6 / Death
|Artist / Origin||
Hans Holbein the Younger (German, 1497–1543)
Period: 1400 CE - 1800 CE
Oil on oak
|Dimensions||H: 81 ½ in. (207 cm.), W: 82 ½ in. (209.5 cm.)|
|Location||National Gallery, London, UK|
|Credit||© National Gallery, London/Art Resource, NY|
|Larry SilverProfessor of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania|
Bätschmann, Oskar, and Pascal Griener. Hans Holbein. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.
Foister, Susan. Holbein & England. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2006.
Foister, Susan, Ashok Roy, and Martin Wyld. Holbein’s “Ambassadors”: Making and Meaning. London: National Gallery, 1998.
The National Gallery, London Web site. www.nationalgallery.org.uk.
Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve (The Ambassadors)
On the left of Hans Holbein’s painting stands Jean de Dinteville, the ambassador to England from the French court of King François I.
His companion is Georges de Selve, a French bishop and diplomat. Between them is a two-tiered shelf holding an array of worldly goods—including books, musical instruments, and astronomical devices. Both de Dinteville and de Selve appear wealthy, highly sophisticated, and knowledgeable.
Jean de Dinteville stands confidently, dressed in rich ermine and silk. In his hand he holds an ornate dagger and around his neck wears a chain of gold with the Order of St. Michael. However, affixed to his hat is a much less ostentatious object—a medallion depicting a skull. Buried within Holbein’s scene filled with luxurious objects, this memento mori, or reminder of death, comes as a surprise to the attentive viewer. It is, in fact, just one of several elements in the painting not apparent at first glance. In the upper left-hand corner hangs a half-hidden crucifix, and, remarkably, an odd shape in the foreground of the painting morphs into a large skull when viewed at precisely the right angle. Together, these objects remind the audience, among whom the sitters would have been counted, that material possessions are ultimately ephemeral, that human achievement is transient, and that death is inevitable.
In the early 1530s, the Reformation was making its way to England. Although reform-minded, the two men pictured in Holbein’s work were devout Catholics concerned with threats to the unity of Christianity, and their diplomatic efforts at the court of Henry VIII would have focused on such matters. It has been suggested by some scholars that the painting contains not only symbols of life’s brevity, but also references to the crisis of religion that was sweeping across Europe at the time. For example, a lute with a broken string on the bottom shelf placed adjacent to a Lutheran hymnal has been interpreted as a sign of discord.
Religion was not the only cultural arena in which major shifts were taking place in the sixteenth century. New wealth, emergent nationhood, and artistic developments were also impacting the lives of Europeans. Holbein’s painting is in some ways traditional, drawing on familiar iconography to convey its message of mortality. At the same time, the opulence of the objects portrayed and the evident delight Holbein took in painting them suggest a changing perspective—one in which worldly existence is not to be eschewed entirely, but balanced carefully against the requirements of salvation.