Artist Portfolio: Hans Holbein


Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8-1543), Dutch
'The Ambassadors'
Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve, 1536

notes: The figure floating in the foreground of the main painting is an anamorphic projection of a skull. The "corrected" image of the skull (image at right) can be seen by positioning yourself at an oblique angle relative to the right side of the picture plane.

This picture commemorates two wealthy, educated and powerful young men: left, Jean de Dinteville, the French Ambassador to England during 1533; right, Georges de Selve, Bishop of Lavaur. The globe on the bottom shelf marks the location of Jean de Dinteville's château at Polisy. An inscription on the sheath of his dagger informs us that he is in his 29th year. Georges de Selve leans on a book which is inscribed to show he is in his 25th year.

The strange object placed diagonally on the floor is a skull. The distorted image - or anamorphosis - comes into focus by viewing it from a point standing to the right of the picture, or by using a glass cylinder. Holbein may have used a drawn grid or a system similar to a pinhole camera to create the skull.

The floor pattern is based on the medieval mosaic floor of Westminster Abbey. The objects on the upper shelf are for understanding the heavens, and for reading dates and time, while those on the lower shelf reflect earthly pursuits, and probably earthly divisions, political and religious. They include a lute with a broken string and a Lutheran hymnbook. The skull is certainly included to remind us of death. The crucifix half-concealed in the top left-hand corner of the painting symbolises Christian salvation after death.