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The Ambassadors

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The Ambassadors (1533) is a painting by Hans Holbein the Younger in the National Gallery, London. The sitters, both Frenchmen, were Jean de Dinteville (on the left), who was ambassador to England in 1533, and Georges de Selve, Bishop of Lavaur, who visited him in London in April or May of that year. As well as being a double portrait, the painting contains a still life of several meticulously rendered objects, the meaning of which is the cause of much debate.

Although a German-born artist whose career was based mainly in England, Holbein displayed the influence of contemporary Dutch painters in this work. This influence can be noted most outwardly in the use of oil paint, a recent invention whose technique was first taken advantage of by Flemish masters. What is most "Flemish" of Holbein's use of oils is his use of the medium to render meticulous details that are mainly symbolic: as Van Eyck and the Master of Flemalle used extensive imagery to link their subjects to divinity, Holbein used symbols to link his figures to the age of exploration.

Among the clues to the figures' explorative associations are two globes, a sextant, an astrolabe, and the various textiles, the rug on the floor and cloth on the upper shelf being the most notably oriental. The choice for the inclusion of the two figures can furthermore be seen as symbolic. The figure on the left is in secular attire while the figure on the right is dressed in protestant religious garb. They are flanking the table, which displays open books, symbols of religious knowledge and even a symbolic link to the Virgin, is therefore believed to be symbolic of a unification of capitalism and the Church.

The most notable and famous of Holbein's symbols in the work, however, is the skewed skull which is placed in the bottom center of the composition. The skull, rendered in anamorphic perspective, another invention of the Early Renaissance, is meant to be nearly subliminal as the viewer must approach the painting nearly from the side of the painting to see the form morph into a completely accurate rendering of a human skull. While the skull is evidently intended as a vanitas or memento mori, it is unclear why Holbein gave it such prominence in this painting. One possibility is that this painting represents three levels: the heavens (as portrayed by the astrolabe and other objects on the upper shelf), the living world (as evidenced by books and a musical instrument on the lower shelf), and death (signified by the skull). It has also been hypothesized that the painting is meant to hang in a stairwell, so that a person walking up the stairs from the painting's right would be startled by the appearance of the skull.[1] From such an angle, the skull appears in its correct aspect ratio.

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