Hans Holbein the Younger, son of Hans Holbein the Elder, was born in Augsburg during the year 1497. He left for Basel in 1515, where he created many frescoes and religious paintings, including Madonna and Child. It is in this city that he began to move in humanists circles. He then travelled to Paris and London, where he died in 1543.
The Ambassadors, on view in the London National Gallery, was painted in 1533. Its dimensions are 207 cm by 209.5 cm. This painting is actually a double portrait. On the left there is Jean de Dinteville (ambassador for François I) while Georges de Selve (a French bishop) is on the right. The latter was in England for a secret mission, since the country was threatening to split away with the Church. The Ambassadors are leaning on furniture covered with scientific tools (terrestrial globe, celestial globe, quadrant, sundial, etc.). These objects show them as men of science who, like their contemporary Copernicus, question the old certainties. All these objects have a deeper meaning. The lute, symbolizing harmony, has a broken string which refers to the fragility of the existence. Perhaps the broken string reflects the battle between Catholics and Protestants. The psalm book, in the Lutheran translation, is open on a text that won’t upset either side. It also shows the reform tendencies of these two ambassadors of François I. Maybe this was Holbein’s plea for Church unity. On the terrestrial globe, we can clearly see Europe with Africa under it. In the most striking part of the painting, the anamorphic perspective disappears for the skull if we look at it from a distance and at an angle. The skull plays the role of a vanity, a memento mori.
This humanist painting is one of the most interesting for understanding the political and religious life at that time. Henry VIII was preparing the Anglican schism. Everything that made Christian unity was falling apart. These ambassadors wanted to know what was happening, and they tried to influence the English king, but the schism was inevitable, and Europe suffered greatly from religious conflicts. This painting shows the end of harmony and every object has a problem, a dissonance. Paying close attention, you will notice that flutes are missing given the number of cases; a string is broken on the lute; the measuring tools of time don’t give the same hour; the cross is half hidden behind a curtain. There is dysfunction, and nothing works together. Harmony does not exist anymore and everybody is going to look to their side of Europe.