Treasures of London – ‘The Ambassadors’

A stunning portrait on a grand scale, The Ambassadors depicts two influential figures from the 16th century – Jean de Dinteville, the then 29-year-old French ambassador to England and Georges de Selve, the then 25-year-old bishop of Lavaur and sometime French ambassador to the Emperor, the Venetian Republic and the Holy See.

The oil on oak work, which is housed in room four of the National Gallery and is also one of the images featured online as part of the Google Art Project, was painted by Hans Holbein the Younger in 1533 and is meant as a portrait to show the men’s power, learning and wealth – they are surrounded by objects which include celestial and terrestrial globes, a portable sundial, a lute (and its case), and books including one of hymns and another of arithmetic as well as richly decorated furnishings.

Yet there’s more to this painting than initially meets the eye – a closer look reveals a distorted skull in the foreground which, when viewed from the painting’s right-hand side comes into its proper perspective. A reflection on mortality perhaps?

And though no typically viewed as a religious work, there are also some striking religious overtones to this image including a broken string on the lyre – often seen as a Christian symbol of disharmony – and, partly hidden behind the curtain on the far left of the painting as you look at it, a crucifix hanging on the wall.

Holbein painted the work during his second stint in England while depicting life at the Tudor court. Among his most famous other images are one of King Henry VIII (held in the National Portrait Gallery) and another of Christina of Denmark (also in the National Gallery – painted to show Henry VIII the image of a potential future wife although the relationship never went any further than that).

PICTURE: Ng1314, Hans Holbein the Younger, Detail of Jean de Dinteville and George de Selve (‘The Ambassadors’), 1533 © The National Gallery, London.

WHERE: Room 4, National Gallery, Trafalgar Square (nearest tube stations Leicester Square and Charing Cross); WHEN: 10am to 6pm (Fridays 10am to 9pm); COST: Free; WEBSITE: www.nationalgallery.org.uk. The image is also available online as part of the Google Art Project here:www.googleartproject.com/museums/nationalgallery/the-ambassadors.

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