The Ambassadors: The Mysteries of Holbein's Masterpiece

4 min read  ·  03 Aug 2018

In this edition of HENI Talks, Susan Foister, Deputy Director and Director of Collections at the National Gallery, London, investigates Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassadors.

Who were the two wealthy, educated, and powerful-looking young gentlemen in Hans Holbein the Younger’s vast masterpiece? In 1890, when the National Gallery acquired what has become one of their most popular paintings, no one was quite sure.

The Gallery was also uncertain of what was meant by the array of cryptically arranged objects across the canvas – among them, a lute with a snapped string, a book of arithmetic, and a strange white form dominating the foreground that, when viewed at a particular angle, reveals itself to be a startling skull.

We now know that the men represent ambassadors Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve. However, the painting, executed by King Henry VIII’s court painter in 1533, still holds many mysteries. Join expert Susan Foister to decode some of the symbols in Holbein’s canvas that could point to the societal turmoil incited by the notorious Tudor King.

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The Ambassadors (large) (NG2A), Hans Holbein the Younger, 2018

The Ambassadors (1533), now synonymous with the Tudor court and, by extension, with the British Early Modern period, resides in the National Gallery in London. In 2018, the painting was edited by HENI in collaboration with the National Gallery into a series of limited edition prints, currently available on HENI Leviathan Marketplace.