Reading a Painting in the National Gallery of London

One of my favourite paintings is `The Ambassadors’ by Hans Holbein the Younger.  It impresses me on many levels.  To begin with, I should simply say that it is incredibly well executed; you can virtually touch the sumptuous fabrics.

Once you have finished admiring the quality of the work there is much to absorb the mind.

The artist will communicate his message with you, and like a writer, an artist will also inadvertently tell you things about himself and his world.

`The Ambassadors’ was painted in 1533 in London at the time of Henry VIII.  You can see a Lutheran hymnbook symbolizing the ongoing reformation of King Henry’s church, for example.  The lute with the broken string may symbolize discord.

Other objects portray the modern world in which the young men lived in.  There is an arithmetic book, a globe including part of the new found Americas, sun-dials and an astronomical globe.  However, what I notice most of all nearly five hundred years later, is the wealth that is consciously displayed in everything that sits in the hands of two men still in their twenties.  The furs, the silks, the Turkish carpet, the mosaics, all tell of opulence.

Were Holbein to paint men in their position these days, they would be on a beach in an exotic location, with a fast car, Rolex watches, smart phones, iPads and female admirers.  For Tudor people, of course, the luxury was being indoors rather than out labouring in the fields and it seems that you did not need admirers of the opposite sex to be considered a success; in fact one of the men is a priest.

Although I think overall it is striking how similar our notions of success are today.

Holbein, however, casts his wonderful dark shadow with hidden skull at the base of the picture, and perhaps an oblique reference to his name which means, `hollow bone’ or perhaps a reminder of mortality and the end of all wealth.

National Gallery and the Google Art Project.The Ambassadors

The iconic National Gallery painting ‘The Ambassadors’ (Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533) is one of the stars of the new Google Art Project, which will enable people to discover and view more than 1,000 artworks online in extraordinary detail.

More details could be found on the BBC’s Your Paintings.