The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein is an enormous painting in both size and ambition. It memorializes two wealthy, educated and powerful young men. On the left is Jean de Dinteville, aged 29, French ambassador to England in 1533. To the right stands his friend, Georges de Selve, aged 25, bishop of Lavaur, who acted on several occasions as ambassador to the Emperor, the Venetian Republic and the Holy See. The picture records a secret visit paid by De Selve to de Dinteville. It was painted by the German artist Hans Holbein who spent the last ten years of his life at the court of King Henry VIII.
One of the National Gallery's most popular paintings, 'The Ambassadors' is unusual and intriguing. The two men are shown full-length, a format usually reserved by Holbein for royal portraits. Carefully selected objects are displayed on the shelves. The distorted image of a skull slashes across the foreground, both linking and dividing the friends. When seen from a point to the right of the picture, the distortion of the skull is corrected.
The painting is in a tradition showing learned men with books and instruments. The objects on the upper shelf include a celestial globe, a portable sundial and various other instruments used for understanding the heavens and measuring time. Among the objects on the lower shelf are a lute, a case of flutes, a hymn book, a book of arithmetic and a terrestrial globe.
The variety and detail of the objects suggest they probably have a symbolic meaning, and some seem to allude to a world of chaos and division. Both men were closely involved in the political and religious turmoil sparked by the Reformation and the painting may reflect their concern about the uncertainties of the time.
The stylish Jean de Dinteville, wearing the French Order of Saint Michael, was in his 29th year, according to the decoration on his dagger, when the painting was executed. Georges de Selve, resplendent in his sombre but luxurious robe of damask trimmed with fur, is in his 25th year, according to the inscription on the book under his arm. We do not know the reason for De Selve's secret visit to de Dinteville. He may have brought instructions from the French king regarding Henry VIII's break with the Roman Church and plans to marry Anne Boleyn.
De Dinteville spent most of 1533 in England, waiting for the coronation of Anne Boleyn. He was miserable in England, missed his family and the cold and damp made him ill. He wrote to his brother: 'I am the most melancholy, weary and wearisome ambassador that ever was seen.' Perhaps as an antidote to melancholy and the English weather, one of the first things he did on his arrival was to import 'thirty tuns of Gascon wine'. When he returned to France, he took 'The Ambassadors' with him to his château south of Paris.
Watch a video on the stories inside The Ambassadors (1533) by Hans Holbein.