A Painting a Day: Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors (1533)

A painting for the day to remind us what happens when we lose arts funding, education, and programs that inspire a new generation of artists and thinkers. Are the arts necessary, or just window dressing? You be the judge...
This is Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors (1533), a double portrait of Jean de Dinteville (left) and George de Selve (right). Dinteville was the ambassador between the French king, Francis I, and the infamous Henry VIII. Negotiations did not go well, and Dinteville found himself in an impossible position trying to placate both monarchs. Though he asked to be recalled, the French instead offered him a companion, his friend de Selve, to assist him. Both were great men of learning (though Dinteville didn't mind burning a few heretics if the need arose--this was the age of the Inquisition, after all), and upon completing their mission, Dinteville wanted to commemorate his 'triumph' with a grand portrait by the great master himself, Hans Holbein. Holbein set to work immediately and created not only a masterpiece, but a work that is pregnant with meaning--and requires days and months and years of careful snooping to figure it all out.
The most obvious details are the men themselves: both are young (Dinteville was 29), handsome, and prosperous. Dinteville looks a bit like Henry VIII himself--perhaps he stayed in England a bit too long!--as his sumptuous jacket attests, with its ermine embroidery, framing a flouncy pink shirt and an enormous gold medallion. de Selve, by contrast, is more the scholar, wearing a simple robe and looking much less ostentatious. Indeed, he seems to be saying "are we done yet?" though he, too, portrays an air of confidence--as well as concern. The table each man is leaning on is burdened with the weight of their Renaissance scholarship: a globe, various devices to measure distance--an astrolabe, etc. Also visible is a lute and a book of music, and beneath it all, stretched cryptically across the floor...a skull?
The skull is part of the famous memento mori genre of paintings and poems famous in English literature. It translates to "remember your mortality," and here the painting transforms from a celebration of youthful achievement to an older man's warning: perhaps the mission itself was fraught with danger, or perhaps that the youthful confidence of Dinteville should have been tempered with a bit of modesty and forethought? Either way, it lends a chilling note to a painting that seems to say "we have the world!" while Holbein whispers "not for long."
The scholar Derek Wilson in his book on Holbein notes this about the painting: "It is a testament by Holbein and his patron to their shared concerns in the uncertain England of 1533...The lute has a broken string. The crucifix in the top left-hand corner is almost obscured by the curtain. On the celestial globe a hen attacks a bird of prey...In Holbein's composition the younger man (de Selve) literally upstages his friend. Set slightly further back, he appears introverted, nervously clutching the folds of his gown and tightly grasping his gloves. Yet Holbein makes us fix our attention on him."
There's so much going on here, and entire world in turmoil, leading to an uncertain future--for them and for us.