Life, death, and our place in the universe: The Ambassadors

London, 1533. Two French diplomats pose among scientific devices, musical instruments, and books. Is 'The Ambassadors' a simple double portrait or is there more than meets the eye? National Gallery curators offer a guided tour of this enigmatic painting by Hans Holbein the Younger.

Hanging in the National Gallery, London, 'The Ambassadors' is a painting full of clues, symbols, and mystery.

At first glance, the picture celebrates two wealthy, educated and powerful young men.

On the left is Jean de Dinteville, aged 29, the French ambassador to England in 1533.

To the right stands his friend, Georges de Selve, 25, the Bishop of Lavaur, who acted as ambassador to the Emperor, the Venetian Republic, and the Holy See.

The picture is in a tradition showing learned men dressed in finery and surrounded by books and instruments.

But it’s not the people in the painting that hold the mysteries, rather the things that surround them - objects of science, discovery, mathematics, and logic, and hidden details.

On the upper shelf there's a celestial globe, a portable sundial, and other instruments for understanding the heavens and measuring time.

These are tools that help us make sense of the heavens and of the nature of human existence.

At the same time, they could be seen to highlight the transience of life, perhaps hinting at the troubles facing Dinteville and Selve.

Below is a lute, a case of flutes, a hymn book, a book of arithmetic, and a terrestrial globe.

Some details could be seen as references to religious tensions at the time.

The lute was among the most popular instruments of the 16th century. The broken string could symbolise religious discord...

...while this Lutheran hymn book might suggest a plea for Christian harmony.

The men stand on a floor inlaid with an elaborate, geometric design. The design is reminiscent of the floor of Westminster Abbey - only a mile away from the National Gallery.

And on the floor of the Abbey, an inscription refers to the 'macrocosm' - a reference to the universe, and humanity's contrastingly small place within it.

But perhaps the greatest mystery is the strange object that appears to have been smeared across the front of the painting.

Visit the painting at the National Gallery in London, walk to the right and look back across the surface. All of a sudden, you see that it's a skull.

It is unlikely that Holbein's play on perspective is a mere gimmick.

By the time this portrait was made, anamorphosis - the artistic play on perspective - had already been popular for a few decades, so it is likely that there is more to this skewed skull than mere visual trickery.

Some say that the skull is a message about how close we are to death in daily life.

Indeed, Dinteville's personal motto was 'remember thou shalt die'.

Hidden in the upper left-hand corner of the canvas is Christ on the crucifix.

For Holbein and his contemporaries, Christ’s presence on the canvas meant only one thing - a symbol of salvation.

While we might view the items closer to the floor as stark reminders of human mortality...

...those on the middle shelf may be seen as representations of the living world - of adventure, discovery, and joy.

And the more towards the top of the canvas we look, the objects and symbols bear closer links to the heavens.

What is certain is that The Ambassadors is a painting full of clues and references that may have multiple meanings.

Dinteville commissioned the double portrait and it remained at the family château until it was inherited by his niece.

After time in Paris and the south of France the painting found its way to England in 1792.

It was eventually sold to the National Gallery in 1890 where it underwent significant restoration.

Find out more about The Ambassadors on the National Gallery website.

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