Holbein, Ambassadors (1533). Oil on oak, 2.07 x 2.10 m. National Gallery, London.
Possible interpretations of a truly wonderful piece of double portraiture
Paintings often have signs deliberately placed in them with specific dual meanings like idioms or metaphors in the English language. For example, a globe may refer to expanding colonization of the Americas as well as being a possession of the artist and Ambassadors is inundated with such iconography.
A double portrait, still life with inanimate objects, Ambassadors is anamorphosis which means the image is distorted, hence the skewed skull in the lower middle portion; Holbein’s two figures are linked to objects in the painting, which convey meaning and follow on from a tradition of religious imagery, proving iconography has evolved through time.
The floor mosaic in Ambassadors is from Westminster Abbey; the carpet is oriental; the figures are wearing different styles of clothing; there is a flute case; a lute with a broken string; two skulls; globes and a crucifix. All of these inanimate objects are symbolic in some way and they all mean something.
Broadly iconographical means the study of these ‘icons’ as clues to the intention of Holbein the artist, his personality and the times he lived in. As iconologists we are starting with art and using it to work our way into history.
Iconography in Greek means ‘image writing’ referring to the artist, viewer and commissioner alike and includes mainly the ideas represented by visual images with their associated intrinsic meaning.
Not only does Ambassadors have a half hidden crucifix in the top left corner, but it means something. If Erwin Panofsky thought that iconological symbols in art ‘mirrored the attitude of a nation, class, period or religion’ and brought us expressive meaning Ambassadors by Holbein does this in many ways.
Symbols in Ambassadors are not randomly selected objects but intentional, meaningful artistic expression, deliberately included by the artist to convey meaning, and our search for knowledge within the artwork is more complete, if we evaluate these iconic ideas to gain an insight into the cultural language of the time.
Hans Holbein began designing stained glass windows which also convey religious symbolic meaning. By interpreting the historical context of these symbols we can see that art of a period can be connected to religion, philosophy, literature, science, politics and the social life of that same period.
Erwin Panofsky brought iconography into the modern era with his three tiered approach. Pre-iconographic is noticing symbols using our senses – the visible world with familiar objects from our vision – combined with knowledge of everyday experience, like the globe in Ambassadors, for instance.
Iconographic is what we mean by identification of the two people and the many objects in Ambassadors, with the story behind their inclusion, and this would come from knowledge of other similar images or a religious text. For example, skulls often referred to death and this was widely known in Holbein‘s time.
Iconology is the use of both the former analysis techniques to delve deeper into the fundamental, inherent meaning (such as the significance within Renaissance culture) and the symbolic values that audience had back then.
What do the details of the story and symbols hold for the audience of that period (the flute case and its military connection is one example) and how do they represent their culture and what did the painting mean for these people at that time?
Scholars go through Panofsky’s stages methodically, however at the time Ambassadors was painted it was intuitive to do the same thing, and second nature for the viewer: it must be remembered that people lived in a completely different time with different values back then and thought in a different way. Thus, iconography has a history and can be broken down into its component parts, giving us a greater appreciation of the artwork, and a more in depth acquisition of knowledge.
Is there perhaps an artificial setting in Ambassadors? The anamorphic composition disrupts the placidity of the foreground and this implies that the painting involves a secret, only to be revealed by interpreting its iconology.
These two diplomats invite you into the room with the inanimate objects on the mantle-piece like it were their home. However, the scene looks staged and theatrical; it includes props and a green (final) curtain with the stage deliberately constructed perhaps implying a hidden reality behind the scenes of this play.
The thick curtain occupies the entire background. It is so complete, there must be something hiding behind this screen, and there is – most of a crucifix if you look at the top left hand corner!
If it were really somebody’s home showing material possessions displaying wealth, would the broken lute not have been hidden away or mended?
Jean de Dinteville is on the left as we look at the painting and Georges de Selve on the right was a bishop. Both French, these people were well-educated, powerful, young men; and this is probably depicted by the arithmetic book, plus the musical and astronomical instruments.
The title of the painting tells us of the official relationship between the two people, but the privacy of the visit suggests something else.
Dinteville’s stay in England was melancholic, and even today we cannot seem to escape from this connection between intellectual human capacity and depression, with many examples in the public eye.
These educated men were senior in society and the mathematical instruments in Holbein’s work are similar to the tools of geometry in Durer’s Melancholia I which apparently represents wisdom and confidence in science.
The figures flank the table perhaps indicating unification between capitalism and the church because one man is a bishop, the other a landowner.
Their intimacy, is not openly expressed and the peculiarity of the painting may reflect the secret between the two men as the visit to England was actually private.
The intimate yet rigorous exploration of the human face is interesting because the skull and the curtain are different to the other objects because the curtain grants the objects their presence and the skull has a disturbing existence calling attention to itself.
Only then do we begin to understand the painting’s inner concept of concealment, which paradoxically hides by showing.The skull’s distorted image when seen from the right is corrected and there is even a possible reference to Holbein’s name with its inclusion – ‘hollow bone.’
The half hidden crucifix in the top left corner implies resurrection and reflects the idea of mortality. The distorted (anamorphic) skull may have been used to portray the meaningless of life as a vanitas symbol of certain death, as skulls were often used to convey death and mortality, but in this case it may also relate to the brains of learned men, or even declare the secrecy in the painting; this perhaps gives us instructions on how to unlock the secrets by altering the viewer’s perspective – it is an optical illusion and quite amazing when seen!
This untold secret could be a hidden relationship between the two men. According to seventeenth-century histiographic documents neither of the two men went on to marry and the French translation of the word ‘intimacy’ is used more than once.
Double portraits were usually of a couple commemorating without the props and the man with the dagger (Dinteville) is more masculine than the other, whose body gesture is more feminine (de Selve).
It is possible to conclude the traditional iconological analysis of Ambassadors involving a clever man represented by mathematics has shifted more towards their possible mysterious secret.
Every painting has meaning to it and Pablo Picasso refused to comment on the iconography in Guernica thus, if he had, wouldn’t this spoil the debate when piecing together artwork like a jigsaw puzzle?
Most discussion of the inanimate objects within Holbein’s Ambassadors, avoid an inclusion of the case of flutes. France, torn by religion was seeking an alliance with Henry VIII and the protestant church in the sixteenth-century, and de Selve in the painting, being a bishop, was preoccupied with reconciliation, and the hymnbook may indicate this desire for religious harmony.
The lute has a broken string and is next to the hymnbook, which may mean strife between scholars and clergy and be a plea for Christian harmony, thus, both the lute and religious discord need mending.
The lute is a symbol of harmony anyway, with its sixth string broken (a number connected to harmony) and the hexagram on the pavement beneath the shelves has six sides and the anamorphic skull leads us quite naturally to a vanitas interpretation.
Dinteville has a skull on his cap brooch, which is perhaps more of a reference to the planetary patron of melancholy – Saturn – and the figures in sombre dress also suggest melancholy, saturnine times of depressive creativity.
The lute may refer to Venus, which, with music, could overcome the malign effects of Saturn and melancholy; thus, connecting this planetary theme with the instruments of time, and a classical association to mythology. Once mended, the lute symbolises harmony reconciled.
The case of the flutes in Ambassadors, however, adding to the musical theme of harmony, is far too simple for many. The case is a military symbol, and the flute a military instrument because: The primary association of the case of flutes in German illustrations of the first half of the sixteenth-century was military; the flute cases worn by military fifers who with their companion drummers, accompanied the standard bearers of (mostly) Swiss militia units.
This military connection of drummers and ‘fifers’ in their marching bands, may then refer to the protestant forces with which Francis I was seeking an alliance at the time, or is a continuation of the astronomical theme with Mars whose children were predominantly soldiers and the redness of the arithmetic book surely associates it with the red planet.
Venus and Mars being the parents of harmony give the painting an even more powerful sense of reconciliation. Thus, the symbolism of the case of flutes is the key to interpret the significance of these two diplomats and their senior position in society with a military and political association, rather than a hidden, secret intimate relationship.
With the planetary theme, subsequent classical reference to Ancient Greece and mythology, this ‘learned men’ idea of education is taken to a higher level by providing a well researched military link to the case of flutes, especially if heaven is the upper shelf in the painting, Earth is lower shelf and the skull is wartime death!
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“Bimbo’s Initiation” is an animated short film that was made by Paramount in 1931, and the cartoon features Bimbo alongside Betty Boop.
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