Everyone loves a good mystery and of all the paintings in the National Gallery this painting wins the prize as most mysterious. Acquiring the title of The Ambassadors and painted in 1533 by Hans Holbein the younger it is one of the most visited paintings in the collection. The portraits are of on the left Jean de Dinteville 29 French ambassador to England and Georges de Selve Bishop of Lavaur ambassador for the Holy Roman Emperor. But the work is so much more than mere portraits of courtiers traditionally depicted with objects signifying their status as men of learning and refinement. Starting with the composition everything is strategically placed in horizontal bands. We begin at the top where the chosen instruments of the celestial globe, sundial etc. represent the Heavens, moving onto the middle row where the musical instruments and book represent earthly attainment and finally on the floor the distorted image of a skull(the distortion can be corrected if standing to the right of the painting.) which was a common device used as a reminder of man’s mortality. Look closely at the objects and one can see that all is not well in the ambassadors world. The string on the lute is broken and the depicted hymn book is Lutheran a reminder of the religious upheavals sweeping Europe. Art historians have pondered and debated this painting and its meaning since it first arrived at the gallery. My own feeling is that may be the painting is making reference to the role of the ambassador to bring harmony to a discordant court and country.
Whilst enjoying the mystery of this painting I also had fun trying to unravel the complexity of the composition at last friday’s talk and draw session at the gallery.