Thursday, November 25, 2010

Hans Holbein (The Younger)

'The Ambassadors'

 On a cold November afternoon, a visit to The National Gallery on Trafalgar Square seemed like a good idea. Carefully dodging the protestors and police nearby who were having a no doubt philosophical discussion about cuts to education funding, I ascended the steps of the impressive Portico Entrance, picked up a guide, and looked about. First impression: they have in there an awful lot of allegorical Christian religious paintings from the 13th to the 16th century.  I thought I should look at the Titians (clean and shiny) and the Da Vincis (not his greatest) and the Botticelli ‘Venus and Mars’ (painted for a Medici household chest and not his best either). I was getting mightily tired of yet another poor St Sebastian pierced with arrows and suchlike, when I wandered into Room 4, and espied before me one of my all-time favourite paintings:  ‘The Ambassadors’ by Hans Holbein The Younger, painted in 1533. Glowingly restored, almost life-size, and no crowds in front of it. Here’s the Gallery's website link to this gem in its collection. 

Why is it a favourite? I hear you ask. Because it is intriguing, has a back story, is intelligent, devious and says pivotal things about its times. It is a painting that bears close examination, and can delight long inspection and consideration. I like to think of Hans Holbein (The Younger, because his dad was a painter too) painting in the heady days of the court of King Henry VIII. Sir Thomas More and Anne Boleyn were his patrons, and you might remember what happened to them. But Holbein survived all those upheavals – he was born in Germany, and lived much of his life, before and after his time in England, in Basle. He’s remembered as one of the great portrait painters, with exceptional precision. He painted a delightful portrait of the humanist Erasmus, which I was also privileged to find in The National Gallery, and a well-known one of Henry VIII which is in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, one of Madrid’s three great art museums. 

'Henry VIII'
But Holbein was more than just a magnificent realist portrait painter known to record excellent likenesses. He also included in his paintings lots of symbols, paradoxes and mysterious allusions. In addition to delighting people who like that sort of thing, these can shed some possibly fascinating light on the times of Holbein, who was working amongst some of the great humanists of the day, at a time when Luther was ‘protesting’, protestants were being executed, and humanism was on the rise. Questions of church and state were high on the social agenda, as indeed was the subject of eternal salvation – or otherwise. Wikipedia has a very good article on Holbein. 

As to ‘The Ambassadors’, first of all we’re not entirely sure it is a portrait of two ambassadors – for ages no one knew who the two sitters were, but around 1900 the majority decision emerged that they are Jean de Dinteville, French ambassador to the court of Henry VIII, and George de Selve, Bishop of Lavaur (before he was a bishop). Or possibly the second figure is Jean’s brother. I just mention this to show that just because The National Gallery puts these two names on the sign beside the painting, the identification is really just a best guess. The de Dinteville theory was bolstered when the painting was cleaned in the early 1900s and it emerged that Polisy, the family seat of the de Dintevilles, is one of only four place names marked on the globe of the world behind Jean’s elbow. Discreet Latin inscriptions on Jean’s dagger and George’s book reveal their ages (29 and 25).

The table between the two is loaded with all kinds of things, each with a symbolic meaning, if you’re into that kind of thing. The lute has a broken string (uh-oh), we have a church-state dichotomy (the two figures representing court and church, and various objects such as religious books sit alongside globes and scientific instruments) – scholars are divided on whether these things celebrate the unification of the secular and the sacred, or strife between them.

An oriental carpet drapes the table – renaissance paintings often displayed these Ottoman carpets, and in fact several designs have become known as ‘Holbein carpets’ because our man depicted them so often in his paintings. We also have two globes, one terrestrial and one celestial, a quadrant, a torquetum (I had to Google it too – medieval astronomical instrument), and a sundial. The lower shelf has a number of musical instruments, and books, including a hymn book in Martin Luther’s translation. You could be thrown in The Tower for messing about with Martin Luther’s ideas at this time. The floor is a copy of a bit of mosaic floor in Westminster Abbey.

But most interesting of all, and what the painting is principally famous for, is the remarkable example of anamorphic perspective – the skewed skull between the two figures, at the bottom of the picture. This is a visual puzzle, invented by Renaissance painters – you can only see the skull in proper perspective if you look at it from the extreme right of the picture (which I was able to do in the Gallery! After previously trying it at home with small sized prints). Some say that the painting was supposed to hang on a staircase and so the skull would be seen as dominating the picture when viewed from below. Painters of the time often included such tricks to show off their skill, and often included skulls as reminders of mortality. But the one in this painting is particularly prominent, and combined with all the other symbols of the splendours and resources of the renaissance world...well, you have to wonder.  As did the author of a book I read a few years ago, on the art of the Renaissance and its significance. He argued, if I remember rightly, that the painting marked a seminal turning point in: the angst created by the Reformation meets the triumph of reason that marked the Enlightenment, and in short, Holbein more or less predicts the slow decline of society as he knew it.

And in case you didn’t notice it, in the upper left hand corner of the painting, partly hidden behind the green drapery, is a small crucifix. Why? Why there? Why hidden? I told you this painting could keep you absorbed for hours.

Rembrandt 'Self Portrait at the Age of 34'
Titian 'Man with a Quilted Sleeve'

Oh, I should mention that The National Gallery also has some other superb paintings – Caravaggio, Vermeer, Velazquez (nothing on the Prado’s collection of this artist, of course), Rembrandt’s very well known “Self Portrait at the Age of 34” – and the pose that inspired it, Titian’s “Man With A Quilted Sleeve”.
Then there’s the splendid Constables (“The Hay Wain”, “The Cornfield”) and Gainsboroughs – it is only right and proper that these quintessential English painters should be well represented. They also have one of Van Gogh’s four “Sunflowers” (a pretty one with a pale yellow background – I wonder what happened to Alan Bond’s?), other excellent Van Goghs, Monet, Cezanne and some wonderful pointillist works.

A well-spent afternoon, methinks.

Constable 'The Cornfield'
Van Gogh 'Sunflowers'

Skull photo from:


  1. Wonderful post Annette! The BBC (or ABC!?) should commission you to do a series on Art: Sister Wendy eat your heart out ;-)
    The Van Gogh Sunflowers reminds me of the time I was on tour in Tokyo and went to the private museum of a company executive on the 30th floor of an office building in Shinjuku...was completely alone for half an hour contemplating the wonders of one of the four Sunflowers chef d'oeuvre (the one with bright red specks in the flowers)...

  2. Muchas gracias, Damian. And I'm glad to hear that you didn't nick the Van Gogh when you had a chance :-)