Painted by Hans Holbein the younger in Henry VIII’s England, The Ambassadors tells us a great deal more than any mere portrait. It is a doorway into the mysteries of the Renaissance and the war torn religious strife of the Reformation. A rich and engaging portal into the mind of an age emerging into the modern world.
On the left is Jean de Dinteville, French ambassador to England in 1533. To the right stands his friend, Georges de Selve, bishop of Lavaur, who acted on several occasions as French ambassador to various states. The portrait hangs in the National Gallery, London.
They are surrounded by a fascinating collection of objects and rich furnishings. Clearly learned, cultured, wealthy men. And yet, like all men, they are subject to doubt and the inevitability of death, symbolised by the distorted image of a skull in the foreground.
Tudor England was a time and place of incredible beauty: the countryside was not yet ruined by industry and urban sprawl. The music of the time, both religious and secular, is some of the finest and most ethereal ever written. Thomas Tallis is considered one of England’s foremost composers and a choral (followed by an instrumental) version of his madrigal “If Ye Love Me” can be heard below.
Beauty, wealth, learning and sophistication are all evident in the Ambassadors and yet 16th Century Europe was a time of bizarre and extreme contrast. None of the barbarous bestiality and superstition of the time is evidenced in Holbein’s work or the meditative beauty of the music of his time.
Religious extremists burnt and tortured those of a different persuasion to their own. People believed in pixies, faeries and witchcraft. Medicine was in its infancy. Disease, poverty and starvation was the lot of many.
Beauty and horror, wealth and poverty, culture and brutality lived side by side. The human condition has not changed a great deal in the intervening 500 years.