Hans Holbein the Younger - The Ambassadors

by Alexandra Tuschka


Two men, who are quite similar in their facial features, look out at us from the picture "The Ambassadors". Both have oval faces and wear beards. They flank a table in the center, which is covered with all kinds of objects. In the background, a green brocade curtain delimits the work, reducing the depth space. Who are the two and what do they want to convey to the viewer through this picture?

The man on the left takes up a lot of space and immediately attracts the viewer's gaze. He looks at us awake and interested, our attention does not bother him at all. He looks quite pompous in his massive black coat, which he presents to us through an open and casual posture. The now recognizable ermine trim and the red undergarment of Atlas silk indicate a certain wealth. Here someone wants to express his status! On his chain we recognize the medallion of the Michael order. This had been received by the man identified as Jean de Dinteville from the French king. He himself was an envoy in England for King Francis I in 1532 and 1533. In the dagger scabbard, his age is given as "29 years". Since life expectancy was much lower at that time, even younger men held high offices at an early age. The left arm of the diplomat rests on the table, which thus also connects him compositionally with the other man. The latter no longer has such an alert look. Has he been modeling for a long time?


This - somewhat tired-looking - gentleman is the young bishop George de Selve. He wears a simple brocade coat, on his head a black biretta. His age is still recognizable with "25 years" on the book under his elbow. We quickly notice that he seems disproportionately more modest than the man next to him, although he too displays a choice of clothes of high quality. He rests his arm on the table, loosely mirroring the posture of his counterpart. George de Selve practiced in Lavaur, France, and was an envoy to Emperor Charles V; however, when this work was created, he was traveling as a private citizen and visiting his friend de Dinteville.


During this trip, the two men, who were bound by a deep friendship, met in London. One of them commissioned the double portrait from the Dutchman Hans Holbein the Younger. Painted in 1533, the work shows the friends as allies and intellectual men of the world. The patron stands - not surprisingly - on the left of the picture. Did he take it upon himself to subtly assume the leading role here? He did not commission one of the greatest of his time for nothing: Hans Holbein had a considerable reputation as a portrait and monumental painter at this time and was also known for his almost photorealistic depictions of objects.

We can see this for ourselves. There are all sorts of things to be discovered on the floors of the table: Instruments from the fields of mathematics and astronomy, which include the celestial globe, books of spiritual content, next to it a knick-necked lute, one string of which is already cracked, and other secular objects.


Inserting such attributes into portrait paintings was a common means of underscoring the sitter's qualities, occupations, or abilities. Often the commissioned works were intended for external effect and not to hang in a quiet closet. Sometimes they even served as "business cards" on official occasions. Thus it is handed down that rulers who married for political reasons, and could not get to know each other before the wedding, were sometimes allowed to gain a first impression through a portrait of their partner. Surely this sometimes gave nasty surprises!

In this case the work shows the meeting of "world" and "spirit", both spheres which the men - facing each other - represent. The posture can also be seen in this context: the man of the world shows himself open to the outside, his gaze is awake and fearlessly directed at the viewer; the spiritual man draws his arms to himself, protects his body with the cloak and thus turns body-language "inward". He renounces status symbols. Through the similarity of both, however, an impression of "brotherhood" is created. In addition, the friends open up slightly to each other, thus creating a connection - also compositionally.


But the work contains another subtle message, which helped him to art historical fame until today. On the mosaic floor, borrowed from the presbytery of Westminster Abbey, is an indefinable, distorted object. Only when turning and twisting one's own body in front of the picture's background, the viewer is able to recognize what was meant here by Holbein: a skull. This probably most conventional of all vanitas symbols, has become a much more subtle message through the distortion. The conundrum is a reminder of the transience of all worldly values. The somewhat hidden cross in the left background and the already mentioned broken string of the instrument are also in this context.


Hans Holbein the Younger - The ambassadors

Tempera on wood, 1533, 206 × 209 cm, National Gallery in London