Exercise #14 – Answers

The Ambassadors (1533) by Hans Holbein, oil on canvas, National Gallery London

Q1. Describe what you are looking at.

A1. This is a full length double portrait of two men in their late twenties or early thirties as there are no signs of aging such as grey hair or beards. They are both standing, leaning, each with an arm on a table covered with an ornate patterned carpet and many still life objects. They seem to be instruments of measurement as well as a globe on the left. There is a green patterned curtain in the background and an indistinct object on the top left corner which could be a crucifix. In the middle foreground there are another set of still life objects on a wooden table with a lute, books and another globe. The men are standing on a beautifully designed mosaic floor. Judging by the rich surroundings and the various scientific instruments, these are well off educated men.

Q2. Can you guess when the picture was painted?

A2. Judging from the dress of the two figures, this would appear to be a picture from the fifteenth or sixteenth century.

Q3. What can you deduce about the two figures?

A3. The man on the left of the painting is more richly dressed than the man on the right. He has an elaborate ermine fur and velvet coat over a pink silk shirt, velvet waistcoat and trousers. He is wearing a medallion and a tilted hat and carrying what is probably a dagger in a decorated case with a tassel in his right hand. He is looking out of the painting with a sombre expression. In contrast, the man on the right is wearing a plain full length dark velvet coat which he is holding with his left hand while his right holds an object (? Keys). His dark under clothes are topped by a white collar and a triangular black hat. It seems as if the man on the left is an important person of some kind while the man on the right is a clerical figure.

After many years research, the two men have been identified as Jean de Dinteville on the left, the French Ambassador, and the French Catholic bishop, George de Selve, on the right. They were visiting the court of Henry VIII of England whom they were trying to dissuade from breaking with the Catholic Church. Jean de Dinteville commissioned the portrait from Holbein, then artist at the court.

Q4. What do you see in the foreground?

A4. There is a strange elliptical object slanting diagonally across the middle of the foreground. This is a distorted perspectival device called anamorphosis, used since ancient Greece and the Renaissance to disguise meaning. To rectify the perspective, the viewer has to move from the front of the painting to the right when a skull is revealed:


The meaning of the skull is to call attention to the reality of the transience of life. This is called a ‘vanitas’ or a ‘momento mori’ in art. The Ambassadors is a complicated work that is simultaneously a double portrait, a still life, and a history painting (one that tells a story from history, mythology or the Bible). It points to a major historical rift within the Catholic Church when Henry VIII of England decided to break with Rome and declare himself Head of the Church of England so that he could divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn. The French ambassadors’ mission was to dissuade him.

For more information: see Heni Talks, YouTube: “The Ambassadors: The Mysteries of Holbein’s Masterpiece”, the National Gallery London.