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Hans Holbein's THE AMBASSADORS at London's National Gallery

Click on the MIDI file below to hear 16th Century Renaissance music

Music transcribed for guitar, MIDI

Wanting to get out of the January cold while walking around Trafalgar Square, I put my cameras aside and headed for The National Gallery across the street (GPS W 00:07.38, N 51:30.38).

The featured event at the museum was a solitary painting which is the subject of this web page. Walking into the room where the painting was exhibited, there was a crowd of people standing around it. Neither art books nor the picture below can justly portray the magnificence of the painting. First, it is 7 feet square and needed a wall by itself to be displayed. Also it was just restored and cleaned which made it look like it was recently executed. Unfortunately, I don't have any photos of the display as there were guards standing by ready to throw out tourist snap shooters.

One of the interesting features of the painting is the diagonal object at the bottom of the painting. It is a human skull done in perspective. Looking straight on it makes little sense, but if one stands to the right, gets on top of a box, which the museum was kind enough to provide, and then look down at an angle, one can definitely see a human skull.

I have provided that view of the painting which can be seen below.

Holbein used the theme of skeleton's in many of his works supposedly to remind his sitters and viewers that the ultimate prize of life was death. However, death as a theme was typical of art of his time, due to all the diseases that lurked about, and political turmoil which many times resulted in murder by daggar, sword, chopping block or being put on the rack. He did a lot of portrait commissions for the politicians (royalty) of his time.

The following are the introductory notes from the show's brochure:

"The AMBASSADORS, painted in London in 1533, is Holbein's most complex and arguably his greatest portrait. This exhibition explores the personal and political background to the creation of Holbein's picture, and sets out to identify and to account for the presence of the many different objects included in it. The recent cleaning of the picture has not only presented it once more as an outstanding example of Holbein's painterly skills, it has also shed fresh light on the purposes of the commission, and helped our understanding of how exactly it was produced, Holbein's AMBASSADORS explores these various aspects of Holbein's creation, and also celebrates the 500th anniversary of Holbein's birth."

AMBASSADORS (to the English court of Henry VIII) by Hans Holbein

Detail of distorted skull at bottom of painting

Perspective correction of skull

The following was taken from the book, HOLBEIN by Radu Boureanu concerning his observations of the skull in the painting:

"At the bottom of the picture is a strange element, apparently foreign to the composition, a kind of fossil, a large bone from some prehistoric beast, lying diagonally. An explanatory text to the right of the picture tells the visitor that the thing is the distorted image of a human skull, rendered in perspective. When viewed frontally, the skull is indiscernible; it shows its real shape only when seen from a certain place (to the right of the picture). The inclusion of this skull by Hans Holbein may have the meaning of a memento mori (remember that you must die!). The artist thus opposes the skull to the rest of the picture, painted in a warm range of colours and leaving a general impression of vitality. To this versatile painter and draughtsman, to the author of the Dance of Death (1524-1526) and of so many other engravings destined to illustrate the Hortulus animae (The Garden of the Heart), the skeleton-like symbol of Death as a character is if not an obsession, then the materialized presence of the final element. This skull, added to the Ambassadors, marks the artist's consistent vision of the frailty of human destiny."

Below are my photos captured from video:

The National Gallery from Trafalgar Square, Jan. 1998

From the National Gallery portico looking west along Pall Mall, Jan. 1998

From the portico looking on Nelson's column, Jan. 1998

c 1998

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