Hans Holbein's "The Ambassadors": Memento Mori

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Hans Holbein's "The Ambassadors": Memento Mori

Post  pinhedz on Sun Jun 12, 2011 2:00 am

Eddie
Wed Sep 09, 2009 7:27 pm

I've yet to come to grips with this picture-posting lark, but if anyone would care to post a picture of this painting, you'll observe a puzzling amorphous grey/black blob in the foreground which resolves itself into a skull (a "Memento Mori": a reminder that we all die) if viewed from the side, at an angle.

It seems there were two Holbeins: pere et fils.

All the painted images we have of Henry VIII and his court were produced by one or other of them. Claudette, you're a Tudor fan. Could you please oblige, dearest?

EDIT: Apart from anything else, it would be interesting to see if the "Memento Mori"/skull effect works in miniature on a pixelated screen.


Dharma Wheel

But I thought I was dearest. Crying or Very sad




Eddie

"Dearest" is Brit thesp-speak: a bit like "Dahling".

Thank you, dharma.

As I half-suspected, the effect is only partly revealed in miniature.

Got any Holbeins of Henry VIII after he'd stopped jousting after an injury and morphed into a great fat tyrannical bully in lovely clothes?


= ANDY =

It's quite an odd thing I think, especially in a painting that's very realistic in every other aspect.
He could have easily worked in a skull among the other objects or put one just in front of the two men using a more conventional perspective. Was there a specific reason why he chose to paint it this way?
It somewhat looks like a sticker taped over the original painting - well, at least on a computer screen it does.


Eddie

Le Néant wrote:It's quite an odd thing I think, especially in a painting that's very realistic in every other aspect. He could have easily worked in a skull among the other objects or put one just in front of the two men using a more conventional perspective. Was there a specific reason why he chose to paint it this way?
It's odd, isn't it? It seems curiously "out of time".

I can only assume he was demonstrating his virtuosity in the then-fashionable Renaissance Art of Perspective.

If there's another explanation, I'd like to read it.


= ANDY =

The perspective in the rest of the painting seems a very good job to me - just look at the design on the floot (were they free-masons?)! It seems so out of place that he must have had a reason to do it that way, it would seem to me.


Eddie

I'd assume that every single object in the painting has a particular significance:

The stringed instrument = Music
The globe = Exploration

etc.

I'd like to know on which page the book is opened. And what book?

The pixelated miniature is frustrating.


= ANDY =

And what saint of mythologic figure features on the elder man's medallion?


= ANDY =

From wikipedia:

Although a German-born artist who spent much time in England, Holbein displayed the influence of Early Netherlandish painters in this work. This influence can be noted most outwardly in the use of oil paint, the use of which for panel paintings had been developed a century before in Early Netherlandish painting. What is most "Flemish" of Holbein's use of oils is his use of the medium to render meticulous details that are mainly symbolic: as Van Eyck and the Master of Flemalle used extensive imagery to link their subjects to divinity, Holbein used symbols to link his figures to the age of exploration.
Among the clues to the figures' explorative associations are two globes (one terrestrial and one celestial), a [url=]http://acrosstheuniverse.forumotion.com//wiki/Quadrant_(instrument)]quadrant[/url], a torquetum, a polyhedral sundial and various textiles: the floor mosaic, based on a design from Westminster Abbey (the Cosmati pavement, before the High Altar), and the carpet on the upper shelf, which is most notably oriental. The choice for the inclusion of the two figures can furthermore be seen as symbolic. The figure on the left is in secular attire while the figure on the right is dressed in clerical clothes. They are flanking the table, which displays open books, symbols of religious knowledge and even a symbolic link to the Virgin, is therefore believed by some critics to be symbolic of a unification of capitalism and the Church.[citation needed]
In contrast, other scholars have suggested the painting contains overtones of religious strife. The conflicts between secular and religious authorities are here represented by Jean de Dinteville, a landowner, and Georges de Selve, a bishop. The commonly accepted symbol of discord, a lute with a broken string, is included next to a hymnbook in Martin Luther's translation, suggesting strife between scholars and the clergy.



The anamorphic skull

The most notable and famous of Holbein's symbols in the work, however, is the skewed skull which is placed in the bottom centre of the composition. The skull, rendered in anamorphic perspective, another invention of the Early Renaissance, is meant to be a visual puzzle as the viewer must approach the painting nearly from the side to see the form morph into an accurate rendering of a human skull. While the skull is evidently intended as a vanitas or memento mori, it is unclear why Holbein gave it such prominence in this painting. One possibility is that this painting represents three levels: the heavens (as portrayed by the astrolabe and other objects on the upper shelf), the living world (as evidenced by books and a musical instrument on the lower shelf), and death (signified by the skull). It has also been hypothesized that the painting is meant to hang in a stairwell, so that a person walking up the stairs from the painting's left would be startled by the appearance of the skull. A further possibility is that Holbein simply wished to show off his ability with the technique in order to secure future commissions.[2] Artists often incorporated skulls as a reminder of mortality, or at the very least, death. Holbein may have intended the skulls (one as a gray slash and the other as a medallion on Jean de Dinteville's hat) and the crucifixion in the corner to encourage contemplation of one's impending death and the resurrection.[1]

[edit] Interpretation


Until the publication of Mary F. S. Hervey's Holbein's Ambassadors: The Picture and the Men in 1900, the identity of the two figures in the picture had been for a long time a matter of intense debate. In 1890, Sidney Colvin was the first to propose the figure on the left as Jean de Dinteville, Seigneur of Polisy (1504–1555), French ambassador to the court of Henry VIII for most of 1533. Shortly afterwards, the cleaning of the picture revealed that his seat of Polisy is one of only four places marked on the globe.[3] Hervey identified the man on the right as Georges de Selve (1508/09–1541), Bishop of Lavaur, after tracing the painting's history back to a seventeenth-century manuscript. According to art historian John Rowlands, de Selve is not wearing episcopal robes because he was not consecrated until 1534.[4] De Selve is known from two of de Dinteville's letters to his brother François de Dinteville, Bishop of Auxerre, to have visited London in the spring of 1533. On 23 May, Jean de Dinteville wrote: "Monsieur de Lavaur did me the honour of coming to see me, which was no small pleasure to me. There is no need for the grand maître to hear anything of it". The grand maître in question was Anne de Montmorency, the Marshal of France, a reference that has led some analysts to conclude that de Selve's mission was a secret one; but there is no other evidence to corroborate the theory.[5] On June 4, the ambassador wrote to his brother again, saying: "Monsieur de Lavaur came to see me, but has gone away again".[6]
Hervey's identification of the sitters has remained the standard one, affirmed in extended studies of the painting by Foister, Roy, and Wyld (1997), Zwingenberger (1999), and North (2004), who concludes that "the general coherence of the evidence assembled by Hervey is very satisfying"; however, North also notes that, despite Hervey's research, "[R]ival speculation did not stop at once and is still not entirely dead".[7] Recent opposition to the identification of de Selve has been based on an inventory of 1589, discovered by Riccardo Famiglietti, which names the man on the right as de Dinteville's brother François.[8] However, scholars have argued that this identification of 1589 was incorrect. John North, for example, remarks that "[T]his was a natural enough supposition to be made by a person with limited local knowledge, since the two brothers lived on the family estates together at the end of their lives, but it is almost certainly mistaken".[9] He points to a letter François de Dinteville wrote to Jean on 28 March 1533, in which he talks of an imminent meeting with the pope and makes no mention of visiting London. Unlike the man on the right of the picture, François was older than Jean de Dinteville. The inscription on the man on the right's book is "AETAT/IS SV Æ 25" (his age is 25); that on de Dinteville's dagger is "AET. SV Æ/ 29" (he is 29).[10]


Eddie

Le Néant wrote:And what saint of mythologic figure features on the elder man's medallion?
St Christopher, patron saint of travellers? Carrying the boy-Christ across a river? They're far from home. Just a guess.

Great Wikipedia stuff. Thanks very much.


Bearded Lady

I've never seen this painting before, it's very beautiful. Hi everyone, I'm new here!


Eddie

Well...hello.


John McLaughlin

Quite a tour de fource on perspective, that skull. I have a friend who refers to that kind of thing as "heavy lifting," not totally complimentarily.

pinhedz
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Re: Hans Holbein's "The Ambassadors": Memento Mori

Post  eddie on Sun Jun 12, 2011 3:57 am

^

Thanks for resurrecting this thread, Pinz; I'd completely forgotten about it.

Interesting to note from the initial post that in September 2009 I didn't know how to post pictures on the web. Thanks to Catherine for her patient tuition.

eddie
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Re: Hans Holbein's "The Ambassadors": Memento Mori

Post  eddie on Wed Dec 28, 2011 6:21 am

Renaissance art: a matter of perspective

Court painters of the 15th and 16th centuries often deployed visual tricks to demonstrate their mastery of the form

Jonathan Jones
The Guardian


Game of skull … The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger (1533), complete with macabre hidden message. Click for the full image. Photo: National Gallery/Corbis

"And perspective it is best painter's art", wrote Shakespeare in his 24th sonnet (OUP text), "For through the painter must you see his skill / To find where your true image pictured lies ..."

The word "perspective" is being used here in an unfamiliar way. We associate perspective with logic and sense, as well as with the art of the Renaissance. To get things in perspective is to get a balanced and accurate view. But Shakespeare uses perspective to mean something more mysterious. The perspective painter, he suggests, uses skill to create a mystery picture that must be looked "through" to find your "true image".

This is a fascinating reference to art in Shakespeare. It is not hard to find Tudor paintings that match his image of "perspective" as optical trickery, the hiding of the truth in a difficult image. In the National Portrait Gallery you can see a painting of Edward VI that is deliberately distorted. In 1546 the artist William Scrots portrayed Edward as a stretched face suspended over a landscape: you have to stand to the side, close to the wall, to get a more realistic view of the young Tudor.

This is a "special effect" whose most famous example is next door, in the National Gallery, in Hans Holbein the Younger's painting The Ambassadors. Holbein shows two gentlemen and their attributes of science and learning in mesmerising detail, but across the surface of the painting erupts a black and white smear or stain. Once again, only when you stand at the side will it resolve itself into the stark image of a skull.

Was it Holbein who brought this technique to Britain? This German painter who worked at the court of Henry VIII was far in advance of homegrown artists as a master of Renaissance techniques. Distorted perspective is a tricksy variation on the skills and science that evolved in 15th- and 16th-century Europe to depict the real world: it is therefore a show-off stunt by masters of technique. It's because Holbein can paint faces so realistically that he can also distort an object while including within that distortion the "true" appearance of the thing.

Renaissance courts loved trick art. In the gallery of Prague Castle hangs a portrait cut into strips, which shows you alternating faces of three Habsburgs according to where you stand. Another famous portrait of Rudolf II, the eccentric Prague dynast, by Arcimboldo shows him as a collection of fruit and vegetables. Were such tricks more popular the further you got from the centre of art and learning in Italy?

There's something raw and naive about the Tudor culture that was amazed by trick paintings. But out of this northern outpost of the Renaissance comes Shakespeare, effortlessly including an image of painterly curiosity in his intricate labyrinth of words.

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