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Decoding the Symbolism in Holbein’s ‘The Ambassadors’

No, that isn’t a bad Photoshop job. The stretched shape over the rug is actually an anamorphic skull when viewed from the extreme right, decoding the illusion.

A long-time favorite of visitors to the National Gallery in London, Hans Holbein’s large double-portrait, known as The Ambassadors, is laden with significant objects and hidden symbols. Here’s our brief guide to some of the rich layers of Holbein’s most famous piece.

When the painting was acquired by the National Gallery in 1890, the identity of the two strident figures remained a mystery. It wasn’t until ten years later, with the publication of Mary F. S. Hervey’s book, Holbein’s “Ambassadors”: The Picture and the Men (1900), that they were identified as Jean de Dinteville (left) and Georges de Selve (right). De Dinteville was a French ambassador to the court of Henry VIII, and de Selve was Bishop of Lavaur (though not fully consecrated until after the painting of this portrait, hence the absence of episcopal dress).

The level of detail included in Holbein’s work is just astounding, from the location text on the globes to the mysterious Super S symbol in the ornate table cloth.

The two men were close friends and young men of distinction. There’s an air of fraternal pride in their expressions. De Dinteville’s letters from the period attest to his joy at the visit of his friend. Tiny details inscribed on the scabbard of de Dinteville’s dagger and on de Selve’s book tell us that both men are in their twenties.

The purpose of de Selve’s visit almost certainly had important significance to the schisms of the church at the time, with Lutheran reform sweeping Europe and Henry VIII’s desire to break away from the Pope. Holbein’s exacting attention to detail, though, means that the gravity of the occasion is shot through with a subtle, touching commentary on the affection shared by the two young men.

De Dintevile appears the more brash and confident, his foot stepping boldly into the very center of the circle design on the carpet. De Selve, more modestly dressed and physically reserved, shows the poise of a Bishop, though he is the younger of the two…. read more >

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