Hans Holbein the Younger | Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve (‘The Ambassadors’) | 1533 | The National Gallery, London | Photograph ©The National Gallery, London
This picture memorialises two wealthy, educated and powerful young men. On the left is Jean de Dinteville, aged 29, French ambassador to England in 1533. To the right stands his friend, Georges de Selve, aged 25, bishop of Lavaur, who acted on several occasions as ambassador to the Emperor, the Venetian Republic and the Holy See.
The picture is in a tradition showing learned men with books and instruments.
The objects on the upper shelf include a celestial globe, a portable sundial and various other instruments used for understanding the heavens and measuring time.
Among the objects on the lower shelf is a lute, a case of flutes, a hymn book, a book of arithmetic and a terrestrial globe.
Certain details could be interpreted as references to contemporary religious divisions. The broken lute string, for example, may signify religious discord, while the Lutheran hymn book may be a plea for Christian harmony.
In the foreground is the distorted image of a skull, a symbol of mortality. When seen from a point to the right of the picture the distortion is corrected.
Holbein painted “The Ambassadors” during a particularly tense period marked by rivalries between the Kings of England and France, the Roman Emperor, and the Pope. Furthermore, the French church was split over the question of the Reformation. The religious and political strife was reflected symbolically in the details of the painting. Among them:
- A crucifix is half-obscured by a green curtain in the top left corner of the painting, symbolizing the division of the church.
- The broken string on the lute evokes ecclesiastical disharmony during the Reformation.
- The open book of music next to the lute has been identified as a Lutheran hymnal, and the book of mathematics is open on a page of divisions which opens with the word “Dividirt.”
There are also non-political details throughout the work, such as the ages of the sitters being written in Latin on the dagger’s sheath (Dinteville) and on the book on the top shelf (de Selve).
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