The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger - Critical Analysis of a Painting

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Wesleyan University
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Critical thinking
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The Ambassadors (1533) is a double portrait created by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) consisting of two French men Georges de Selve and Jean de Dinteville. Georges de Selve was the Bishop of Lavaur while his friend Jean de Dinteville was a wealthy landowner and acted as the French King's ambassador. Jean de Dinteville commissioned Hans Holbein's work as a commemoration of George de Selve's visit to London, England. In the portrait, de Selve is not putting on the clerical robes as he was yet to undergo consecration until the following year. De Dinteville and de Selve were on a mission to bring healing to the rift that existed between the Church of Rome and Henry VIII giving rise to the name, "Ambassadors." Their mission was unsuccessful setting off Holbein's theme that no amount of power or wealth can stop the inevitable from happening. The medium used to create the life-sized portrait consisted of tempera and oil on oak. The painting of the portrait took place during the second visit of Holbein the Younger to England. The double-portrait is thus located in London's National Gallery. Having been painted by undoubtedly one of the best German Renaissance portrait artists, The Ambassador, in my view remains one of the best works of art I have come across.

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The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein Analysis

What makes Holbein's portrait painting impressive is its attention to detail. It contains a handful of detailed information that clearly reflects the time in which it was taken and the setting. It brings out the influence that the meticulous realism had on the painter, Holbein, aside from Renaissance and Gothic art. The detailed form of the painting includes, for instance, the technical brilliance and symbolism depicted by the two figures: the Ambassadors. On the left, Jean de Dinteville is in an ostentatious meticulous black coat with a lynx-fur lining, and a tunic made of pink silk. The image, on his hat of a skull, serves as his memento mori, considered his personal insignia. Georges de Selve on the right is dressed in less luxurious clerical attire. He has a less assertive stance compared to that of de Dinteville who occupies more space in the frame of the picture. The attire and the postures of the two Ambassadors alone are able to sufficiently tell the story behind the painting. Jean de Dinteville's dressing and stance bring out his secular background while de Selve's dressing depicts his clerical upbringing. This portrays how dysfunctional the association between the church and the state as well as Vatican and France was. On the lower shelf, there is also an image of a lute that has a string that is broken. The broken string symbolically indicates the discord that exists between the Catholics and the Protestants.

The Ambassadors Painting Meaning

The setting for Holbein's work of art makes it stand out. The portrait evidently portrays the setting as a shallow depth area. The background is curtained with green drapes with a decorated complex. The mosaic-tiled floors and the heraldic pattern-work suggest how paramount the English liturgy is. The objects lying between the two figures include astrological, navigational, and musical instruments such as a terrestrial and a celestial globe, torque, a quadrant, T-square, Lutheran hymn book, and a German mathematics book representing the era in which the painting was made. The setting thus makes it easier for anyone having a first glance at the portrait to decode the main theme being communicated. Being one of the most fundamental aspects of artwork, the setting created by Holbein perfectly sets the mood for the portrait making it a perfect piece of art.

Holbein perfects his work further by arousing the imagination of his audience through the use of details that contain hidden meanings. This sparks curiosity and makes the audience want to delve deeper into uncovering the actual idea that the painting is based on. He does this skillfully such that by taking a surface glance at the portrait, one would get an idea of how man's achievements are glorified until they come across the hovering image above the floor that is shaped diagonally. Holbein's distortion of the image ensures that it only becomes meaningful when viewed from the top right side or the bottom left side. The anamorphic image, viewed from these angles, can be immediately recognized as the skull of a human being. The skull acts as a death reminder and represents how transitory human values are.


Upon communicating the theme of the inevitability of human mortality, Holbein creates optimism in the portrait of "The Ambassadors" by tucking a crucifix away in the far left corner at the top to symbolize the hope of securing eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ. Hans Holbein, thus, through the masterpiece that he created, The Ambassadors, has been able to successfully communicate his intended message to his target audience characteristic of a good piece of artwork. The details contained in the artwork thus make his, a perfect work of art.

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