Hans Holbein’s 1533 painting, The Ambassadors, is famed for the anamorphic skull that appears in the center foreground. This strangely distorted death’s head is so striking, we tend to forget to look closely at the many other material objects in the painting. Yet they also have important stories to tell, about such diverse matters as Henry VIII’s divorce, the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation, French aspirations to colonize Brazil, the idea of the ship of state, musical harmony, visual perspective, and what it meant in the Renaissance to be an ideal courtier. In this seminar, participants will “unpack” Holbein’s dense painting, by discussing the identities of the two diplomats depicted in it and examining the objects gathered on the table between them, to see what this double portrait may tell us about politics and culture in early modern Europe. Participants will also consider the history of the display of the painting, and how the different locations in which it has appeared might have shaped viewers’ understanding of it.
Seminar led by Carla Zecher, Newberry Library