ^ Welton, J. in Farthing, S. ed, (2011)
  8. ^ "Anamorphosis". World Wide Words. 2011-11-26. Archived from the original on 2012-09-01. Retrieved 2012-08-21.
  9. ^ Rowlands, 139–41.
  10. ^ Rowlands, 140.
  11. ^ Foister, Roy, & Wyld, 16.
  12. ^ Foister, 14.
  13. ^ North, 7–8.
  14. ^ See Hudson, 201–205.
  15. ^ North, 7; see also, Foister, Roy, & Wyld, 102, n1.
  16. ^ Rowlands, 139.
  17. ^ "Holbein's The Ambassadors". Smarthistory at Khan Academy. Archived from the original on March 4, 2013. Retrieved March 10, 2013.
  18. ^ "HOLBEIN – The Ambassadors". ArtSleuth. Canaleducatif. Archived from the original on March 10, 2016. Retrieved March 10, 2013.
  19. ^ "Holbein's skull Part I". National Gallery (UK). Archived from the original on May 6, 2014. Retrieved March 10, 2013. Part II Archived 2016-09-13 at the Wayback Machine
  20. ^ "Symbolism in Holbein's Ambassadors". National Gallery (UK). Archived from the original on February 28, 2012. Retrieved March 10, 2013.
  21. ^ "Mathematical Technique in Holbein's Ambassadors". Idols of the Cave. Archived from the original on February 17, 2013. Retrieved April 21, 2013.
  22. ^ "Amazing illusion painting in 4K, The Ambassadors (1533), by Hans Holbein the Younger". WorldScott. Archived from the original on August 17, 2016. Retrieved November 1, 2016.


  • Bertoglio, Chiara (2017). Reforming Music. Music and the Religious Reformations of the Sixteenth Century. Berlin: De Gruyter. ISBN 9783110520811.
  • Dekker, Elly; Lippincott, Kristen (1999). "The Scientific Instruments in Holbein's Ambassadors: A Re-Examination". Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes. The Warburg Institute. 62: 93–125. doi:10.2307/751384. ISSN 0075-4390. JSTOR 751384.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Farthing, Stephen, ed. (2011). 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die. London: Cassell. p. 167. ISBN 978-1-84403-704-9.
  • Foister, Susan; Roy, Ashok; Wyld, Martin (1997). Making and Meaning: Holbein's Ambassadors. London: National Gallery Publications. ISBN 1-85709-173-6.
  • Hervey, Mary (1900). Holbein's Ambassadors: The Picture and the Men. London: George Bell and Sons.
  • Hudson, Giles (April 2003). "The Vanity of the Sciences". Annals of Science. 60 (2): 201–205. doi:10.1080/0003379021000047112.
  • Mamiya, Christin J. (2005). Gardner's Art Through the Ages 12th ed. California: Wadsworth/ Thomson Learning, Inc. ISBN 0-15-505090-7.
  • Zanchi, Mauro (2013). Holbein, Art e Dossier (in Italian). Firenze: Giunti. ISBN 978-8-80978-250-1.
  • North, John (2004). The Ambassadors' Secret: Holbein and the World of the Renaissance. London: Phoenix. ISBN 1-84212-661-X.
  • Rowlands, John (1985). Holbein: The Paintings of Hans Holbein the Younger. Boston: David R. Godine. ISBN 0-87923-578-0.
  • Zwingenberger, Jeanette (1999). The Shadow of Death in the Work of Hans Holbein the Younger. London: Parkstone Press. ISBN 1-85995-492-8.

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