A Must See Painting at London's National Gallery

A Must See Painting at London's National Gallery

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If you visit the National Gallery in London, there is a remarkable painting that you should make a point of seeing.  It is The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger, dated 1533.

ambassadors by holbein

At first glance, it seems to be a fairly typical painting of two Tudor-era men, although they are dressed very differently.  The man on the left is dressed in secular clothing, while the man on the right is dressed in clerical garb.

In between them are an assortment of objects, including two globes (one of earth, the other a celestial globe), a quadrant, a portable sundial, an astronomical instrument called a torquetum, open books, a lute with a broken string, and a hymn book.  Hidden behind the folds of the drapes is a crucifix.

There has been much discussion over the years as to whether the juxtaposition of the items in this portrait represent a unification of the Church and capitalism or conflicts between secular and religious authorities.

Perhaps even more interesting than the array of objects and their potential symbolism, however, is the object on the floor at the bottom of the table.  It doesn’t look like much straight on, but when you move to the right of the painting, you can see that it is a skull. This is an excellent example of anamorphosis – a distorted projection or perspective requiring the viewer to use special devices or occupy a specific vantage point (or both) to reconstitute the image.  Watch the skull come into focus here:

The anamorphic perspective was an invention of the early Renaissance.  Perhaps Holbein was showing off his talent at this then-new technique.  Perhaps he wanted to startle people who walked up the stairs past the painting.  Perhaps he wanted to encourage contemplation of life and inevitable death, for the inclusion of a skull is a memento mori, literally a reminder that we all must die.

Whatever the artist’s intentions, the painting is exceptionally well done and full of fascinating details.  If you’re in London, do be sure to check it out.  It’s located in Room 4.

If you’re not likely to get to London any time soon, click here for an interactive image that allows you to get a close up look at different parts of the painting… just click on the area you would like to see in greater detail.

The National Gallery is located in Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DN, United Kingdom. Telephone +44 (0)20 7747 2885. Admission is free. The museum is open daily from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm (10-9 on Fridays).  Closed December 24-26 and January 1.

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