NATIONAL GALLERY, The Ambassadors Holbein

Audio File length: 2.48
Author: STEFANO ZUFFI E DAVIDE TORTORELLA
English / USA Language: English / USA

Now let me tell you about one of the National Gallery's most admired paintings, the portrait of the so-called French Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger. Signed and dated at the bottom, the painting is the magnum opus of this German-born painter, and one of the most mature and complex portraits painted during the Renaissance. The artist painted it in London, where he had moved and quickly become one of the favourites in the court of King Henry VIII, who made the painter his personal portraitist.

You can already gather that this painting is a celebratory work by its impressive size of two meters per side; it was commissioned by Jean de Dinteville, the French ambassador to London, to commemorate his friend Georges de Selve's visit during Easter of 1533: his friend is the figure depicted on the right wearing sober yet refined ecclesiastical clothing. The floor resembles that of Westminster Abbey, confirming the London setting of the scene.

The two young figures obviously belong to a similar social class and share tastes, ways, and intellectual passions: the objects placed on the furniture they lean on with nonchalant elegance demonstrate the two diplomats' interest in music and maths. But this painting is pervaded above all by strong symbolism and a palpable sense of unease. Let's start with its most famous detail, the large grey spot in the centre: if you look up at the painting from below you'll realise that it's a skull, depicted with an optical deformation called "anamorphosis" - don't be surprised if you see some people lying on the floor under the painting in order to see it better! The human skull introduces an acutely dramatic note that's also dissonant due its disproportionate dimensions. A musical score is open to two sacred hymns that were adopted by Luther but also common to Catholic tradition: Holbein is likely referring to the attempts Georges de Selve had made to reconcile the two works. The lute has a broken string, which is an allusion to the precariousness of harmony and beauty, but perhaps also to the difficult art of diplomacy in times of tension, when peace is "hanging by a thread".

 

FUN FACT: Hans Holbein also painted the portrait of Princess Christina of Denmark: Henry VIII Tudor liked it so much that he asked her to be his wife. Recalling that one of his previous wives (Anne Boleyn) had been decapitated, Christina refused, saying, "If I had two heads, I would gladly give one to the King of England".

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