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The Ambassadors: The Mysteries of Holbein’s Masterpiece

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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.

They were also uncertain of what was meant by the array of cryptically arranged objects across the canvas -- amongst 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, wrought by King Henry VIII's court painter in 1533, still holds many mysteries. Join expert Susan Foister at the gallery to decode some of the symbols in Holbein's canvas which could point to the societal turmoil incited by the notorious Tudor King.

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Susan Foister is Deputy Director, Director of Public Programmes and Partnerships and Curator of Early Netherlandish, German and British Painting at the National Gallery. She has published several books on aspects of Holbein's work, and was curator of the exhibition 'Holbein in England' held at Tate Britain in 2006-2007. She has curated and co-curated a number of exhibitions at the National Gallery on early Northern and British painting, on subjects ranging from Dürer, Gossaert and German stained glass to Gainsborough, Stubbs, the Pre-Raphaelites and, in autumn 2018, Landseer's Monarch of the Glen.

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