Painting With The Girls 45
February 14, 2016.
Day 45, (321 days to go).
Holbein Hans, the Younger (1498-1543) was one of many German painters confronted with the dilemma of the changes caused by the Reformation. Should painting cease to exist? Lutherans didn’t want religious objects or paintings in their churches, and Calvinists objected even to decorations. The only possible work income sources left for painters were book illustrations and portraits.
It was in this state of events that Holbein was invited to go to England and paint for Sir Thomas More’s family. Soon he was discovered by King Henry VIII and was given the title of Court Painter.
Paul Johnson describes Holbein’s work in Art: The New History; “Holbein never skimped a detail or omitted a painterly effect when he saw the opportunity. His works, demonstrate the sheer quality of his skills and the endless trouble he took to employ them generously in every part of a painting.”
Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors is a much-discussed portrait because of all the hidden elements he placed in this masterpiece. What we do not see is what makes it very interesting.
The painting depicts two French diplomats who are at the top of their careers. They are in a very successful financial situation. Holbein adds many objects in this painting that represent what is happening in their lives.
One could say the objects on the top shelve represent the heavens, because the objects relate to astronomy, studying constellations and measuring time.
And the objects on the lower shelve symbolize terrestrial matters, a lute, a book of arithmetic, a globe, and a book of hymns. The man on the right has his arm on a book that has the number 29 on it, which is the age of this diplomat at the time. The other man has a number 29 designed on his dagger.
The tiles on the floor are a perfect copy of the tiles at the Westminster Abbey, which represent a diagram of the macrocosm, symbolizing things we don’t see, but are part of.
The most interesting part of this painting by far is the distorted representation of a skull placed on the floor by their feet. If one moves to the side of the painting where all the other objects become distorted, one is able to see a skull in its perfect form. This is a reminder of death, although the painting celebrates all the nice things in life. Another symbolic object in this painting is the lute, which at the time painters used to learn how to foreshorten objects in a drawing. Because Holbein exaggerated the distortion of the lute he wanted the viewer to be reminded that sometimes what one sees is not the truth.
If one looks very closely, one can see that a string of the lute is broken. Art historians believe this symbolizes all the discord happening in Europe and Henry VIII leaving the church.
The painting is about what these two men had achieved historically in their investigations of their world. The two other elements that are half hidden in this painting are the crucifix and the skull, suggesting the limits of earthly life and man’s knowledge, ass well as the inevitability of death, followed by the promise of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.