Description of the artwork «Ambassadors (Portrait of Jean de Denteville and Georges de Selva)»
"Ambassadors" - a full-size double portrait of a pair of Frenchmen, who in 1533 were on a diplomatic mission in London, where Hans Holbein the Younger worked at that time. The German artist, court painter Henry VIII, captured the history of the Tudor era, writing more than a hundred portraits of prominent people of that time. They included English king himself, some of his six wives (1, 2, 3), Thomas mor, Thomas Cromwell and many others.
The painting "Ambassadors" on the left depicts Jean de Denteville, an emissary of the French king at the court of Henry VIII. He ordered this panel in honor of the arrival of his friend, the priest Georges de Selva (right), who next year became Bishop of Lavoie. This is one of the brightest - and the most mysterious - works of Hans Holbein is now stored in the National Gallery in London. Historians and art historians have studied this work for centuries, however, they could not give it an unequivocal interpretation, because every detail here has several meanings. Such was the tradition of the Northern Renaissance, which in the XVII century passed into the genre vanitas ("Vanity, vanity" - lat.).
To slightly lift the veil of mystery over this picture, you should first try to understand the turbulent political world in which the artist and his customers lived.
Holbein wrote "Ambassadors" in 1533. In the same year, Henry VIII fell out with the Pope because of the refusal of the Catholic Church to grant him a divorce from Catherine of Aragon’s first wife, who could not give birth to an heir. Then the king, who wanted to marry Anne Boleyn, decided on an unprecedented step - announced the creation of the Anglican Church independent of Rome, and approved himself as its head.
Jean de Denteville and Georges de Selva were entrusted with restoring the relationship between the English monarch and the pontiff. The difficult diplomatic mission failed as a result - perhaps, therefore, the main message of the painting is that neither material wealth, nor power, nor knowledge can prevent death. Holbein (or rather, Thomas Cromwell behind him) makes it clear that not a single person, including the Pope, has a real power to stop the inevitable. In this case, the "inevitable" was the decision of Henry to create his church.
"Ambassadors" is not only a portrait, but also a still life with many carefully executed objects. Of course, the depictions of the educated people of the 16th century often contain things that reflect their professions and interests, but Holbein's painting is especially impressive with its extraordinary attention to detail and a huge amount of information. Here you can clearly feel the influence of the pedantic realism of early Flemish painting, which was personified by Jan van Eyck and Robert Kampen.
That part of the picture that has captivated the minds of historians for a long time is an amazing collection of advanced scientific tools, mathematical treatises and musical scores of that period. In this diversity there is a clear logic and a demonstration of the intellectual, and not the monetary wealth of the models.
The objects on the top shelf — the celestial globe, the sundial, and other astronomical instruments — belong to the kingdom of heaven. A globe, a compass, a lute, a case with flutes and an open book of hymns on the lower shelf indicate earthly activities. Standing men frame this two-tier structure, linking both spheres.
The book “A New and Reliable Pricing Instructions for Merchants” by Peter Apian is ajar on a page that begins with the word dividirt (“let's divide”) - a clear reference to the religious schism that is tearing apart Europe. Another literal indication of a church conflict is torn lute strings. Next to it lies a collection of religious hymns, opened on the Veni Sancte Spiritus - a prayer to the Holy Spirit for the consolidation of the church. The dream of reconciliation expressed in this small detail will never be realized.
The duality of the work is manifested in the opposition of two figures - Dentevil, who squeezes the dagger, is represented as a man of action, and Selv, who laid an elbow on a book, as a contemplative. And on the dagger, and on the book is the age of their owners - 29 and 25 years, respectively. Despite the fact that these men seem young and full of life, such inscriptions emphasize their mortality - just like a brooch with a skull on Denteville's hat.
The nobleman on the left is dressed in a luxurious secular costume - a carefully dressed and processed black doublet, trimmed with lynx fur, over a pink silk tunic. Priest's robe less ostentatious. It is noteworthy that his posture is not as self-confident as that of his colleague, and in fact he takes up less space in the composition. Some experts believe that the secular roots of Denteville and the clerical roots of the Selva symbolize the incompetent union of France and the Vatican, as well as the general conflict between the church (Pope) and the state (Henry VIII).
At first glance, the portrait seems to be a glorification of the achievements of a person, until the viewer realizes the meaning of a blurred image of a diagonal shape, soaring just above the floor. Holbein deliberately wrote an anamorphic image that develops into a clear picture only when viewed from the top right or bottom left. At these angles, the human skull is clearly visible - the oldest reminder of the finiteness of life and the transient nature of human values. Why the artist created the optical illusion is unclear. It is assumed that the panel had to hang behind the door on the stairs, so that anyone who descended or climbed it faced the grinning face of death.
In this case, the artist placed a crucifix in the upper right corner of the picture, partially covering the emerald-green drapery. This symbol of the resurrection reminds us that people should not be afraid of death, because God promised the believers eternal life. A hint at the redemption of Christ is also contained in the cylindrical sundial, set for April 11 - Good Friday in 1533. According to art critic Kate Bomford, this portrait, being a "mirror of mortality", at the same time made it clear that the people depicted on it deserve salvation and eternal glory for their virtuous friendship.