Throughout history, turbulent times of wars, revolutions, pandemics, disease, famine, economic upheaval and climate change have affected hundreds of millions of lives.
We are presently living through one of those unstable times at very personal levels. For many, the times are terrifying. Less visible are the diplomats engaged in essential negotiations to ensure that the relationships between countries remain as harmonious as possible under exceedingly difficult circumstances.
In 1533, the King of France, Francis I, sent his erudite, trusted ambassador, Jean de Dinteville, to carry messages and report on the dramatic events taking place at the English Tudor court of Henry VIII.
It was a tumultuous time of religious strife between secular and religious authorities and between Lutheran Reformers and the Catholic Church which threatened the stability of the church, kings, courts, countries and citizens of Europe.
In 1532, Henry VIII, desperate for an heir, wanted to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, who was well-connected to the French court. Pope Clement VII refused.
Henry broke with Rome, became Supreme Head of the Church of England, divorced Catherine, married Anne who did deliver a child, the future Elizabeth I.
Ambassador de Dinteville, wrote of being weary, ill and longing to be home in sunny France. Perhaps to lift his spirits, he commissioned Hans Holbein to create a double portrait of himself with his friend Georges de Selve, bishop of Lavaur, a man actively engaged in trying to keep unity within the church.
Hans Holbein the Younger, born c.1497, left Augsburg, Germany, to work in Basel, Switzerland, as a printmaker and painter of religious scenes and portraits.
His portrait of the renowned humanist, Erasmus of Rotterdam, was his calling card to Sir Thomas More, important clients in England and fame as king’s painter to Henry VIII. He became the greatest portrait artist of the 16th century and his reputation has never waned.
What makes “The Ambassadors” extraordinary is Holbein’s technical skill and how he links subjects to symbolic objects representing mostly secular ideas.
On the left, Jean de Dinteville, Seigneur of Polisy, is resplendent in pink silk and a puffed-sleeve black robe lined with deep textured lynx. An enormous blue tassel is finely detailed with pure gold leaf.
His cap bears gold badges including a skull badge. He holds a gold dagger inscribed with his age as 29. On the right, Georges de Selve wears a sumptuous clerical robe of deep brown silk damask lined with fur. His elbow rests on a book that shows his age as 25.
The painting represents three levels: the heavens, the living world and death, signified by a distorted skull. The upper shelf displays a celestial globe, a cylindrical dial, a polyhedral dial, quadrant and an astronomer’s torquetum, all being instruments for locating heavenly bodies for navigation and to measure time and dates.
The Anatolian carpet is a luxury trade item. The lower shelf holds a terrestrial globe with an upside-down Africa, Europe, England, Ireland and France including “Polisy.”
Next to de Selve, an open Lutheran psalmbook’s facing pages reveal the hymns “Ten Commandments” and “Come Holy Spirit,” a reference to the plea for unity. The foreshortened lute has one broken string, the case of flutes has one missing, both representing lack of harmony.
The arithmetic book is open at a page on division, suggesting the division in Christendom. The floor is that of Westminster Abbey with its circles of divine order and the place where the kings and queens of England are crowned.
The foreground distorted skull is a memento mori, a vanitas, a reminder that all this will pass and death awaits us all. Far to the upper left, almost obscured by the green damask curtain, is a silver crucifix with its hope of salvation and ultimate resurrection.
Holbein died in London in 1543, leaving a legacy of superb portraits that continue to intrigue and inform.
Penny-Lynn Cookson is an art historian who taught at the University of Toronto for 10 years. She also was head of extension services at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Her next lecture series will be “Concepts of Beauty: Artists, Muses, Models” for the Niagara Pumphouse Arts Centre, on Zoom, Thursdays from Jan. 6 to 27, 2022.