'The Ambassadors', 1533
by Hans Holbein
London, The National Gallery
This full-sized double portrait is by King Henry VIII's court painter, Hans Holbein. It shows Jean de Dinteville, French ambassador to England in 1533, on the left, with his friend, Georges de Selve, Bishop of Lavaur. Jean de Dinteville is flamboyantly dressed in velvets, silks and furs, indicating his wealth and taste; his companion is more modestly attired but in equally expensive dark textured robes.
Holbein has included a selection of objects in the portrait. These can give us clues about the nature and the interests of the sitters. The objects have been divided onto two shelves: the upper shelf contains items relating to the heavens and time, while the lower shelf holds objects used in the terrestrial pursuits of architecture, geography and music.
At the bottom of the painting is a large, distorted skull, the perspective of which is corrected when the painting is viewed from the right-hand side. The image is a reminder that life is fragile and short-lived. Many other symbolic images appear in this painting.
© The National Gallery, London