Sat, Nov 24, 2018 - Page 14 News List

Bilingual Arts: Vision and illusion in Holbein’s The Ambassadors

Hans Holbein the Younger. The Ambassadors. 1533. Oil on oak. 207 cm × 209.5 cm. Collection of National Gallery, London, UK.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The painting The Ambassadors is the work of Hans Holbein the Younger (c. 1497-1543). Holbein was a leading figure in the Northern Renaissance style (which differed from the Renaissance style prevalent in Italy and Spain), and specialized in religious painting before Catholic religious imagery was prohibited in the Germanosphere during the Reformation. Holbein then moved to England, where he became a painter for the Tudor court, turning his hand instead to portraits of royalty and the aristocracy in the employ of King Henry VIII.

This life-size painting depicts two men leaning with their arms resting on a two-tier rack of shelves. On the left is the French ambassador to England Jean de Dinteville; on the right is French diplomat and ecclesiastic Georges de Selve. In the lower half of the painting lies a mysterious object with the appearance of a diagonally-oriented shadow, an example of the famous anamorphosis. If one looks at the painting from the lower left one can discern the shape of a skull (see photo of detail). It is believed that the painting was originally hung to the side of a staircase, and so when one approaches it from either side, walking up or down the stairs, the anamorphic skull appears as if floating above the surface of the painting.

Even though Holbein had moved from religious to secular painting, in this work he still employs the symbolic meaning of religious iconography. On the upper shelf there are objects including a celestial globe, a sundial and a quadrant, while on the lower shelf lie a terrestrial globe, a mathematical book with a ruler between its pages and a lute, its neck framing an open Lutheran Psalmbook. These objects symbolize various fields of learning: astronomy, mathematics, geometry and music. If one looks closer, one can see the lute has a broken string: some scholars believe this represents discord between science and the Church.

Holbein’s approach here is an example of the vanitas paintings popular in the day, symbolic works expressing the certainty of death and the illusory nature of earthly pleasures. It is recorded that de Dinteville’s motto was the Latin phrase memento mori (Remember thou shalt die). The liberal use of symbols of knowledge and the attention to detail in the clothing, fur and textiles in this painting also point to the concept that all material things are but illusory and non-substantial, while true substance lies in the non-material.

(Translated by Paul Cooper)




這樣的手法類似當時流行的「虛空派」靜物畫──其旨在表達只有死亡是唯一的必然,一切浮華的人生享樂都是虛無的。據載,丹特維爾的座右銘為拉丁文「memento mori」(人終須一死),由是,此畫機巧的智識、精緻如真的衣飾、皮草、織品,便是「色即是空,空即是色」了。


This story has been viewed 3308 times.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top